When pseudo-scientific nonsense starts becoming law, be very afraid.
I was supposed to find the picture that didn’t fit. Studying three men walking, I circled one with an errant blotch on one shoe. Wrong: one of the men wore a hat.
In retrospect, I’d likely spotted a smudge from the school’s old carbon copier. But wasn’t I still right? In my kindergarten humiliation hatched a mute wariness of standardized, multiple choice tests.
When the BC Liberals emblazoned such tests with the authority of law this July, I could be silent no more.
Their gall is amazing. Everyone with any expertise or involvement had railed against it. Our courts had declared it illegal. The Liberals then pledged to stop a growing practice of cutting developmental disability support to anyone scoring over 70 on IQ tests. Shortly thereafter, the Liberals did the opposite and engraved the policy into legislation. (Who VOTES for these people??)
Many raged at the Liberals’ coldness. Oddly, their arguments were weakened by their deferentiality around the central issue: IQ testing. Critics politely suggested IQ tests were “inadequate”, “simplistic”, or “ineffective on their own” for assessing a person’s need for assistance.
Let’s be frank. IQ tests are entertaining, but as scientific tools they’re moronic. They’re laughable. And I’ve got a genius IQ, so I know what I’m talking about!
First, true tests of intelligence are impossible. We’d need a consensus, scientifically verified definition of “intelligent”, which we don’t have. IQ tests don’t assess sensitivity, compassion or ethics. Further, IQ tests don’t assess ability to work with others, find compromises, handle adversity, tie shoes, or execute tasks central to survival.
Even adherents argue over what “good” IQ tests are, what they measure, and how to adjust marks for age, speed and other factors. Meanwhile, scores vary dramatically based on mood, tiredness and luckiness of guesses.
Worse, IQ tests always reveal more about the minds of their designers than about those being tested.
Language questions are notoriously white, educated, middle class-centric. You’ll more likely have to define “philology” than African-American “goober”. Word scramble solutions are far more likely to be “chairlift” than indigenous alpine “whortleberry”.
Classification, visual and logic sections are dominated by “find the one that fits/doesn’t fit” or so-called “pattern recognition” questions that, like my kindergarten test, mainly end up demonstrating how limited the evaluators’ thinking is.
For example, a common question lists even numbers and one odd number and asks you to identify the number that doesn’t belong. Yet in several versions (check number 2 here, for example), I noticed alternate answers: There was only one single-digit number. One number was substantially higher than the others. Only one number was less than three away from any other.
Those are all marked wrong. And that’s common; less hard math than fuzzy psychology, wrong IQ test answers are often equally right and vice versa. Consider any of the ubiquitous analogy questions: “Cherry is to strawberry as potato is to…?” From apple, banana, pineapple, lettuce and radish, the correct answer is radish, a root vegetable like a potato. But engage your creative thinking and “wrong” answers easily become right. Cherry is to strawberry as potato is to…?
Apple: Cherries and strawberries are roundish and little, while potatoes and apples are roundish and bigger.
Banana: Cherries’ and strawberries’ insides are reddish, while potatoes’ and bananas’ insides are often whitish-yellow.
Pineapple: Cherries are smooth-skinned compared to strawberries’ slightly pocked raggedness, as potatoes’ smoothness compares to pineapples’ raggedness.
Lettuce: Roots of some wild lettuces are edible, making them like potatoes.
Basically, it’s colossally meaningless whether someone scores 10, 70 or 170 on these things. IQ tests aren’t simply “limited”; our government might as well be using palm readings and runes to make decisions. That such nonsense could actually become the rule of law is beyond alarming. It demonstrates how thoroughly pseudo-scientific psychobabble has conned our culture.
How did this happen? IQ tests were originally designed in the 1900s to assess which children wouldn’t conform well to western methods of schooling. And for that, they work passably-as do most school tests. To understand how IQ tests became so pervasive, though, try the other psychological tests that have enjoyed enormous modern success: mental health questionnaires.
I feel I’m a relatively healthy, energetic person who experiences decent doses of pleasure and joy. But I consistently score for moderately severe depression. I also test high for serious bipolar disorder (often optimistic, often pessimistic; periods of mental dullness and intense creativity). I have early signs of schizophrenia (difficulty controlling thoughts; struggle to make myself understood). And I have ADHD (can’t control my daydreaming; feel I’m underachieving; difficulty reading unless it’s easy or very interesting).
Essentially, “diagnostic” tests are shams heavily promoted by the psychology and psychiatry industry to lure people into becoming paying patients. Intelligence evaluations are also money-makers for the psych industry, used en masse by corporations and governments alike.
On deeper levels, such tests produce an appealingly contemporary, faux scientific excuse for social problems. So instead of questioning why our school system and cultural norms are failing some people, we can blame people’s own inherent disabilities.
Simultaneously, as in BC now, tests allow us to “prove” some people don’t have disabilities. That dispels any responsibility for helping them and justifies diverting money from disability support to, say, raises for senior government officials (which came the following week). That’s the beauty of bogus tests–you can set the bar anywhere you like to prove anything you want.
You’d understand if you’d seen Gordon Campbell’s palm.
Originally published in Focus, September 2008.