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