Commentary Magazine


A Question of Intelligence, by Daniel Seligman

The Elephant in the Corner

A Question of Intelligence: The IQ Debate in America.
by Daniel Seligman.
Birch Lane Press. 192 pp. $16.95.

In the tight and sometimes nervous world of people who write about IQ, this book has been a topic of conversation for a long time. It was originally commissioned as one of the Whittle books, a series of short works popularizing a scholarly topic for wide readership, published with advertising, for which well-known authors (George Gilder, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., et al.) are paid a flat fee. Daniel Seligman, a senior editor at Fortune and author of its popular column, “Keeping Up,” had for twenty years been an avid lay student of the intelligence-testing controversy. The Whittle corporation asked him to write a book on IQ.

Seligman submitted the manuscript in 1990, and it proceeded uneventfully through the editing. Then, as the book reached page proofs, the word came down: thanks, it’s a fine piece of work, you will get your fee—but the book will not be published. Seligman was left free to publish his book elsewhere, which he has now done in a new version that is about twice the length of the original.

Why the sudden cold feet? Whittle has never made an official statement, but there are more than enough choices. There are certain things about IQ that just are not said in polite company, and Seligman says all of them.

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For a curious person, IQ has the same intellectual fascination that sex must have had in a bygone day, prompted in both instances by a sense that people are shying from the truth about a topic of fundamental importance to human life and society. In the case of IQ, the American intelligentsia, if you will pardon the expression, is currently in a state of denial. There is, we are told, no such thing as a unidimensional “intelligence,” and certainly IQ tests do not measure it. Everybody, we are assured, is intelligent, only in different ways—you kinesthetically, me verbally, the other fellow interpersonally.

But in everyday life, we know we use the words “smart” and “intelligent” regularly, and we know that these words have meaning. True, people can be smart in different ways, and to be smart does not necessarily mean to be sensible (witness the political history of American intellectuals in the 20th century), but most of us also sense a continuum of general cognitive ability that ranges from “low” to “high,” and we know that many important tasks in life must be done by people with high intelligence. We know, for example, that we want the engineer who designs the plane we fly, or the pathologist who examines our biopsy tissue, to be a person with the analytic qualities that produce high IQ scores—and to hell with his interpersonal intelligence.

Yet all of these understandings, which seem to be nearly universal, are denied by the received wisdom. What makes this particular received wisdom especially laughable is that it is most piously catechized in the academy—than which there is no community where raw cognitive ability, of precisely the variety measured by IQ tests, is more highly prized, fretted over, and constantly compared against the next fellow’s.

There is another twist to the received wisdom on intelligence. Like the received wisdom on other political topics, it has its origins in the intelligentsia and has a few highly visible proponents. (Howard Gardner of “multiple intelligences” and Stephen Jay Gould of The Mismeasure of Man are the most prominent.) But among specialists on mental testing, there is another consensus altogether. As Seligman points out, this other received wisdom is for the most part opposite to the one that gets into the media.

Consider the issue of “cultural bias” in IQ testing. In the media, it is taken for granted that mental tests are culturally biased against blacks. In the technical journals, by contrast, it is now equally taken for granted—after an excruciatingly detailed investigation of the issue during the 1970′s and early 1980′s—that the tests are not culturally biased against blacks.

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Seligman tells the story of “cultural bias” as one among the smorgasbord of topics he dips into here. What is it like to take an IQ test? Seligman, at the age of sixty-four, submitted himself to the Wechsler battery of tests so that he could tell us. He also talks about the famous Minnesota monozygotic twin study, enlivening the statistical analysis with anecdotes about some of the bizarre similarities the study has uncovered between twins raised apart. There are the two Jims, for example, who both married first wives named Linda, married second wives named Betty, had been sheriff’s deputies, vacationed in the same Florida beach resort, liked the same brands of beer and cigarettes, were avid woodworkers, and—bizarre indeed—had each built a circumarboreal bench around a tree in his yard.

Then there is the Terman study, in which 1,528 highly gifted children born around 1910 were identified in their grade-school years and followed literally through life. There is the strange, still incompletely understood phenomenon of a secular, worldwide increase in IQ scores throughout the century. Is the human species getting smarter? Probably not, reports Seligman, but the lower half of the distribution may be getting less dumb.

And there is the Cyril Burt case. Burt, one of the giants of psychology, died in 1971 at the age of eighty-eight, most famous for his own twin studies establishing the role of genes in transmitting IQ. A few years after his death, he was exposed—or so it was accepted at the time—as a charlatan who had made up much of his data. Seligman takes the account through the most recent development, the publication in 1989 and 1991 of two books on the Burt scandal, researched and written independently. Both conclude that Burt, while a bit dotty in his last years, was essentially a victim of character assassination by leftist intellectuals intent on discrediting the idea that intelligence is heritable.

A poignant afterword to the Burt story is that the ongoing Minnesota twin study, accepted everywhere as a model of its kind, recently published its most refined estimate of the correlation of IQ between monozygotic twins reared apart. It is +.78, on a -1 to +1 scale. And what was Burt’s “adjusted-score” correlation between monozygotic twins reared apart, savagely derided for the last fifteen years as fraudulent? It was +.77.

It is this kind of story that must make IQ researchers everywhere worry about the vulnerability of their own reputations to ideological smear campaigns. Of such researchers, none has exposed himself more frequently and fearlessly than Arthur Jensen, who first achieved notoriety in 1969 when he published an article in the Harvard Educational Review concluding that remedial education was bound to have limited results because the population of children to which it was directed, disproportionately black, had limited intelligence. Seligman tells this story, too, and in the process arrives at the topic that surely made the Whittle people more nervous than any other: race.

There is not much that can be said accurately in a few sentences about race differences in intelligence, and I will not try here. Seligman does an excellent job of laying out the essentials of the story with enough technical detail to be fair to the complexity, hedging where appropriate and refusing to hedge on issues where the data are clear, managing to convey that the sky is not falling without avoiding some troubling realities. If you want to know the state of knowledge about race and ethnic differences in intelligence, A Question of Intelligence is a fine place to begin.

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This is, in fact, a wholly absorbing book, written in the brisk and colloquial style that Seligman uses to such good effect in his Fortune column. And the book is accessible without being facile. Seligman may not be a psychometrician, but he has read widely and understands the statistics. As he states at the outset, he is not trying to break new ground, but to represent as accurately as he can what seems to be the contemporary consensus among the experts. He has done so admirably. A Question of Intelligence is an entertaining, honest book on an enormously complicated topic.

My one quarrel is with his concluding chapter, where Seligman defends the value of testing. There is nothing objectionable in his individual conclusions, but he tries to do more here than his self-imposed constraints permit. In the preceding chapters he has put before the reader an episodic story that, taken as a whole, has labyrinthine ramifications for our culture and our polity. Seligman has not worked through what it all means—nor has anybody else—and he would have been better off saying that straight out. The great merit of his book is to acknowledge that there is an elephant sitting in the corner, which we have been trying to ignore for 30 years now.

About the Author

Charles Murray is the W.H. Brady scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and the author most recently of In Our Hands: A Plan to Replace the Welfare State (2006). This article has been adapted from a presentation at the annual Herzliya Conference in Israel in January.




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