“I am so clever that sometimes I don’t understand a single word of what I am saying.” Oscar Wilde
Some psychologists use to believe that intelligence was fixed from birth – you had a certain amount of smarts built into your DNA at birth, and provided you didn’t experience severe malnutrition or a severe blow to the head, that was what you had to work with until senility took over.
Today, however, with new research on the brain and increasing information on neuroplasticity, (The brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life.) it appears that such a deterministic view may not hold us prisoner after all. However, be cautious – neuroplasticity has become a buzz word used to promote supposed benefits of a huge number of rather dubious products supposedly designed to re-wire your brain and increase your intelligence.
It may be useful to get an overview of what “being smart” use to looks like. Before any of us were exposed to testing for intelligence, we knew as soon as we started school, that some kids were smarter. They caught on to what the teacher was talking about faster, they learned to read faster, they knew how to add faster without even spending any energy on it. Of course, we consoled ourselves with the knowledge that they were just brainiacs and probably weren’t any good at sports, or art, or music.
This informally gleaned information was probably confirmed when reading groups were set up and we found ourselves in the crow group while our more favourably endowed peers were with the bluebirds, the cardinals, or the snowy owls.
Then came the dreaded IQ test (which, in some attempt at adult reassurance, we were told we couldn’t study for). This test provided a result (hopefully, for our future, in the 3 digit range) and which followed us throughout school, enabling any number of guidance counsellors to tell us we should look at a career in street sweeping.
The notion that intelligence and how much we have of it can somehow be determined was developed by a French psychologist, Alfred Binet, in the early 1900’s. (Prior to that, scientists such as Galton through that a good way to determine who was smarter was to measure the size of the skull – the smarter, the larger. Can’t fault that logic). Binet was asked to see if he could develop a tool that could predict which French children (all of whom had recently been legally required to attend school) would need special assistance, and to see if he could distinguish between those who were “retarded” (in the language of his day) vs. those who were merely lazy. He determined that children who were the same chronological age were not necessarily able to do the same mental tasks, and came up with the idea of mental age.
Louis Terman, a psychologist at Stanford, worked on this test, and developed the Stanford-Binet intelligence test, but the idea of administering and using test results took off when the US entered the War in 1916 and was faced with the enormous task of placing solders in appropriate positions in the army. Robert Yerkes designed the Army Alpha A and Alpha B (for those who were illiterate), and by 1918 the US Army had tested two million recruits.
Testing became the sexy side of psychology at the conclusion of the war, and from its benign beginning as a tool to use in helping children, it soon became, in the US at any rate, an instrument used to exclude immigrants and war refugees (the vast majority of whom did not even speak English), identifying large numbers of ethnic groups as intellectually inferior. Debate ranged among academic around a number of issues: What was really being measured (a general global factor, or many different factors); is intelligence genetically determined (heritability) or is it determined by cultural practices, familiarity, practice, etc.?; do they measure anything except the ability to do well on those types of tests?’ does IQ predict future success?’ (number of inmates with lower IQs make up a greater proportion of prisoners than are found in the general population) or do other factors play a greater role)? is academic ability synonymous with intelligence?
Academic arguments have continued into this century with some particularly nasty conclusions being drawn about race and intelligence from psychologist such as Jensen (University of Waterloo) and Rushton (University of Western Ontario) who sough to “prove” (based on statistics) the heritability of intelligence and the ranking of various racial groups. As if the race issues were not sufficiently controversial, work carried out from 2002 to 2006 by Richard Lynn, a British Professor of Psychology, and Tatu Vanhanen, a Finnish Professor of Political Science, who conducted IQ studies in more than 80 countries, ranked the countries in terms of intelligence. Hong Kong and Singapore came in tied for no. 1, (at an average of 108) Canada was tied for 8th (with 99), while at the bottom was Equatorial Guinea, (with 59.)
All of the controversy should make one thing clear, at least: Don’t fixate on an IQ test result. The academic debate about intelligence is even more controversial than climate change. And especially, do NOT go on-line to take some IQ test. They are neither reliable nor valid. And remember, “Half of being smart is knowing what you are dumb about.” Solomon Short
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