Ableist Word Profile: Intelligence

Welcome to Ableist Word Profile, a (probably intermittent) series in which staffers will profile various ableist words, talk about how they are used, and talk about how to stop using them. Ableism is not feminism, so it’s important to talk about how to eradicate ableist language from our vocabularies. This post is marked 101, which means that the comments section is open to 101 questions and discussion. Please note that this post contains ableist language used for the purpose of discussion and criticism; you can get an idea from the title of the kind of ableist language which is going to be included in the discussion, and if that type of language is upsetting or triggering for you, you may want to skip this post.

Wait! you may be saying to yourselves. Kaninchen Zero, what the hell is ‘intelligence’ doing in the Ableist Word Profile series? Intelligence isn’t a disability!

Okay, so maybe you’re not saying that. But I’m serious. I hate this word. Hate the concept. With a hatred that is a pure and burning flame. True, part of this is because I get told all the time that I’m like wicked smart. When it’s some of the more toxic people in my family saying it, there’s more to it: You’re so intelligent so why are you poor? Other people use it as an opportunity to put themselves down: You’re so smart; I’m not; I could never do the things you do.

Does intelligence exist? At all?

Maybe it doesn’t.

There are tests that measure… something. They’re called Intelligence Quotient tests. The idea is that these tests actually measure some fundamental, real quality of human cognition — the people who believe in IQ believe that there’s a single quality that informs cognition as a whole and that people who have higher IQs have more of this and think better and perform better generally while people who have lower IQs have less of this quality and perform more poorly. Sorry; it’s a muddle of a definition, I know. Partly it’s a conceptual and linguistic problem — some things are not well defined and these things tend to be the things we consider to be fundamental. It’s much easier to define smaller things at the edges; it’s easy to define a fingernail. It’s harder to point to where blood stops flowing away from the heart and starts flowing back towards it.

The man who developed the first intelligence tests, Alfred Binet, wasn’t actually trying to measure intelligence. He’d done some work in neurology and psychology and education, and in 1899 he was asked to become a member of the Free Society for the Psychological Study of the Child. Primary education in France had become mandatory, so a lot of work on educational psychology was being done due to the large demand and the large available sample population. Binet, and others, were assigned to the Commission for the Retarded. (Again, please accept my apologies; I wouldn’t use the word if it were mine.)

The problem he was trying to solve was how to identify — consistently, without having to rely on the judgment of people who could be swayed by all sorts of personal biases (as we all are, including me) — those children who needed extra help. Maybe they had developmental disorders, maybe they had learning impairments along the lines of ADD/ADHD, dyscalculias, dyslexias, maybe malnutrition, injury, or childhood disease had caused neurological damage or limited development. The specific etiology wasn’t the point; the point was to be able to know who these children were and get them assistance. Which may be ascribing too-noble motives to him, but he doesn’t do so great later.

This is key here: When Binet and his colleague Theodore Simon were designing the test, Binet said it didn’t really matter what the questions were, just so there were plenty of them. They did try to put together sets of questions or tasks of different difficulties, but test design wasn’t as developed a hundred-some years ago as it is now. To Binet’s credit, he knew his test was flawed, that both ‘intelligence’ and ‘retardation’ were subjective concepts and given to wide variation, that cognitive development was not locked with chronological age, and that environmental factors — some of which could, given political will and funding, be changed — played a very large role in whatever the hell it was he was testing for. So far, so good.

Problem was, he still called it an intelligence test. People took him at his word, including one Lewis Terman, a professor of educational psychology at Stanford University.

Terman read the word ‘intelligence’ and found an opportunity: not to identify children who might not perform as well as others without extra help so they could get that help but to rank children, adults, everyone by intelligence. Innate, singular, congenital, immalleable. In 1916, he published the Stanford Revision of the Binet-Simon Scale, and intelligence testing in the United States was born.

Y’all know what’s coming, right? A ghastly mess of privilege piled on top of privilege, historical oppressions and inequalities used to justify further inequality, entire populations written off as defective and unfit? Yeah. And this is where Alfred Binet messed up, because he didn’t protest much about Terman’s misuse of his work. He could have at least gotten his name clear of it, even if he couldn’t have talked a bunch of really privileged American adademics out of abusing their privilege when the next big thing in intelligence testing happened.

Even as awful as the original Stanford-Binet test was, it might not have come to much except on 4 April, 1917 the United States declared war on Germany, entering what would eventually become known as the First World War. By the end of the war in November 1918, the Army grew from its pre-war size of about 200,000 soldiers (all men) to about 3,700,000. More than 2,700,000 men were drafted through the Selective Service. They all had to be processed as physically fit to serve; the Army knew how to do that. But what tasks were they going to be assigned? An army is a large and complicated endeavor, especially a modern army, equipped with the most advanced fighting machinery available. They had to know that the soldiers assigned to (say) tank tread maintenance were mentally capable of completing the tasks assigned.

Enter Lewis Terman and Robert Yerkes, head of the American Psychological Association, armed with their revised intelligence quotient test, simplified further into the Army Alpha test for recruits identified (by the Army) as literate and the Army Beta test, administered orally for recruits identified as illiterate.

For a thorough treatment of just how incredibly awful and othering and appalling this turned out, Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man is highly recommended. I’ll skim over some lowlights.

We may never know how many recruits were misidentified as literate and forced to take the Alpha exam. Those who did poorly were supposed to then take the Beta exam which — supposedly — measured aptitude without requiring literacy in English, but test administration was not consistent across recruiting centers.

Measuring cultural and class assimilation: One task on the Beta exam showed a man in an awkward position, on one foot with a hand extended, with objects at the end of a path. The recruit was told to fill in the missing part of the picture. In the world Terman and Yerkes lived in, this was universal knowledge; the man was bowling, the path was a bowling lane, the objects at the far end were pins. It’s not universal everywhere. Another question related to yachting.

Fun Fact: One finding that came out of the aggregate data was that ringworm infection (it’s not a worm, it’s a fungal infection that presents as roughly circular lesions on the skin) correlated to a thirty point drop in IQ. The vector for ringworm is walking on spore-infested ground with bare feet. The conclusion? Stupid people get a whole lot of ringworm. Maybe because they don’t buy shoes?

Three hundred seventy thousand black men served in the first World War. Of those, one thousand four hundred were promoted to the rank of non-commissioned officer. Most black men were prohibited from serving in combat units and were assigned to Services of Supply units. Science had shown they were not smart enough to be issued weapons; they were regarded as nothing more than unskilled labor, at least officially. About forty thousand black soldiers acquired weapons and fought anyway; some seven hundred thousand black men registered for the draft on the first day. They had come to fight. (In further racism: It took seventy years for the Army and Congress to award the first Medals of Honor (the highest decoration awarded for military service in the U.S.) to black soldiers from that war. Which doesn’t have anything to do with intelligence, but it was in the source I was consulting and I wanted to share.)

Since then, intelligence testing hasn’t gotten a lot better. The tests have gotten less culturally biased and less dependent on language skills. But they depend ultimately on the same assumptions: Intelligence is something that can be measured and quantified. These tests accurately measure that something. People should be sorted according to how much or how little of it they have. People who write books like The Bell Curve would have you believe that we can test groups of people — their favorite way to group and rank people is by race, so they look at race. They do all kinds of nifty statistical analysis that I could probably dissect better if I’d bothered to take more than a couple classes in statistics and error analysis.

But I don’t really have to because their argument — that the midpoint of the distribution curves for IQ test results for white people is higher than the midpoint of the distribution curves for IQ test results for black people so white people are smarter and better — is blatantly racist bullshit (even if they hadn’t decided before they began how things were going to work out). As with everything else human, between-individual variation swamps the hell out of among-group variation. They have to believe that intelligence is real IQ tests measure it blah whatever. And they have to argue that whatever the effects might be of three hundred years of slavery followed by a century and more of apartheid, institutional racism, the systematic destruction of black communities and families, the theft of black land and black wealth, the nullification of black political power, the impoverishment of the American public school system after Brown v. Board of Education, and straight-up just telling black people forever that they are stupid and less than human, they don’t explain this small difference. This difference that is congenital and cannot be changed and means white people are more intelligent than black people on average — so it follows that any given white person is smarter than any given black person, right?

Yes, I’m angry. (I’m also white, for the record. I’m just very much an anti-racism activist.)

So if IQ testing doesn’t measure intelligence, what does it measure? Probably the ability to do well on IQ tests. And other standardized tests. Which is a skill that can be learned, as PSAT/SAT prep courses all over the country show. And if it can be learned, that calls into question its innateness and immobility — qualities intelligence is claimed to have by its proponents.

I’m going to get personal now, and go back to a point made at the beginning, with people telling me I’m really smart.

I don’t know. Maybe. What I do know is that whatever I am, it does not mean that anybody else is stupid. Or worth less. What I have is a brain that does some interesting tricks, like the aforementioned standardized tests and some classes (though the wrong teacher or a group of students making me miserable could get me to fail a class, as could untreated depression). I understand mathematics and logical systems fairly intuitively. I’ve got pretty good recall of memory. I don’t get lost (though that’s also an anxiety/fear issue — I worry about getting lost so I pay attention to where I’m going) much and can always get home.

There are things I’m bad at: social interaction is not at all intuitive for me. Sometimes I can’t stand being touched, even by the woman I’ve lived with for ten years. Non-textual information — facial expression and body language — doesn’t get processed quickly and is extremely distracting. I have a terrible time evaluating my own motives, never mind other people’s. I’ve practiced a lot and I can look people in the eye and shake hands and talk and there are people who don’t know I’m shy, never mind socially dysfunctional. But it is pretense. And these are the skills needed to ‘sell one’s self.’ I’ve never once gotten a regular non-temp job by applying and interviewing for it. Every job I’ve had — and I’ve had some that lasted a while — I’ve gotten by being a temp first and them keeping me when they found out I could do stuff. None of them pay enough to get me out of being poor.

Which answers one of the questions from way up above.

Getting to another one — why is intelligence in the Ableist Word Profile series? Because we can’t talk about intelligence without talking about stupidity, and stupidity is all tangled up in ableism. If some people are intelligent, some people are stupid. It just falls out that way when you start sorting people on a hierarchy of value. Some are capable of more — so we allocate more resources (money, education, employment, health care) to them — and others are capable of less, so they get less. Less money, less education, worse housing, more abuse. It doesn’t really work out that way though does it? People with ambition and skill and good ideas fail all the time for lack of connections, lack of familial wealth, having brown skin or believing in the wrong god or having been born on the wrong side of a river. (Occasionally someone gets really, really lucky and breaks through all that, lending a hint of truth to the lies that hard work and following the rules will be rewarding in the end.) People with connections and familial wealth and the right kinds of privilege succeed wildly despite a lifetime of bad decisions and appalling behavior.

And here’s where we really get into why intelligence is an ableist concept: Stupid is a perception, usually based on the perceived ability to communicate. A person with communication impairments is going to be perceived as stupid. The same word means ‘stupid’ and ‘unable to speak’ for a reason. (It’s one I’m trying to excise from my vocabulary. It’s a process.) Someone with cerebral palsy who requires that the rest of us slow down and wait for xer to communicate at xer speed is going to be perceived as unintelligent. Someone who can’t speak under stress (I stammer and eventually become dysphasic on bad days) is going to be perceived as unintelligent at those times. Deaf people are perceived as unintelligent. None of these conditions have a damn thing to do with cognition and everything to do with communication.

Except we don’t have to do any of this the way we’re doing it. We can talk about abilities like spatial reasoning, social adeptitude, and mathematical skills and needs like a school environment that accommodates one child’s ADHD variation, another child’s mathematical intuition and xer need for challenging material presented at xer pace. We can talk about good decisions and bad decisions, either of which can turn out well or badly. We can accommodate variations in cognitive ability — and consider it ability and not get stuck on what a person can’t do. We can learn (sometimes painfully for those of us privileged with the ability to communicate more or less as the majority of people do, but the examination of privilege is never guaranteed painless) to accommodate the needs of those who communicate differently. It’s not their responsibility to communicate in ways that don’t make us have to work.

It does mean we would have to jettison the hierarchy of intelligence. Nobody gets to be geniuses, nobody has to be idiots. We’d stop marking whole people as intelligent or stupid. On the plus side? People could stop thinking of themselves as stupid. Wouldn’t that be revolutionary?

And for fuck’s sake there wouldn’t be any cognitive tests anyone would have to pass to be considered human.

Credit Where It’s Due Department: Sources for this include The Wiki (of course), Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man (revised edition), an outstanding chronology of African-American military service found at, and my wife, who studied education and psychology and made it her career for a long time. She’s been reading my fiction – which falls outside her preferred genres – for a long time. I’m pleased to be writing something that falls within her expertise and grateful for her assistance


  1. I really enjoyed this – I hadn’t known a lot of the historical background. Fascinating stuff.

  2. I got teary at the mention of dyscalculia, for real. I’m dyscalculexic and it’s an LD so few people know about–despite being ‘gifted’ and ‘intelligent’ I was considered ‘stupid’ for a lot of years by a lot of people just because it didn’t occur to anyone that I might have an LD. So, well–thanks for including it, I guess.

    More info on IQ tests: according to my psych textbook, IQ tests aren’t even meant to be used as a marker of intelligence now, they’re meant to show where children stand in comparison to others of their age group, presumably to identify children who need help (but you already covered how well THAT works).

    And you know, for an ‘intelligent’ person, I never actually made the connection between ‘dumb’ meaning stupid and ‘dumb’ meaning mute, even though I’ve used it in both contexts. Thank you for that, I’ll try to remove it from my vocabulary now.

  3. I worked for a few summers at a program for gifted kids. Each summer would start with a training session for the staff, at least one session of which would be something like, “What is giftedness?” One thing I remember from one of those was about Terman. In the twenties or so, he wanted to put together a study of gifted kids. First, of course, he had to gather a group of gifted kids to study. First thing he did was send out a notice to all the teachers in the city asking them to identify the kids who might be gifted. (HUGE potential for bias there.) Then he gave all those kids an IQ test, and the ones who scored above a certain level got put into his study. He kept track of those kids for years, collecting all kinds of data on them. When they became adults, a whole lot of them became university professors. Some doctors, some lawyers. Terman complained in a paper that way too many of the girls got married and stayed home with the kids. Of the kids that he tested but who didn’t make the cut, there were two Nobel Prize winners. (And any attempt to really look at what happened to the Terman kids as adults is useless, because Terman did things like write them letters of recommendation or introduce them to colleagues who could help their careers.)

  4. Intelligence is so fraught for me, because I’ve worked with Gifted kids, and been one myself, and now I work at a school where most of the kids are poor, ethnic minorities, and have learning disabilities. My hackles usually go up when people talk about how useless intelligence testing is, but I see what you’re getting at here. They’re a diagnostic tool, they indicate areas of functioning and ability, but they shouldn’t have moral weight. Firsthand experience says that Gifted kids frequently don’t work nearly as hard as less-intelligent kids, but they get better results because of the privilege of Giftedness. However, there is so much evidence that having an astronomic IQ isn’t an indicator of happiness, success, or anything but… having an astronomic IQ, which has its own benefits and challenges. It doesn’t affect essential personhood, or make that person fundamentally better or worse than other people. It’s the same for people with low and average IQs.

    I guess I just wish we could keep the descriptive elements of intelligence testing (because it is useful to understand this aspect of a person’s functioning) without separating the world into “good” kids and “bad” kids, with some kids set up for failure before they even start.
    .-= Lis´s last blog ..God, I can’t even. =-.

  5. Wow, Kaninchen Zero, you really knocked this one out of the park!

    (I’ve also read The Mismeasure of Man and thought it was really interesting. Your explanation of some of the trickier concepts in it — like g, the nebulous factor that IQ tests are actually measuring — is quite good. I really admire writing that is very simple while still being accurate).

    I remember a classroom poster from my childhood — in the Gifted room, of all places (I was Gifted in one of the two states I lived in as a child, and Special Ed in the other) — that had a list of funny things IQ might stand for. The one I liked most was “Inane Questions,” which certainly applies to some of the ones you cite from the Army Beta test!
    .-= Lindsay´s last blog ..Link Roundup, Feminism-and-Disability Edition =-.

  6. Wow. I frackin love this post. I have to come back later to drop you a link to something relevant WRT education and gifted and talented programs in predominantly black or otherwise PoC neighborhoods, but I am having trouble sorting through the blog where I know it is buried…

    RE: Military testing (I am totally going to read that book, BTW). It hasn’t gotten much better. The ASVAB is the precursory marker for the array of jobs by which a potential recruit is allowed to choose. Each branch of service has bench marks you much reach on the ASVAB before you can be considered for certain jobs. It doesn’t mean that a low score won’t let you in, but a good number of what Bush believed to be expendable bodies are people who scored the lowest. The value of intelligence, sometimes, quite literally equals how valuable your body and life are. (ETA: I have my suspicions this is where the term “grunt” (someone who carries a weapon and that is all) come into play)

    I am extremely privileged in military terms (as far as military privilege goes), in that I was considered what The Guy and I jokingly call the Super Geniuses of the Super Geniuses of the military. The military is comprised of less than 1% of the US population, and less than the top 3% of scores on the ASVAB are even considered to go on to the next battery of testing, and of those who pass that test, a third fail out of our “A” school. I went to a very elite military training school and had a very cushy job comparatively speaking based on my ability to do well on one test on one single day (I do not normally perform well on regular tests, I am considered a poor test taker because I get so nervous, but being privileged enough to go to college long enough to drop out gave me the standardized test skills to blast it out of the water). That one moment in time on one day literally determined whether I would be qualified to go on to the best school in the world, or to being the person tied to an anchor scraping barnacles (seriously, find an Undesignated Seaman, and ask hir about hir life). For the other branches who get a lot closer to shit in a war, it means the difference between the same school and being considered qualified enough to know which way the claymore points. The battery tests literally determine how valuable the military thinks you are, and how much Congress thinks your life is worth, no matter how well your brain can do certain things.

    Unless you are gay. Then you are shit. /digress

  7. This is an awesome post.

    I have always been very uncomfortable about the whole IQ and academic ability being seen as a measure of, essentially, everything you are good at ever, precisely because I am very good at IQ tests and am extremely good at academic things. This has netted me two things: one, I got a lot of the “how can you be so stupid when you’re so intelligent?” thing. Two, in university academic ability can hide a lot, so my history means people tend to disbelieve what I say about how much difficulty I have. “Oh, but you got a First, so clearly you were doing fine!” No, I wasn’t doing fine. The fact that I managed to get top marks on my exams – despite usually having not managed to go to the last third of the course, not managing to study properly before the exam, not having slept or eaten because I wasn’t even managing that – shows how good my brain is at learning, understanding and reproducing academic (or more precisely *mathematical*) information, nothing else. And that bit is all well and good for university but will not keep me from being fired when my employer learns that, you know, I am usually at least an hour late in the mornings and often can’t make it in at all? But because “intelligence” is so so important I can’t actually *say* that because it would be considered boasting. False modesty is the only appropriate thing – no, of course I’m not that good at academics! Which in my case leads directly to “clearly it must not have been as bad as I remember because otherwise I wouldn’t have got the marks I did; I must be exaggerating my difficulties”.


    Someone who can’t speak under stress (I stammer and eventually become dysphasic on bad days) is going to be perceived as unintelligent at those times.

    Adding to this list, some people have to contend with dysfluent speech all of the time, which also gets perceived as lack of intelligence (along with a host of other things like nervousness, low self-confidence, cowardice, etc.) I stutter (the developmental speech disorder, that is) and the misconceptions people have about it are… interesting.
    .-= Kaz´s last blog such a German, le sigh =-.

  8. I am glad you wrote this and glad that it is getting so much good feedback. I think you raise some wonderful points, and I found myself nodding through most of this. I’ve been through IQ testing myself and was appalled even at the age of 12 that the test was so blatantly broken. I had problems with it because so many of the questions that they wanted one right answer to had more than one right answer, or had no right answer at all. I didn’t even understand what they wanted from me at several points, like with the pictures I had to put in order to “make a story.” They made a story to me no matter how I put them together, yet they wanted me to do it the one “right” way. I still don’t understand what that was supposed to measure, except my ability to think like everyone else, which was pretty much all that seemed expected of me in school. I also had problems with it because it included things that relied on cultural knowledge, some of which I did not have. And I am disgusted by the way that some forms of intelligence are valued and nurtured above others in our schools and indeed, in our culture as a whole. Also disgusted by how I, who probably have dyscalulia, and my mother, who was dyslexic, were treated in the system. (Our schools in general disgust me, actually.)

    Nevertheless, this piece raises some points that make me really, really uncomfortable, and there are implications to what you say here that I just am not sure I understand or know how to deal with, or agree with at all.

    I am really confused right now.

  9. This is a terrific post and I am sending it promptly to my father, who used to really believe in IQ tests and innate intelligence (his ideas may have changed somewhat, after a study that showed IQ results rising steadily with each generation). As a young child, I KNEW that there was something wrong with this idea – that these tests HAD to be cultural and socially biased. (And who gets the power to decide what intelligence is anyway?) But I didn’t have the words to explain myself. Thanks for being so articulate.

  10. I’ve been looking forward to this post since I knew it was going up, and it’s every bit as awesome as I thought it was going to be.

    So much of our society is based on the valuation of “intelligence,” but there are no objective measures for intelligence. It’s interesting to me that many ableist words are rooted in intellectual elitism and the idea that people who are not “intelligent” in the opinion of the speaker are somehow less than. And that many people persist in this mode of thinking even when they start to be more aware of social justice issues.

    I, too, am one of those people who was singled out as “gifted and talented” and I think it was one of the worst things that ever happened to me. The incredibly high pressure, the expectations, the refusal to acknowledge that actually I was not neurotypical and that some things came easy and some things came really hard not because I was brilliant and lazy, but because my brain didn’t work like everyone else’s. And part and parcel with being considered “gifted” came the assurance that I was better than the other children because I was “so smart,” the suggestions that I could ignore and marginalize everyone who was not as “smart” as me…

    Uh, I guess I have a lot of baggage around this word!

  11. Holy crap we have the best commenters in the world! I’m just waking up and y’all have taken off with this already. Thank you, all of you.

    calixti: You’re welcome. It was a lightbulb moment for me when I encountered the concept of dyscalculias. “Of course some people have problems with that! Numerate systems are as arbitrary as literary systems.” So I try to be inclusive when discussing learning impairments and mention it (and challenge the all-too-many people who seem to believe dyscalculias and other learning impairments are nothing more than attempts to legitimize malingering).

    There are still people who support the idea of a single, measurable, immalleable intelligence (the g Lindsay correctly identified) and unfortunately they’ve got a lot more support than some other purveyors of bullshit science done to ‘prove’ an a priori bigoted theory. I don’t know if it’s learned behavior[1] or not but most humans have a tendency towards hierarchy and this provides a nice one because while it may be wrong to discriminate based on skin color (they say) it’s not wrong to discriminate based on intelligence (quotient) because that maps to ability, right? That it just happens that most brown are stupider than white people is an unfortunate coincidence. But it’s totally not racist ’cause look! We find that Asians[2] are a titch smarter than white people! And maybe we should keep their genes out of our end of the pool and I really need to stop thinking like a racist before I damage something.

    Ruchama: Wow, I hadn’t heard that. But it does totally fit with what else I know of Terman. Way to contaminate your data, jerk. I actually don’t know much about gifted programs, not ever having been in one. I think it probably was because the only schools I went to for more than a year were private schools that didn’t have gifted programs. I didn’t last long at public schools.

    Lis: Certainly there’s a need to identify childrens’ assets and deficits so that they can be given an education that helps them thrive in the way they learn best. What we have now in most USian schools is a system that tests for those children who will do best in the classroom structure we’ve got and discards the rest (who often tend to get the message they’re not wanted and leave). I personally think intelligence testing is so flawed and its history so ugly that the name can’t be salvaged even if the schools and the tests became what I’d like them to be.

    Lindsay: Funny how that gifted/impaired thing works, isn’t it? So much of the latter seems to be based on some teachers’ inability or lack of desire to deal with ‘difficult’ children.

    OuyangDan: Thank you, that would be great! And I’d wondered if the service had gotten better about it. I knew my brother had done some testing when he enlisted but I wasn’t sure if that was standard or because he was specifically interested in nuke school.[3]

    Kaz: I know. It’s incredibly frustrating. Because there’s so much focus on IQ to mean “Your brain works really well!” scoring high on it and other standardized tests should mean we do everything well. And we so don’t.

    Naamah: Confusion and discomfort are entirely valid. This was meant to challenge some deeply fundamental[4] assumptions. The implications of it are supposed to be revolutionary and very wide-reaching. It’s perfectly okay to feel the way you do. It’s okay to disagree with me and to argue another position if that’s where you are on this subject.

    Maggie: You’re welcome. I’m glad you found it valuable.

    Meloukhia: Oh yeah. This comes up a lot in progressive circles, the idea that we’re smarter than the other team, or that people that vote Republican are voting against their interests. They aren’t — they are voting for the interests that are important to them. They just don’t consider the same things we do to be the most important when it comes time to vote.

    [1] This is unscientific conjecture: I lean towards learned behavior on this. For one thing, we’re starting to find that learned behaviors play a much larger role in other animals’ lives than previous researchers had thought — human exceptionalist bias at work there; they couldn’t shake the idea that animals with very small brains had the ability to learn anything beyond a few tricks, so they attributed complex behaviors to innate programming. This has turned out to be wrong in many cases.[5] For another, we can unlearn to value hierarchy. And some people with autism spectrum disorders seem to have a lot of trouble with the concepts of hierarchy period. Even when it’s as seemingly simple as picking a favorite food or movie, it requires building a hierarchy and it is not comfortable.

    [2] They say ‘Asians’ as though that was some kind of meaningful label. They probably would say Orientals but they’re aware enough that they shouldn’t in polite company. They mean mostly Japan, South Korea, urban China, Singapore, Taiwan. They don’t mean pretty much everyone else. There’s a pattern to that (and a racist belief behind it), which we’ll leave as an exercise for the readers.

    [3] For non-Navy types, this means nuclear power generation. Not ordnance. Just so you know.

    [4] Redundant? Eh. It’s emphasis.

    [5] Not exactly related except that it’s also wrong: Remember being told that planarian flatworms could be trained to run a maze, be ground up and fed to other planarians and the second generation would be able to do it faster? Yeah, not so much. Turns out the second batch were following mucous trails the first batch had left; placed in an identical but mucous-free maze, similarly-treated planarians performed no better than the control group. Turns out this is not a story about an interesting biochemistry but a story of observer bias and very poor experimental design.

    Oh wait it is related! Not to behavior specifically, but to specific kinds of bad science. Yerman, Terkes, Spearman (another big name in intelligence testing who coined the term g), Herrnstein, and Murray (these last two are co-authors of The Bell Curve) over there with Planarian Guy. We are so very mean, they say, with our intolerance for their science. Weren’t we supposed to be all inclusive and shit?

  12. Great post!

    I hate to be told that I am “very intelligent”, for one, because people generally say it when they fail to understand why I am so unsuccessfull at reaching my goals, and for another because they always react surprised when I tell them that I am not a genius according to IQ. It’s as if they think I’m trying to pass off as something I am not after that. I don’t trust IQs anyway. I suck at some types of question, for example, because I just don’t think in the way you have to think to solve this question. Four animals – which one doesn’t belong? Kind of hard to answer if you don’t think in the same categories other people use.

    Not to mention that my brother and I, according to aptitude tests, fail horribly at maths. We can’t even solve the simplest questions for these tests. Seriously, my brother was explicitly told never to do anything with math by a councellor. It was especially ironic because at the time, he was one of the best in his maths special course and could solve university level problems. I wasn’t bad at maths either, so we evidently approached the problem in ways tests can’t or don’t measure.

  13. Naamah: I didn’t even understand what they wanted from me at several points, like with the pictures I had to put in order to “make a story.” They made a story to me no matter how I put them together, yet they wanted me to do it the one “right” way

    Gahh! That was the part of the IQ test that I did the absolute worst on, for precisely the reason you mention. With a creative and divergent enough mind, they could tell a story in several different orders!

    I was one of those sorts of people who had… seriously uneven scores on the IQ subtests, to put it mildly. (One of my online acquaintances has referred to it as being “min-maxed”, a comparison that I rather like. :)) Yet despite that, the ‘maxes’ outnumbered the ‘mins’ enough that I did end up in the gifted program in elementary school. Even then, I always felt like somewhat of an outlier, precisely because of the uneven intelligence scores. I never could really get into a lot of the projects in elementary school gifted classes, because they were aimed at the sorts of intelligence that I wasn’t so good about– and having a teacher who didn’t really get that didn’t exactly help matters. (I, for one, would’ve loved more word puzzles and logic puzzles rather than team projects or those irritating bead sculptures.)

    I have Issues when it comes to a lot of standardized tests for similar reasons to IQ tests– they often expect One Right Answer when really there’s quite a bit of wiggle room.

    And on the job interview note mentioned in the original post, Bev from Asperger Square 8 did a great video about job skills. It’s even captioned, for those who need that! (Alas, no text transcript for those who can’t play video; I should probably put one together…)

  14. Oh, and on a mathematics note (somewhat related to Rodo’s comment), there’s a bit of an issue there too when it comes to evaluating intelligence. A lot of people seem to treat arithmetic as a prerequisite for higher math… yet some minds, oddly enough, are better suited toward higher math than basic arithmetic. I, and quite a few other people I know online, are absolutely great at understanding the concepts from high-school math courses, but still can’t do elementary-level addition or multiplication in our heads.

    But of course, our educational system doesn’t allow for this sort of pattern… even if you can get a cheap calculator at the dollar store as an accommodation.

  15. Loving this. I have academic and social skills that are highly valorized, so it’s really making me consider my own privilege (esp. in contrast with my partner, who doesn’t have the same skill sets and whose job hurts because of it).
    .-= RMJ´s last blog ..Race-baiting in Virginia’s first post-racial election =-.

  16. I treasure my copy of Mismeasure of Man and re-read it every few years or so.

    This recently came up in a conversation about Pablo Pineda, who is the first person with Down syndrome to graduate from a Spanish university with a regular degree (I think there’s some translation error with the word “regular” – basically, he graduated with a BA in Psychology and a teaching diploma). A couple of my acqaintances speculated that he could be “one of those people” who has high-functioning Down syndrome and therefore “an average IQ”. Next time I’m basically going to point them here to explain what is so problematic about that whole statement.

  17. This post is the BEST THING EVER.

  18. This is a loaded subject for me. I’ve read The Mismeasure of Man. Gould made a lot of good points about how intelligence was used to justify racism etc., but I know I’m not the only one who thinks he threw the baby out with the bathwater. (For all his celebrity, I do not think Gould himself was anything more than smart.)

    As an antidote to Gould, I would suggest Leta Stetter Hollingworth’s Children Above 180 IQ. It’s out of print, but worth taking a look at. (University libraries should have a copy.)

    I read quite a few books on giftedness a few years ago (including the Terman studies), and started a thread on Cerebrals. (I also copied my own posts to my website to preserve my work.)

    Unfortunately, as long as we have assembly-line education (instead of self-directed, Montessori-style), we will continue to need to measure “intelligence”, or at least skill levels, in schools, and we will continue to compare people to each other and issue value judgements, instead of concentrating on maximizing talent in everyone.

    My impression is that everyone who is human is remarkably intelligent when their minds are in gear, because of how adaptive we are as a species. Creative, too. Individual differences don’t change that.
    .-= Anemone´s last blog ..The Sudbury Valley School model, pros and cons =-.

  19. Er, didn’t finish my comment before accidentally posting. Anyway, I was identified gifted rather early on, and looking back on my school experience it’s clear that being labelled gifted causes people to treat you better because you’re gifted, which means you do better. And even teachers who should have known better had this framework where it was a hierarchy: kids with learning disabilities are less intelligent than “normal” kids are less intelligent than gifted kids. (And you couldn’t be both gifted and learning disabled. Because gifted means smart and LD means dumb, am I right?)

    How people—teachers, potential employers, etc.—gauge intelligence has nothing to do with how they think they gauge intelligence (test scores). It’s behaviour (quiet, meek, non-aggressive) and vocabulary and class (well-spoken, dressed right) and race markers and more.

  20. Oh, and on a mathematics note (somewhat related to Rodo’s comment), there’s a bit of an issue there too when it comes to evaluating intelligence. A lot of people seem to treat arithmetic as a prerequisite for higher math… yet some minds, oddly enough, are better suited toward higher math than basic arithmetic. I, and quite a few other people I know online, are absolutely great at understanding the concepts from high-school math courses, but still can’t do elementary-level addition or multiplication in our heads.

    I’m working on my Ph. D. in math. I am horrible at arithmetic, as is just about everybody else in my department. I came very close to failing math in third grade because I just couldn’t remember the multiplication tables. I once asked around, and found that of the 20 or so grad students in the department at the time, three of us had been suspected of having a math disability in elementary school.

  21. Anyway, I was identified gifted rather early on, and looking back on my school experience it’s clear that being labelled gifted causes people to treat you better because you’re gifted, which means you do better.

    I had the opposite experience. The gifted kids were frequently the ones who couldn’t function in a regular classroom, who created problems by not being able to be “normal.” I still remember how much I loved the weekend and summer gifted programs I went to, because it meant that, for once, I could be around other kids who were weird in the same way that I was and an environment that was designed for the way I learned. I’ve heard similar comments from the kids I’ve taught at gifted summer programs — that they’re really surprised that they’re doing well at the program, because they always do so badly at school.

  22. This is a really fascinating topic.
    intelligence tests are not commong here,and standardized tests didn’t use to be either. In school, I always felt like the most valued ability was being able to explain why one thought what one did and to engage in discussions, reacting to arguments raised by others.

    For me, this made for a very productive environment, learning-wise. For many others, it didn’t. And it seems soclear to me that what enabled me to interact that way with my teachers was not some higher levelof inteligence, but a commbination of social factors, such as the fact that I was raised by adults who always valued my opinion and never told me I was to you to ask questions. Everyone in my family always valued discussion on just about any topic, and was always encouraged to follow all of my interests. Knowlege was seen as something very valuable.

