Thursday 24 July 2014

We need to talk about intelligence


Prof. Dr. Stefan Schweinsteiger’s essay on the catastrophic demise of German higher education has quickly drawn an appreciative audience of 700 readers and prompted several emails which have been sent to me directly. Here is a conversation between Schweinsteiger and Messi, a university student.


I am starting to believe that it is urgent that we spend time thinking how to deal with individual differences rather than just resisting the conclusion that they exist at all. It upsets me very much that German education is so adamantly against testing. Putting our heads in the sand gives us all a "good conscience" of the condescending sort, but makes the real underlying problem worse. My environment has always made me believe that it's all nurture and that even thinking about genetics is a very
slippery slope. My personal interest in this debate is completely independent of why people are more or less intelligent. I just want individual students' actual performance to be recorded (by real diagnostic exams, for instance) and correlated with their grade, degree, and resulting intellectual standing. And not just gender, or race, "migratory background" as they call it Germany. So my beef with the German education policy is that there is no form of quality control, not for the student, and not for the universities.


Differences in personality and cognitive ability will cause difficulties even if they are not genetic in origin. Imagine a virus that has infected everyone, but due to chance affects some more than others, and has the effect of lowering IQ to varying degrees. Imagine that we have absolutely no hope of curing the virus by modern medical methods, and that it seems extremely unlikely that a cure would ever by found.
This situation would in fact come close to resembling the present state of the affairs. A key difference, of course, is that my virus is random in its effects, so racial & class differences in intelligence would not exist, but that apart from that my scenario would produce the same normal distribution of ability that we see today. You would still face the same problems produced by cognitive inequality that we do. In the real world these are unfortunately compounded by ethnocentrism & group differences in personality, as if the problems of cognitive inequality were not severe enough.

As you rightly say, accurate individual testing to vital to ensuring genuine meritocracy. There still are always going to probably be some scenarios in civic life where ethnic group profiling is regrettably necessary (think airport security screening procedures), but within the spheres of education and employment, we have the power to eliminate those scenarios altogether. Discrimination may take other forms than racial - we all have a tendency to conflate extraversion with intelligence. Arthur Jensen tells the story of asking a teacher in a class to pick out the brightest and dullest children for him to test. The “brightest” one, a boy, was extremely confident, extraverted, and entertaining, attacking all the test questions with relish. The “dullest”, a girl, was shy, quiet, retiring, and gave all her answers very slowly and hesitantly, even to the straightforward questions. But she scored 116, whereas the boy only scored 105.

Individual & group differences in intelligence also should make us think twice about some of our social policies. The effect of the European Union’s open borders policy is to free the doors for the middle to upper-middle of the Eastern European ability distributions to move here (immigrants tending to be of higher IQs than the mean of their nation of origin). Testing shows that for most European nations (such as Poland), the mean IQ is effectively identical to that of the UK. Thanks to the vagaries of history (Poland, and much of Eastern Europe, having been screwed over so extensively by first German fascism and then Russian communism), UK plc has a chance to replace the lower-ability quartile of its native workforce with higher-ability immigrants (who’s working in all of London’s coffee shops?) Since IQ is correlated with job performance, even for relatively unskilled labour, business cannot fail to benefit. America seems to be doing something similar along racial lines; mass immigration of higher-IQ Hispanics to replace blacks. This is undeniably good for business and for economic growth, but the wider social costs remain as yet unknown. The signs are not promising. I love having my coffee served in the morning by sparkly, sexy young Italian or Spanish ladies fleeing endemic corruption, rigid labour markets, and sky-high youth unemployment at home.  Immigration generally comes with a lot of benefits for white, well-connected, smart people. But for society as a whole?

