The Intellectual Conceit Of IQ Ideology
The cultural fascination with the idea of an “intelligence quotient” or IQ seems to be experiencing a resurgence. Relentless testing is a feature of schooling and school admissions, and tests are used for a variety of occupational screenings. The practice reflects an intuition we all have: some bulbs are brighter than others. Surely there is nothing wrong with knowing, measuring, and acting on that information, however difficult it might be to assess.
Where matters become elusive is in codifying those skills, reducing them all to a single quantitative number, aggregating them based on other demographic traits, assessing the variability of the results, comparing the results across large population groups, determining the variety of causal factors – genetic, environmental, sheer personal determination – that make up what we call intelligence, and cobbling together a plan for what to do with the results.
The search for some measurable standard of intelligence has a deep history that is bound up with the emergence of the planned society, eugenics, and the 20th century leviathan state.
Here we have a much more complex problem, as complex as the human mind itself. The amatuer commentator might read a book on the topic and hope to come away with a sense that within this literature we find the key to the rise and fall of whole civilizations. The would-be central planner salivates at the prospect! But the more you read, the less certain you become, and the more in awe of the unknowns, the surprises, and the way the real world continues to defy the predictions of the scientific elite.
The IQ as a Central Planning Tool
And then there are the social and political implications of the efforts. What’s not usually understood is that the search for some measurable standard of intelligence – and implicitly human value itself – has a deep history that is bound up with the emergence of the planned society, eugenics, and the 20th century leviathan state.
That’s hardly surprising. The notion of a scientific elite classifying people based on aptitude, assigning an efficient role for everyone, appeals to the conceit of intellectuals. While the curiosity about human biodiversity seems innocent, the birth of an ideology rooted in quantitative measurement of mental aptitude, backed by a scientistic planning ambition, obviously trends anti-liberal.
The story of IQ begins at the end of the Franco-Prussian war when France’s civic institutions were remodelled to never lose another war. The prevailing theory was that France lacked the technical skills necessary for modern warfare. Citizens needed training and that meant education reform. Schooling would raise up a citizen army and therefore must be forced. From 1879 to 1886, legislation imposed compulsory schooling on the entire population.
The first American enthusiast for Binet’s work was Henry H. Goddard, a leading champion of eugenics and a champion of the planning state.
With all kids now forced into non-religious schools, it was time to impose a rational method on steering the conscripts into socially and politically optimal paths. In 1904, just as fascination with the idea of scientific socialism had gained fashion, the French Ministry of Education contacted the psychologist Alfred Binet (1857-1911) to come up with some assessment test. He came up with a series of questions from easiest to hardest, and ranked the kids based on their performance of the tests.
The result was the Binet-Simon scale. From Binet’s point of view, the only purpose was to identify which kids needed special focus and attention so that they would not be left behind. But the idea of quantity, ranking, and assessing cognitive performance caught on in the United States, where eugenics was a prevailing intellectual fashion. It was driving public policy in labor regulations, immigration, forced sterilizations, marriage licenses, welfare policy, business regulation, and segregation strategies.
The first American enthusiast for Binet’s work was Henry H. Goddard, a leading champion of eugenics and a champion of the planning state. In 1908, Goddard translated Binet’s work and popularized it among the intellectual classes. He turned what might have been a humanitarian push to provide remedial help to students into a weapon of war against the weak.
What did Goddard believe could be done with his insights?
He summarized his political outlook as follows:
“Democracy, then, means that the people rule by selecting the wisest, most intelligent, and most human to tell them what to do to be happy. Thus Democracy is a method for arriving at a truly benevolent aristocracy. Such a consummation will be reached when the most intelligent learn to apply their intelligence…. High intelligence must so work for the welfare of the masses as to command their respect and affection.”
Goddard’s views were those of his generation, and they were the theorists of the totalitarian state.
What’s more, “society must be so organized that these people of limited intelligence shall not be given, or allowed to hold, positions that require more intelligence than they possess. And in the positions that they can fill, they must be treated in accordance with their level of intelligence. A society organized on this basis would be a perfect society.”
Toward this end, he broke down the human population into normative categories, the underperforming of whom he labelled imbeciles, morons, and idiots – designations that survive to this day. He proposed a new form of social order in which an elite of intellectuals assigns tasks and life stations based on test results.
Illiberal at its Core
Yes, it sounds just like Hunger Games, Divergent, or any number of other dystopian nightmares because that is exactly what he imagined could be achieved with IQ studies. Having now read many dozens of books, articles, and contemporary accounts of this whole generation of thinkers, none of this comes as a surprise. Goddard’s views were those of his generation, and they were the theorists of the totalitarian state – the “Progressives” in the United States, the post-Bismarckian planners of imperial Germany, the scientific socialists of Russia, and, later, the ghoulish exterminationists of Nazi Germany. It’s all of a piece.
Continuing the tradition was Lewis Terman of Stanford who in 1916 proposed a revision to the now-traditional Binet test, and became an open and aggressive advocate of segregation, sterilization, immigration controls, birthing licenses, and a planned society generally.
The eugenics movement, and its new tool of intelligence testing, hoped to replace freedom and dignity with totalitarian technocracy.
White supremacy was a given among this generation, and he embraced it openly: “There is no possibility at present of convincing society that [Mexicans, Indians, and Negros] should not be allowed to reproduce, although from a eugenic point of view they constitute a grave problem because of their unusually prolific breeding.” In that spirit, he joined the Human Betterment Foundation, which played the crucial role in California’s sterilization program that had such a profound influence on the race policies of Hitler’s Germany.
Intelligence tests became essential for a nation at war, with eugenicists advising the US Army about the fitness of soldiers: the dumbest at the front and the smartest in safe positions of leadership. And they advised immigration authorities: who could become an American and who