IQ Test Is Also a Measure of Society, Author Says Writer Malcolm Gladwell discusses his recent New Yorker article, "None of the Above: What IQ Doesn't Tell You About Race." Gladwell's article reviews a recent book by psychologist James Flynn which posits that IQ is as much a barometer of society as it is a measure of intelligence.
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IQ Test Is Also a Measure of Society, Author Says

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

A number of stories recently focused on an extremely controversial topic - race and intelligence. In October, Nobel laureate James Watson, one of the scientists who discovered DNA, told a British newspaper that he's gloomy about Africa's prospects because Africans are not as intelligent as other racial groups. The comments prompted widespread outrage and a cancelled book tour. Journalist William Saletan came to Watson's defense in an article on Slate.com; Saletan later apologized.

Just last week, writer Malcolm Gladwell weighed in with an argument coming from the other side. In The New Yorker magazine, Gladwell reviews the most recent book by James Flynn who posits that IQ measures not intelligence per se, but how modern we are.

Malcolm Gladwell joins us now from our bureau in New York. He's the author of "The Tipping Point" and "Blink." Nice to have you back on the program today.

Mr. MALCOLM GLADWELL (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): Thank you. Nice to be back.

CONAN: And you include James Watson in a group you describe as IQ fundamentalists. What do you mean by that?

Mr. GLADWELL: Well, there are people who think that the number that you score on an IQ test says something fundamental about your innate intelligence, that it kind of - it registers where you land on some kind of scale of cognitive ability, and I think that overstates the importance or the meaning of that particular number.

CONAN: Well, not just fundamental but immutable.

Mr. GLADWELL: Yes. I mean there's a - everyone concedes that, to some extent, your IQ is a measure of the quality of your environment, but a lot of the IQ fundamentalists tend to say that those environmental contributions are pretty basic. And in the year 2007, we've pretty much, you know, squeezed all the juice out of the environmental contribution that we probably can.

CONAN: So a whole lot of nature and not so much nurture?

Mr. GLADWELL: That's the kind of - that is the fundamental position at the moment. Yes.

CONAN: And James Flynn, how does he come at it?

Mr. GLADWELL: Well, Flynn, you know, there are many, many ways to kind of confront the fundamentalist position, and I think that Flynn is one of the kind of - is one of the best. Basically, he's a researcher who was the first to observe that over the course of the 20th century, IQ scores in developed nations - and by the way - and also in any country around the world that you ever give IQ test scores - IQ tests, he noticed that IQ test scores were rising every year. In other words, if we give every 18-year-old in the United States an IQ test starting in 1930, we will observe that each new class of 18 year olds will have an IQ slightly higher than the one that came before. And we're not talking about minor increases. He - Flynn noticed, for example, that in Holland between the '50s and the early 1980s, IQ scores went up by about 21 or 22 points; that's an enormous shift in a very, very short time. And his argument and I think one of the most powerful arguments that can be mustered against the IQ fundamentalist is that that tells us that IQ is something that is highly determined by environment and highly changeable, really a function of the immediate world in which the person taking the test is functioning.

CONAN: And the person who makes up the test too.

Mr. GLADWELL: Yes, yes, that's also a big part of it.

CONAN: The example you used in the article is if you ask on the IQ test, in what way are dogs and rabbits similar and you suggest that an American from the 19th century would answer that very differently than an American from the 21st.

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah. If you got our great grandfathers together and you ask them that question, they would say the answer is that dogs chase rabbits, right? If you ask our children that question, they will say, oh, dogs and rabbits are both mammals. Now, on an IQ tests, the latter answer that they're both mammals, that they can be grouped in the same abstract category, that's the right answer, right?

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. GLADWELL: But our great grandparents, and our grandparents in many cases, didn't think that way because their world didn't reward that kind of abstract categorization. Their world rewarded functional knowledge and, you know, the practical - from a practical standpoint, it's most useful in 1870 or 1900 to know that dogs chase rabbits and not necessarily that they belong to the same category of mammals.

CONAN: If you'd like to talk with Malcolm Gladwell about the issue swirling around race, intelligence and IQ, our number is 800-989-8255; e-mail us, talk@npr.org.

And, Malcolm Gladwell, Flynn, you're just reviewing his most recent book. Flynn's been writing about this, what, for 20 years or so now, and...

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah.

CONAN: ...I'm wondering if it's so blindingly obvious and these scores are moving and in fact, IQ tests have been changed to make them more difficult over the years, isn't this convincing the IQ fundamentalists that they, well, might want to rethink some of this?

