The Mismeasure of Man

Author: Stephen Jay Gould
Year: 1981
Genre: Science

After the last book I read on standardized testing, I came to this book assuming that the arguments against IQ would be more or less the same as the arguments against the MCAS. Standardized testing in general is problematic, I thought; it tends to be culturally biased and limiting, and when it's used as the sole (or primary) measure of intellectual competence, it invariably gives a one-sided view of the test-taker, conflating true mental ability with mere test-taking savvy. From this perspective, what does it matter if the test is administered by psychologists or by schoolteachers?

Instead, Gould's history of mental testing, from 19th-century craniometry to the eve of The Bell Curve (I believe he addresses The Bell Curve explicitly in a later edition), left me with an appreciation for just how progressive the MCAS is. While it may be narrow-minded and unfair, at least it was established with the goal of raising the performance of the weakest students to meet a universal minimum standard. It's meant to measure learning and achievement in a given subject area, not native mental ability. IQ, on the other hand, has historically been viewed (in Gould's words) as an innate, general, cognitive ability - something that underlies all an individual's intellectual accomplishment, and that cannot be increased by more or better instruction. Just the opposite: low IQ scores have been used to justify everything from segregated professional and vocational educational tracks, to racial discrimination and forced sterilization. Whatever its actual result, MCAS's intent is to help all students learn; IQ has overwhelmingly singled out low-performing children to receive even lower-quality education.

In my review of Edward O. Wilson's Consilience, I mentioned that I was reading "another book that deals with similar themes." The Mismeasure of Man is that book. The two biologists engage different but related themes: while Wilson writes about the place he envisions for scientists in the study of culture, Gould addresses the influence of a cultural environment on the practice of science. The interpretation of IQ scores as measuring a single general intelligence, and their use (like that of craniology before them) to rank human beings in order of innate intellectual capability, was the product of an age whose experts ranked all life according to the "great chain of being," culminating with whites over blacks and men over women. Although test results allowed numerous potential interpretations, scientists' prejudices led them to the one that seemed "obvious" at the time. Gould doesn't mention them explicitly, but one could view the theories of multiple intelligences and "learning differences" as the "inevitable" views of a more pluralistic generation. Despite our best attempts at impartiality, cultural norms and preconceptions drive our interpretations; the data themselves are just numbers.

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