The IQ taboo


Jason Collins


November 6, 2011

While IQ research seems to be be emerging from its taboo phase, Anneli Rufus has written an article in Alternet which asks why the study of human intelligence was off the agenda for so long.

The analysis points to the usual suspects - the shadow of eugenics and racial research - but the article does have a couple of interesting quotes from Stephen Murdoch and Dennis Garlick. First, in much of the literature on IQ, the focus is on finding ‘g’, a single measure of general intelligence. Murdoch is agnostic as to whether ‘g’ exists:

“The science underlying IQ tests isn’t like experiments in the life or hard sciences,” Murdoch insists. “IQ proponents believe in something they call general intelligence. That is, they believe there is one singular, measurable, inheritable kind of intelligence that we can all be ranked on. I have no idea if this is correct or not. Nor do I care.”

While many of the debates about how well IQ captures ‘g’, if it exists, don’t seem to bear much fruit, IQ is clearly an important variable and has significant predictive power. I find it hard to be agnostic about a measure with such important life implications. And alternatives to ‘g’ do not seem to have more promise:

“There is still little evidence to support many of the claims made by proponents of alternative intelligences,” Garlick says, “yet it is advocated that life-changing decisions should be made based upon them. One is tempted to say that the alternative intelligence industry is a reminder that snake-oil salesmen are alive and well in this day and age.”

Garlick points to the need for IQ research:

““I find it ironical that so much research is devoted to disorders like autism that only affect less than 1 percent of the population, but little research is devoted to understanding differences in IQ. … If the deficits of autism can be improved through research, why not IQ?”

As low IQ can have such significant costs, IQ research is an important basis for any policy discussion. Even if differences in IQ are intractable (which to an extent they certainly are), we can’t be any worse off for that knowledge.