Monday, April 13, 2009

Society's IQ

Recently I've been thinking about intelligence, how to define it - or not - and the implications of being labeled on a scale of intelligence.  

Historically, humans have attempted to measure "intelligence" and aptitude for certain mental tasks by using tests for hundreds if not thousands of years.  Hierarchical societies often placed people in power based on birthright alone, but if they wanted to last for any significant period of time, they generally appointed "smart" people to actually guide the nation.  The Chinese Imperial Examination, probably the most famous pre-modern standardized test (to history geeks, anyway) lasted for 1300 years and saw China develop a highly skilled, highly specialized bureaucracy which guided the nation through centuries of prosperity, including the Song and Ming Dynasties.  In fact, the exam was so successful at producing expert civil servants that, when the Mongols invaded China in the 12th to 13th centuries A.D., they kept the bureaucratic system and the exam almost completely intact.  

The exam consisted of testing on various skills such as reading, writing, mathematics, archery, and riding which would have been expected of a young Chinese civil servant circa 1000 A.D.  One could say this was simply a test to ensure that a pupil had learned all of his lessons to satisfaction, not a true test of intelligence.  However, did not the Imperial Examination serve the same purposes that modern I.Q. tests serve today?  But I'm getting ahead of myself.

In 1903, a French psychologist by the name of Alfred Binet published a book, L'Etude experimentale de l'intelligence, or The Experimental Study of Intelligence, detailing his findings, as part of the Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child, into the divisions between children of "normal intelligence" and "abnormal intelligence."  Binet intended his study to help place children with special learning needs in appropriate classrooms.  

In 1905, Binet, along with a research student named Theodore Simon produced a new variant of Binet's original exam and tested it on a small (50) group of French children who were identified by their teachers, people who interacted with them almost every day, as of average intelligence and competence.  Binet and Simon asked the children questions of varying degrees of difficulty, ranging from simple tasks like shaking hands, to complex questions involving creative thinking and inference like, "My neighbor has been receiving strange visitors. He has received in turn a doctor, a lawyer, and then a priest. What is taking place?"  A subject whose score on the test was completely average for their age would receive a score exactly corresponding to their age (such as 10 years old = 10.0).  Binet, as I have said, intended only for his test to assist in the placement of children in special education programs.

In the United States, variations of the Binet-Simon test were used for everything from advancing the cause of eugenics to classifying recruits for service and officer potential in WWI.  

Enough history, and back to the question I posed earlier when I said that one could claim that the Imperial Examination merely tested absorption of information, not intelligence: did the Chinese Imperial Examination serve the same purposes as modern I.Q. tests do today?  If so, do they both measure intelligence, or absorption of information?  

You see, I question the use of I.Q. tests.  I do not believe that a single number, or even a set of numbers, can accurately describe a person for all given situations.

Modern society, more so than ancient society, even Imperial China, values above almost all else simplicity and elegance of form.  This is evident in our obsession with standardization, our struggles with cultural pluralism, even our stylistic and design preferences.  "Simple" has become a buzz-word.  Hell, a popular and successful advertising campaign even centers around a big red button with the word "EASY" on it.

This obsession with the compact, the elegantly sparse, and the understated began right about the time that Alfred Binet was developing a test for kids ages 6 to 15.  In physics: James Clerk Maxwell's fusion of electricity and magnetism into the electromagnetic force, Albert Einstein's development of his famous law of energy-mass equivalence (in 1905, the same year as the Binet-Simon test's advent, no less), the explosion of Grand Unified Theories of Physics.  In fashion: a move away from the gaudy and lavish costumes of the 19th century towards the more plain and simple attire, including slips and evening gowns of the 1920s - still expensive and at times flamboyant, but nowhere near as detailed or wildly over-the-top as previous centuries.  In trade and foreign policy: the rise of globalisation, the decline of traditional national sovereignty, and the rise of international organisations.  In almost every field, the world has become simpler, and I.Q. scores, and the huge amount of importance which is placed upon them, is a manifestation of that trend.

I want to pause for a moment and ask, what does it mean to be human?  A question without an answer, both philosophically and biologically.  There is such a range within what is considered "human" that the definitions of that range cease even to exist.  Can humanity be identified by a single gene, a single strand of DNA, even a series of behavioural characteristics?  It is impossible to compress all the wonders of humanity, all the beautiful variation, the fractal-like similarity and scalability hand-in-hand with the distinct individuality of each being.  Within the fractal of humanity, there are an infinite number of variations - each a person, and, following my little fractal metaphor, it is just as impossible to compress all the wonders of a single human as it is all of humanity (whatever "humanity" means).

I.Q. tests compress humans into scores.  They define people within a single range, and though they may predict with a certain degree of accuracy how well a student will do in high school or even how much money they will make, there is enough evidence that these are influenced by factors closely associated to, but not part of, I.Q. scores to cast significant doubt on the situation.

Is it possible, though, that telling someone their I.Q. score, or even telling others, can influence perception of that person and therefore have a positive or negative effect on their life?  Is it at all fair (for lack of a better word) to afford a person with a higher I.Q. score more opportunities than a comparable person with a lower score?  Similarly, is it fair for a society to spend more money on a person with a lower than average I.Q. than on a person with a normal I.Q.?  What unintended implications can testing people for "intelligence" have?  Is moral?  Is it just?

And to think that Alfred Binet was only trying to help children find a classroom that suited their needs.

P.S.  While researching this post, I ran across an uncited Wikipedia mention of a Venetian meritocracy during the period of the Venetian Republic.  Apparently Venice used a "points system" to determine who was on the oligarchical ruling council in a given year.