    Having been raised that way, I found it easy to interact with teacher without the fear of an authority figure that many of my peers seemed to feel. This made school easy for me when it came to learning, as I have always been the type to learn best from discussions.

    So all those claims about me being exceptionally smart? No. I was just exceptionally suited, due in large part to the way I was raised, to thrive in the environment provided by my school.

    There is one aspect of this article that bothers me. I agree that people officialy value the “inteligent” most, and the “stupid” least. And certainly when it comes to careers that are built on those test-results, this is true. It also definitely true that politicians are always talking about “building an elite2, which I find nauseating. And I would never, ever claimthat being considered “intelligent” is worse than being considered “stupid”. Not ever.

    But,I do think that when it comes to social interactions, being “slightly above average” seems to be the ideal. People are often very suspect of “geniuses” and see them as inherently different. If you look at social discourse “ze is so smart”, accompanied by an eyeroll, is a commong insult. Because the official hirachy places the most intelligen people at the top, people automatically thnk that others who are considered “intelligent” are arrogant and belief themselves to be better, which in turn gives them a reason to look down on those “oh so smart” intelligent people.

    Again, I would never ever say that this is worse that what happens to people who are considered “stupid”. I just remember 13 years of torment throughout my entire time and school, and I remember the feeling of being the permanent outsider. I know how much of my social ineptitude stems from this, how much it is connected to my depression (especially the “you are smart, you should be able to do this without problems”-arguement that has been on loop in my mind for far too long)

    I think that this is also a part of the problem: when we believe that intelligence is measurable, that one test can tell us so much about a persons supposed “worth”, we automaticcaly create a group of “insider” (the ones who are “average”), and outsiders on both sides of that group. And none of the three categoriez makes any sense, which leaves us with a lot of people, seperated from another by artificial barriers that create problems instead of attempting to solve them. If we could get to the point where we value every human being because they are human, not because they had an acceptable result on some test or fill the popular picture of what “intelligence” means, we really would be doing everyone a huge favour.

    (Sorry if this seems like a derailment,I have no desire to turn this into an equivalent of a “what about the menz” discussion. It’s just that this particular topic hits very close to a lot of my personal history)

  23. I’ve been up close and personal with this one. My high school boyfriend took “gifted” classes in elementary school. Then when he joined the private school I attended, they made him re-take algebra with us for non-performance reasons. He spent the entire year complaining about how it was beneath him. A few years later in Algebra 2, I was getting better grades then him at just about every class.

    At some point he seemed to have internalized his “natural intelligence” to the point of relaxing his efforts to succeed. How it affected me is that he resented my success – it made him very insecure, and it would come out in little ways such as not congratulating me for my accomplishments and stealing my good ideas to present as his own right in front of me.

    Now, this may be an atypical response, but I’ve read enough science-based parenting research to believe that it’s not. When people are constantly told that it’s how they’re born, not the choices they make, that makes them smart; they’ll quickly assign the label of “smart” to any choice they make from the get-go, whether or not it actually is.

  24. I was in gifted programs from first through eighth grade. I did well in elementary school…. because I was in elementary school before they started flooding that with homework, too. I’d probably fail it now. It was seventh grade when they started ramping up the homework and my grades started slipping, because I have huge issues with being able to do homework. And then all the teachers and counselors and parents go WHY ARE YOU DOING SO POORLY YOU’RE SO SMART YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO GET BETTER GRADES THAN THIS! And then you get to feel like shit for being completely and utterly incompatible with the american school system! And get Ds in half your classes in eighth grade and end up going to your normal feeder school instead of the smart kid high school that you aced the exam for. And then drop out of high school after flunking sophmore year because of the homework.

    I hate the american school system.

    Sorry for ramble/rant.
    .-= Shiyiya´s last blog ..Letter to a Hawaiian senator =-.

  25. Lauren, your comment is marginal at best and I’m letting it through moderation to respond to you here. Your point that people perceived as being considerably above average intelligence may be treated poorly by other students in school does not at all address the point of the original post, which is the reification of intelligence as an immutable quality and intelligence testing in particular to sort and assign value to people. Stay on point, please.

  26. Lauren’s comment illustrates a known fact: That members of an oppressed class tend to resent members of a privileged class. The issues she identifies are, in fact, just part of the system which prizes intelligence above all else. When you’re living in a system like that and you’re not a member of the privileged group, who can blame you for resenting the elite?

  27. I see Ruchama beat me to it, but I’ll still put on my “maths PhD student” hat and say – school mathematics except, possibly, in late years, has just about *zero* to do with actual mathematics as it is done at university. The majority of school mathematics is arithmetic, and there’s strong emphasis on rote memorisation and calculation – I’d argue this is the exact opposite of what real mathematics is about. I can’t even *remember* the last time I used a number other than -1, 0, 1, 2, e, pi, i or n (so a number!) in one of my non-stats courses. There may be more for people in more applied subjects, but honestly, that’s what calculators and computers are for – they have more important things to do.

    I’d argue that what you need to do actual maths-maths is good logical thinking skills (the type you need for logic puzzles), good understanding of symbolic notation and good abstraction and intuition about abstract objects – and these can be practised, too. Some creativity and curiosity wouldn’t be amiss either, and the willingness to follow on that for its own sake rather than for real life motivations. Arithmetic doesn’t come into it, and I swear in some ways school maths seems as if it is actively designed to repel kids who could become mathematicians. Most people, however, don’t know what higher maths actually entails, and “most people” can include teachers (even maths teachers, in primary school), doctors, and people telling you you will be hopeless at maths.

    …and adding to the anecdotal evidence, in secondary school I kept getting Bs instead of As in my maths exams because I kept making this really elementary mistakes in calculation. My marks increased proportionally to the difficulty of what we were taught because the more difficult it was, the less arithmetic it contained, and exams were marked according to the understanding we demonstrated instead of our ability to follow an algorithm without accidentally making 1 and 1 equal 3 somewhere along the way. A fellow mathmo once asked me to tell him what 7-4 was, and I know of at least one very good maths student who has some form of arithmetic-related disability. This type of thing is very common.

    (BTW, hi Ruchama! If you disagree with any of this please say. I’m an algebraist so I’m coming at this from a very pure point of view; more applied people may have a different view of things.)
    .-= Kaz´s last blog such a German, le sigh =-.

  28. Anemone, why on earth would I want an antidote? I wasn’t citing Gould because he’s the source of my views, I’m citing him because he wrote an accessible book presenting material that supported ideas I’d come to independently. Frankly I don’t care about anyone’s IQ score whether it’s thirty or one hundred ninety-seven. There is nothing worth salvaging from intelligence testing except perhaps for some advances in test design which can be applied to other tests that are called other things. I want to destroy the system.

    For all his celebrity, I do not think Gould himself was anything more than smart.

    This is exactly why. People believe that someone with a higher score on this arbitrarily and partially-applied scale is worth more. Their opinions are more valid. Because of this number. This is appalling and infuriating.

  29. Kaz, Ruchama: I really didn’t want to go to graduate school, but one of the subjects I majored in was mathematics. Because it was pretty and fun (as was chemistry as long as I didn’t have to do it in a lab); I’ve never used any of it since I graduated. For the longest time people thought that knowing how to solve differential equations meant that I could perform feats of arithmetic and I can’t — I use calculators, scratch paper, computers, or count on my fingers when I have to do math that has actual numbers in it.

    Of course it’s been fifteen years and I can’t solve differential equations any more either, but I could once.

  30. I recently saw a hilarious chart about the comparative math skills of math grad students against various other populations, including several species of animals. I wish I could find it again, but I have no idea where I saw it.

  31. Ah, turns out I was misremembering. The chart I was thinking of was from Terri Oda’s presentation on women in computer science, except that it was about CS majors, and had math majors in the expected position.

    Someone needs to do something similar regarding the arithmetic abilities of math majors though. 🙂

  32. What meloukhia said is correct — the poor treatment of children percieved as being significantly more intelligent than average by their peers is often a reaction (not a rational one, but we aren’t rational animals) to those peers’ perception that such children receive preferential treatment from teachers and other authority figures. It follows the pattern of marginalized people’s reactions to privileged people’s.

    I would point out though that this privilege is not global and does not erase any other marginalizations or privileges a person might have. Because I’m nerdy like that, I use n-dimensional vector spaces as a metaphor for privilege and marginalization. Different qualities or perceived qualities including but not limited to race, gender, gender presentation and performance, social class, wealth, education, disability, each form different dimensions in the vector space — arrows of different lengths sprouting from a common origin point and pointing in different directions. They all interact in complex ways, and while one person may have (for example) privilege over another when considering social class, xe may be disadvantaged when considering disability.

