Illustration: Graeme Smith

Why are we hooked on junk science?

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By Danica Riley

Owen Ferguson is an intelligent middle-class white man. He know this because he scored very high on an IQ test he wrote in grade four. He was then streamed into a program for “gifted” children but his friend, who didn’t do as well, were put into another program for “average” children.

What happened to Ferguson and his classmates has been going on in Ontario’s education system for years. A child like Owen writes an IQ test and is suddenly declared brilliant. His parents brag about how he’s doing in his class for “gifted” children. They are proud of the fact their son is now part of the intellectual elite of our society. The self-esteem little Owen gains gives him a sense of pride and pushes him ahead of those who are left behind with the stigmatized label of “average” intelligence.

“My score says I’m really smart. It confirms the belief I already had in myself,” says Ferguson. Now 19 and a first-year journalism student at Ryerson.

The idea of a score representing an inherited characteristic known as intelligence is an extremely popular idea in North America. A high IQ is considered a status symbol and there are IQ social clubs to reward this status, the most popular being Mensa with about 65,000 members in North America alone.

But it’s a wonder that intelligence tests are so popular when one considers that their dubious beginnings had little to do with science.

In 1904, Alfred Binet, a French inventor, was asked by teachers to create a test to help them determine which children needed extra help in school.

After hearing about Binet’s test, Lewis Terman, an American university professor had an idea. He took Binet’s test, which included 40 various tasks, translated them into English, added some more tasks and called it the Stanford/Binet test. He claimed his tests could measure “intelligence” which would be represented in an IQ quotient. The Stanford/Binet test was the model for all IQ tests to follow as the testing craze quickly became a multi-million dollar industry in the States.

While they were common a few decades ago, they are now, for the most part, discredited by scientists. The truth is, intelligence is not measurable by administering tests. The tests are very limited in scope and subject to the biases of those who design them. There is not even agreement on what intelligence really is. Experts only agree it is made up of several talents and abilities.

Despite this, IQ tests have been put to use in many ways. Most importantly, they have been used to claim women are intellectually inferior to men, the poor inferior to the rich and the blacks inferior to white.

Binet himself, who was opposed to the perversion of his work, vehemently denied the scientific validity of IQ test. He said they are not true measures of intelligence and denied these tests had anything to do with racial, class or gender superiority.

But nobody listened.

He couldn’t stop the hidden agenda of those looking to justify the oppression of various groups of people.

It should come as no surprise that IQ testing was particularly popular during the Second World War. The Nazis used IQ tests as a justification for the massacre of millions of people because they were — according to IQ tests — biologically inferior.

IQ testing became popular again during the 1950s and ‘60s when the civil rights movement was threatening to end racial segregation of schools and other institutions. White racists used IQ tests to prove blacks were biologically inferior so that segregation could continue.

“Scientifically, there is no evidence to suggest that people can be tested for intelligence,” says Ogenna Ottunu, a Ryerson politics professor. “IQ test questions depend on socialization values. It depends on what type of information a child is exposed to while growing up.”

The difference in IQ test scores are considered more a gauge of a person’s experience, opportunity and education.

The reason IQ test scores are still perceived as being a test of inborn “intelligence” which is genetically inherited has a lot to do with the fact that it’s a very attractive idea for many white racists. Because the test are culturally biased in their favour white generally did very well. The poor test scores of other groups can be then used to justify racial discrimination.

Philippe Rushton, psychology professor at the University of Western Ontario and author of a controversial book, Racc, Evolution and Behaviour, believes blacks have genetically inferior intelligence based on IQ test scores.

“We must expect that these differences [in intelligence] will occur. We must stop blaming white people for the way black people behave,” he says.

Rushton also studies brain size and correlates this with intelligence, and archaic idea abandoned by most scientists 100 years ago.

There is evidence that certain traits are inherited, but the arguments of proponents of IQ tests fail to acknowledge the effects of the environment these so-called “intellectual” traits. It is not possible to separate the inherited components of someone’s abilities from those that are culturally acquired.

Gary Atlin, a geneticist at the Nova Scotia agricultural college, uses the analogy of height heritability to show that inherited or genetic traits can not be viewed outside of the social sphere or environment we live in. He says height is a highly inherited trait and at one time Japanese were considered to be genetically shorter than North Americans. However, due to changes in their environment, such as improvement in their diet after the Second World War, the average height of Japanese has increased. It is now no different than the average height as North Americans.

IQ tests don’t recognize the environment and this is its major flaw. When someone’s test scores change over time people like Rushton explain away the discrepancy by saying the tests used were inaccurate.

Owen Ferguson, like many other children in North America, has been told that a one hour test can measure his inborn “intelligence.” But he’s been lied to. The only thing IQ tests accurately measure is the ability to pass IQ tests.


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