Mr. GLADWELL: Short answer? No. But I don't think this is a debate. I mean, listen, we have been arguing about this question for hundreds of years now and we're at of point in the argument, I'm afraid to say, where evidence isn't changing people's minds anymore. There just appeared to be some people who are attached in an almost kind of religious kind of way to the notion that there is some - there are these fundamental differences that are - can be broken up by race or what have you that separate humanity. And they don't want to listen to, you know - Flynn, in fact, by the way, is only one of the number of pieces of fairly convincing evidence that says our ability to do things, like perform on these tests, is in very large part a function of the world in which we've been raised.

CONAN: And that would suggest that, in fact, those tests measure something different than intelligence per se.

Mr. GLADWELL: Well, they can still measure intelligence. It just requires us to revisit our definition of intelligence. You know, I - I'm not one of those people who says that IQ is meaningless, nor am I someone who says that IQ tests are hopelessly biased. I think they are measuring something real and something absolutely fundamental to function in the modern world. There's - I don't think there's any question about that you will go farther in the world if you score a 120 on an IQ test than if you score a hundred. My issue is only that what does that score - where does that score come from, and I think that the environmental contribution is just much larger than some of the fundamentalists would appear. But I think it's a mistake, frankly, for sometimes, I think liberals have - go into this position where they try and throw out the notion of IQ altogether and say, look, we spend too much time worrying about it. I don't know if we do. It really does - it's not the only measure of our ability in the world. It's a really important one, and that's not the game we should be playing. The game we should be playing is thinking hard about how, you know, if we look at groups who score poorly on those tests, it tells us something. It says that we need to take steps to improve the quality of their cognitive environment and that's what IQ tests - IQ - measuring IQ, especially the IQ scores of groups, that's what it ought to be. It ought to be a kind of call to arms. And that's the appropriate way to read, I think, that number.

CONAN: We're speaking with Malcolm Gladwell, a staffwriter for The New Yorker magazine.

Again, if you'd like to join us, 800-989-8255.

And let's begin with David(ph). David's calling us from Palo Alto in California.

DAVID (Caller): Hello, Neal. Hello, Mr. Gladwell. I wonder if you could address the question of how far you're willing to go to say that it's all nurture and not nature. In other words, if you debunked nicely the IQ fundamentalists, what about the - what are called the American dream fundamentalists on the other side who believe that we're all perfectible to any degree given enough time, enough nurture, enough training?

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah, I don't know, I don't think - and I'm sorry if I gave the impression that the kind of Flynn argument says that there aren't - there isn't a strong genetic component here. There really is. I mean, I should say that one of the wonderful ways of clarifying this is a researcher called Turkenhammer(ph) - Turkheimer, rather, who has done this work which shows that the degree to which environment influences your IQ is a function of where you are on the socio-economic scale. In other words, if you are someone who grows up in an upper middle class environment, there is very little that additional environmental improvements can do to increase your IQ. At that point, your limits are really genetic. If, on the other hand, you look at very poor people, people from very disadvantaged backgrounds, environment's playing an enormous role in their IQ.

Now that, to me, is the kind of best way to read this nature and nurture balance - depends on who you are, depends on where you are. The kid living in a housing project in the middle of Detroit, we can do an enormous amount for his or her IQ by improving the quality of his environment. We cannot do a lot for the kid who is living in a fancy apartment building on 5th Avenue in Manhattan. I sort of think his environment is about as good as it's ever going to be, and if he can't do something, it's probably because he has run up against the kind of biological limits of his intelligence.

CONAN: Well, you might want to teach him how to hunt rabbits with dogs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah, well, in Central Park, it would be hunting rats with dogs.

CONAN: Rats.

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, David.

DAVID: Great. Thanks so much for the answer.

CONAN: And let's see if we can go now to - this is Drummond(ph), is that right? Desmond(ph)?

DESMOND (Caller): Yes.

CONAN: I'm having trouble reading the screen, I apologize for that.

DEsmond with us from San Antonio, Texas.

DESMOND: Yes. I wanted to know if the person on right now could comment on Huntington's argument about south versus north and the historical aspects of brain capacity in what we have today - so is(ph) the Third World and the First World.

CONAN: Is it Samuel Huntington?

DESMOND: Yes.

CONAN: Okay. Go ahead, Malcolm Gladwell.