    And getting into which privilege or oppression is most important is divisive and unhelpful. We need to work together, recognizing that what we share is that we are oppressed, even if we do not share how, and we can work to make us all more free. Please don’t get into competitive oppressions here.

  33. (I’m sorry, I keep thinking of more things I want to say…)

    Thinking about people at the upper end of the IQ spectrum, it occurs to me that a possible explanation for the common perception of highly “intelligent” people as socially awkward is because a relatively high proportion of people scoring in top ranges on IQ tests might be on the autistic spectrum. There’s a study that shows autistic people tend to do much, much better on one type of IQ test than another; the study authors interpret it as meaning that the other is ill-suited to autistics and I’m pretty sure that’s part of it, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the ability to do well at that particular IQ test (Raven’s Progressive Matrices) was a common autistic trait. It does seem to be the type of thinking autistic people are often very good at. (Not all, note! I am talking statistical averages here!)

    In this case, the “you’re smart so you can’t have any problems!” attitude becomes even worse, because you would actually *expect* a higher than usual portion of high-scoring people to be on the autistic spectrum – high IQ as a predictive variable, if you will :/ And “you’re not allowed to have difficulty with this” is an issue that group gets hit with a lot as is.
    .-= Kaz´s last blog such a German, le sigh =-.

  34. Kaz, I wouldn’t be surprised either. This is actually one of the things I had in mind when I wrote about replacing IQ testing with more comprehensive assets and deficits testing in different environments so that a child’s education could meet all xer needs.

    I try not to, because nothing is going to change what’s happened, but I wonder sometimes what might have been different if autism spectrum disorders and not just the stereotype of completely non-verbal autism had been more known when I was younger. Maybe I could’ve gotten help with the social functioning I was so bad at.

  35. I’m sorry for getting of topic. Sometimes I have trouble shutting up when things bring up bad memories.

    To get to what I actually wanted to say:One of things that proves how so called “IQ tests” are useless when it comes to determing things like future career is that they don’t take a persons circumstances into accaunt. If one succeds in school depends on so many different factors,many of wich are not in the hands of the student.

    And even being able to do well at school does not say anything about what a person will be able to achieve later. Both IQ and school grades are so narrow in focus, they completely ignore so many other things that are just as, if not more important.

    And then there is the bigger issue, which is the inhumanity of assignng aa “worth” to any one human because of something they can or can not do. Which is ableism. This post really drove that home.

    Sorry again for derailing.

  36. I think that, in terms of privilege within the school systems, there’s a difference between the kids who are just “pretty smart” and the kids who are “gifted.” (I don’t really want to use exactly those words, but I can’t think of others right now — I’m in a bit of a Codeine haze at the moment, which for some reason always makes me forget obvious words that I know.) A kid who is in fifth grade and capable of doing what’s usually sixth grade math, but no more, will probably get very good grades and do very well in school. The kids that I taught at the gifted program were typically in fifth or sixth grade and completed a math course that’s usually for eighth or ninth graders in three weeks during the summer. Put those kids in a regular classroom, and you’ll get the expected reactions from them — either become the class clown, or the annoying know-it-all kid who insists on correcting the teacher every five minutes, or the bored kid sitting in the back of the room staring out the window, or the kid who’s disruptive just to have something to do. None of these are typically kids that the teachers or the school system loves. The system is designed to reward conformity — the kids who can do very well at what the school tells them they’re supposed to do are praised. The kids who are doing something else entirely get lost.

    And also, explaining math concepts to a kid who has a good intuitive sense of abstraction is an entirely different process than explaining the same concepts to a kid who doesn’t. It’s not that one kid is better than the other, it’s that the way you’ve got to turn the information around to get it to fit into their brains is different. And math lessons that are designed to gently introduce kids to variables as a new concept will seem not easy but confusing to kids who have an intuitive sense of it.

    (Hi Kaz! I’m in algebraic combinatorics, and was nodding along with all of what you said.)

  37. Yeah, ‘gifted’ is not a term that is making me happy. I’m making allowances for fogginess and neuroatypicality (I absolutely understand how when engaged on a topic everything comes up as connected to it and not saying or writing it can be very uncomfortable — my wife nudges me when I’m doing this and talking over other people or the TV) but this is heading into derailing territory I’ve warned other commenters about. I’m not upset with y’all, just wanting to keep the thread from getting too far off topic.

  38. Oh. My. Goodness. This. Post. Is. Awesome. *happyflap*

    What annoys me is that so many people treat IQ tests as if they measure some concrete Thing that isn’t affected by culture, environment, or even the other people taking the test. When I was 5, my verbal IQ was the highest it’s ever been. At that time I could read pretty well, so my mom encouraged the evaluators to give me the part of the test they gave to kids who could read.

    Over the years, my verbal IQ got lower: I ran into more problems with math (I could do rote, memorized equations very well, but my spatial impairment makes it harder to do long columns of math on paper), and certain aspects of language. And the norm I was being measured against learned to read.

    Oh, also–the individual tests don’t necessarily measure what they claim to measure. The last IQ test I took had a subtest called “Listening Comprehension.” The tester asked me questions like: “Why do we cook food?” So there were aspects of problem-solving in it, and life skills, etc…I didn’t think it had much to do with either listening or comprehension at all. BTW, I got a perfectly average score on this test, which the evaluator thought was odd, considering that many of my other language subtest scores were higher. Which highlights another problem with the concept of “intelligence”: people tend to think that a whole bunch of skills are related when they’re not.

    [Tangent] Which is why I hate the phrase “visual-spatial skills.” It conflates two separate and broad sets of skills that may interact with each other (or may not–someone who cannot see at all can have an excellent sense of direction, for instance), but are not the same thing. [End tangent]

    Okay, I’ll hush up now. But, *squee,* this post! 😀
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Rosemary =-.

  39. I totally agree about IQ as a single number being both badly used and fairly useless. But what about things like Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences? Would that be considered as something better, or just an updating of the same old problematic IQ stuff?

  40. Tera, you’re just fine. I’m glad you liked it. And I think what you’ve got labeled as a tangent is fairly on point here, since the post is about mislabeling with a whole lot of conflation thrown into the mix.

    Ruchama, I’m not sure. I’m kind of a revolutionary about this and I’d like to get away from the word entirely since we’ve been hurting each other with it for so long. It’s sort of the idea I’ve got of looking for what a person can do well and what they need help with, but I don’t think putting numbers on those qualities is that helpful either.

  41. @Tera: YES on the visual-spatial thing. My visual memory is amazing in two dimensions, but throw a third dimension into the mix and it gets very muddled. This confuses people to no end, because they think they’re part of a single skill set…

  42. Thank you for writing this post, it was very thought provoking and I thought about it ever since I read it last night. Personally I’m really very conflicted on the issue, but going into the reasons would probably be derailing the thread, so I’ll try not to.

    I absolutely agree with what you said about looking at children as whole, complex human beings and looking which areas they have an aptitude for and which areas they require assistance in. I think it would be very important to not only look at the areas we usually group under the term “intelligence” but for ALL areas, from skills at social interaction to skills at…body coordination and sport. Because they’re all equally important and “worth” the same. And by doing this, it might be possible to put much more emphasis on the skills a given child is good at and by doing that, to give every child the impression that they’re a great, gifted person, which can only be positive for their development, I imagine (although I’m no expert). This would be the school system that I dream of. And by extension the society that I dream of, one that doesn’t divide people into “gifted” and “not gifted” in a very limited number of areas, but instead looks at everyone as gifted and worth a lot, simply in different areas, which are all equally important. At the same time, that *might* do something about the general way people see “disabilities” because if society were to learn that everyone has strengths and weaknesses and there’s no difference in “importance” or “worth” of these strengths and weaknesses, they might finally stop looking down on certain weaknesses.

    Maybe I might use myself to illustrate what I mean a little? (I realize that I’m one person and my experiences can’t be generalized.)I’m good at some things and bad at others just as everyone else. The things I can do well include a slightly creepy knack for learning languages, a good memory and an ability to argue well (most of the time). I’m hopeless at any kind of sports except one because I can’t make my body perform a coordinated, even slightly complicated sets of movements much less remember them. I can’t do many practical things like driving a car, I can’t draw because I lack the “eye” for that, I absolutely can’t sing, because I can’t tell one note from another. What I don’t get, is why I’m considered “intelligent” and “gifted” when others whose skills are the other way around are not.

    While looking over the comments here I had another thought. If we would stop labelling one set of skills “better” or “worth more” than others, it might stop something that happened to me from happening again. It might stop making other children feel like “less” (because that’s the impression they’re given by the school’s behaviour) and reacting with the bullying towards the *perceived* “intelligent” children. (And that’s as far as I can go here, sorry. I still can’t excuse the bullies any further because…if you keep kicking someone who’s already on the ground…you’re still acting wrong. But that’s me and being unable to forgive what’s happened and what it caused later…sorry.)

