| Home | About AUTCOM | Membership Info | Newsletter | Bookstore | Links | Contact |

The IQ Fallacy

A Three Part Series

Through most of the 20th century, those little numbers have been used both to take away needed assistance and to take away hope. Yet such was not their original intent.

Part II: IQ Testing in America - Locking In and Locking Out

Nearly 90 years ago, psychologist Alfred Binet of the Sorbonne pioneered a series of tests to identify schoolchildren who seemed "at risk." Binet never intended that low IQ scores should be used to label these children as innately incapable. His test scores, he insisted, worked best as a practical device to identify people who were functioning just below the normal range, and therefore could use some help.

When Binet's intelligence test crossed the Atlantic, however, it quickly took root in a new soil where it was nourished by potent growth factors. America had been struggling, since the closing of the frontier in the closing decades of the 19th century, to define its sense of nationhood. Social problems and unsocialized newcomers could no longer head West and disappear over the horizon. With European immigrants arriving in record numbers on American shores, many citizens asked with a new sense of urgency what it meant to be "the American people."

As these social issues began to loom large in the collective conscious, two related developments gave shape to the dialogue: an active eugenics movement insisted that national survival must be sought by conforming national law to Darwinian natural law, and the rediscovery of Mendel's elementary work on heredity suggested to many scientists that big problems came in small packages. Add to this volatile mix the potential to test and rank intelligence, and one of the crucial social experiments of the century was underway.

Of the many names associated with the early history of intelligence testing in America, probably the most important are Herbert H. Goddard, Lewis M. Terman, and Robert H. Yerkes.

Research psychologist Goddard was the first to translate Binet's articles into English and to demonstrate the use of his tests. While Goddard agreed that the slightly marginal or "near normal" group was the likeliest target for IQ testing, his rationale and goals were vastly different from Binet's. Working at a time when the simple Mendelian model of heredity was state-of-the-art, Goddard surmised that intelligence, like the size of Mendel's peas, must be a single entity governed by a single gene. Those with a double dose of the bad recessive gene automatically fell off the scale of normal intelligence. Secure in his identification of the genotypes, it remained only to classify the "phenotypes" or outward characteristics: Goddard coined the term "moron" to describe those whose defective gene caused them to test with a mental age between 8 and 12 on the Binet scale. Below the moron was the "imbecile," while those with the lowest IQ scores he labeled "idiots."

As Goddard saw it, the threat of the "moron" or "high-grade defective" was that, unlike more seriously impaired individuals, such people might dare to survive on their own and to propagate themselves. Since their deficiency was presumed to be hereditary and intractable, Goddard preached that there was only one way to prevent the genetic debilitation of the American population: identify these "mental defectives," monitor them carefully, institutionalize them if possible, and prevent America from drowning in faulty gene pools. New Jersey's Vineland Training School for Feeble- Minded Girls and Boys, of which Goddard was Director of Research, soon became the flagship of this salvage operation.

Goddard and his colleagues feared not only these murky native gene pools, but the possibility of inundation by waves of defective alien genes. Beginning in 1912, he advocated and demonstrated the use of mental testing on newly- arriving immigrants at Ellis Island. Goddard was soon able to point with relief to a phenomenal increase in deportations for mental deficiency from the ports of entry. Since it never occurred to the testers that low scores could be due to the testing conditions, to language or cultural barriers, to fear, confusion, or simply the fact that many immigrants had never before held a pencil, Goddard surmised that the quality of immigration must be deteriorating. Foreign countries, he complained with alarm, were sending us "the poorest of each race." Luckily, he had found a way to turn them around and send them back.

While it was Goddard who introduced the Binet scale to America, it was Lewis H. Terman who, as a professor at Stanford University, packaged it in the form which we recognize today. Terman's revision of the test, dubbed the Stanford-Binet, produced a rapid and rigid assessment tool which was strongly dependent on conformity to cultural norms and allowed no leeway for innovative responses. Terman also took Goddard's system of social classification by IQ number one step further, sorting out not only the "defective" but the able. A just society, Terman proposed, would assign professions by IQ so that high- scorers received leadership roles while those with lower scores were assigned to various types of manual labor: "substantial success" required an IQ of at least 115, while the maximum I.Q. required for a barber was set at 85 and IQ 75 was deemed an unsafe risk in a motorman or conductor. Presuming that those who had failed to survive society must be the most unfit of all, Terman even launched a study of the IQs of "hobos and the unemployed." To his utter disbelief, average hobo IQs ranked above those of motormen, firemen and policemen.

