Sunday, 19 July 2015

Tested to destruction

‘I have a higher IQ than Stephen Hawking. I have a higher IQ than Einstein.’  So said one of the boys competing in Channel 4’s Child Genius, which is run in association with Mensa, ‘the high IQ society’.   

Full disclosure: I have a lower IQ than either Hawking or Einstein. I know, because I was tested by an educational psychologist when I was 12 along with my three younger siblings – my mother probably negotiated a cut rate for the four of us.

Even fuller disclosure: I have a lower IQ than most of my siblings. You might think this explains why I believe IQs are a lot of hokum, and you may be right, though I’m inclined to attribute it to less subjective factors. I can’t remember what I thought about all this when I was 12, but since then I’ve interacted with a lot of people, and the idea that they could all be placed on a single scale and assigned a number that would tell me anything useful about them has come to seem increasingly absurd. I don’t mean to suggest that there aren’t plenty of people a lot cleverer than me in lots of different ways. But I do think the different ways are as important as the cleverness, which can reveal itself suddenly in unexpected moments, or slowly over time.

IQ testing was once integral to British education policy. It came to light decades ago that Cyril Burt, the psychologist behind the tripartite system of secondary education established by the 1944 act, had falsified his research. In The Mismeasure of Man, published in 1981, the evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould raised the lid on the whole murky history of IQ testing, exposing the statistical fallacies, cultural assumptions and circular arguments on which the construct depends.

And yet as recently as 1994, a couple of American academics, Herrnstein and Murray, were willing to argue in The Bell Curve that IQ is real, measurable and resistant to change over generations – and that, by the way, the average IQ of African Americans was 15 points below that of white folks and likely to remain so.

At least Child Genius has a healthy ethnic mix. It is also essentially a game show, with ‘sudden death’ rounds that defy the most basic principles of educational testing, and therefore not to be taken seriously. It might be one of the more cruel examples of reality TV, exploiting children for our entertainment and turning their remarkable abilities into circus acts. But better that the concept of IQ should find its natural home here, alongside Big Brother and I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, than influencing public policy.   

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