#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 🙂

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