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Thoughts on the IQ Test

July 18, 2018

How Misused Ideas Can Have Sad Consequences

Written by James R. Martin, Jr, PhD

Recently, I’ve been reading Stephen Jay Gould’s 1981 book: The Mismeasure of Man. Gould details his research into the efforts of anthropologists, psychologists, and medical researchers to understand intelligence. He thus traces the efforts of these individuals and their ideas through the mid-1800s through the current day with the goal of placing them within the flow of the insights and advances that occurred towards this general goal. He was careful to place them in their context—it is easy to look back on some of these ideas and research projects with derision or even revulsion. Yet, at the time, their work represented true efforts (in most cases) to advance the cause of understanding. Unfortunately, in many cases, their results were not accurate, suffered from serious methodological errors, or were misinterpreted by policy makers and entrepreneurial types, resulting in, in some cases, horrific practices; some of which still echo through our society.

The back of a woman's head while staring at a wall covered in Post-Its

One brief example: the IQ test. Initially developed by French psychologist Alfred Binet (1857—1911), the Binet-Simon test was designed for one purpose: to identify students within primary schools that may struggle with standard curricula and thus might need additional help. That was how the test was designed, how it was validated, and what Binet intended it to be used for. It was explicitly not designed as a measure of intelligence across the board – Binet forcefully stated this in the papers that he published about the test.

However, others, fascinated by the possibilities, ignored Binet’s admonition, and quickly moved to use the test to not only identify students who might need support, but to rank overall intelligence levels. Those found to be lower on such scales were sometimes removed from schools entirely and sent to special “colonies” or, more specifically, for-profit sanitoriums where they could be trained to serve as menial workers of various sorts.

Within a few years, others expanded the use of test (modified in a non-validated manner) to assess the intelligence of adults and to rank the value of individuals to society (at this point, the term “IQ Test” began to enter the popular vernacular). Of note: at least some thousands of immigrants were assessed using the test as they attempted to enter the country through Ellis Island—with many deemed to be lower on the scale sent back to their respective home countries. The US Army also adopted a version of the test to make enlistment decisions and to determine career fields. Various horribly adopted versions were also used as a part of systems determining voter eligibility. While today these uses have been discredited, the echoes of what the IQ test isn’t still resonate within our society.

The important point: this entire post-Binet/Simon system of intelligence testing was, for many decades, based on flawed premises and the misuse of an idea. Yet, the men who did this (notably, Maria Montessori was a polite opponent of such ideas, and Binet certainly would have been horrified by its’ application in practice) were not pursuing a nefarious goal—Gould carefully notes that most of them were motivated by a desire to help advance progress and to provide benefits to society. Yet their unconstrained ambitions, lack of methodological precision, and inability to consider consequences, blinded them to their errors, a lesson that we should humble take to heart today.

As a researcher, I must reflect on what I am doing: What are my assumptions? Am I using a research tool in the way it was intended? What are the limitations of my research design? Does my writing reflect nuance and humility about the strengths and weaknesses of my approach and my findings? Am I being transparent and objective about what I’ve done and what it means? What may be the unintended consequences to others of what I propose? These are especially important considerations for our students as they grow their research skills within our applied research program.

Critical reflection is a key concept and practice featured in a variety of courses within the Interdisciplinary EdD in Leadership program. Learn more about the entire program curriculum, admissions requirements, and the benefits of earning your EdD from Creighton University’s Graduate School by visiting the EdD program page.

James Martin, JR.

James R. Martin, JR, PhD

Assistant Director and Associate Professor, EdD
Graduate School