Thoughts: The Mismeasure of Man, by Stephen Jay Gould

Oh man. So many disclaimers needed. This is the first I’ve read on this subject, so I’m not really going to be able to bring a nuanced conversation to this book or discuss competing theories not mentioned. I’m aware I’m committing one of the sins Gould deplores by saying essentially, “Don’t ask me, I’m just a girl!” but I’m willing to accept that. I’m not a professional science book reviewer or science journalist, so I’m OK with my choices here.

The Mismeasure of Man is firstly, a pretty great all-round history of the idea of intelligence testing – with an important caveat! Gould is only interested in the theories which treat intelligence as a single, measurable entity. He starts from the beginning of that idea and takes it right through to the IQ tests we know today. And if that seems dry, then all I can say is that I didn’t find it to be so.

Intelligence testing and the idea that intelligence is a scalable entity is behind some surprising things – ever wondered why it was that the US turned away so many European Jewish people trying to escape the pre-war situation before everything blew up? Because of racial ideas propped up by the science of intelligence testing. Ever wondered why the UK decided to pass sentence on the fates of generations of children at the age of eleven by deciding which ones would possibly make something of their lives? Because of the theory underpinning intelligence testing. Nowadays I think it’s fair to say that we don’t associate IQ tests with human misery, but you’d be surprised.

You might also be surprised at how the very first proto-IQ tests began – as a tool designed for one-to-one testing to pick out children in a school class who needed extra help.

A lot of the book is an investigation into bad science, bolstered with generous amounts of quotes to back up what can feel like quite personal accusations levelled at scientists of the past (no one likes to be accused of racism, after all), and Gould is clear about the difference between passively accepting the racist beliefs of the time and actively making the effort to entrench racism institutionally, especially in one of the bonus essays at the back of the book.

Another thing he’s particularly interested in is personal bias (or is this the same thing?), especially unconscious bias, and he gives a couple of really interesting examples of this, both by scientists with no idea of their own biases and others who tried to fight their own biases. In the 1996 edition we even get a footnote correcting a mistake in the original 1981 edition which was caused by Gould’s own biases allowing him to accept a smudged number in a source to be the patently impossible interpretation of the number because it reinforced what he expected to find. Gould’s openness about things like this make him a very likeable author, as do, frankly, his views on race. You know, while we’re being open about our biases and all.

He puts a lot of feelings about the infamous The Bell Curve into succinct, eloquent words. Though the writers claim that the racial aspect of their book doesn’t matter and isn’t important, Gould is quite cutting about the fact that they still knowingly set it all down on paper and released it into a world where race is a hugely political topic. He’s even more cutting about the science behind their book.

There’s plenty of dark humour and frustration, in the ridiculously US-centric questions on some intelligence tests which condemned hapless immigrants to unkind labelling (and set the stage for some truly disastrous policy decisions) and in the absurdity of once-commonly-held beliefs (both racial and classist, because how else could poor people be poor but by their deserving it?) , but in the context of the whole book it really does make you wonder what people will laugh about that we believe now. It encourages a general scepticism and critical thinking.

So yeah, conclusion – this was a really impressive, rewarding book and a persuasive argument. Gould points out that these particular ideas of heritable, immutable, rankable intelligence tend to come in cycles, at times when governments swing towards cutting aid to the most vulnerable members of society. What with everything going on in the world right now, and Theresa May* literally wanting to bring back grammar schools (based on bad science! Based on absolute nonsense! Oh my goodness!) I feel like although this book was recommended to me at the end of 2015 I’ve picked a good time to read it.

And if you worry that I’ve nailed my colours to a single expert mast, don’t! Spuggy came home with a copy of Intelligence: All That Matters by Stuart Ritchie, and it’s gone straight on the list. Hopefully I’ll take less than two and a half years to get to it.


*Does anyone know how the DUP feel about grammar schools?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *