Peter Pringle's America: They've got IQ tests on the brain

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The Independent Online
AMONG American social forecasters there has long been a smug little group which says that once you have taken an IQ test, you have charted a course for life. Score well in your early teens and you are headed for a judgeship or even, perhaps, the presidency. Score badly, they predict, and you are parking cars into retirement.

These ideas are familiar. Asians generally score a few points higher than whites on IQ tests; whites score some 15 points higher than blacks and Hispanics. The latest from this set of IQ wizards is that any amount of careful nurturing does not appear to alter these scores.

So, they argue, as smart people usually marry other smart people, the country is producing a cognitive elite, which runs the place and has a fine time, and a lumpenproletariat, which, doomed by dimness to a life of dependency on government handouts and their tendency to marry each other, have ne'er a hope of realising the American dream. In a country committed to equality of opportunity, the news is naturally causing alarm.

The most influential of the recent tracts promoting such theories is The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, by the late Richard Herrnstein, of Harvard, and Charles Murray, the conservative social theorist best known as the enemy of welfare programmes and champion of the two-parent family. The book is a massive 845 pages long, packed with statistics, much of which can be followed only by the elite class they define so concretely.

The grim message is that America is not only being divided into an isolated caste of meritocrats at one end of the bell curve and an underclass of dullards at the other, but also that the nation is losing the cognitive base it needs to cope with its problems.

Improving the environment in which the less fortunate live - as in better schools, housing and job openings - will not affect the trend, say the authors. 'If women with low scores are reproducing more rapidly than women with high scores, the distribution of scores will, all things being equal, decline . . .'

The time has come, the authors say, to grasp the statistical evidence, however unpalatable, and do something about it.

You do not have to be a social theorist, nor study IQ scores, to see potentially damaging divisions in American society. But the problem with the IQ gang (to which Murray is a late convert) is the same as it always has been. They assert the intractability of inherited intelligence when scholars are still debating what intelligence is and who has it. The IQ pedlars have also defined their base so narrowly that they take IQ scores as the critical determining factor, when there are surely others.

They would say intelligence (as they measure it by IQ tests) is directly, and increasingly, related to job performance, and salaries have become increasingly stratified by cognitive ability. Or, as they put it, 'success and failure in the American economy, and all that goes with it, are increasingly a matter of the genes that people inherit'.

As evidence, they cite the widening wage gap between the average engineer, who is rated as brainier than, say the average manufacturing employee. But what about other factors - such as the shortage of engineers, and their superior education, and the decreasing power of the unions to uphold manufacturing workers' wages? And how do you explain why college professors often earn less than coal miners?

If we are talking about 'crucial factors', what about family background, diligence, ambition and sociability? What about family influence and resources, school and college contacts, not to mention sex, class and race?

Do they not also impinge on success in the workplace?

Murray and his pals are grenade throwers. They draw attention to themselves, and increase their influence, by spreading panic. They envisage, for example, the rise of a new conservative elite 'along Latin American lines' employing police-state tactics to protect itself from frustrated, marauding masses.

'Like other apocalyptic visions, this one is pessimistic, perhaps too much so,' they write. 'On the other hand, there is much to be pessimistic about.'

So what to do? In an extension of their welfare dismantling, Murray et al want to abandon programmes designed to give the dimmer classes a safety net on the grounds that such government interventions are demeaning. They want people of differing abilities to live with dignity. They stop short of advocating government influence over patterns of reproduction, but they do recommend changes in immigration practices that they believe may be letting in people of lower intelligence.

But wait. America has always thrived on the idea that anyone with enough gumption to get here probably has enough to make it. Can Murray believe that the new immigration waves are not adding new blood and vigour to the old Republic?

If elites all intermarry, as Murray et al seem in the end to want, anyone who comes from Europe can tell him what happens.

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