Freak Like Me

IQ Test

I watched a television programme the other night about “intelligence” — what it is, how it can be identified and whether it’s inherited. There was a bit about Cyril Burt, the pioneer of IQ testing, who was firmly of the opinion that intelligence was a real thing and that it was mostly inherited.

Burt also seemed to think that this inherited natural gift was the reason for social differences; or to be more blunt, class differences. He was a member of the (British) Eugenics Society in the 1930s, an organisation based on the thoughts of Francis Galton, who advocated sterilization of undesirables. (A policy never adopted in Britain, although it was in Nazi Germany and in the United States, home of the free.)

But Burt was so sure of his facts that he made them up. His magnum opus on the intelligence of separated twins proved that intelligence was about 80% inherited. Except his data was falsified — some current researchers would say totally fabricated, some would say merely the majority. It’s a statistical thing. As Burt published more data his reported correlations remained exactly the same, to three decimal places. Real data just doesn’t do that. It would be like repeating the experiment of tossing a hundred coins and getting exactly 49 heads and 51 tails every time.

Nevertheless, modern research suggests that the potential to be intelligent is inherited to a large degree. That’s quite a different conclusion from the class idea of “breeding”, or indeed Nazi and racist claims about race. The socially disadvantaged can never fully realise what genetic potential they possess, and in any case they face much higher barriers to success in using “intelligence” to make a living.

That’s why I consider myself lucky. For one thing, my age happened to put me into that narrow window when university education was available to all, regardless of wealth. But even before that, I had the good fortune to be born into a working-class household that valued and encouraged thinking. My parents didn’t have much education, but they liked reading and enjoyed knowledge for its own sake.

In fact, when I was talking to my parents recently, it emerged that they’re both freaks. Both come from relatively large families, but each of them was the odd-one-out among the siblings, in that they were the ones who thought, and read, and asked questions. There’s no way to tell if that difference is genetic or just some accident of psychology, but it certainly made a long-term difference to me and my life.

On Burt’s IQ tests, or those of his student Hans Eysenk, I score over 180, which means that Burt and Eysenk would consider me exceptionally smart, but it seems to me that it only proves that I’m good at IQ tests. Sure, I have a good memory; and a liking for language; and logical capabilities; and the ability to do spatial-geometrical stuff in my head. But is that really all there is to intelligence? And does it matter?

In answer to that, all I can say is that Scroobius Pip’s lyric from Waiting For The Beat To Kick In really struck a chord with me:
“Listen here,
In this life you can be oh so smart or oh so pleasant,
For years I was smart, I recommend pleasant,
Being smart can make you rich and bring respect and reverence,
But the rewards of being pleasant are far more incandescent”


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