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The obsession with IQ tests is all wrong

Grim entertainment: President Donald Trump in familiar pose during a recent speech (Photograph by Alex Brandon/AP)

Most scientists feel a certain nervousness when the topic they research appears in the news. Overstatement is par for the course, misunderstanding a near-inevitability. But what could be more cringeworthy than the President of the United States engaging in a macho contest with his Secretary of State over the area you research?

I am, of course, talking about IQ testing: after Rex Tillerson allegedly called him a “moron”, Donald Trump suggested this week that he and Tillerson “compare IQ tests”. Naturally, Trump could “tell you who is going to win”. This isn’t the first time that the President has spoken — and tweeted — about his apparently sky-high IQ.

It is hard to deny the grim entertainment value of the latest Trump spat. But the idea that an IQ score is just a bragging aid for egotistical politicians threatens to trivialise a genuine field of research. It does not help, of course, that IQ tests hardly have a good reputation to begin with. Steeped in controversy, by far the most common reaction whenever the topic arises is the oh-so-droll refrain: “IQ tests only tell you how good you are at doing IQ tests!”

In fact, IQ tests tell us much more than that, as a mountain of evidence from the fields of psychology, sociology, neuroscience, genetics and epidemiology attests. For instance, we know that people who do better at IQ tests tend to do better at school, in work and in terms of their physical and mental health. On average, they even live longer — and this does not seem purely because of education or social class. Studies continually appear in top neuroscience journals linking MRI measures, such as the overall volume of the brain, to IQ scores, and some of the first IQ-related genetic variants are now being uncovered.

Yet controversy around IQ tests and scoring remains. Some of it is owing to the fear of immutability, or the worry that a low IQ score is set in stone, dooming a person to a life of failure and embarrassment. But this is misplaced. First, IQ is only one of a whole constellation of reasons, including hard work and sheer chance, for why people get to where they end up in life. And as the writer Scott Alexander has recently noted, the findings discussed above are all averages and tendencies and trends at the group level: they absolutely do not apply to every individual person who gets a particular score on the test.

Second, no one would argue that IQ is strictly biologically determined: the environment still has a crucial influence. Indeed, scientists do not all share the fatalistic view of many IQ critics; rather, a great deal of IQ research is focused on how we may boost people’s abilities. For example, we know that factors such as iodine deficiency are linked to lower IQ scores — a brilliant charity, the Iodine Global Network, is dedicated to doing something about this — and growing evidence appears to show positive effects of education on IQ. Research continues on whether improved physical fitness, among other influences, may help older adults to stave off the decline of their mental abilities as they age.

Another reason psychologists wince at self-satisfied crowing about IQ is that the tests can, in the right hands, and despite the immoral ways they have often been used in the past, serve a useful social purpose. After all, they were first invented to identify children in need of extra educational attention, and they can still serve that purpose.

A terrific study from last year also illustrated how IQ tests can level the social playing field, finding that the use of objective cognitive tests — as opposed to referrals from parents and teachers, who are not always reliable at spotting talent in certain groups — improves representation of poor and minority children in gifted education programmes. (The study is “Universal screening increases the representation of low-income and minority students in gifted education”, by David Carda and Laura Giuliano.)

Treating IQ as a frivolous, point-scoring game makes it easier to write off perfectly serious research and ignore the useful information we can get from cognitive tests. It contributes to the mistaken notion that, with IQ tests, psychologists are trying to sum up the worth of a person, rather than develop useful tools to understand the mind and identify different levels of ability. Most importantly, it fails to recognise what many scientists in this field already do: that the mere possession of a high IQ score is not what matters.

We do not admire history’s great scientists, mathematicians, composers and artists because they were intelligent per se; we do so because they used their intelligence to produce something worthwhile in the world.

Those who would bandy around their high IQ as if it in itself entitled them to respect should take note.

Stuart Ritchie is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychology at the University of Edinburgh