A question of intelligence

Tomorrow night, the BBC plans to <i>Test the Nation</i> with a night of programming designed to gauge Britain's IQ. So how clever are we? Paul Vallely examines the evidence
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The Independent Online

This is a multiple-choice article. Please select the appropriate introductory paragraph, and then proceed through the subsequent options, to arrive at the correct conclusion. In the process, you will demonstrate how intelligent you are.

This is a multiple-choice article. Please select the appropriate introductory paragraph, and then proceed through the subsequent options, to arrive at the correct conclusion. In the process, you will demonstrate how intelligent you are.

a) So, what do you think of BBC 1's plans to Test the Nation, or at least its intelligence, in a two-part TV spectacular on Saturday night? In it, Anne Robinson will offer all viewers the chance to gauge their IQ while at the same time pitting rival groups against one another – blondes vs football fans, women vs men, cab drivers vs academics, and so on – in an attempt to combine the interactive pull of Pop Idol and the voyeuristic ritual humiliation of Big Brother. This test has already taken place in Holland, Belgium, Germany, France and Spain. Our national pride is at stake here.

b) I tried to go to a Mensa meeting last night. But I got lost on the way. Not an auspicious start. But it set the tone for the humorous self-deprecating article I had intended to write about how all these supposedly super- intelligent folk – the 2 per cent of the nation with IQs over 148, which includes Gary Bushell and Jimmy Savile – actually spend their leisure time doing nothing more world-changing than playing Scrabble backwards and translating Harry Potter into Latin. Of course, had I got there, despite my inability to follow the road signs, I would no doubt have excelled in the Mensa admission test, though I would naturally have declined to join, having so many more important things to do with my time.

c) Have you heard the one about the family made up of a philosopher, a medical ethicist, a psychotherapist and a national newspaper journalist – they're friends of mine, so no names, no pack drill – who were outwitted by the low cunning of a mere builder who plonked a sewage plant outside the window of their holiday home?

Stumped? Let me give you a hint. To decide which is the most apposite beginning you might first consider a few other factors. What is the intention of the person setting the questions here? What is the formula for allocating points to the answers? Might there be an "impression management scale" craftily hidden in here, designed to expose dishonest responses? And might there, on the quantum principle of Schrödinger's cat, be an answer that is simultaneously both correct and incorrect?

Still not getting anywhere? OK, let's try a different tack. Plump for one of the following.

Should we, here, be being sceptical about whether IQ tests prove anything worthwhile? Or suggesting that they assess general knowledge and memory more than brain power? Certainly, they don't measure creativity, practical knowledge or other problem-solving skills. Moreover, they are culturally biased. And illness, depression or feelings of rejection can dramatically reduce IQ by as much as 25 per cent. Indeed, should we be casting doubt on the very concept of intuitive intelligence?

For, if intelligence truly is an inherited constant, how come the world seems to be getting cleverer? Professor James Flynn, of the University of Otago in New Zealand, has studied 20 countries over 50 years, and recently concluded that everywhere, generation by generation, IQs are rising fast – a change that social commentators, exercising their various hobby- horses, have put down to anything from improved nutrition to the advent of computer games. (Others have credited increasing job insecurity, the rise in wine drinking, or even the spread of dishwashers.)

And though some have suggested that the research reveals us Brits as the cleverest people in the world – our IQs rose faster than anyone else's, by an average of 27 points since 1942, which is twice as fast as the rise in the US – it is impossible seriously to compare one nation against another because all tests are regularly restandardised to keep the average score at 100 in each country since that is, by definition, the benchmark against which IQ is judged.

But let us not get too bogged down in the detail. There are more conceptual considerations, which is why, in the spirit of our multiple-choice exercise, you might next like to decide which of the following three tools would be the most useful in grasping after the truth.

Would you prefer a BBC Test the Nation scorecard (downloadable from the internet), along with exercises from its "mental gym" to get you in training to compete with the 300 people in the studio to answer a series of questions – putting shapes in order, spotting the odd one out, etc, etc? For, although by definition you can't significantly improve your natural intelligence, getting in a bit of practice will help you do justice to yourself.

Or would an analysis of current thinking on the concept of the "intelligence quotient" be handier? The IQ was invented when the psychologist Charles Spearman, in the early 20th century, hit upon the notion of "general intelligence", which he labelled "g". It went out of fashion when other psychologists decided that we possess many "intelligences" – emotional, musical, kinaesthetic, to name but a few – which are harder to measure. But a recent study seemed to endorse Spearman's theory; research has found that blood flow increases in the frontal lateral cortex when volunteers tackle complicated puzzles. But then Flynn came up with contrary evidence. Academic debate continues as to whether intelligence is biologically or socially determined.

