brain by Jon Phillips
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What if we could measure intelligence?

Well, some people say we can already whilst others say we can’t.

To measure something we need to be able to define what it is we’re measuring and the term intelligence as it is commonly used may be too vague. According to Wikipedia:

Intelligence has been defined in many ways: the capacity for logicunderstandingself-awarenesslearningemotional knowledgereasoningplanningcreativitycritical thinking, and problem solving. More generally, it can be described as the ability to perceive or infer information, and to retain it as knowledge to be applied towards adaptive behaviors within an environment or context.

Despite the difficulty of defining it, it’s a word we use a lot, and not just for humans. We measure intelligence in animals and also Artificial Intelligence, but it’s when it comes to measuring it in humans that it’s particularly controversial, and for understandable reasons.

In the early 20th century the United States carried out forced sterilisations of people deemed unfit, sometimes on the basis of intelligence tests, and the Nazis forcibly sterilised and in many cases killed people on the basis of IQ tests.

The Flynn Effect

This is the idea that each generation scores higher on IQ tests than the generation before it.

Which suggests that what we’re measuring in IQ tests is not entirely innate, it’s something that can be learned, though there’s an innate element to it, a genetic component as well as an environmental component. To some extent it may be like a muscle, something we can strengthen by exercise and training.

IQ as a measure of human value

Perhaps this is really why it’s so controversial. If we were talking about measuring heights there’d be no controversy. We accept that some people are tall, some are short and most are somewhere in between. We also accept that men are generally taller than women and that some ethnic groups are on average taller than others. There’s no controversy there because we don’t regard height as a valid measure of human worth. Maybe there was a time when we did, and maybe there’s a height bias left over from that time, but people wouldn’t admit to being height biased (except on a dating website) whereas most of us are quite openly intelligence biased. We’ll speak more highly of someone we regard as intelligent than of someone we regard as stupid. Though short people can face insults, and extremely tall people as well sometimes, to be called stupid is I think far more hurtful.

Being tall, physically strong, a fast runner… these things all used to be more highly valued than they are now. There was a time when those attributes were a major determinant over whether or not you’d survive long enough to procreate. But so was a quick wit, and so was intelligence.

What about footballing intelligence? As David Beckham curves a ball around defenders and goal keeper into the back of the net, isn’t that a kind of intelligence, though one that probably wouldn’t be picked up by an IQ test? Or musical intelligence? Or creativity?

You can roughly measure those things though. You could see if there was a correlation between IQ scores and musical ability. So do the top musicians and the top composers and song writers tend to score well in IQ tests or are they no better than average, or worse even? How about the top footballers, or the top artists? If there’s a correlation, that would suggest that IQ is measuring something that is of some use in the activities we value highly.

The problem on the left

If you believe that humans are fundamentally equal and should be treated as such then what appears to be a measure of human value is bound to be seen as a threat. What if you could show that the upper classes were more intelligent than the working classes, or that one ethnic group was more intelligent than another. That would be pretty devastating, wouldn’t it?

Not necessarily. Firstly, average group differences don’t tell you anything about an individual. For instance, though men are taller than women, there are lots of women who are taller than lots of men. There’s a huge overlap in the distributions. So if you found that one ethnic group was on average slightly more intelligent than the population as a whole, or slightly less intelligent, there’d be no justification in treating the members of that ethnic group any differently from anyone else.

There’d certainly be people who’d argue that these differences would justify a form of apartheid, but we need to tackle that argument head on, not hide behind the idea that intelligence can’t be measured or doesn’t exist. It may be though that we can’t measure it as accurately as some contend, the error bars may be quite large, but having some idea of someone’s intelligence can be very useful. I’ve been watching the Netflix docuseries Making A Murderer where the court cases often reference the low IQs of the defendants, the defence using this information to support their contention that the confession of one of them was coerced. Just as a just society should take people’s physical disabilities into account, it should also take mental disabilities into account.

Secondly, intelligence is not a complete measure of human value. You could be very intelligent but also very lazy, or very mean. Psychopaths can be very intelligent. And people with low IQ scores could be brilliant musically or in some other way.

Emotional intelligance

Some people talk about EQ, a measure of emotional intelligence, suggesting it’s something that can be defined and measured, though it’s not easy to see how. It’s something women on dating sites seem to want men to have, and something Jordan Peterson claims doesn’t exist.

But maybe the women on dating sites are onto something. Women do seem to want men to know what they’re feeling without them having to spell it out, and there’s a kind of intelligence in being able to read the cues and know what someone is feeling, and maybe feel it yourself to some extent too. Ie. empathy.

So let’s say IQ, with all its limitations, is something we can measure quite well and quite consistently…

Should we?

Or is it one of those things it’s better not to know?