Sunday, February 10, 2013


[Note:  These presents are not particularly intended to impugn the validity -- well okay, yes, the ‘validity’, but not the (potential) usefulness (for this purpose or that) -- of IQ tests -- : it’s just a thought that somehow occurred to me.]

(1)  Consider the following extraordinarily cost-efficient proposal for measuring IQ.  It applies around the globe, and requires no expensive testing.

Criterion:  IQ, as assessed by this test,  is based exclusively on surname.  Those with surname beginning with “A” are classified as less intelligent (by a factor of 8.9) than those with a surname beginning with “B”;  and so on, through the alphabet.

Sociological result:   Aaron Aardvark hates this;  Zoe Zzyzzyva  thinks it’s fine.  -- But then, they would, wouldn’t they?

[NB:  This is no idle fable, but a mnemonic representation of what has seriously been objected to present practices.  For order in the alphabet, read class standing.  Yet already, even at this caricatural level, there is a serious epistemological problem involved.]

(2)  OK so -- we seriously try to do better  in devising a test that is not self-fulfilling.  Only … before we can come up with clever schemes to measure something, and evaluate each test on how well it accomplishes its goal, we need to know what we are measuring -- antecedently, independently of the tests (which, at this stage, are themselves being tested.)

The scientific datum for which this insufficiently appreciated epistemological problem  has most starkly been brought home to me, is the matter of the Age of the Earth.   Estimates have fluctated by many orders of magnitude over time;  nevertheless, current scientists are confident of the value they give (to several purportedly significant figures).   But the problem is … how can you even talk about such a thing, unless you have (a) a suite of several planets  (b) a known accurate value (necessarily, given by God) for the age of each.  Given that, you could test your methods (though that would still be hard);  absent that, what are we even talking about.
(Note that the concept of God is here brought in, not for theological reasons, but for epistemological reasons.)

So, posited, that we mysteriously receive, from a cloud or Mt Sinai, a list containing the names of everyone on earth, labeled with a number:  a number which purports (though the ancient pre-Mosaic proto-Hebrew is somewhat difficult to interpret) to represent the absolute level of Intelligence, as viewed by God.
Naturally concerned whether “intelligence” be the best translation of F’n(b)rkk(hhh)blx,  we run a sanity check:  and sure enough, Shakespeare and Einstein come out scoring much better than Donald Trump.  So far so good. (Oddly, P.G. Wodehouse turns out to outrank them both;  but that is an enigma for another time.)  
Now, however, our task is more problematic.  Instead of cooking up some clever-seeming tests (think: tests to measure gravity-waves in physics, while somehow discounting the rumble of the passing milk-truck), we have to come up with … something … which will somehow manage  more or less to match  desiderata given ex cathedra.   -- And no, the problem here has nothing to do specifically with psychology.  Physics sets itself the same task when it tries, on principled theoretical grounds, to predict (retrodict) the measured values for e.g. electron, proton, and neutron mass or radius-- these values being taken, for practical purposes, as God-given (though they are subject to change, and have indeed recently been challenged).  -- The problem in psychology is, to be sure, more difficult again on another dimension, in that the God-given number here is, as given, Delphic and ineffable;  we have no prior certainty about, say, the IQs of familiar objects such as coffee-cups, pigs, and Donald Trump, whereas we do feel quite at home weighing such items, and serenely reckon that the same notion of ‘mass’ applies to electrons as well, without changes. 

That serenity may be ill-founded.  In a flavor of the philosophy of science that had its run of celebrity, the meaning of a measured quantity was inextricably tied in with the method of its measurement.  (This is a subclass of verificationism.)  By that criterion, the “mass” of the proton  and the “mass of a galaxy”   bear no simple relation to each other, nor to the mass of a cat.
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[Note:  Early in 1967, word came down from the scientific mount, that an objective intellegence touchstone  had indeed been discovered, upon which Wechsler and Stanford-Binet and all the rest  were but parasitic:  this being, how fast the neurons could react.
At first reading, that sounded convincing;  although a back-brain reservation said:  Doesn’t the pattern of reaction matter?  We know plenty of fools who respond on a hair-trigger.
-- And how do I recall the date, after all these years?  Ah, thereby hangs a tale!!  (Shout-out to W.S. of Leonia.)]

(3)  And now supposed that, along with the values of what we agree to call an “Intelligence Quotient”, God gives us -- as a bonus -- a GQ or Goodness Quotient  for each listed individual.  -- A hasty check again is somewhat reassuring, with Shakespeare and Einstein coming out slightly above average, and Donald Trump at rock bottom.   But we never imagined there could be a number for such a thing.   And how shall we ever devise tests to measure it?

(4)  That last was a Gedankenexperiment, of uncertain application.  Yet here, from a former trader at Salomon Brothers, is testimony to the power of a single number to symbolize a vast value:

Being paid was a sheer misery for many. [Note:  And this, despite the fact that they were paid very well.]  On January 1, 1987,  1986 would be erased from memory  except for a single number:  the amoung of money you were paid.  That number was the final summing-up.  Imagine being told you will meet with the divine Creator in a year’s time  to be told your worth as a human being.  You’d be a little edgy about the whole thing, wouldn’t you?  That’s roughly what we endured.
-- Michael Lewis, Liar’s Poker (1989)

(Notice again how the Almighty is brought in -- not by any means for religious reasons, but simply as a touchstone, to help make sense of it all.

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