Hermione Eyre: There's more to Mensa than silly puzzles

I've never owned up to my membership - it not being something one admits to in polite society
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The Independent Online

This weekend, Mensa, the high-IQ society launched a new board game at its AGM. Cue to tittering over the Mensans' competitive outlook, their gladioli-printed T-shirts, their fun-with-fractals sessions. The resounding chortle that greeted the conference utterly obliterated its content, so not even the tiniest Mensan whisper of opinion was heard, and ribaldry rendered even the premise of the new boardgame unintelligible. Nerd-baiting is one of our favourite national pastimes, but a number of particularly low blows have just been aimed at what is essentially a positive alternative culture.

This weekend, Mensa, the high-IQ society launched a new board game at its AGM. Cue to tittering over the Mensans' competitive outlook, their gladioli-printed T-shirts, their fun-with-fractals sessions. The resounding chortle that greeted the conference utterly obliterated its content, so not even the tiniest Mensan whisper of opinion was heard, and ribaldry rendered even the premise of the new boardgame unintelligible. Nerd-baiting is one of our favourite national pastimes, but a number of particularly low blows have just been aimed at what is essentially a positive alternative culture.

The best crack was: "If this organisation is so bright, why has it named itself after a piece of furniture?" ( Mensa is Latin for table.) In fact the society was named in 1946 for the most sweetly idealistic of reasons: it sought to provide a round table-style forum in which anyone with a high IQ could participate, regardless of their political, social, educational or religious backgrounds.

Latin was perhaps an unfortunate choice for the title, but this was in an era when the IQ test was seen as an egalitarian device, a means of assessing intellect independently of acculturation and privilege. I remember my grandfather, who was a founder member, earnestly explaining to me the society's enlightened intent. But Mensa, alas, went the way of Esperanto and became a joke.

This is regrettable, because school exams are a very limited way for people to prove their ability. Not only do they cut off slow developers, they are biased towards those from a literate, middle-class background. Even nowadays, Oxbridge is full of plummy accents and privilege.

IQ testing is by no means without flaw - Stephen Jay Gould's 1981 study The Mismeasurement of Man exposed almost all methods of intellectual testing as susceptible to cultural and racial prejudice. But the more alternatives to GCSEs, GNVQs and A Levels there are, the better. We do not have enough opportunities in our education system to be able to afford to write off Mensans as nothing but losers and cranks.

I must own up to belonging to the society which I am defending. I was enrolled as a child, having been tested because my teachers suspected me of having learning difficulties due to my terrible results in maths. Their discovery that I had a Mensa-eligible IQ may have saved me from having to stay down a year.

Despite being grateful for that, I have always felt my membership to be a freakish skeleton in my closet. Indeed I've never previously owned up to it, not to my senior school, university, employer, friend or boyfriend - membership of Mensa not being something one admits to in polite society.

This stigma is partly due to the way the society has been run. It is now little more than a smug social club. The magazine it sends its members contains pages and pages of invitations to BBQs and pub quizzes and contains an alarming preponderance of exclamation marks. Its raison d'etre, apart from matchmaking for nerds, seems to be the sale of Mensa sweatshirts and Mensa Mastercards, for those too clever to pay by Switch.

But there is something else apart from the way the society is run and the ambassadorial efforts of Carol Vorderman that makes Mensa repugnant. The British harbour a deep suspicion of anyone who likes to announce their own achievement. This is a sound instinct, and one that makes for lovely, unthreatening small talk and nice dinner parties at which you spend hours talking to someone about the weather only find out weeks later that they were a pioneering philosopher but too polite to say so.

This reserve means that we often ostracise the oddball innovators we should be supporting the most. The Sinclair C5, the battery-powered car created by Sir Clive Sinclair worked pretty well when I drove one (no, not at a Mensa convention), yet it was never developed to realise its potential as an alternative to fossil-fuelled transport. Instead, it became a jolly funny joke.

Consider the case of Joyti De-Laurey, the PA alleged to have siphoned hundreds of thousands of pounds from her former employer. Her trial saw the following phrase used against her in court: "Joyti is very clever. She is a member of Mensa and has a great memory, which makes it easy for her to lie." This stunning elision of brainpower with duplicity proves how little we have progressed since the Middle Ages, when Reynard the Fox symbolised the belief that all cleverness was cunning, and all cunning clever.

A high IQ is not a sign of mendacity. Yet neither is it a mark of distinction. It does not in itself guarantee much: without wisdom, judgement, application, sensitivity - the list goes on - it achieves nothing (apart from some awfully good scores on Connect Four). Intelligence on its own is otiose, and only becomes anything at all when applied to something worthwhile.

However, a high intelligence quotient is a mark of potential and Mensa membership a useful way of meeting others whose cleverness has not yet found a more productive outlet. And the puzzles are fun. As well as being very good fodder for everyone to laugh at, of course.

h.eyre@independent.co.uk

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