Philosophical Disputes of the Intelligence Quotient

Updated: May 28

Because Google Adsense deemed this website to have too little content for ads, I'll be posting my top 25 undergraduate papers. This was my final paper for philosophy of biology and I got to get into the weeds as far as critiquing the very nature of the concept of IQ.




Dalhousie University

PHIL 3420

April 20th, 2020



In her article “Race and IQ in the Postgenomic Age: The Microcephaly Case” Sarah S. Richardson summarizes the modern scientific debate around the study of race and intelligence quotient (IQ). In the section labelled “oppositional critique” Richardson categorizes the critiques around the study of race and IQ into three groups. Methodological critique, ideological critique. and ethical critique.(1) The latter two sound as though they may delve into some philosophical issues with IQ or linking IQ to race. However, they are mainly objections entered around the science of IQ itself. There exist major challenges philosophical challenges that can be dealt towards IQ tests and IQ as a concept which also weaken the conclusions of science involving race and IQ. The challenges are implications for utility, implications for false beliefs, as well as cultural and generational relativity in defining intelligence.

The first philosophical challenge of the concept of IQ is that of utility. For utilitarian philosophers specifically, the goal in ethics is to maximize overall well-being in the universe. The more utility (happiness/wellbeing) there is and less disutility (unhappiness/harm) there is, the more ethical the universe is.(2) To any economist, the question on how to achieve economic efficiency in a society is specialization. Meaning that if everyone focuses on the specific thing that they are best at, there will be the largest amount of economic gains. And all else being equal, if there are the largest amount of economic gains, there is more utility to be spread around.(3) That thought is almost the antithesis of the idea of IQ. The idea of IQ is that there is an overall intelligence score than can be assigned to everyone. Many claim it can be predictive of financial success, and hence, worth as a human being. However, if economists deem specialization as a more appropriate way of maximizing utility than focusing on an intelligence driven numerical value to apply to everyone, then specialization is more ethical as a motivation than IQ tests. But this is assuming that IQ tests even provide accurate depictions of a persons intellectual capacity.

The second philosophical challenge to IQ is that of information and misinformation. If you’ve met enough people in the bachelor of science program at any given university, you will realize it is surprisingly possible for a young earth creationist to ace university level chemistry and biology courses. Similarly, it is also extremely possible for someone to score higher on an IQ test and actively believe in falsehoods and to have someone score lower on an IQ test and hold more factual beliefs. Would a young earth creationist score lower on an IQ test than an identical but atheist version of themselves? Would a white supremacist score lower on an IQ test than an identical but non-white-supremacist version of themselves? Most likely not. Should the ultimate goal not be to have everyone ground their beliefs in logic and empiricism? Yet IQ tests present themselves as a measurement of overall intelligence. It is easy to see how they can be used as a way of justifying poorly evidenced beliefs. Then again, just what exactly is intelligence?

Defining intelligence itself is a great philosophical challenge and one that IQ tests fail to address rigorously. Scientific American claims good IQ tests measure visual-spatial processing, auditory processing, short-term memory, and processing speed.(4) There are many challenges that could be presented against those metrics being used to define intelligence. For example, does the subject believe in proven falsehoods? Does the subject have logical moral philosophy? And does the subject evaluate multiple sources before drawing conclusions, or do they just regurgitate information from a single preferred source?

There also exists the philosophical problem of cultural relativity in the defining of intelligence. A Norwegian study by Bernt Bratsberg and Ole Rogeberg of military draftees IQ scores from the 70’s versus the 2000’s demonstrates this quite well. They find that scores can differ not only between different cultures across different locations in the same time, but also of the same cultures across different times.(5) Meaning that scores can vary based on generation because it depends what language is used to formulate the test and if it presents any generational bias. That is not even counting any cultural bias in how any of the questions are phrased or thought out.

While Sarah Richardson does a great job at dismantling the science behind IQ tests and race and IQ specifically, there are plenty of jabs that can be thrown at IQ and its tests from other disciplines such as philosophy. If we want to live in a universe where we maximize utility, economists say we need to organize labour and the economy around specialization. But IQ tests themselves, using a single number applied to everyone to measure their intellectual worth, incentivizes the opposite of specialization. And hence, the implication that IQ tests do not promote a society of maximizing utility. IQ tests also do not integrate any mechanisms for judgement of misinformation. There is no reason to believe a white supremacist or young earth creationist would score any lower than an identical version of themselves who holds better views on those topics. Everyone who is in the field of hard science recognizes the necessity of having an empirical foundation of belief. However, the most famous and historic measurement of intelligence, the intelligence quotient, does not factor this in. The final philosophical issue with IQ is the defining of intelligence. Scientific American defines IQ tests as mainly concerned with visual-spatial processing, auditory processing, short-term memory, and processing speed. But when the word “intelligence” is used in common speech, are those the characteristics that are being referred to? Or is it mainly used as a synonym for knowledgable? There also exists the issue of cultural and generational relativity with respect to how the tests are worded and generated. Those critiques combined with the scientific critiques of Sarah Richardson are enough to discount any claim of racial superiority using IQ tests.





Bibliography



Richardson, S. Race and IQ in the postgenomic age: The microcephaly case. BioSocieties 6, 420–446 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1057/biosoc.2011.20


Driver, Julia. “The History of Utilitarianism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University, September 22, 2014. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/utilitarianism-history/.


Ross, Sean. “What Are the Economic Impacts of Specialization?” Investopedia. Investopedia, January 29, 2020. https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/040615/what-are-economic-impacts-specialization.asp.


Kaufman, Scott Barry. “What Do IQ Tests Test?: Interview with Psychologist W. Joel Schneider.” Scientific American Blog Network. Scientific American, February 3, 2014. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/beautiful-minds/what-do-iq-tests-test-interview-with-psychologist-w-joel-schneider/.


Bratsberg, Bernt, and Ole Rogeberg. “Flynn Effect and Its Reversal Are Both Environmentally Caused.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 115, no. 26 (November 2018): 6674–78. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1718793115.



1 - Richardson, S. Race and IQ in the postgenomic age: The microcephaly case. BioSocieties. (2011).

2 - Driver, Julia. “The History of Utilitarianism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. (2014).

3 - Ross, Sean. “What Are the Economic Impacts of Specialization?” Investopedia. (2020).

4 - Kaufman, Scott Barry. “What Do IQ Tests Test?: Interview with Psychologist W. Joel Schneider.” Scientific American. 2014

5 - Bratsberg, Bernt, and Ole Rogeberg. “Flynn Effect and Its Reversal Are Both Environmentally Caused.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. (2018).