09.01.2015 Feature Article

Don’t Waste All Your Time On High IQ

Dont Waste All Your Time On High IQ
09.01.2015 LISTEN

In 1994, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray wrote a book—The Bell Curve—and attempted to use statistical analysis to rationalize the variations in intelligence in the United States. Like almost all the hereditarian proponents before them, these two authors argue that inequalities in American society must be seen as normal phenomena because blacks, whites, Asians, and all other ethnic groups “are not created equal” in terms of capabilities or cognitive abilities as IQ test scores have substantially demonstrated.

For Herrnstein and Murray, “IQ scores match, to a first degree, whatever it is that people mean when they use the word intelligent, or smart in ordinary language.” The foregoing presupposes that since their studies consistently show highest IQ scores among whites and Asian-Americans, they conclude that blacks/African-Americans that generally score low on the IQ measure have low intelligence. According to the book, this basically explains blacks' relatively lackluster academic achievement with its attendant bottom-level socioeconomic status in the America (and everywhere in the world?).

However, as technology has helped propel contemporary societies to expand our knowledge base with lightening speed while persistently pushing the unknown frontiers, especially in the realm of science, many hitherto “sacrosanct” long-held beliefs and dogmas are becoming obsolete or debunked by a growing body of empirical studies. One of the casualties of the recent scientific studies is the inaccurate views many Western researchers used to have about Intelligent Quotient popularly known as IQ, for short.

Until now people believed to have high IQ are viewed as if they are repository of all knowledge, with immense abilities to solve every problem under the sun. But now based on impartial scientific researches, it has been factually established that although IQ is relevant to some extent, it does not measure or account for everything vis-à-vis human capabilities. In fact, there is consensus of scientific opinion that maintains that IQ tests, for instance, mainly focus and measure information one has acquired rather one's abilities.

A famous educational researcher, Linda Gottfredson, has comprehensively defined intelligence as “General mental capability that…involves the ability to reason, plan, solve problems, think abstractly, comprehend complex ideas, learn quickly and learn from experience. It is not merely book learning, a narrow academic skill, or test-taking smarts. Rather it reflects a broader and deeper capability for comprehending our surroundings—making sense of things, or figuring out what to do.” Carefully analyzed, the preceding definition captures quite accurately different levels of intelligence, such as analytic, practical, social, emotional, and so on. Aside from “analytic” or academic intelligence, IQ tests have no way of accurately measuring other forms of human intelligence. Yet that was the popular prevailing narrative about intelligence long before anti-hereditarian studies came in to set the records straight with regard to baseless racial superiority case articulated in the “Bell Curve.”

In his well-researched book “Intelligent and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cultures Count,” a Distinguished American psychologist Richard Nisbett has pointed out many inherent fallacies and weaknesses within the major propositions of the hereditarian school of thought. Unlike many previous Western researchers who normally present biased perspectives on the IQ theory, Nisbett happens to be Westerner/white, but he dispassionately demolishes the argument via studies that intelligence is hereditary. In addition, he forcefully posits that it is not accurate that racial differences regarding IQ and academic accomplishment are grounded in our genes. In more succinct terms, blacks, whites, Indians, Arabs, or Chinese, are what they are not because of specially-endowed intelligence or high IQ given at birth, but the fact that they strive creatively to transcend boundaries instead of accepting them.

Echoing Nisbett's scholarly perspectives, a veteran New York Times writer, Nicholas Kristof, theorizes that “If intelligence were deeply encoded in our genes, that would lead to the depressing conclusion that neither schooling nor antipoverty programs can accomplish much [in any society].” In other words, we don't have to, or why do we bother ourselves spending huge sums of money to have better schools, including other effective educational intervention measures to train people if the expected outcomes of such efforts would not make any significant difference because somehow we all have predetermined intelligence? In fact with all these hyperbolic claims connecting race and intelligence rooted in IQ scores and hereditary, its believers deliberately or ignorantly fail to consider one most important component—culture or environment.

During my high school days in Ghana in the 1980s, the subject that gave me constant headaches—from Form One up to Sixth-Form level—was mathematics. Most of the other courses were relatively easy to grasp save math. As a result, I had developed mortal fear for math to the extent that I resigned under false assumption that I was not born to be good in math like some of my peers. Rather than pushed hard and approached math with open mind as I did to the other subjects, I let the “culture of I-cannot-do-it” overwhelmed any initiative out there. More importantly, there were not enough good and relevant textbooks, including effective support system and well-trained facilitators to motivate students like me to understand the basics of math. Simply put, my issues with math were culturally or environmentally based more than an IQ.

Things quickly changed for me in math when I settled in a new cultural environment—United States—and gained admission into university to pursue a bachelor's degree program. Even though math was not my major, it became one of my favorite courses in college because there were limitless opportunities and self-explanatory textbooks, as well as knowledgeable math professors on hand who made the course more interesting to study. Now as a college-level instructor myself, I have got the chance to teach, interact, and observe students from diverse racial backgrounds.

The students who succeed in the coursework are those who have developed the culture that promotes self-discipline and persistent learning in the midst of abundant opportunities. That is why I strongly share the views by Professor Nisbett and many other researchers like him who insist that we are all born capable of becoming intelligent and successful given supportive cultural environment and a level playing field. High IQ does not tell the full story or makes one better than another.

Bernard Asubonteng is sociopolitical commentator based in USA. He can be reached at: [email protected]