I was eating in the Center for Jewish Life at Princeton the other day last Spring. I was eating with Chris, who was introducing me to his friend Yue. He’s a brilliant guy who had taken Graph Theory the year before. We were asking him questions about a problem that troubled us.
Anyway, we continued with lunch and Yue started talking to Chris and the others about their SAT and GPA for some reason. I think they were comparing each others’ test scores in a macho battle for superiority. Now, as a rule I don’t talk about scores and tests for a variety of reasons, so I was quite disengaged from the conversation. I was disengaged, that is, until Chris asked Yue about his IQ. Instead of talking about what his intelligence quotient was reported to him when he was in elementary school, he would not tell Chris.
I was interested, so I asked him why not. Yue said that he thought his intelligence quotient was a measure of his true intelligence, so he did not want people to know it. I thought that was very odd. First, I thought it interesting that he places so much value in reliability of the WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children) to measure a “true” intelligence of himself. I also thought it was odd that he would freely talk about his SAT and GPA, but not his IQ.
The WISC doesn’t measure intelligence any better than a fair history exam on a period you should have studied can. The originator of intelligence tests was Alfred Binet. He created and administered them to identify children who were behind and may need remedial teaching in order to catch up. It’s only other people who corrupted the idea of an “intelligence quotient” and turned it into what people now think is a strict measure of “intelligence.” Binet even denounced using an “intelligence quotient,” saying that
The scale, properly speaking, does not permit the measure of intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured.
It makes no sense that the broad array of human mental feats can be summarized into a single dimension, one number, which you can use to line people up like you can line up people by height. Your mind is not a piece of string that can be measured. It is unfathomably complex. You, a person, are smart because you can think about the world: guess about it, change it, poke it, run away from it, and create it as you please. You are not smart because you can recite five letters backward within the allotted time.
Still, a lot of smart scientists, who have high IQ’s and are proud of them, try to justify their importance. Some put forth an idea of g, a general intelligence factor which they claim IQ tests, among others, approximate, even if they do not measure it perfectly. They show through studies that g displays a strong correlation with grades later in life. Of course, they disregard cultural bias in testing, and correlations with the affluence of parents which itself is strongly correlated with high grades, or if they don’t they try to “factor in” the effect in statistically corrupt ways. Stephen Jay Gould, in The Mismeasure of Man, delivers probably the most painful beating of IQ proponents’ ideas.
SAT & GPA
At best, IQ can be shown to be a predictor of grades. But that is the purpose of the SAT: to predict grades for college. And, in fact, the two are more than 80% correlated: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IQ#Other_tests .
Which is why I found it strange that Yue wouldn’t talk about his IQ, but would his SAT. Even more strangely, since his IQ is supposed to predict his grades, his actual GPA reveals much more than his IQ. In fact, in a broader sense, even if you believe the rubbish about IQ, the GPA is much more revealing. The GPA tells you more about how you can complete assignments on time, and how much extra (or not) you will do to do well. It is a much better predictor in how hard you work in life, which is really what matters. Life, not a square in a circle with a dot in it.
Of course, your GPA is just another number that doesn’t describe how hard you worked to prove that last problem on your Mathematics take-home final, or how many hours you spent looking for information in dusty books that nobody every summarized quickly on Wikipedia. But that’s another discussion.
I feel bad for the people with relatively high IQ’s who still don’t understand the right amount of value to place in an IQ. It’s all the people in MENSA who keep the idea alive. I think Yue had one thing right when he said, “Wow, the people in MENSA all join because they are insecure about their intelligence.”*
* I apologize to all the people in MENSA. It’s just a joke.