• Measuring a person's IQ took off in a big way despite people cautioning its limitations (Photo by Oleksandr Rupeta/NurPhoto) (NurPhoto)Source: NurPhoto
The methods for measuring intelligence haven't always been accurate or fruitful.
By
Shane Cubis

5 Nov 2018 - 10:38 AM  UPDATED 15 Nov 2018 - 11:59 AM

The idea behind someone’s intelligence quotient (IQ) has been contested since the American psychologist Lewis Terman nicked intelligence testing pioneer William Stern’s ingenious idea of dividing a person’s Mental Age by their Chronological Age and then multiplying it by 100.

This would create a catch-all score that would tell us how smart that person was compared to other humans born in the same year. Both men built on the work of Sir Francis Galton and Alfred Binet, who studied the brain power of British noblemen and French children with learning disabilities, respectively.

(If that wasn't enough of a history lesson, here’s a more detailed rundown.) 

Controversial beginnings

IQ really took off in a big way, despite some of the people involved in its development cautioning about the limitations of ranking brainpower solely by verbal and reasoning puzzles. 

Intelligence is multifaceted, functional, and both defined and shaped by culture. It can be expressed in a variety of ways, demonstrated through a person’s capacity to solve problems and accomplish tasks, and measured according to the problems and tasks that are valued by one’s upbringing, environment and people.

But that didn’t stop the powers that be from seizing this easily understood way to rank populations – especially when it purported to bring a scientific foundation for ranking races, too (on average, of course, which provides a neat “can’t argue the facts” lampshade for modern *cough* eugenicists).

Once you’ve determined that people of certain genetic backgrounds don’t perform as well on tests (and you’ve decided these tests are ideologically neutral), it’s a short leap to declare that structural inequalities are the result of natural differences, and it’s just evolution at work.

From there, forcible sterilisation of “the feebleminded”, control of marginalised groups “for their own good” and fears of genetic degradation through blood-mixing were used as arguments for segregation and apartheid.

Once you’ve determined that people of certain genetic backgrounds don’t perform as well on tests (and you’ve decided these tests are ideologically neutral), it’s a short leap to declare that structural inequalities are the result of natural differences, and it’s just evolution at work.

Australia plays a (misguided) part

In Australia, it was much worse. And even today, you’ll see Twitter pundits letting everyone know that the average IQ among Aboriginal people is 65, as though it’s merely an interesting bit of trivia rather than a culturally biased misrepresentation of a factoid from a decades-old study. 

And some Googling will show you a whole host of well-meaning armchair scholars ready and willing to consider the potential reasons for this gap if you’re feeling the urge to wade into the fray.

National Geographic might have apologised for buying into the story, but the racist assertion that Indigenous Australians have lower intelligence levels has caused irreparable damage to communities over the decades – once you assume a population is less intelligent than your average (white) child, it makes "sense" to treat them like kids, doesn’t it? 

Trying to find positive applications

Today, of course, it's understood that those early 20th-century researchers would probably score something like 30 on modern IQ tests. Over the decades, tests have been calibrated to account for the vast range of people being tested, rather than opting for a one-size-fits-all set of puzzles and number games. “IQ” is still a shorthand for referring to someone’s brain power, but there is more nuance in how intelligence is characterised and categorised.

It’s easy to be cynical about these things, especially when they’ve had such devastating-at-worst-and-misleading-at-best results.

But alongside those incremental tweaks to the business of the brain, there are positive uses for the old IQ test beyond sharing your score on social media after answering 10 multiple choice questions on some app that definitely hasn’t sold your personal information to third party adbots while you’ve been claiming those bragging rights.

“IQ” is still a shorthand for referring to someone’s brain power, but there is more nuance in how we characterise and categorise intelligence.

Helping people

When  Eddie Maguire’s Test Australia: The National IQ Test first aired back in 2002, that same year, the US Government ruled it was unconstitutional to execute criminals with intellectual disabilities (which are assessed with IQ tests).

The tests have also been used as a component in managing ADHD, identifying structural inequalities that affect children’s development and – when used correctly – are incredibly useful in tailoring educational opportunities for kids who need special attention on either side of the average “100”.    

Plus, without these tests, we might never have been introduced to all the delightful kids of Child Genius.

 

A new six-part SBS series Child Genius hosted by Dr Susan Carland follows the lives of Australia’s brightest children and their families and will see them testing their abilities in maths, general knowledge, memory and language.

The quiz show will be broadcast over two weeks starting November 12. Episodes will be aired Monday to Wednesday at 7.30pm.

The search is on for Australia’s brightest child in 'Child Genius'
Beginning on 12 November, the new SBS documentary competition series quizzes the country’s smartest kids and meets the parents behind them.
What it's like to be on the set of 'Child Genius'
Going behind the scenes with the super smart kids and their proud parents.
What makes someone a 'Child Genius'?
It’s not just about brain power.