The usual response of our pro-immigration elites is that education will solve all our problems and allow all to participate in the service economies of the 21st century on an equal footing (if you’ve ever read The Economist, in particular, you’ll have seen this line trotted out a lot). It’s clearly delusional. Jobs, no less than items in a test battery, have a g-loading (if you want to read more on this, Linda Gottfredson wrote many brilliant and clearly written papers, most of them freely available here: If you don’t have the required cognitive competence for a job, you simply won’t be able to do it well, or even at all. The powers of education to instil this competence in people have been wildly overstated (as really should be known by now, particularly in America, where they have decades of evidence from Head Start). Our elites would do well to learn from Edward Gibbon, who memorably wrote: "the power of instruction is seldom of much efficacy, except in those happy dispositions where it is almost superfluous". A significant part of the solution involves educating the political and business castes (as well the general public) who are painfully blind to a large number of ill-known but crucial facts. To date, the differential psychology community has failed to have much influence in crucial spheres. It's time to fix this, both through engagement with today's elites and through the education of the leaders of tomorrow.

Join the conversation.


  1. I understand Dr. S's frustration! I encourage Dr. M to expand his superb comments into book form.

    it is insidious - in the US our do-gooder gov't bases much of its domestic agenda on the false belief "education will solve" it - willfully ignorant of the fact that only smarter people will benefit from teaching (have safe sex kids! stay in school! don't do drugs! etc.) no matter how much of our tax $ is spent.

    school doesn't make people smarter!

    beautiful: "The powers of education to instill this competence in people have been wildly overstated"

    it's in our popular culture: if we show advertisements in which everyone sitting together happily on the couch is a different race, it will happen in reality! ...sad.

    1. i forgot to add "& everyone on the couch is a nuclear scientist."

  2. Professor Thompson,

    I was thinking about my own schooling (11+, Grammar - HBS, you might know it) and my children's' (SATS, Comp.), and comparing the two, I would say that my school building was majestic, the teachers were characterful and inspiring, the curricula were logical and interesting, and the labs were a wonderland of ghoulish jars and whacky contraptions. The Comp. on the other hand, had shabby, inadequate buildings, the teachers were well-meaning but ordinary, the curricula seemed patchy and illogical, and the 'labs' were like an advert for Flash.

    Plus, SATS at 4, 7, 11, 14, or whenever it was, felt like a complete waste of everyone's time. Testing at 16 and 18 seems about right to me. Plus, having done some post-16 teaching, I imagine that most teachers don't need IQ tests to figure out which pupils have 'got it' and which are struggling.

    So, assuming you'd be looking for public funds to roll out an IQ testing policy, what would you say to persuade someone like me that my taxes should go on more testing rather than on buildings and material resources, a more logical curriculum and more freedom for teachers to teach in their own style?

  3. Thanks for your observations. I think it would be good to test intelligence at school entry at 5 (Vocabulary scale) and at 11 (with a full scale group test). That would provide benchmark measures with which to measure the "value added" of the education system. Such test would be very cheap. As to scholastic testing, worth testing reading at 7 and 9 years of age, and general progress at 11 and 16. None of this need be expensive. However, it would allow the assessment of not only the children but also of the teachers and the schools. I don't think much money needs to be spent on building, nor particularly on materials, but more needs to be spent on very good, characterful and inspiring teachers.

  4. Interesting to 'hear' your expert opinion. Measuring 'value added' of the education system sounds like a good idea. Interesting that you mention 11 as I had wondered if the public school use of 13 might be preferable but clearly not.

    As for buildings and resources, I know about heritability but I can't get my head round the idea that these are not either motivational or contributory to quality of life.

    What is your opinion of 'cross-cutting themes'? I found myself teaching ultra-filtration to students who didn't know where their kidney was, and meiosis to students who didn't understand protein synthesis. The permanent staff told me that 'It all comes together when they revise for their A Level'. Am I just dull as dishwater thinking that it's a good idea to start at the beginning?

  5. Measuring at 11 or 13 is fine. Predictive power of intelligence assessments rises from 7 onwards, but by 11 one is getting about half of the variance. Buildings and settings can motivate, but not essential. Intelligent kids are easier to motivate anyway. You are right that one should start at the beginning, and that basic principles help considerably. Personally, I would leave cross cutting themes until later.

  6. Thanks. I heard about this research prog on TV, apparently 'true' neuroscientists are not happy with the 1.2 bill spend, the comment was - 'we still won't understand how the brain works and we'll have robots that we don't understand either' - it's way above my mental capacities but maybe of interest if you haven't already heard of it / are involved in it.