Intelligence : Oded Zipory

At first, Binet tried to address the question of detecting children with special needs with the help of craniometrical tools, but while trying to arrive at very accurate measurements (not a very common practice at the time, as it seems), and while being well-aware of the possible bias in the results towards the expected ones, he was led to recognize the failure of craniology and the biological approach to intelligence. Unlike in his past attempts, where he was drawn to the convention of checking the size and shape of the skull and only then to examine the specific activities of the brain, he now turned, pragmatically, to measure the “higher” functions of the brain directly. These functions—articulation, understanding, memory, and more—were not measured at that time.12

This first test—on which the intelligence tests used today are built using essentially the same basic principles—consisted of a series of exercises of increasing difficulty, with every level of success with respect to given questions being assigned an appropriate age. The test result—the intelligence quantity—is determined by the division of what was called by Binet “mental age,” that is, the highest level of difficulty with which the examinee could cope by his chronological age. The intelligence test involved many kinds of intellectual skills, but did not define them specifically. It was assumed that the mixture of tasks involved enough mental capabilities, and thus could describe the general ability of the student in a single number.13

We can describe Binet’s motivation as reformist. He was convinced that all children, even the ones far behind their appropriate mental age, could still improve and achieve success if provided with the right guidance. Binet also argued that intelligence is not a concrete mental entity and that intelligence tests alone do not mark the potential of this or that individual. However, despite Binet’s intentions, the basis for his test was still essentialist. Thus, the unification of all the intellectual faculties into a single number, the capacity to place all the individuals (and groups) in relation to one another and in relation to some conception of “normal,” and the view of intelligence as a fixed individual potential, were all already deeply embedded in the scale he created.

Shortly after intelligence tests began to be used, they became massively accepted. The American versions of the intelligence scale, and, even more consequentially, the way in which IQ was accepted by the general public, diverged ever further from the original reformist motivation of measuring intelligence with the hope of improving the scholastic achievements of students. The American testing movement turned to the classification of the entire population, and to the monitoring of social institutions and social groups in accordance with their so-called “human quality.” A prominent example can be found in the studies of the American psychologist Carl Brigham. In the early 1920s, Brigham, a zealous member of the eugenics movement, came to re-examine the results of the famous mass intelligence tests that were held by the U.S. Army during World War I by Robert Yerkes and his team of psychologists.14 In 1923, Brigham published his findings in a book called A Study of American Intelligence.15

Based on a statistical analysis of the army test results, Brigham stated that the uptake of immigrants with low intelligence had led to a decrease in the level of general intelligence of American society. He also argued that this trend would only get worse as the crossbreeding that results from the ongoing process of immigration continues. Within the scientific community, Brigham’s study received generally bad reviews. It was argued that correct interpretation of the data from the tests should have led Brigham to the conclusion that it is education that constitutes the main factor affecting the quantity of intelligence.

It was also indicated that the racial theories upon which his study was based were old-fogeyish, quite behind their times, as were the statistical arguments he used. The criticisms were not limited to Study of American Intelligence; they provoked questions about the very methodology of intelligence examination. All in all, there was a broad academic consensus that the examination in question did not measure innate intelligence at all, and that the conclusions based on its results were problematic, to say the least.16

Although the characterization of intelligence as a quantitative trait and its measurement were put into question, the nagging doubts did not succeed in subverting its legitimacy among educators and decision makers. Indeed, Brigham’s book continued to provide support for eugenic arguments that publically aired in the Congress’s hearings that led to the Immigration Act of 1924; the same act which limited drastically the annual number of immigrants to the US.17 The fear of degeneration of the whole society was reinforced by the assumption that intelligence is a palpable and measurable thing, and what is worse, that it results from heredity and accurately describes a group’s characteristics at least as much as it accurately describes each person’s unique, individual degree of intelligence.

12. Rene Zazzo, “Alfred Binet (1857-1911),” Prospects: The Quarterly Review of Comparative Education 23 (1993): 101-112.

13. Rene Zazzo, “Alfred Binet (1857-1911),” 6-8.

14. During World War I, a team of psychologists led by Robert Yerkes helped the U.S. Army to examine the mental competence of new recruits. Nearly 2 million soldiers were tested and their IQ analyzed. These mass examinations were carried out relatively quickly, thanks to the new testing method known as the multiple-choice question. In general, military officers were reluctant to use the exam’s results, and used it much less than it was actually recommended by the psychologists. However, this new technique was lauded and celebrated as offering society a scientific and effective “tool.” Later on, these exams were criticized both in terms of methodology and cultural bias. See D. J. Kevles, “Testing the Army’s Ontelligence: Psychologists and the Military in World War I,” The Journal of American History, 55:3 (1968): 565-581.

15. Carl Brigham, A Study of American Intelligence (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1923).

16. Dale Stout and Sue Stuart, “E. G. Boring’s Review of Brigham’s ‘A Study of American Intelligence’: A Case-Study in the Politics of Reviews,” Social Studies of Science 21:1 (1991): 133-142.

17. Stephen Jay Gould, The Mismeasure of Man, 252-253.

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