    Okay, I hope I have adressed the topic of the original post and didn’t cause anything bad.

  43. What a great article. This IQ testing thing and the question of what, exactly, it tests, has been annoying me for some time.

    About the percieved relationship between intelligence and communication: In German Sign Language class, we’re starting by getting some background about the history of people with hearing disabilities and of sign language, and the prof quoted Socrates saying that someone who cannot talk cannot think. (This may not be the exact quote, as it’s been interpreted from German Sign Language into German, stored in my memory for some time, and then translated into English. I couldn’t look it up.) Unfortunately, this quote has dominated the debate about sign language and special education for children with hearing disabilities for a long time. This has led to the persuation that children had to learn oral language, because as we all know, Sign Language is not a language (being sarcastic here). In Germany, until 2002, in Germany, Sign Language was not allowed to be taught in schools for kids with hearing disabilities. Upon graduating from these “schools”, kids usually reach the level of fourth graders in a “normal” school. And that, of course, is because people with hearing disabilities are stupid, not because they haven’t been taught in a language that they can easily understand and use.
    .-= Lounalune´s last blog ..Global free hugs day! =-.

  44. Lounalune: AGH FUCK. Of course people who sign speak. With their hands. For shit’s sake so do I when I get dysphasic because it’s my voice that fucks off on me I can usually still type or write. We need to include a lot of training for people who don’t have much in the way of communication impairments in primary education in how to communicate (often slow down and wait works — respectfully, not in that GOD YOU ARE WASTING MY TIME WITH YOUR IMPAIRMENTS vibe so many people give off) with, y’know, everyone.

  45. Thank you so much for this post, and this blog.

    I don’t really know what else to say at the moment, just… thank you 🙂

  46. @Shiyiya – I had nearly the exact same experience. Told I was “so smart,” put into the “Gifted and Talented” school, and then internalized everyone’s disappointment when I didn’t live up to my “potential,” followed by years of anxiety and depression and struggling at school after school, all of which had sky-high expectations of me. I’m in grad school now and I’m still going through this.

    Re: language, I’ve been mulling over the “stupid/intelligent” word issue since I started reading this blog, and after reading this post, I’m reminded of an article I once read about parenting. The article found that it’s better for a child to be told “you did something bad” rather than “you ARE a bad girl/boy/child.” In the same vein, is it better to call someone’s ideas or actions “stupid” or “smart,” rather than applying the label to the person? Or is that just as bad, because it reinforces the notion of intelligence?

    How about words like “fool” or “wise”?
    .-= notemily´s last blog .."So if IQ testing doesn’t measure intelligence, what does it measure? Probably the ability to do well…" =-.

  47. Very interesting – school sucked ass for both my husband and I – me because I was a late bloomer of “average intelligence” with several learning curve issues and he because he was identified as a “genius.”

    We’re choosing to homeschool our kid for just these reasons (not the bible thumping variety) but the radical-egalitarian-secular flavor of homeschool/unschool.

    Has anyone here read Jacques Rancière’s “The Ignorant Schoolmaster?”

    Thanks for the post!

  48. Hi, Ruchama!

    But what about things like Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences? Would that be considered as something better, or just an updating of the same old problematic IQ stuff?

    One of my psych professors argued that Gardner’s “intelligences” were really skills.. He also said that Gardner himself admitted that if he’d called them “skills,” his theory wouldn’t have gotten as much attention. (Then again, this same professor called Carl Roger’s Unconditional Positive Regard “lovey-dovey hippie crap” :)).

    But, yeah, I’d be more comfortable with them if they were called something other than “intelligences.” And I think that there are *way* too few of them. I have a big problem with this need to categorize people in such a broad way; parts of the people being categorized always get elided.

    I have the same problem with diagnosis too. My favorite evaluation ever done of me (and I’ve had a lot), nobody tried to diagnose me with anything. They just wrote down all the stuff I had difficulty with and all the stuff I was good at, and gave suggestions about how to help me. The report was very long, and none of my teachers read it. But I’d really prefer this kind of thing to “So-and-so fits into this diagnostic box”–though it takes longer and, I think, creeps people out because there’s no automatic schema to file people under. (e.g. “Oh, so and so has NLD! People with NLD are like __!”)

    Yes, I’m a scary revolutionary. 🙂
    .-= Tera´s last blog ..Rosemary =-.

  49. I have the same problem with diagnosis too. My favorite evaluation ever done of me (and I’ve had a lot), nobody tried to diagnose me with anything. They just wrote down all the stuff I had difficulty with and all the stuff I was good at, and gave suggestions about how to help me. The report was very long, and none of my teachers read it. But I’d really prefer this kind of thing to “So-and-so fits into this diagnostic box”–though it takes longer and, I think, creeps people out because there’s no automatic schema to file people under. (e.g. “Oh, so and so has NLD! People with NLD are like __!”)

    yes – this. i do think that diagnosis can be helpful in providing an overall framework, but it’s no substitute for actually knowing how an individual person functions.

  50. Mostly I just wanted to also add that seeing dyscalculias included in this post made me very happy! I’d never heard of it until a year or so ago (see, I can’t even figure out if it was one year or two or more or possibly a few months ago even because my brain just doesn’t work that way!), and then I devoured everything I could find online about it because it made so much make sense for me. I was also tagged with the “gifted” label as a small child and I did fairly well in all subjects except for math – which became a more and more confusing and frustrating subject as time went on and nobody bothered to try and help me, because, you know, I was SMART, so clearly I just didn’t LIKE math and wasn’t TRYING hard enough. Blah.

    Anyway, excellent post. It’s hard to shift perspectives and stop valuing “intelligence” so much. I was made aware of the ableist connotations of this a few months ago and have been working both on my language and reframing how I think about these things since then. It’s a really big adjustment. But also a very powerful one.
    .-= Rosemary´s last blog ..Glee and Beer =-.

  51. Wow, thanks.

  52. Kaninchenzero, I’m sorry for not answering earlier, I hadn’t come back to read any new comments earlier. I just wanted to apologize if it sounded like I meant that people with hearing disabilities cannot speak. I may not have voiced it clearly, but what I was criticizing was exactly the assumption that has been made that they cannot speak, and how that leads to the other assumption, that people who can’t speak are stupid, being applied to them. Of course, since they can speak, the quote from Socrates, even if it would be true in the first place, wouldn’t apply to them, but it’s been used against them and I wanted to criticize that attitude.
    .-= Lounalune´s last blog ..The first semesters are there! =-.

  53. Oh, no! I didn’t think you had meant to be saying that, only that you’d encountered that attitude. I’d meant to agree with what I’d read you as having said and expressing my contempt for the sort of thing that makes it possible for hearing peoples’ power structures to destroy gestural languages created by deaf people for themselves. I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear.

  54. Interesting article. One thought: Obviously IQ tests and other so-called intelligence tests don’t measure the colloquial concept of “intelligence.” It also seems obvious that the ways in which the colloquial concept is applied have their own problems. But the concept itself seems salvageable. Why can’t we retain it in a less hierarchical form? Everybody has different skills, all of which involve (among other things) “intelligence” in the skill area. This “intelligence” is pretty much entirely subjective. But so what? So is beauty. I am opposed to ranking people by beauty or labeling particular people as ugly, but I am still willing to tell someone that he or she is beautiful. And I don’t see a problem with calling someone “intelligent” in a similar manner.

  55. I had the opposite experience. The gifted kids were frequently the ones who couldn’t function in a regular classroom, who created problems by not being able to be “normal.”

    Unfortunately, in my experience, teachers selected which students were to be tested for “giftedness” by who did well in school. Who was quiet, verbally adept, etc. So undoubtedly actual gifted kids were id’d as having behavioural problems. It’s a crap system.

  56. Thank you! For a long time I have chafed at the word “stupid” but not “intelligent,” though now it makes sense to me that having a problem with one is really having a problem with both words. I have tried to explain to other people why I don’t like using the word and never really managed to do so articulately, as you have done.

    So far as people having certain expectations of a persona because they perceive them as intelligent, ugh. “You’re so smart, why don’t you have a ‘real’ job?” And variations thereof. And they don’t realize how hurtful that sounds.

