The thick of it: Is Boris Johnson right when he says that equality is impossible because some people's IQs are too low?

Intellect can be measured in other ways, says Steve Connor

Those who know him say that Boris Johnson is an intelligent man. If he took an IQ test tomorrow he would no doubt score in the top 5 per cent, especially if the questions were set in Latin. He is by all accounts smart, bright, clever and cunning – the latter being especially useful for a politician and serial philanderer.

Johnson's wit and mental alacrity are indisputable. He is widely read, well-educated (Eton and Oxford) and a skilled raconteur who can tell a good joke. But there are other ways of describing intelligence that may not seem quite so apt for the accident-prone London Mayor.

How many people, for instance, would happily describe him as wise or sensible? And surely he would hardly score above average for emotional intelligence or the ability to empathise with other human beings, especially those less fortunate and privileged than himself.

Nick Clegg said yesterday that Johnson displayed "careless elitism" when advocating that more should be done to help the intelligent wealth-creators of society, and that Johnson was being "fairly unpleasant" by talking about people as if they were a breed of dog.

What so offended Clegg was Johnson's description of the innate intellectual inequality of humans, especially those "of our species" with the lowest IQ scores. When he delivered the annual Margaret Thatcher lecture on Wednesday evening, Johnson said that humans were far from being equal in "raw ability".

"Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 per cent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 per cent… have an IQ above 130," Johnson told his audience.

But any discussion of IQ tests should consider their value. What are they actually measuring, how well do they do it and what does the end result really mean?

Whenever politicians talk about intelligence and IQ, they risk being drawn into a quagmire of controversy going back over half a century. One of the problems is that experts themselves cannot agree on what is meant by intelligence, how to measure it and what that IQ metric actually stands for.

Leaving aside the word itself, and all its different connotations of cognitive ability, a universal scientific definition of intelligence does not seem to exist. Indeed, when two dozen prominent psychological theorists were asked to define intelligence in the 1980s, they came up with two dozen somewhat different definitions.

Intelligence can also be measured in different ways by a variety of psychometric tests. Some are better at testing linguistic ability, others are better at judging numeracy or spatial ability. And all tests try with varying degrees of success to overcome cultural biases – a test set in Latin, for instance, would hardly be fair on someone who didn't go to Eton.

By convention, intelligence tests are scored on a scale in which the mean is set at 100 and about 95 per cent of the population will have an IQ score which falls within two standard deviations of the mean, meaning they will fall between 70 and 130.

The bell shape of the resulting curve is probably one of the most famous graphs in psychology. Indeed, the 1994 book The Bell Curve was named after it. It was this book more than any other over the past 20 years that epitomised the bitter rancour over intelligence and IQ.

The authors, Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, argued that IQ was largely determined by a person's genes and upbringing, and was a better predictor of financial income and career success than the socioeconomic status of the individual's parents. Boris Johnson was simply expressing the same kind of deterministic, right-wing ideology.

Other academics have shown, however, that IQ is not necessarily fixed in childhood, nor is it accepted that IQ has a strong genetic heritability. One of the strongest correlations of financial and economic success is still the size of your parents' bank account – and whether they could afford to send you to a posh school with impeccable social connections.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment

Russell Brand at an anti-austerity march in June
peopleActor and comedian says 'there's no point doing it if you're not'
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp
voicesThokozile Masipa simply had no choice but to jail the athlete
Arts and Entertainment
Sister Cristina Scuccia sings 'Like a Virgin' in Venice

Like Madonna, Sister Cristina Scuccia's video is also set in Venice

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Life and Style
The Tinder app has around 10 million users worldwide

techThe original free dating app will remain the same, developers say


Endangered species spotted in a creek in the Qinling mountains

peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

IT Security Advisor – Permanent – Surrey - £60k-£70k

£60000 - £70000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

MI Analyst – Permanent – West Sussex – £25k-£35k

£25000 - £35000 Per Annum plus excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Preston: The Job ? This is a new post...

Primary General Cover Teacher

Negotiable: Randstad Education Southampton: We are looking for Primary School ...

Day In a Page

Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album