24 June 2014

Intelligence: a threat to the welfare state?

text of a letter to an academic

My life continues to be constricted by the anti-exceptionality syndrome of modern society.

When I was about ten and had come top of the grammar school scholarship, my father, wishing to show his dependence on expert opinion, had my IQ tested by an educational psychologist who lived nearby – possibly because he (my father) was sceptical about the result of the scholarship exam.

The psychologist’s verdict, as I was told, was that he had never tested a child like it before, and never expected to again. Testing school children for local authorities was, more or less, his occupation in life. He added that I had a phenomenal memory. Of course he was only able to test my short-term memory, which he had done by reading me lists of numbers and asking me to repeat them backwards. Eventually he had asked me how I did it, and I said that I fastened the numbers on my fingers and read them off again. (This may sound like a way of memorising things with eidetic imagery that some people use, so I think I should explain that no imagery was involved, it was just a case of connecting the associations of a number with an ordered sequence.)

I was told that my IQ was 180, which they described as ‘near genius’. Genius was defined as over 200, and there was apparently supposed to be a population of people with IQs between 180 and 200. Probably my father would not have told me my IQ was 180 if he had not realised it was an understatement.

The educational psychologist appeared to pride himself on his own IQ of 140, which he described as ‘a professor’s IQ’.

This was in about 1945.

This account of what happened to me may provide some indication of the accepted attitudes to intelligence at that time. But things were changing fast.

Nowadays the concept of IQ is considered of doubtful significance by most psychologists, and IQ tests have been progressively changed, supposedly to allow for cultural differences between different cultural and ethnic groups.

The concept of IQ was originally developed as a predictor of academic success within the academic system of that time. The academic system has changed, and IQ tests have changed with it.

As the system has changed, academic standards, both in universities and in professional environments, have also changed, so that in both environments it is common to find people writing English that routinely needs to be edited and proofread by somebody else.