Mr. GLADWELL: You know, I'm not terribly impressed with a lot of the research that tries to look at kind of fundamental differences in cognitive ability by either race or geography or what have you. At the end of the day I mean, Flynn really convinced me of this. If you read a lot of Flynn, he sort of addresses some of this research. At the end of the day, it's - the research isn't that convincing, and most of what we know says that whoever you are, whatever group you belong to, if you are raised in an environment equivalent to other groups, you'll end up with an IQ range that's pretty much similar. I think we're all basically endowed with the same cognitive abilities and that, you know, there are some differences in how those are expressed or the kind of cultural norms that govern the way we think and behave. But I've never found research into -research that claims to find fundamental differences by race all that convincing.

DESMOND: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.

We're talking with Malcolm Gladwell, and you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And we should mention that in Malcolm Gladwell's argument, he summarized the view of Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray in their 1994 book "The Bell Curve" and then later issued a correction on that. But the correction said they did not necessarily recommend that people with low IQs be sequestered in a high-tech version of an Indian reservation. Nevertheless, in "The Bell Curve," the book, you do find problems with their technique.

Mr. GLADWELL: Yes. Well, "The Bell Curve" is a kind of classic hereditarian fundamentalist primer. It is the - it's the summary of all of the existing research that supports the position that there are fundamental cognitive differences between the racists and that the genetic contribution to our intelligence is of paramount importance. And I, you know, I - that overall argument is not one that I thought - that many people, not just me, but many people find terribly unconvincing or consistent with the evidence.

CONAN: How do you respond when James Watson had just published a memoir. This is no schlemiel, co-discoverer of DNA. I mean, this is an important scientist and is howled down from the stage, has to cancel a series of lectures - his book tour and is, you know, castigated for his opinion. Isn't this an argument? Isn't he allowed to make his case?

Mr. GLADWELL: Well, was he making an argument or was he, you know, I think if you are a scientist with that kind of reputation, you have an obligation when you speak to speak carefully. People listen to James Watson. He's not just, you know, he's not Don Imus, you know, making noise in the morning, right? Although I will point when Don Imus said something that was racially inflammatory, he took a leave of absence.

But Watson's a serious, profoundly important figure in the history of science. If he wants to make a statement that is that loaded that affects and touches on so many hot button issues that's sweeping and condemnatory of so much of the world, then he ought to make it carefully and he ought to produce his evidence to back up what he was saying. Instead, if you read his interview, it was more a kind of off the cuff kind of, you know, shrugging, there's nothing we can do. Those guys are just dumber than us kind of statement. And that's inappropriate for someone of his stature. And I think we have every right to hold people who occupy that kind of privilege, intellectual position in our society to a high standard. To do otherwise is to insult them. I mean, if we just shrugged off what James Watson said and rolled our eyes and said, oh, that's just James, we're not taking him seriously, are we?

I mean, we were really giving him, I think, paying him in a sort of - in a backhanded sort of way, a compliment by saying, you know, that's outrageous of you to present this without, you know, any kind of systematic evidence to support it.

CONAN: Time for one last call. Larry(ph) - Larry with us from Holbrook in New York.

LARRY (Caller): Hi. I just wanted to make a comment or a question. James Watson, I saw his special on PBS back in the '70s and James Watson basically scored a - 115 on the standard IQ test, and I don't know, I mean, if you look at what he has accomplished, that's definitely not reflective of someone with a 115 IQ. Also, Thomas Edison scored relatively low on an IQ test, then he went and wrote his own IQ test and nobody could pass his test. Well, I don't know why James Watson would put so much stock in it if he himself doesn't score that high and it doesn't reflect his level of accomplishments scientifically, so the - I - I don't know, what's your comment on that? I'll stop and I'll just listen on the air.

CONAN: Okay. Thanks for the call, Larry.

Mr. GLADWELL: Yeah. There are very, very crude measures of ability. They tell us nothing about things like persistence or creativity or your - or resilience or, you know, any number of things that we know, I mean, if you've ever been around highly successful people, they don't all - they're not all distinguished by their level of intelligence. They are often smart, but what often more likely distinguishes them is that they are directed, focused, hardworking, creative, persistent, resilient people. And, you know, also when - it's very important to keep in mind that this is measuring just one of a number of traits that are essential for doing well in the world, and so I think that the caller is absolutely right to remind us to keep that number, although I think that number's very important to keep it in context, and there's a whole range of other abilities that contribute to excellence.

CONAN: I could write my own IQ test, start with a batting order, the 1961 New York Yankees.

Malcolm Gladwell, thanks very much.

Mr. GLADWELL: Thank you.

CONAN: Malcolm Gladwell's article "What IQ Doesn't Tell You About Race" appears in the most recent New Yorker magazine. There's a link to it at npr.org/blogofthenation. He joined us from our studios in New York.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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