At one time intelligence and intelligence testing were seen as agents of social advancement, bringing opportunity to working class children who had been denied their rights in the strictly rationed educational system. Then the zeitgeist changed, and IQ became an instrument of the devil, a cruel trick played on innocents, condemning them to a lifetime of labelling and incarceration in dreadful jobs.
An intelligence test is a “school far” test, and school exams are a “school near” test. School exams are allowed to test what has been taught in a particular school or particular national syllabus. If you don’t know the material you will not do well on the test. (We leave aside the reality that you may get quite a few marks for sitting down and writing some well-meaning banalities). “School near” tests ought to improve with good teaching, good textbooks, and plenty of practice.
A “school far” test avoids the specific knowledge of what might be taught at one school and may have been left untaught at other schools. Instead it seeks to distil out the basics of problem solving which would be required to deal with generic problems found in any school system. These “school far” tests include aspects of very general knowledge, some tests of vocabulary and comprehension of general social rules and practices, for which reason recent arrivals need time to learn about the habits of the host culture before these particular measures can be taken. Five years is a rule of thumb. Most of the “school far” tests comprise very general reasoning, sequences, path finding, pattern matching and simple processing. It looks at pretty basic processes, though it tries to use relatively novel surface forms so that schooling will have very little effect on the results.
Given that school far tests are good predictors of school near tests, and of occupational achievements, of life styles and of health and longevity, why is the spirit of the times so against such a finding?
One reason seems to be a misunderstanding about scores. Of themselves, they do not determine outcomes. Even the best indicators have an error term. IQ is the best predictor, but it achieves that accolade because is the best of a weak bunch of predictors. Predictors are not determiners. A further misunderstanding is that an intelligence score total is the complete description of a person’s ability. Even with the current Wechsler four factorial indexes to give a fuller picture, there is much left out which further and different ability tests can elucidate. Even so, there seems to be an underlying real problem: the score carries an implication that some intellectual feats will probably not be attained. Correct. There is no way round that, though learning about it could be very useful in later career planning.
Then on to an even harder question. Given that there is good data showing that intelligence is heritable, why is the spirit of the times so against such a finding?
Here I think a key misunderstanding is that heritability equals “incapable of being altered in any way”. Favourable environments will lead to greater achievements, though not, in reality, to endlessly greater achievements. Favourable genetics confer many advantages, but in all cases some effort will be required, often a great deal of effort. Nonetheless, phenylketonuria apart, it is often very hard to have an environmental impact on the outcome of inherited characteristics, given a uniformly reasonable basic conditions. The much desired “level playing field” reveals the very differing skills of the individual players.
Even an interest in genetics seems to require an explanation, a justification of motives, a ritual of purification in which the miscreant promises the audience that genetic questions are only one of their many interests, and certainly not their main subject of enquiry.
All this does not sit well with the enlightenment, and with Trevelyan’s observation: Disinterested intellectual curiosity is the life blood of real civilization.