Tuesday, November 27, 2007

What is "Intelligence"?

From time to time, I transfer verbatim the comments left on this site by readers and my replies to them, and make of them a main posting, should they raise issues which I think shouldn’t moulder in obscurity in the “comments” section.

Today’s is such a posting. The comments were a response to my previous posting. A reader, Giscard, remarked on Condoleezza Rice’s so-far less than stellar performance as Secretary of State. Somehow my rejoinder meandered into what IQ tests tell us about human intelligence.

Such is the nature of conversations. Like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re going to get.

Here now is the exchange between Giscard and myself:


From Giscard: It is a paradox indeed, that Condoleeza Rice, for all her education and intelligence, has not been a good secretary of state.

Consider that she has a PhD in Russian studies, was a university professor of political science, and speaks Russian, as well as German French and Spanish. This is someone who obviously knows geo-politics inside out. And she is luminously intelligent.

As a specialist in Russian affairs, she would be aware that the Russians, having been invaded so many times, not least by Napoleon and Hitler, and having their country devastated, and many millions killed as a result, are historically paranoid about foreign powers encroaching their borders. But Ms Rice signed on to an American foreign policy of extending NATO to Russia’s borders, and setting up US military bases in countries which were formerly part of the Soviet Union.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, it appeared the old animosity between the US and Russia was at an end, as Russia embraced capitalism, and was co-operating with the US in defusing old quarrels. But as the US extended its power and influence to Russia’s borders, it raised again the old Russian paranoia about foreigners, and the equivalent of the old Cold War is the result.

How could Condoleezza Rice, with all her expert knowledge about Russia, have approved such stupidity on the part of the US? The same goes with the Bush foreign policy generally - particularly in the middle-east - behind which was Condoleezza Rice, first as Bush’s foreign policy advisor, then as his Secretary of State.

I don’t understand. I just don’t.


From Christopher: The issue you raise in my mind, Giscard, is the relationship between intelligence and stupidity. Why are so many of those who our society sees as very intelligent, so obviously stupid in many ways?

It is the Received Wisdom in our modern society that IQ equals intelligence. But does it? I make bold to ask. What do we mean by “intelligence”? What does IQ actually measure?

Two classes of people who have high IQs are computer-freaks and medical doctors, since you must score high on IQ tests to get into medical school or to be allowed to study computer science. The tests value quickness and the solving of puzzles. So if you are good at this, you’ll do well on these tests, opening the way for you to become a doctor or computer-freak.

In my life I’ve spoken with many a doctor and computer-freak, and while they’ve dazzled me with their expert knowledge in their chosen field – doctors babbling about intestines, aneurisms, CAT scans, punctured ribs, heart-bypass procedures; computer-freaks babbling about modems, motherboards, CPUs, RAMs, i-Pods, and all of that. But so many seem unable to think philosophically, unable to think in an abstract way.

If I move the conversation to an abstract or philosophical level, or to subjects like politics, literature, psychology, or the arts, these doctors, these computer-freaks, are out of their depth, sounding childlike and ignorant, causing me to think there’s something lacking in their mental or emotional makeup.

I’m not saying there aren’t some who can’t talk intelligently about non-doctor or non-computer stuff, but I haven’t crossed paths with too many.

The IQ (intelligence quotient) test supposedly - by virtue of its name - measures intelligence. So if you do well on it, you’re called “intelligent” or “smart” and given lots of respect. If you don’t do well on it, you’re called “unintelligent” or dumb or a retard, or worse, and you get laughed at.

As someone who doesn’t do well on IQ tests, and is therefore considered unintelligent, dumb, or retarded, I resent these appellations because, somehow, I don’t think I’m these things. But what I’m definitely not, is a fast thinker. Although I can solve puzzles, I’m slower at this than most others.

Thus I’m not considered “intelligent”, and therefore don’t get to enjoy life’s perquisites and the respect of my peers, as do those who do well on IQ tests – like medical doctors and computer-freaks.

There has been much discussion over I don’t know how many years, about whether IQ tests actually measure “intelligence” – a word with much emotional baggage. But might it not be more accurate to say that IQ tests measure “cleverness” rather than “intelligence”, so if you do well on an IQ test, you are “clever” rather than “intelligent”?

Looking at the dictionary, I see the two words have somewhat similar definitions, but I think to be “intelligent” implies something deeper, more profound than being “clever” – a word implying something more trivial. So we speak condescendingly of someone being a “clever fellow”, or, if they are carrying cleverness to an absurd length, of being “too clever by half”.

Since IQ tests emphasize quickness and the solving of puzzles, I believe it would be more accurate to say they measure “cleverness”. So why not, then, change the name of the “IQ test” to the “CQ (cleverness quotient) test”? It would eliminate so much confusion and angry debate. Someone having a low or merely average “CQ”, could still be respected because this would say nothing about their sagacity, emotional maturity, ability to look at issues deeply, or to take the long view, for these attributes have nothing to do with quickness or speed, which are so prized by the Businessman, who is the one who shapes the values of our modern society, of which the “IQ test” is a part and parcel.

Meanwhile we will continue to worship the traditional IQ test, from which emerge the clever ones, the Smart-Alecks, the Hot-Shots, who will continue to run our governments and corporations.

So we shouldn’t be surprised when we see rampant stupidity as the normal state of affairs in all the corridors of power - no matter where in the world they are – for they are the domain of the clever and the quick, the Smart-Alecks and the Hot-Shots.

It is they - not the wise, nor the thoughtful, nor the sensitive, nor the emotionally-mature, nor the meek – who have inherited the earth.

It is they who propel us to our extinction
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And Now For Something Completely Different: