#IQ Part 1: Hijacking Intelligence

Over a century ago, a French psychologist named Alfred Binet designed the first I.Q. Test. He wanted to identify children with learning disabilities as a way of providing them with extra support so they could achieve their maximum potential. It was meant to be a baseline measurement or “before” picture of their intelligence. What happened next is one of the most damaging abuses of scientific power of all time, the consequences of which are still felt today.

A eugenicist named Lewis Terman seized on the I.Q. Test as a way to weed out the “stupid” so he could focus his study on “bright” children. Terman believed I.Q. was the greatest predictor of future success and highly heritable. Not surprisingly he also used it to spread racial stereotypes and promote coerced sterilization.

Terman shifted the I.Q. Test from a Growth Mindset to an inappropriately Fixed Mindset.

Alfred Binet was understandably appalled.

“Some recent philosophers seem to have given their moral approval to these deplorable verdicts that affirm that the intelligence of an individual is a fixed quantity, a quantity that cannot be augmented. We must protest and react against this brutal pessimism; we will try to demonstrate that it is founded on nothing.”

That’s academic speak for “This shit is bananas!”

Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the ridiculous idea that some people are “born with the math gene” or “have a natural ear for languages” persists. Katie O and I call this the Straight A Conspiracy.   



Carol Dweck, a psychologist who has dedicated her life’s work to undoing Terman’s damage explained the Age of I.Q. and her personal connection to it on the MMA Podcast.


Learning is a leap of faith. You need to have tremendous amounts of faith in yourself to keep trying again and again in spite of repeated failure. But it is remarkably difficult to get that message out because believing in yourself doesn’t sound scientific. It sounds like some self-help guru nonsense. Except that Carol Dweck has the science to prove it.

Unfortunately, feeeeeeelings are stronger than facts. Millions of kids interpreted the social and emotional signals surrounding I.Q. to mean that doing well in school was beyond their control. Mistakes were a reflection on their self-worth. School taught them to feeeeeeel stupid and ashamed when it should have empowered them to take charge of their own futures and destinies.


The idea that genetics makes up at least half of a person’s intelligence persists today, but the truth is it’s way more complicated than the usual 50% environment and 50% genetics picture you hear in the news. Regardless of what the exact percentage is, why focus on the part you can’t change instead of your enormous potential?

It’s time Science comes together with clarity and denounces the I.Q. Test’s shameful, disempowering history and gets behind what Dweck’s research reveals.


Read Part 2 here.

[This piece is the first part of a larger science-off between Derek Zoolander (Sam Harris) and Hansel (Hunter Maats).]


Right after being born in Saudi Arabia, I was taken to the Callen house. Since then, Bryan and I have travelled the world with our Citibank fathers and somehow ended up in LA together. There we'd run into each other at family gatherings and do something that no one else in LA seemed to be doing: we talked about books. Since Bryan was kind of a big deal, Hunter and Bryan hatched a scheme to use his podcast to get on their favorite authors and professors. Out of that evolved Mixed Mental Arts and this tribe. For me, the marriage of entertainment and education is a return to how things used to be before our culture split story into two separate things. It's exciting to be able to build on the work Katie O'Brien and I did for The Straight-A Conspiracy and expand it out to every area of life. While I play a series of roles in the Mixed Mental Arts community (including Shitty Dutch Uncle and Bryan's #1 fan) my favorite role is as Toto who pulls back the curtain and let's the world see that there are no wizards...only men and women who try and puff themselves up to seem important.


  1. Adam Green Reply

    Hunter, I applaud you for sparking a conversation about these contentious issues. I think you’re right: you can have a high IQ and still not know shit from Shinola. You’re also right that I.Q. tests are just that: a test (which reliably predicts another psychological construct, g, general intelligence.)

    However, we need to be honest about the importance of IQ in the W.E.I.R.D cognitive meritocracy we live in.
    • Current IQ tests—such as Raven Progressive Matrices—are not heavily culturally loaded, meaning that you can’t attribute differences in scores to cultural bias (3).
    • General intelligence—and by extension, IQ—is hugely predictive of measures of life success such as educational attainment and socio-economic status (1, 3). This effect will only become more pronounced as automation takes away jobs.
    • Current evidence suggests that the heritability of IQ is within the range of 0.5-0.75. This means that IQ variation within a population is largely due to genetics, not the environment (2, 3).
    • IQ stays relatively stable over one’s lifespan and we haven’t yet found effective ways to increase it beyond one’s set-point (3, 5).

    Now, this doesn’t mean that people with low IQ should be fatalistic or feel stupid about their mistakes; nor does it mean that a high IQ guarantees a great life. Other dimensions of personality are quite important for life success, such as industriousness, which is a subcomponent of conscientiousness (one of the Big Five traits) and is predictive of one’s work ethic.

    More importantly, as you and Anders Ericson both highlight in your respective work, you’ve got to put in deliberate practice to be successful. We should encourage people to adopt a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset so that they can maximize their cognitive and personal potential.

    However, whether we like it or not, people differ. As a stocky, 6 ft. (ok, more like 5’11”) white guy, I quickly realized that despite my love for basketball I’m not cut out for the NBA. Similarly, if your IQ is 100, sorry, but the likelihood of you becoming a successful theoretical physicist is slim to none.

    Granted, most personality differences are intra-group, not intergroup; you can’t know someone’s IQ or personality profile based on their group identity. Nonetheless, substantial intergroup differences do exist and the intelligence literature shows this. Whether these differences can be chalked up to genetics, environment, or some combination thereof remains to be seen. Furthermore, it’s not clear what benefit we get from researching intergroup differences in IQ.

    I’d encourage you to look at this critical analysis of Richard Nisbett’s book (3). It’s not completely objective, but I think it quite nicely sums up some of the major controversies in the last 40 years of intelligence research. It covers a lot of the things which you (perhaps mistakenly) believe Derek Zoolander forgot to cover in his podcast with Charles Murray, such as the Flynn Effect and its relation to Black-White differences in IQ.

    As we begin to better understand the etiology of intelligence, from the level of genes to the brain to psychology, I think these debates about IQ will be quickly settled. In that vein, here’s an interesting recent GWAS done on the genetics of intelligence (4).

    1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4499872/
    2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25985137
    3. http://laplab.ucsd.edu/articles2/Lee2010.pdf
    4. http://www.nature.com/ng/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/ng.3869.html (Sorry about paywall)
    5. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/beautiful-minds/201110/intelligence-is-still-not-fixed-birth

    1. Hunter "Toto" Maats Post author Reply

      Hey, Adam! Now that you’ve read the other parts does this change your thinking about what you’ve written here?

  2. Ed Coleman Reply

    I’m not sure what Adam thinks, but I still agree with what he wrote (and Sam said). But that’s partly because I can’t understand EXACTLY what Sam said that you are disputing? When I filtered out the straw men you knocked down, the only thing I could find was what you said here…. http://mixedmentalarts.co/welcome-humanitys-intellectualthunderdome/

    “Then Sam interviewed Charles Murray, author of The Bell Curve, in which among other things they concluded that the I.Q. Test is the best predictor of employment success and that there are undeniable racial differences in intelligence.
    We couldn’t be more excited!!! This is a very clear, testable hypothesis. Now, we can hold Sam Harris intellectually accountable on what he believes.”

    I agree, this is clear and potentially falsifiable. But where have addressed and provided evidence that either of these are not true??? I’m sincerely interested, but you gave me nothing in this or the next 4-5 articles. Did I miss it?

    If not these two statements, what specifically are you saying Sam said on the podcast, that you can prove he’s wrong about?

    PS – I had to listen to parts of your podcast with Joe Rogan several times because I felt you were on to something very interesting (and I still do), but I couldn’t figure out what it was. In my opinion, while Joe might have been getting defensive, it started with him (and others like me) sincerely not understanding what specially you think Sam is wrong about? You seemed to attack him out of thin air, without being able to make it clear what your issue with him was. I find you hard to follow sometimes, and these series of articles do not change that.

    1. Cate Fogarty Reply

      Hi Ed!

      Sorry to take so long to respond! I didn’t see your comment right away.

      First, thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. We really appreciate it and are always looking for feedback on how to improve!

      I want to address your comments as best I can. While I can’t speak for Hunter, I did help him write the I.Q. series so I have a pretty firm grasp on what we were attempting. Sadly, I think you did miss our point. I’ll try to clarify it here and then I would love to hear back what you think and any suggestions you have for clarifying the articles further.

      Here are the main points of what Sam said specifically about I.Q. that we take issue with:

      1-There is very little that can be done environmentally to affect I.Q. and that genes matter 50-80%
      2-Average I.Q. differs across races and ethnic groups
      3-The scientific evidence points to these claims

      1-We used the story of how the I.Q. test was originally hijacked by the eugenics movement to show that I.Q. was never meant to be studied as a fixed quantity. Alfred Binet, the creator of the test, meant it to be a “before picture” identifying children that needed more help. He wrote about his frustration with how the I.Q. test was being used by eugenicists like Termin to single out “stupid” kids so Termin could focus only on “smart” kids. Carol Dweck even talked with Hunter and Brian on the podcast about how Termin missed picking 2 future Supreme Court Justices for his gifted group because their I.Q. scores weren’t high enough.

      Then we brought in the work of Joe Henrich and his discussion of the Flynn Effect and how I.Q. scores have risen 30 points across the board since 1815. This is clearly not enough time for the human genome to have changed that significantly. What has changed significantly since 1815 is our environment. That piece is to show that trying to suss out which percentage of intelligence is related to genes vs. environment is way more complicated than Sam or Murray acknowledge. It isn’t as simple as 50-50 or 80-20.

      Generally, genes don’t make much difference until environment has been “maxed out”. After that they do make a big difference, but because most people never max out environment it’s more important to focus on that which can be controlled (environment) rather that which can’t (genes).

      We also brought in the work of Jared Diamond and his anecdote about the Fore tribesman whose father was the first one in the village to learn to read and then he built on that achievement to be able to use computers and do complicated engineering. Only the environment changed drastically for the Fore man and his intelligence surpassed that of his father and the rest of the people that had come before him that hadn’t been exposed to reading, computers, etc.

      2-I’m sure you’re familiar with “Correlation does not imply causation.” It couldn’t be more true in the idea that race is correlated to I.Q.

      The thing that we whole heartedly agree with Sam about is that there are nested taboos in talking about race and I.Q. As Thomas Sowell says, you can’t disprove something you can’t talk about. So we talk about the supposed racial correlation to I.Q.

      The work of Henrich and Diamond (mentioned above) combined with Thomas Sowell’s study on the differences in culture make it pretty clear that the differences in I.Q. scores aren’t due to racial differences, but rather cultural ones. When you look at I.Q. scores in the U.S. white people generally have higher scores than black people. But that isn’t the whole story. You should also look at culture to get a more complete picture of why the I.Q. scores differ.

      Most white people in the U.S. are not rednecks while most black people are. When you compare white rednecks and black rednecks you start to see a lot more similarities than you do when you compare black rednecks with black West Indians. On top of that there isn’t much scientific basis to the concept of race outside of skin color as Joe Henrich points out. It’s a way of quickly categorizing people, but in the same way that categorizing fish based on color it isn’t very useful.

      3-We think the reason that Sam and Charles Murray have these outdated ideas are because they haven’t read the updated science. Sam admits that it took him a long time to actually read the Bell Curve so I’m guessing he hasn’t gotten around to reading the work of Henrich, Dweck, Diamond, and Sowell yet. When he says that the scientific data points to his claims he not well-informed. There is a lot of very strong evidence to show that I.Q. is more susceptible to cultural differences.

      Does that help clarify the I.Q. series for you? I’d really love to hear your thoughts!

      As far as not being able to follow Hunter sometimes, you aren’t alone. Sometimes I don’t understand him either. And lots of times he doesn’t understand me, but we are trying to help each other get better at clarifying all these issues and we really appreciate your help telling us how we can improve 🙂

      1. Peter Loess Reply

        1. Even taking the way you depict Binet and Terman (not Termin) at face value, your argument is fallacious, a variant of the genetic fallacy. If Binet meant IQ tests to be used for purpose X, that doesn’t mean that it’s wrong to use them for purpose Y. The only thing that matters is whether the available evidence supports using IQ tests for purpose Y.

        In the history of science and technology, it’s very common that something that was developed for a certain purpose is found to be very effective for some completely different purpose. For example, the chemical compound called sildenafil citrate was originally developed for the treatment of hypertension and angina. However, during a clinical trial involving angina patients it was discovered that sildenafil induces erections in patients. The fact that sildenafil, the active ingredient in Viagra, was originally meant to cure angina doesn’t mean that it cannot be used to treat erectile dysfunction. Similarly, whatever Binet wanted to use his tests for has no bearing on the validity of the way others have used his tests.

        Secondly, the idea that Binet’s and Terman’s ideas were somehow completely opposed to each other is a fiction concocted in the 1970s by American opponents of IQ testing like Leon Kamin and S.J. Gould. If you read Binet’s original works, you’ll find some passages that might support such a reading and many others that suggest little difference between Binet and someone like Terman. For example, Binet said that the purpose of his IQ test was to measure “the natural intelligence of the child, and not his degree of culture, his amount of instruction” and wanted to use tests to sort people into careers. Binet died relatively young and never fully developed his ideas. You imply that Binet responded negatively to Terman’s ideas, but the Binet quote given dates to 1909, which predates Terman’s work on IQ.

        As for the Flynn effect, it’s always amusing to see people use Murray’s own terminology to discuss what he supposedly ignores. The term Flynn effect was first used in Chapter 13 of The Bell Curve which includes a discussion of how rising IQ scores relate to race differences. In the podcast, Murray correctly pointed out that between-generation differences in IQ are not informative about within-generation differences in IQ like the black-white gap in America (this relates to psychometric measurement invariance or lack thereof).

        “Generally, genes don’t make much difference until environment has been ‘maxed out’. After that they do make a big difference, but because most people never max out environment it’s more important to focus on that which can be controlled (environment) rather that which can’t (genes).”

        The evidence unequivocally shows that cognitive ability differences in contemporary societies are largely caused by genetic differences. The idea of “maxing out environments” is incoherent and not evidence-based.

        2. There is no “supposed” racial correlation with IQ. The correlation is as firmly established as anything in the social and behavioral sciences. The question is whether the correlation is caused by environmental or genetic differences that are associated with race.

        The idea that racial differences are only about skin color is shockingly ignorant. Racial differences are about ancestry. No one who is familiar with genomic data will claim that race is just about skin color.

        3. Henrich, Dweck, Diamond, and Sowell’s ideas, many of which are more or less discredited (e.g. Dweck’s mindset construct has faced several replication failures recently), are nothing new. Their ideas and others very much like theirs were around long before The Bell Curve. Murray has not had any need to change his views because the evidence for them is today even stronger than it was back when he wrote that book.

  3. Cate Fogarty Reply

    Hi Peter,
    Thanks for your thoughts and for the spelling correction. I think I was thinking of “Termites” when I changed the spelling accidentally 😉

    Yes, I’m familiar with Viagra and the many times something is used successfully for a purpose other than it’s intended use. I think the key word is “successfully” and I don’t believe that using the I.Q. test or any intelligence test in a way that promotes a fixed understanding of intelligence meets that criteria. That was the point of the story of Terman’s Termites and how he missed picking two Supreme Court Justices. He was unsuccessful in determining which students would grow up to be “exceptional.”

    I think there is also an Edison quote about his mother shielding him from what his teachers said about his low intelligence. We are very influenced by what we believe or in other words our feelings. Feelings are the strongest part of the equation which is why Haidt talks about the smaller rider being the rational system and the more powerful elephant being the emotional system. If our feelings fit with reality then great. Believing I can’t fly if I jump off a building saves my life. But if I believe that I’m too stupid to learn calculus that doesn’t fit with reality and doesn’t help my life in any way.

    Many beliefs are deeply embedded in our personalities and it often takes more than positive reinforcement to change them. The I.Q. series, Dweck’s work, et. al is just the tip of the iceberg in trying to make these cultural shifts. They alone won’t be enough to change what humans believe about their intelligence, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Think of how different the world would be if we’d all been shielded from fixed ideas about intelligence like the Fore tribesman who learned how to use computers. If he’d been subject to a lot of the bias floating around our society he might have believed it would be impossible for him to learn engineering.

    If I implied that Binet was directly opposed to Terman that was a mistake, I meant he was opposed to the way the I.Q. was being used. Who knows what would have happened if he’d lived longer? The real point of the I.Q. series is to show that you can use facts to tell any kind of story you want, regardless of whether it fits with reality. Science isn’t about finding consensus among scientists. It’s about developing newer and better models that explain reality. True scientists are always looking for ways to disprove what they find. If you listen to the podcast episodes with our Physicist friend Spiros he does a great job of articulating that point.

    The goal wasn’t to demonize Terman, Sam Harris, or Charles Murray either. They are just humans, ruled by Descartes’ Error like the rest of us. There a lots of people that feel the way they do. But the key word is “feel”. We’re all subject to our emotions and cultural biases and how they color our interpretation of evidence. I used to have a very fixed view of intelligence, but after working with growth mindset teachers, mentoring kids of all levels, and learning more about the subject I had to confront my feelings and ultimately change my mind in light of the evidence. Of course I still have feelings, but I’m learning to evaluate whether they are appropriate or not in relation to reality.

    Also, as you point out there is a correlation between race and I.Q. Our point is that it is spurious. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. We referenced Thomas Sowell’s work to show that race isn’t causally related to intelligence. A lot of people as Sam and Sowell point out are too afraid to talk about it. We all have no problem discussing the correlation between ice cream sales and drownings and understanding how ice cream sales don’t case drownings, but race suddenly triggers a lot of feelings.

    I absolutely don’t agree “the evidence unequivocally shows that cognitive ability differences in contemporary societies are largely caused by genetic differences.” But I’m happy to change my mind if you show me evidence that is more compelling than the evidence I have seen to the contrary. Even better, if you write your own version of the I.Q. series I will read it.

    I’m really interested in what feelings and experiences have lead you to your conclusions about intelligence. I’d love for you to submit a cultural confession
    so that I can get to know you better or for you to join us on the Facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/groups/1289087351149018/
    for more discussion on this topic.

    Thanks for joining the discussion! I hope you’ll stick around to share your thoughts with us once the MMA Belt System is released in a couple weeks.

    1. Peter Loess Reply

      I see no attempt by you with deal with the empirical evidence on the validity, stability and heritability of IQ. That literature is extensive, with strong and consistent results. The following article describes a sampling of some important and very robust findings:

      Plomin & Deary (2015). Genetics and intelligence differences: five special findings. Molecular Psychiatry, 20, 98–108.

      Your critique of Terman’s “Termite” study relies on strawmen. It is not a reasonable expectation that his tests should have identified every single exceptional individual in childhood. The ones he identified did, however, grew up to be successful adults on the average. As IQ is not the only determinant of outcomes, there is no reason to expect that everyone with a high IQ will be successful.

      Furthermore, Terman’s study is not the only one to have longitudinally followed gifted individuals. The SMPY program directed by Julian Stanley, Camilla Benbow and David Lubinski has followed various cohorts of gifted people since the 1970s. They administer tests to children and adolescents and follow up on those who score above the 99th percentile. Stanley et al. have been more successful than Terman at identifying individuals who grow up to excel in creative pursuits. While that may partly be due to America becoming more meritocratic since Terman’s days, another reason is probably that the SMPY generally tests adolescents (13 year olds or so) whereas Terman mainly tested children. Given that the IQ rank order in a cohort stabilizes only in adolescence, the SMPY has much better estimates of individuals’ true abilities than Terman had. The following article describes some key findings from the SMPY:

      Robertson et al. (2010). Beyond the Threshold Hypothesis: Even Among the Gifted and Top Math/Science Graduate Students, Cognitive Abilities, Vocational Interests, and Lifestyle Preferences Matter for Career Choice, Performance, and Persistence. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19, 346-351.

      Some of the people the SMPY program identified as intellectually gifted as children or adolescents include mathematician Terence Tao, Google founder Sergey Brin, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Stefani Germanotta (better known as Lady Gaga).

      Many beliefs are “deeply embedded in our personalities” because they are part of our genetic makeup. While that does not mean that they are unmalleable, it does mean that facile ideas like Dweck’s are unlikely to do the trick. Here’s three recent studies that failed to find support for Dweck’s mindset theory:

      Bahnik & Vranka (2017). Growth mindset is not associated with scholastic aptitude in a large sample of university applicants. Personality and Individual Differences, 117, Pages 139-143.

      Macnamara & Rupani (2017). The relationship between intelligence and mindset. Intelligence, 64, 52–59.

      Li & Bates (2017). Does growth mindset improve children’s IQ, educational attainment or response to setbacks? Active-control interventions and data on children’s own mindsets.

      Dweck’s ideas do not constitute an important contribution to understanding human behavior. They will die with her because they lack empirical support.

      There is no evidence that Binet was ever opposed to the way someone else used his tests. In fact, I would think that he was just delighted if others used them and in any case he died before IQ tests became to be widely used. Terman’s empirical work on IQ is much more cogent than Binet’s given that Terman had much more data.

  4. Cate Fogarty Reply

    It seems pretty fruitless to try to out statistics each other, but even more importantly we should both admit that neither one of us can predict the future of where the science will eventually lead. I’m not sure how you can be so confident that Dweck’s ideas (which aren’t even technically her ideas and have been around for a long time before she started her research) will die out.

    And there’s a possibility that some new thing will be discovered to change everything we ever thought before. For me, this is the best, most useful model of how I.Q. works that we have currently. Like I said, I’ve seen it work in practice, which is always my litmus test. But again I’m happy to change my mind in light of more compelling evidence, but it has to be pretty compelling.

    You’ve obviously read a lot about the topic and are interested in it. I’d love to hear more about what drew your interest and why. What are your experiences with education? How did you find Mixed Mental Arts?

  5. Dustin Reply

    It looks like Peter completely glossed over Sowell’s work. The problem with Murray is that his research is on a Macro scale and does not differentiate the cultures of origin. Since Sowell goes further than race to pinpoint causes, he actually found it. Race is an extremely broad category, which is a very poor categorization in the first place. In his work he found that on average, Blacks from the south had lower intelligence test scores than blacks from the west indies (Same race, different culture, different average IQ). He chose these 2 groups because they both experienced diaspora due to the slave trade.

    Unfortunately Murray’s work does not discriminate between these two groups and lumps them all in to one category. 9/10 of the black population comes from the south, which isn’t known to test well when compared to the north.

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