Remember: nobody likes a smart alec

Men who fail to impress may be using the wrong organ
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ONCE AGAIN the men of Mensa, despite their supposed intelligence, have proved themselves neither funny nor clever. One must be automatically suspicious of those who not only insist that size matters, but who flaunt the size of their IQs in front of the rest of the population as a mark of superiority. At last a female member of the high IQ society has taken them to task and even threatened to start a rival organisation. Julia Baxter has resigned from the governing board of Mensa after claiming its leaders were "sexist, manipulative and bullying". She has also said ominously that Mensa is tearing itself to pieces. "There are dark forces at work which represent a very unhealthy aspect of high intelligence."

Quite reasonably, Mrs Baxter believes that intelligence is not simply a matter of performing well in IQ tests, she would also like to promote emotional maturity and personal development. She wants to call her new organisation not the Provisional wing of Mensa, or even Continuity Mensa, but Atticus.

Anyone who has done an IQ test knows that the more of these things you do, the more you can learn how to do them. They may indicate a kind of mental agility but they are no guide to communication skills, creativity or ability to function in what Julia Baxter calls "the real world".

Even amongst psychologists they are a subject of intense debate for they have long been used to prove that, on the whole, both women and black people are less intelligent than white men.

All of us have had the disorientating experience of meeting exceptionally clever people who are sorely lacking in fundamental social skills. When we read of another child prodigy who is being sent off to Oxford to do a Maths degree at the age of 12, we tend to worry because we now understand that emotional development is intrinsic to the happiness and success of well-rounded individuals.

Indeed the shelves of bookshops are now full of literature on what we call "emotional intelligence" and how to nurture it in children. Too often emotional intelligence is seen as a touchy-feely kind of affair, as a saner, more feminine, version of the hard, macho ability to retain information. This is not the case at all. Often the most successful businessmen and managers are those who operate through a mixture of brain power and the capability to understand their own motivations as well as those of others.

What is often called feminine intuition or cunning is often little more than a highly formed skill at reading other people through their body language as well as their words. Machiavelli's political insight, for instance, was based on a kind of emotional intelligence which meant being able to empathise with others in order to get one up on them.

Politicians particularly need to use emotional intelligence to gain support. Tony Blair is a master of the art, displaying the kind of emotional intelligence that Brown finds so difficult.

The first time I went to the House of Commons I was struck by the extraordinary inability of so many politicians to use this part of their brain. Highly motivated, ambitious and clever though they may be, they often see emotion as a weakness and as something to be avoided. If you are not in touch with your feelings you are far more likely to be at their mercy and be overwhelmed by them - as Bill Clinton must now be realising.

The super brainy Robin Cook, admired by his colleagues for his ability to process large amounts of detailed facts and figures, may be quick-thinking, but his inability to manage the end of his marriage displayed poor emotional intelligence which in the end was damaging to him. Mo Mowlam, on the other hand, has proved herself to be an incredibly dextrous player because of her communication and "people skills".

Yet Mensa appears to be full of intelligent people who would rather pat each other on the back for their big IQs rather than try to create an organisation that fosters genuine intellectual curiosity.

To continue to adhere to a system of measuring intelligence that has at times been used to make all sorts of hideous eugenic arguments doesn't strike one as too clever to begin with.

Noel Burger, who was one of those behind the vote of no-confidence in Julia Baxter, denies accusations of misogyny. The organisation, he claims, is bound to be male-dominated because: "There are more men in the top two per cent of intelligence than women, and this is reflected by the membership. The curve of intelligence shows there are more men at the two extreme ends and women occupy the middle ground."

If members of Mensa stopped congratulating themselves on their ability to pass grown-up versions of the 11 plus, they would see that what is at work in what Baxter calls their "self-rationalisation" is an acute inability to face up to the modern world. The combination at information technology and the need for a flexible and multi-skilled workforce has meant that other kinds of intelligence are not only valid but essential for the success of a modern economy.

None of this can be measured by an IQ test any more than it can be measured by one's skill at noughts and crosses. The future belongs to those who are adaptable and yet, by their refusal to adapt, some members of Mensa illustrate perfectly that a certain measure of intelligence is no use if it doesn't go hand in hand with an ability to read the writing on the wall.

The capacity to think ahead is a sign of both real intelligence and emotional maturity. On this score, Mensa is managing to look not frightfully smart but dumb and dumber.