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Are Intelligence Tests Valid?

Updated on May 6, 2017

Intelligence is a topic brought up in a very negative way in a lot of internet discussions about politics. I like to watch such discussions unfold on YouTube an Reddit an so on with my popcorn, not saying much, just quietly upvoting people I agree with. The reason IQ gets brought up is that it's often used as a basis for moral decision-making in politics. The reasoning behind some people's political ethics is, why help out groups of people who have low IQs (Third World countries, the very poor in this country, certain racial minority groups who usually do poorly on IQ tests, etc.)? After all, say these people, isn't it better if we don't bail out the stupids? If we keep sheltering them from their own mistakes, won't they outbreed us low-births-having smart people? At least, until we can make kids in tubes like in Brave New World?

I have issues with this line of thinking, and they're not just the usual knee-jerk reactions of "hey, that's racist" or "hey, be nice to everybody". Emotional responses, in my opinion, do no good for political activism. All they really do is let the other side make fun of you for being hysterical.

But before I get into my argument about intelligence and IQ, let's talk about the IQ tests' history, what the tests are supposed to measure, and how they're designed.

What is IQ?

The original IQ tests arose in the field of education. Teachers noticed that students who did well in one subject tended to do well in many, and they attributed this to a "g factor", or general intelligence. It was then believed by some that students could be separated according to this "g factor", later known as the intelligence quotient, or IQ. Students with a higher IQ, it was reasoned, should be given more challenging tasks, while low IQ scorers should be given extra help. These students have been frequently discouraged by guidance counselors from attending college, since today, standardized tests are designed to answer the question "will this student do well academically in college?". Scores are usually heavily weighed in admissions and scholarship decisions. A bad score usually means a student can't get into their top choice school.

The thinking is that general intelligence, or "g", represents a property of the student by themselves, their inherent intelligence that, in theory at least, is not supposed to be a reflection of their education, but a reflection of their ability to meet thinking-based challenges in any context.

Problem 1: Educational and Economic Factors

The biggest problem I see with this is, it's clearly measuring how well the student is educated, not necessarily how good their brains are by themselves. Students who get more educational resources, have smaller class sizes and better teachers, who grew up with educated parents and had more books in the home, live in upper class areas, and so on get better standardized test scores than kids who grow up in places where there is abuse, poverty, violence, drugs, gangs, etc. The IQ test does not make up for differences in socioeconomic backgrounds of the students. It simply penalizes kids who were born in the wrong place. Thus, it becomes even harder for the poorest of the poor children to rise out of poverty or get the educational system to even take them seriously, because hey, they did not do well on a "fair" intelligence test.

Problem 2: Problems Measuring Intelligence: My Experience

I'm sure if you wanted to, you could find in an internet search both an "IQ Test" that would tell you you're a genius and one that tells you you're an idiot. One IQ test I took says my IQ is 149, genius level. Another test, relying heavily on spatial thinking with no verbal or logical questions, gave me an IQ of 89, which is below average. That's because I have high verbal ability and am good with logical patterns, but I often fail to recognize the visual patterns expressed by a series of shapes, where the test asks for the next shape in the sequence. That was the kind of test that gave me an IQ of 89, which is the lowest I've gotten.

I also tend to do well on untimed tests, as a ticking timer makes me anxious, causing me to make more mistakes. The test that tells me I'm a genius is untimed, so I got almost every question right because I didn't have to hurry to think of the right answer.

So, if a test were all verbal and about reasoning, like the Arguments section of the LSAT, I'd be a genius. If a test is timed, and if it's spatial, I'm a doofus. I can't really make a life decision about myself based on that.

When it comes to tests that cover a few different kinds of abilities, like the GRE or LSAT, I can do well given that I study, practice, and am in good condition. I have to have gotten enough, but not too much, food and sleep, and I can't be emotionally distraught or distracted. In high school, I could take a test and get 100% and take the same test on a different day and get a 79%, because my mood and personal life... stuff... changes over time. So, which would my true score be, the 79 or the 100? I can't say exactly.

So with my experiences, the IQ tests don't measure what they claim to, which is your intelligence, irrespective of context. What they do is help you identify academic areas of strength and weakness, but they also can be heavily dependent on your mental and physical condition at the time of taking the test. Right now, I'm tired, stressed, depressed, and I have a slight tension headache. Not a good time for me to get a high IQ.

Problem 3: Culture

I disagree with the racialists when they talk about how IQ differences between the races are based on biological differences. I think they're based on cultural differences. Cultures where they value persistence, effort, education, and respect for authority tend to get better scores than cultures that value rebellion and emphasize the physical over the mental. I think that if a person from race A is raised in culture B, their culture will affect their academic performance, and the extent to which they conform to the culture in which they were raised vs. rejecting its values. Some cultures reward intelligence, other cultures denigrate intelligent people for their perceived or real lacking in social skills. And cultures where intelligence is most valued and rewarded produce the most intelligent people. Go figure.

Problem 4: Abilities Vary

The main fallacy behind IQ theory, in my mind, is thinking there exists that "g factor" that causes a person to do well in numerous subjects. In my own education, I did well in some things and terribly in others. I did well if the class was something that interested me, I liked the teacher, and the way it was taught didn't feel like a punishment or endurance test. My general bent is that I do well in fine arts and humanities, especially languages, and badly in math and science. Even though I like science and medicine, I don't have the mathematical ability to pursue them as careers. Most people would call me intelligent, because I'm skilled enough with words to come across as such in a conversation, but most algebra teachers I've had would think I'm dumb as a box of rocks, or just intellectually lazy. It's just that me and algebra don't get along.

You don't really see an equivalent fallacy for athletic tasks and abilities. Someone who is talented at basketball might be a sucky baseball player (I'm from Chicago, y'all know who I'm talking about), so we can't really say that we expect someone who is athletically gifted in one thing to be gifted in another, and yet that's exactly what we're saying we expect when we talk about intelligence; that someone with a high IQ can be expected to do well at every cognitive task. No, people specialize! A runner is not a rock climber and a scientist is not a librarian. People develop different skills based on what they like to do, and that often means they're not flexing their muscles in the areas they are not constantly working in.

And the flexing muscles metaphor brings me to my final point:

Problem 5: What We Call Intelligence is Hard Work

If you can get a better IQ by studying and practicing, it was never really an IQ test to begin with. In that, the tests are supposed to measure your inherent talent, not how much you studied and practiced, but the latter is what they actually measure. Everyone could achieve a higher IQ through courses of studying, practicing the tests, and learning about the types of questions there are and what the questions typically ask. The ACT, SAT, GRE, GMAT, LSAT, etc. all have online courses and books allowing prospective test-takers to learn about the format of the test and practice it, so those tests are clearly measuring how much you studied, not your raw talent. Because of that, IQ may as well not really exist. All that's being measured really is practice. Practice is important, and studying is important. The tests show schools that the student in question has a good study ethic. But, I don't think they really measure intelligence. The only test that would really measure intelligence would be one where the students didn't know what to expect.


What makes someone smart, in my mind, is measured by life, which isn't replicable on any standardized test. Smart people are the accountants who help people plan ahead, the chess masters who beat imaginary armies, the lawyers who win cases, the bloggers who can dissect someone's rhetoric and formulate their own, the writers who manage to be original rather than cliché and dull. Our intelligence as humans was originally tied to survival, primarily to hunting game. We weren't big, but we could pull down big game by being swift, by forming cooperative groups, and by making ingenious traps and weapons. Now, intelligence is still a kind of weapon, and to me, you prove yours by winning at something that it takes intelligence to win. Formal tests are for the birds. Well, corvids mostly.


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    • RachaelLefler profile image

      Rachael Lefler 5 months ago from Illinois

      ^ interesting! I honestly think important study habits are way more important in terms of who succeeds in academic settings and who doesn't. It's about not partying, avoiding distractions, time management, focus, dedication to the task, etc. It's easier to do research because of the internet, but also easier to be distracted.

    • Perspycacious profile image

      Demas W Jasper 5 months ago from Today's America and The World Beyond

      A now deceased neighbor once said that his father told him he was too stupid to graduate from high school, so he didn't. But the father didn't tell him he was too stupid to graduate from college, so he went to one and graduated. Self-expectations make a difference, and are the strongest motivators.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 months ago from Houston, Texas

      You have made some excellent points with your discourse on intelligence and the ways it is measured. I agree with what you have written. I had a brother who was so bored in high school & often received poor test scores simply because he was uninterested and not motivated. Yet when he was tested he rated genius level in many areas. When he found his niche in life he excelled!

    • Dr Billy Kidd profile image

      Dr Billy Kidd 5 months ago from Sydney, Australia

      These are good arguments and the psychology testing community takes them seriously. Here's were they stand right now:

      The Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale measures aptitudes in many areas. Some people cannot do visual imaging, and thus have a low aptitude. Others are good at manipulating things in their minds, etc., etc.

      Studies seem to demonstrate that the Intelligence Quotient abilities from this Scale are half inherited and half learned.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 5 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      A very good analysis of the area. I think that with all you addressed we can be sure that intelligence is a combination of nature and nurture. And I get most of your points indicating the flaws in our testing system. But I think we can be pretty accurate if we use a fully integrated multiple test system. 5 tests in 5 days and then the same tests later in alternating sequence. Then use some sort of method to determine something like a median.

      Mensa seems to use a simple test and the criteria is soft. In other words they let anyone in that is having a great day on tests ;-)