Intelligence Failures

Alfredo Binetti (better known as Alfred Binet) was born in 1857 in what is now France. While he received a degree in law, he never practiced as a lawyer. He studied Physiology at the Sorbonne and was self-educated in Psychology. It was the birth of his two daughters that led him to his most important contribution: the development of a way to measure intelligence.

Studies of intelligence had been undertaken by others but were based on false assumptions. Intelligence was thought to be hereditary, influenced by the size of one’s head, or based upon the ability to respond quickly to sensory information.

Alfred became interested in measuring intelligence because the French government required that all children attend school. A way was needed for children who needed extra help. The French government asked Alfred if he could provide a way to predict the developmental needs of children based on an intelligence measure.

Alfred and a colleague, Theodore Simon, developed a scale to assess a child’s ability to perform tasks appropriate to their age. The scale was based upon years of studying children. The Binet-Simon scale is best known today as an IQ test.

Alfred cautioned that his scale had limitations. He felt that intelligence was much too complex to measure numerically. He also cautioned that intelligence was not fixed and that comparisons of intelligence of children from different backgrounds were wrong.

Unfortunately, Alfred’s cautions were not heeded. In the U.S., IQ tests were used as arguments for the superiority of white, privileged society. There were those who used IQ tests as a justification for the eugenics movement. The adaptation of the IQ measure in the U.S. was distorted into one of “curtailing the reproduction of feeble-mindedness and in the elimination of an enormous amount of crime, pauperism, and industrial inefficiency.”

Alfred was unaware of these distortions of his intelligence measure because he rarely traveled and did not participate in professional organizations. His intelligence scale was not accepted in France until after his death, so it was not misused as it was in the U.S.

While the concept of eugenics is largely discredited today, it is still in place. Just imagine the justification for legacy admissions to elite universities. Or, what about politicians who create fear of immigrant hordes coming to America? Or, what about corporations which have a restrictive list of universities they hire from?

We still fail to appreciate the diversity of the concept of intelligence. Our society is much richer today for the contributions of individuals who would have been written off if their worth was only measured by a number in their early childhood. Fortunately, they refused to be labeled by a test and through their own will and effort, proved a simplistic measure of their worth to be wrong.

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            “People who boast about their I.Q. are losers.” – Stephen Hawking (theoretical physicist)

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