  57. Great post! I’d be happy to see the idea of some vague, central “intelligence” left to sink. It really does very little to describe human complexity, and is used in some very dodgy ways. Thanks for further info on that. 🙂

    I also grew up getting to hear how brilliant I was, and the idea was used as a bludgeon when the “intelligence” manifested itself really unevenly (Turns out, I’m autistic). “You’re so intelligent so why are you poor?”–exactly! I’ve been having to think about this theme a lot, since psych medications I was on for years impacted some of my expressive language ability in particular, and I haven’t been nearly as “smart” since. That made me think about the value a lot of people place on perceived intelligence (yes, communication is key), and how I’d bought into that more than I wanted to admit. Given the value placed on it, growing up, the “loss” got to me–and there is an implication of looking down on other people who don’t seem as “intelligent”, whether one thinks about it or not. Now I can see that the whole cluster of concepts is bogus.

    Lots to think about here!
    .-= urocyon´s last blog ..Some things I’ve been reading =-.

  58. Thanks! I’ve had many, many issues with the whole concept of intelligence over the years, and you’ve articulated many of them better than I have ever managed.
    .-= Jennifer Kesler´s last blog ..Links of Great Interest 11/06/09 =-.

  59. I completely agree with this post but I’m having some problems with thinking of the term “stupid” as ableist. While I understand how “retarded” or “dumb” were used to refer to people with disabilities and then subsequently used as insults, I don’t see how “stupid” fits this same category because “stupid” does not refer to any particular group of easily identifiable people. While I agree that how intelligence is defined above is not quantifiable, how do I tell someone that their use of the word “stupid” in the phrase “It’s so stupid that…” is ableist if it doesn’t refer to a person? Furthermore, that intelligence and stupidity don’t actually exist, without having to cite this article every time that I know they won’t go home and read?

  60. But it does refer to people. It always refers to people. The entire concept of intelligence and stupidity is a way to rank people by how valuable they are and is based on a flawed system that is fundamentally corrupt and defines intelligence by how well people’s behavior and communication conforms to that of the most privileged classes.

    I don’t know how to get people to believe you, Christina. I haven’t been able to get people to believe me either. (The comments that don’t make it out of moderation are sometimes very angry.) A lot of people are really invested in intelligence being real even if they agree that stupid is an ableist concept. Which I can’t blame them too much for; many people’s identities depend on intelligence. It does still help support a privilege structure I want to see destroyed, but I understand why they feel threatened by my wanting to tear it down.

  61. I understand that, and thanks for responding. I guess it’s just harder for me because there is such a thing as people with learning disabilities, and you can point to them and say “here are people with learning disabilities”, rather than calling them “retarded.” But if someone is being illogical, people will say “that person is stupid” and then if I correct them and say “neither intelligence or stupidity exist and neither do smart or stupid people” I will be told I’m “too PC” or whatever. I’m just hard pressed to find a replacement word when there is no replacement. Just a concept and a system that must be torn down, replaced by appreciation for people’s varying patience/attention span in understanding certain things as opposed to others, or inclination/desire to understand them.

    Anyway, thank you thank you for writing this post. I am trying to be more conscious of the habitual language and ideas I have of other people and this article was one of the really helpful ones. I linked back to it on my facebook as well.

  62. Yeah I get the politically correct thing too. Or that what I’m doing is worthy but idealistic and unrealistic and why bother? Which sometimes I wonder myself.

    It’s a process, this working on internalized prejudices. I find I’m doing it constantly and there’s always more to do. I’m glad you found this useful.

  63. I don’t think you need to wonder- you’re reaching people one mind at a time, and I think you’ve been pretty successful judging from the comments here, even apart from the people who are too angry to take responsibility for their words. I think one of the hardest things is that a system is much less personal and palpable than a human being, but that’s who supports it, and that’s who can change it- individual human beings working together. Thank you for not giving up.

  64. if someone is being illogical, people will say “that person is stupid” and then if I correct them and say “neither intelligence or stupidity exist and neither do smart or stupid people” I will be told I’m “too PC” or whatever. I’m just hard pressed to find a replacement word when there is no replacement.

    There isn’t a general replacement no, but depending on context there often is a better word – you said just there, someone being illogical, illogical would be the word to use! Just takes some work to figure out what you really mean.

    What I’ve been wondering is how valid it is to call an AI stupid, and if not what would be a better term. (Thinking of the NPC allies that fight with you in the flash game Sonny. The NPC allies who attack the SHIELDED enemies instead of the ones they can actually do damage on. Grr.)
    .-= Shiyiya´s last blog ..Letter from my Senator =-.

  65. Is this article saying that “intelligence” as a concept is a pretty recent (late 19th to early 20th century) concept? I would be really interested in finding more resources that look at the concept of intelligence in non US societies and further back in history.

  66. Something that really bugs me about “intelligence” and IQ tests; they don’t take into account a persons empathy, their insight, their intuition, their differing ability to process different kinds of things (eg maths vs english), their different ability to learn in different ways, their retention of the knowledge they get, etc. I could go on for a while.

    For example, I learn quickly in general, am generally good at “Getting it” when it comes to concepts, but my memory is SHOCKING, and I have a LOT of difficulty manipulating number-type stuff, and if I can’t write stuff down there’s no way I’ll get it.

    Some people will find learning harder. Well, some people are born with red hair. It’s not some kind of fucking morality/personality flaw! (*yells inside head at a particular old highschool teacher*) Sometimes it’s not just because your student is lazy, doesn’t want to pay attention, or hates you, sometimes they are having trouble with your teaching style or this particular concept! But this is what people often assume.

    I don’t know what it’s like, being looked down on for not learning things quickly enough. But I do know the frustrations of not being given an appropriate learning program (at least till my school finally relented and gradually accelerated me two years – oh, and they botched that, but lets not let my horrible bitterness at the education system seep through here). I got looked down on and taunted for different reasons, and probably not as badly. Still, I can sympathise. Intelligence is a horrible thing to be marginalised for – and worse, its perfectly acceptable to do so among most people.

  67. There is about a 50 point range in my IQ scores depending on what test you use. I went to one of those accelerated self-contained schools for 7 years that are supposed to be the Holy Grail of Exceptional Student Education. I performed pretty unevenly due to many issues related to ASD such as have been mentioned by others upthread. No one seemed to connect that to my dramatically uneven subscores.Even when I pointed out the discrepencies because I was struggling and didn’t understand why, I was mostly ignored and told to stop using this to hold myself back.
    I definitely think the way we organize subjects says a lot about how we rank certain types of skills, how we determine what is “harder” and therefore requires more of this narrowly-defined intelligence. I tend to do very poorly with subjects that require spatial intelligence or lots of memorization without a logical framework. I think they should teach Geometry simultaneously with Algebra, Biology with Chemistry and Physics, so as not to make one type of subject a gatekeeper to a completely different subject. Get everyone exposed to evereything, provide help where needed and sometimes just let a subject go when necessary, maybe come back to it later but don’t let any subject become some sort of hurdle to letting the student pursue their interests. .
    Just a random thought: the fact that most people score very consistently on subscores (except for one or two strengths or weaknesses) is used to justify the validity of an IQ score but I think that it might say more about testing ability being so influential to the scores if most people can score pretty similarly in a wide variety of content areas with exposure to different areas being variable.

  68. I realize that you wrote it two years ago, but still – thank you so much for this post! I fell into reading the entire Ableist Word Profile series this evening, and as a result I’ve been reading parts of various posts out loud to the family. This one, though, had me seeing read and more emphatic than any of the others (so far).

    I did a bit of googling, but can’t seem to find anything about the link between ringworm and IQ. I know this post is two years old, but would you mind sharing your source on that? I’d love to know more. I’ve requested a copy of Gould’s book from the library, but it can take some time for the things to arrive via the mailbox books program.

  69. you’re welcome, and thanks. unfortunately my source for the ringworm/Army IQ score correlation was Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man. my searches for other sources turned up only a journal article behind a paywall, “Early Twentieth-Century Biological Determinism and the Classification of Exceptional Students” by Steven Selden in Evaluation & Research in Education, Volume 8, Issues 1 & 2, 1994. (which info may or may not be helpful to you.)

    but the quoted text in a google search on “army beta ringworm correlation” is tantalising.
    kaninchenzero´s last blog post ..

  70. Also really late to this party, also just read all of the AWD posts. Thanks so much for this one, especially the part (in post or in comments, I forget) which talks about communication difficulties being falsely linked to cognition difficulties. That’s an attitude I struggle with a lot, as a person who’s cared for an adopted relative with developmental disabilities, including a lot of difficulty with communication. I don’t know how I can talk to my cousin, but this post makes me want to keep trying.

    And yeah, IQ is a bunch of bull. The concept of “intelligence” intersects interestingly with sexism, too, in that “rational, male” fields are privileged over “irrational, female” fields when determining intelligence. I am a physics major, and I am perceived to be more actually intelligent than my roommate, an english major. My field is Science and full of Smart People, and hers is just wishy-washy book-wanky crap that won’t do anything beyond landing her a job at McDonalds. Guess which is coded as male and which is coded as female?