Or might Aristotle's theory of the five intellectual virtues be of more assistance? You will, no doubt, recall from both his Posterior Analytics and Nicomachean Ethics, that these are sophia – wisdom from understanding first principles; episteme – knowledge of discoverable facts; phronesis – prudence or judgement; techne – skill or art; and nous – intuitive reason or pure intelligence, which is all IQ tests purport to measure. The father of philosophy concluded that, of these five qualities, sophia was the most important since it dealt with the eternal and unchangeable.

But perhaps all of that is just too abstract. If so, turn to this month's issue of the magazine Cosmo Girl, in which young teenagers are invited to "test your mates on their sex IQ". Those who get most answers right are deemed "clued up" and ready for sex, while those with low scores are ridiculed and told to get "more sex savvy". Three options here, too. Is this harmless fun? Or proof that cultural suppositions underlie so-called IQ tests? Or evidence that Schrödinger's cat applies in the moral universe, too, where things can remain in a simultaneous state of decay and undecay until the act of observation itself affects what is being observed?

You may think this is taking a teenage girls' mag too seriously. Yet the very same anxieties underlie the familiar assertions that IQ tests prove that some racial and social groups are genetically inferior. Such claims have been closely linked to the IQ business from the outset. Francis Galton, one of the pioneers of intelligence tests, was also a founding member of the Eugenics Society in the UK. The psychologists Arthur Jensen and the Hans Eysenck, in the US and UK respectively, in the Seventies asserted that blacks have IQs lower than whites, and that no amount of education can change that. In the Nineties, the US right-winger Charles Murray claimed to show that inequalities in society were a function of genetic intelligence, and that the bottom group would always be "the underclass", held back by intrinsic deficiencies passed on from generation to generation.

Of course, it might be possible – if we adopt the direct and unquestioning approach to all this – to say that Facts are Facts. It is true that black children adopted into white middle-class families score significantly higher on average than those in working-class families, implying a cultural slant to tests. But identical twins are more likely to obtain the same score in an IQ test than twins from two separate eggs that have a different genetic make-up, implying that at least part of intelligence is inherited.

Or we might point out that the tests that routinely show that people who are black or poor are less intelligent were all conceived and devised by people who are white and comfortably off. And that the Flynn Effect of rising world IQs seems to suggest that environmental factors can create a bigger gap between one generation and the next than that which used to exist between whites and blacks. Which means that in determining IQ, genes and environment must interact. "Higher IQ leads one to better environments, causing still higher IQ," as Flynn puts it.

Or, indeed, note that it is a peculiarity of Aristotle's ethical system that he places the intellectual virtues above the moral, the theoretical above the practical, the contemplative above the active. One of the fallacies the modern world has inherited from this is the notion that if we can only acquire enough knowledge of absolutes and universal principles then we will be equipped to answer all the questions of life.

But it's no good getting sniffy about all this. The fact is that an increasing number of employers – in the private sector, civil service, and Armed Forces – are selecting staff using psychometric tests.

Faced with one of these in the reality of our new multiple-choice world, we could just do the test and aim to give the employer what they want.

Alternatively, we could point out that in his recent book, The Making of Intelligence, Ken Richardson – who argues that IQ tests measure cultural background, education and, to some degree, confidence – reveals various studies that show little or no correlation between a high IQ score and an ability to solve complex on-the-job problems.

Or we might keep schtum and simply remind ourselves that a classic two-decade long survey of Harvard graduates found that those with the top IQs were not particularly successful later on in terms of salary, status or success in friendships, family and romantic relationships.

At the start, we promised you a correct conclusion. Here are three. You could take the phone off the hook at 8.15pm on Saturday and settle down before BBC 1.

Alternatively, you could go out to a dinner party instead and tell everyone there why you're not watching a programme for anally retentive saddos whose conviction that they can prove how clever they are actually demonstrates the opposite.

Finally, you could just lift your nose from your book to ponder on what Aristotle meant when he described the pre-Socratic philosophers Thales and Anaxagoras as "wise but not prudent" – and then sneak out while the builder is testing his IQ, and blow up the sewage plant. You decide. And then the rest of us will decide how intelligent that makes you.