Friday, 29 November 2013

Boris Johnson and the science of IQ

Boris Johnson's recent speech on equality and intelligence helps to show why those in the know rule him out as a future Prime Minister. He might be witty, interesting and above all able to cut through to the public in the way few other public figures can. But he's also a fly-by-night tightrope walker who makes it up as he goes along.

So it is with his mayoralty. So it is with this speech.

Boris (above) posited that there can't be a greater or wide measure of equality in our society because citizens have different levels of intelligence, as measured by their IQ scores. Well (deep sigh). Well. Well. Where does one start with this particular misunderstanding of just about everything that's been written on the question for the past thirty or forty years? It's not that it's elitist - though, as the Deputy Prime Minister said in reply to Boris' rant, it certainly is. Were one to show that there was an ineluctable link between academic ability and achievement, one might think that a bit of elitism in terms of written schooling might be justifiable, if not particularly helpful to the eighty to ninety per cent of children who'd be left out of the grammar school education Boris has been calling for.

It's not that. It's that his science is just so, so wrong. People are of course born to be different. Their height, speed, capacities and acuities are different. So far, so good. But the idea that there is a fixed leve of something called intelligence - well, here there's a parting of the ways.

So here's a thing that Boris didn't say: IQ tests are a joke. Their results shift around all over the place, with children gaining very high and very low scores across time, the same child racing ahead of the IQ 'average' one week and behind the next. There is no one fixed and unchanging quality called 'intelligence'. Here's another point he must know, but chose not to make: they measure a certain type of inside-the-box logic chopping, rather than true intelligence. Want to group things of a certain type together very quickly? Do some rapid maths in your head? Fine. IQ's for you. But if you want a truly testing, questing, flexible, reflexive and creative type of learning - like that the Chinese and Singaporese increasingly worry that their rigid education systems miss - you'll want to throw those tests in the bin and start again.The whole point about the 11+, the out-of-date and derided British exam that relied on IQ, is that civil servants were forced to concede that it had been discredited very rapidly after the 1944 Education Act that helped to enshrine it in British culture.

Here's some more points: there's no evidence that what IQ numbers we do have are related to those of parents. There's nothing to support the idea that IQ is correlated with economic success - quite the reverse, in fact. There's lots of evidence, on the other hand, that IQ-based systems privilege middle- or upper-class ways of speaking and reasoning, rather than the different types of knowledge prized by other socio-economic groups. And that politicians like to stigmatise people of 'low intelligence'. Mrs Thatcher's intellectual svengali, Keith Joseph, did just that in 1974 - evoking a row about the 'underclass' that reverberates to this day. Boris is tipping a cynical nod and a wink to a constituency he knows he'll need if he's to storm the ramparts of his party, and then No. 10 Downing Street.

But if the intellectual case was 'inequality is fine, because it reflects ability' than every single step of that argument is just wrong. False. The opposite of opinions based on evidence. Grounded in nothing. Nada. Squat. Zip.

Perhaps the Mayor of London should do his research before he starts talking - or, just perhaps, exhibit a little more intelligence.