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David Shenk is the national bestselling author of five previous books, including "The Forgetting," "Data Smog," and "The Immortal Game." He is a correspondent for, and has contributed to[…]

There’s nothing wrong with intelligence tests, says David Shenk. It’s our misinterpretations of their results that foster a dangerous “myth of IQ.”

Question: Are modern intelligence tests accurate?


David Shenk:  Yeah, I think we do have good tests of intelligence.  The key is to not misinterpret what those tests are telling us.  We are living under this… I think this really dangerous and oppressive myth of IQ, that is that IQ tests are identifying some kind of quantity of intelligence that we are born with and that we have this static amount of intelligence that we’re going to carry with us throughout life and that if you have a hundred IQ you’re going to be average, you have an average intelligence and that is just the way you were born and that’s the way you’re going to be.  If you have less than a hundred IQ you’re never going to be above average.  It’s just what you’ve got.  That’s not what IQ is divining at all.  IQ tests and every other sort of intelligence or achievement tests are revealing skills that you have, capabilities.  This is what intelligence experts now say.  Robert Sternberg who is now at Tufts, was at Yale for many years, who is arguably the leading thinker in intelligence now articulates that intelligence is not a set of innate capabilities that is static.  It’s a set of skills that we acquire.  Some of us acquire more of those skills, some of us acquire less.  Obviously genes do play a role.  I’m not going to say that we’re…  it’s a blank slate and we could… we all have exactly the same potential to have exactly the same level of skills, but we don’t know what our limits are in terms of how smart we can be, what skills we can have until we expose ourselves to the right resources. 


That’s what is coming through in the science and there are all sorts of different types of intelligence, everyone knows that by now, but the type of intelligence we have and the amount of intelligence and the skills that we display at age 4 aren’t going to be the same at age 6 and age 8 and age 20.  Obviously we’re all going to get more intelligent.  What IQ… The mistake that’s been made in IQ tests is that because some tests are revealing a certain stability over a population, that is if you have… if you score a hundred, an average on a certain test when you’re 10 the chances are that the people who score at that level are going to score roughly at that level when they’re 15, 18, 20.  Because that stability is there we’re misinterpreting that as this idea that you have some sort of fixed level of abilities.  All it is, is just kind of showing where you are in the population and of course most people in any sort of race, in any sort of contest over time most people are going to be roughly in the same order.  That’s what a population sorting tool does, so it doesn’t really tell us anything about what your individual abilities are, and every measure that we have and every piece of science that we have that divines what individual potential is basically just tells us the same message over and over again, which is that we with the right resources, cultural, family, teaching, persistence, all these things, there is no telling what our individual potentials are.  We don’t know what they are until we apply that persistence and all those resources over many, many years’ time.

Recorded on January 19, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen