(heavy hat tip to @CadeFonApollyon on Twitter for the link to this one)
James Watson, one of the three scientists who worked out the double-helix shape of DNA, is in trouble again. He’s 90, and still causing controversy with just a few words. Good for him.
Basically, he sticks to the idea that people from Africa are not as smart as we honky crackers. This is based on IQ testing. And, indeed, if you take those IQ tests at face value, he has drawn the correct conclusion.
I have taken a few of those tests and two things are evident. One, a good level of education will massively improve your chances of getting a higher score. Two, if you practice the tests, your score will go up.
Three, drinking an entire bottle of whisky will knock twenty points off your score. Three. Three things are evident. I don’t know why I forgot that one.
Some aspects of the IQ test are spatial awareness and shape recognition. You can either do them or you can’t. Personally I would dispute whether that’s actual intelligence but anyway…
There is usually an anagram. For me, I either ‘get’ an anagram immediately or I won’t get it at all.
There are number sequences and other numerical tests. I do well at those.
Now, I grew up on a council estate but made it into a grammar school with (mostly) excellent teachers. I know what an anagram is. I took many classes in geometry and arithmetic, I can work out number sequences, I know what a Fibonacci sequence is.
So basically, I know what those questions are asking of me. Since the test is also timed, that puts me at a big advantage right away.
Suppose I had grown up on a farm, a hundred years earlier, somewhere in the remote parts of Scotland. All I had access to was a little local school with a few teachers. They taught basic reading, writing, and simple sums. They would have been teaching me to function as a farm worker because that is what that community needed at the time.
No matter how smart I was, I would have had access only to just enough education to make me a productive member of that small society. Is that a bad thing? Well, let’s say it’s a farming community of a few hundred people and every generation sends twenty or thirty off to become doctors or lawyers. Sure, those kids will end up rich and successful but who’s going to run the farms?
Furthermore, a tiny, remote school is not going to attract specialist teachers. They can’t compete on pay with the city schools. You get born there, you’re stuck there.
Where you place this scenario shouldn’t matter, but it does. In Europe the number of people in remote villages is far, far lower than the number of people in towns and cities.
In most African countries it’s the other way around.
So, when you compare Europe with Africa, you are comparing proportions of people who have received comprehensive education with those who have no idea what the IQ test questions are asking of them because they have never seen questions like that before. You are comparing the education levels of a largely industrialised, urban population with that of a largely agrarian, manual labour population. Is that a fair comparison?
Another confounding factor is that the UK requires kids to stay in school longer than we really should. Let’s be honest with ourselves for a change. Not everyone is going to benefit from university. Handing out degrees in silly subjects is not going to get them any job anywhere and they end up loaded with ridiculous debt to get it.
Some kids are destined to be bricklayers, binmen, street sweepers, and we need those people. Imagine a world where everyone is far too educated to take any of those jobs, where we all wander around all haughty among the mountains of uncollected refuse and overflowing blocked sewers. We wander around a lot because we have nowhere to live – no bricklayers, electricians, plumbers… they all have degrees in Imaginary Subjects and are now far too important to do those ‘menial’ jobs.
Actually, I’d love that world. As the only one prepared to take any kind of cleaning job I’d soon be a millionaire. I could charge whatever I wanted.
For the record, I was the first in my family (large on both parents’ sides) to get to university. My motivation was that most of my family ended up working in the coal mines and I was not going there! I also have no reason to diss IQ tests, I score around 168 (just under 150 when utterly drunk) and once spent an evening practicing the test until it went over 180.
I could sit back and brag about it but I don’t believe the IQ test is testing what it thinks it’s testing.
A large part of what it’s testing is Western style education level. How can you be expected to solve an anagram if you have never even come across the word ‘anagram’? Obscure number sequences are easy when you’ve spent your education and career working with numbers. What if your career involved knowing when to plant and when to harvest, or when the herds would be in your area and ripe for hunting? There is nothing about that in the test.
The IQ test is set up for Western civilisation and, maybe, it does a good job of comparing our relative intelligence. Take the smartest of us and drop them into the Congo. My bet is not one will come out alive.
How intelligent you are depends on your environment. It’s great to be able to solve complex equations as an engineer, or to identify disease causing organisms as a microbiologist, but none of that is any use at all in a jungle where you don’t know where the safe water is, how to start a fire without matches or when you might be being tracked by a predator.
The test makes it look like all Africans are dim. James Watson still believes it but he’s 90, and dare I say it, he’s wrong. I know, I, as a minor scientist, should not be criticising the Great Ones but fuck it, I don’t care any more and haven’t for a long time.
The IQ test does not work on different education systems. If you live in a small African village your priorities are a reliable supply of clean water and safe and regular food. This is a little different from the remote Scottish village I mentioned earlier – water isn’t a problem there because it drops out of the sky most days, but the food supply is still more important than knowing how to solve a differential equation.
What we have here is a test designed by the West for the West. It does not apply to other ways of life. Yet those who it routinely scores as ‘low IQ’ have not died out. In fact there are more of them than us. So which side is the one doing it wrong?
Neither. Different peoples have different ways of life. Both sides have survived and prospered but they have taken different paths and that is okay. Both ways work.
But a test based on the principles of one way of life cannot apply to those who live a very different way.
I wonder what an African-based IQ test would look like? I bet most of Europe would fail it.