The third big name in the history of IQ testing was Robert M. Yerkes, a psychologist at Harvard University. Yerkes had long been unhappy over psychology's uninspiring reputation as a "soft" science. Mulling over this stalemate, Yerkes realized that the newly-imported Binet scale could be utilized as part of the United States' mobilization for World War I to provide psychology's big break: if the army would agree to give intelligence tests to all recruits, a huge and statistically significant mass of data would emerge. Surely under the weight and pressure of this data, a hard science would form like metamorphic rock.

Yerkes' research proposal was convincingly argued and government permission granted, much to the chagrin of army officers who had their own time- tested ways of sizing up recruits. Yerkes, Terman, Goddard and others assembled at the Vineland Training School to write the intelligence tests which would be given to 1.75 million men.

Working swiftly under Draconian conditions with often-confusing instructions, the Army's testers soon amassed a treasure trove of "facts" which challenged science while enshrining myth. Perhaps the branch of science most challenged was statistics: for example, the testers discovered that the mental age of the average American adult, already set at 16 years, was in fact 13 years -- an average that was three years below average. Researchers were perhaps less surprised at the discovery of "scientific proof" that the darker peoples of southern Europe and the Slavs of eastern Europe are less intelligent than the fair peoples of western and northern Europe, or at the fact that people of African origin again turned up at the bottom of the scale. Naturally the "people" referred to were male people only. The absence of female subjects went unnoticed, though perhaps this was no great loss.

These treasures of Army research were used to underwrite two major solutions to the burning question: how shall we be "American people" in the face of those who do not share the dominant culture, race, ethnicity or way of life? To counter the perceived threat from without, a powerful lobby of scientists and eugenicists joined forces with trade unions and citizen groups to achieve passage of the Immigration Restriction Act of 1924. By this Act, immigration of the "genetically undesirable" southern, central and eastern European peoples was severely curtailed, even as larger quotas for western and northern European nations often went unfilled. "America must be kept American," explained Calvin Coolidge as he signed the bill.

It now remained to counter the threat of intellectual debilitation from within. The Army tests, with their siren song of big numbers and pretense of statistical significance, were dramatically invoked in Lewis Terman's most enterprising contribution to the IQ vision: the mass marketing of mass testing. Every school, he could now argue, owed itself the efficiency of scientifically classifying each of its students. Testing, Terman would come to claim, had won the war in Europe: think what it could do for the war on ignorance! With that clarion call, ignorance fell upon ignorance in what would soon become a multi-million dollar industry.

Unlike the series of tasks in Binet's original test, which were meant to be administered by a trained tester working with one child at a time and which therefore might give creative or unexpected responses their due, mass marketing of Terman's Stanford-Binet meant that there was no possibility to evaluate novel responses or investigate the various forces which might affect an individual child's performance. "Scoring," ominously declared the early test advertisements, "is unusually simple." Nor was there time for lengthy, careful assessment: thirty minutes, boasted the ads, were all that was needed for "classifying children in Grades 3 to 8 with respect to intellectual ability."

Ironically, even as the idea of IQ testing was gaining public support, both Goddard and Terman began to rethink their original premises. Without abandoning his belief in inherited mentality or the nomenclature that accompanied it, by 1928 Goddard had repudiated his original dogma that salvation lay in institutionalization: "I have no difficulty," he wrote, "in concluding that when we get an education that is entirely right there will be no morons who cannot manage themselves and their affairs and compete in the struggle for existence." By 1937, Terman too was backing away from his full-fledged hereditarian vision, insisting that he was unable to weigh environmental vs. genetic influences on his test subjects.

Yet popular belief in the efficacy of intelligence testing continued despite the occasional caveat. Warmly embraced by the schools, by service-delivery systems, by vocational trainers and employers, classification became a seductive goal...often the only goal. A century after the closing of the frontier, those who were still in thrall to the elusive spell of social homogeneity clung to IQ testing as their magic wand: how else to detect the dangerously different, and cause them to disappear from polite society?

Although IQ testing once won the hearts by rating the minds of the American people, there is growing evidence that the honeymoon may be coming to an end. The final part of The IQ Fallacy will investigate how scientists have rethought the very concept of intelligence, how school systems are undoing their classifications by "de-tracking," how service systems are trading demeaning definitions for the helping hand that Binet first envisioned, and how successful employers are learning the wisdom of "train, don't test."

Continue to Part III


Degler, Carl N. In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Gould, Stephen Jay. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1981.

Hanson, F. Allan. Testing, Testing: Social Consequences of the Examined Life. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1993.

Information Sharing Policy
AUTCOM believes in the power of good information to drive out bad. You are welcome to download, copy, reprint, and redistribute any information from our Home Page. When doing so, please give credit to the Autism National Committee. If possible, drop us a note and let us know what proved useful and what is still needed.

This site is copyright © 1998-2007 Autism National Committee
Supported by a grant from the Hussman Foundation.
Site design by