by Dann Simonsen

“… and to implement abstractions in reality is synonymous with the destruction of reality.” (G.W.F. Hegel)1 

After the ideas in the book The Bell Curve were thoroughly debunked a couple of years ago, almost everybody seems to agree that even if black people considered as a group may be less intelligent than the rest of humanity, the genes are not to blame! Based on statistical studies of the intelligence quotient (IQ) of German children born after WW2 and fathered by black Americans, the most recent publications used as textbooks at the Institute of Psychology at the University of Copenhagen declare that the average score of these children is by no means inferior – as you would expect if ‘black genes’ were dumber than other people’s genes.2  And this conclusion goes well with the political trends claiming that all people are equal – at least until their success or failure proves that they never were.

The same democratic attitude, however, is open to a very different graduation of the individuals than the one between blacks and whites. When some people are poor and others are rich, even when everybody is equal and therefore by definition has equal opportunities, then the difference must ultimately be caused by either their genes or the conditions of their childhood, nature or nurture, mustn’t it?

Selection for dummies

When I myself or my high-school colleagues hand out grade cards a couple of times a year, we actually “implement abstractions in reality” in a way that does not get less brutal because it is as mundane as it is generally respected and accepted: Our job does not simply consist in communicating knowledge and practical skills to our students, but also in grading what they have learned in the shape of their performance in class or in tests. The brutality, however, is not simply that learning is being judged at all. That would be very rational and would not result in the “destruction” of a single piece of “reality”, on the contrary. The brutality consists in the abstraction that this special kind of judgment makes when it ignores the concrete reality of the performance of the students and instead summarizes it as a number, as a grade, like this: One English essay is full of spelling mistakes, but otherwise alright: grammar and contents are correct. Another essay has no spelling mistakes, the grammar is also correct, but the student has misunderstood the subject. In a third one the spelling and contents are OK, but often the verbs do not agree with the subjects. But in all three cases the grading of these qualitatively very different essays results in the same grade (e.g. C minus), which in a way equates them, makes them equal, even though they are in essence very different.

And this equality, this abstraction, is the very point of the grading scale: The very different performances must be made quantitatively comparable – even when they do not have any quality in common, which is usually the prerequisite for quantitative comparisons, for scales.3  The qualitative judgment would point out to one student that it would be a good idea to use the dictionary more often (or the computer’s spell checker), it would tell another student to read the presentation carefully before starting to write, and the third student to reread the §§ 154-166 in the English grammar.4  Unlike this approach the grading does violence to a piece of reality – to begin with only in theory, but the next time around in practice when the judgment in the shape of school certificates and restricted admission to colleges is executed on the finished products of the Danish high-school system: the comparison and selection based on grades5  where the abstraction of the grade average is used to exclude students from the further education that they would like to get.

Does size really matter?

Historically intelligence testing seems to have served a purpose very different from grading: According to Gleitman et al., Alfred Binet “sought to both identify the weaker students and then to improve (!) their performance through special training.” (633) In other words it was not a question of excluding them from further education. On the contrary, it was a question of being able to offer “‘mental orthopedics’ for students with low scores” or even provide them with “training of intelligence”. (633)

This purpose was very different from the one of today as it is described by Gleitman et al. in their introduction to the chapter “Intelligence: Its Nature and Measurements” where it is described as “a real need for the systematic assessment of human characteristics, as employers seek an appropriate person to occupy each niche and employees look for the niche that best suits them.” In other words it is a question of making “tests to assist in educational selection and job placement” (625), i.e. of answering the questions: “Who will get a good (!) job? Who will receive the benefits of the finest-quality education? (And who will definitely not! DS) Should disadvantaged students be denied (!) college admission because of (!) low Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores?” (626)

In this description it is not a question of offering remedial teaching to students lagging behind. It is an attempt at placing the hierarchisation of the citizens of the class society in the redeeming light of being anchored to real science.

Everybody is the architect of his own fortune

In this way the IQ psychologists have turned the reality of social conditions upside down when every new generation is raised and educated and finally placed in one of the slots of the hierarchy of jobs or in the unemployment line, since jobs for everyone is the exception in this system (apropos of “the niche that best suits them”). The psychologists are well-aware of the fact that this hierarchy contains jobs that do not offer the intellect many challenges and others that consist of almost nothing else:

“While people plainly disagree about the definition of intelligence, there is a reasonable consensus on the sorts of tasks that require intelligence. For example, it seems obvious that little intelligence is needed to dig a hole with a shovel – Einstein would have been no better at this task (and might have been worse) than someone with far less intellectual prowess. Alternatively, intelligence does seem necessary for learning calculus – for this complex task, someone like Einstein has a considerable advantage.” (632-33)

And all this would not have been so bad if it were not for the catch that people’s income, and consequently their access to the products needed to live, depends on getting a place in this hierarchy of jobs. Only to the extent that “employers” need workers to fill out “a good (or mediocre or worse. DS) job”, do the people offering their labour power have an income. The size of the compensation given to people without a job is measured to fit its purpose as extortion: to make the receiver do whatever he can (or cannot) to get at job.6 

The conflicting interests are reflected in the world of theory where social selection, and thus the differential treatment of people, is explained as the outcome of or maybe even as a concession to the individual preferences and skills, “the niche that best suits them”, be that as, for instance, a psychometrician or a menial worker in or out of a job.

What is intelligence?

For this purpose it does not matter that the psychologists have not even been able to agree on a definition of the question, “What is intelligence?” (but then again: Who really cares?) “These tests were developed to fill certain practical (!) needs, and as we will see, for many purposes these tests work quite well.” (632)

So while they are busy testing everything in sight, they do bring upon themselves the question to be answered, “Are any of these tests valid? Do they actually (!) measure intelligence?”, questions, which they choose to answer by pointing at the practical needs that they seem to meet: “One way to answer this is by looking at the tests’ effectiveness in predicting school success.” (637)

To their own relief they come to the conclusion that the tests, actually (!), can be used to single out and subdivide for instance “the mentally retarded” and also to “predict school performance fairly well” (639), which is no big surprise in the educational system of today, which is practiced with slight variations in all the leading nations of market economy: When the education system is created for the purpose of grading the students according to their performances (be it the form of grades or IQ tests) and letting the ones who have learned a lot “receive the benefits of the finest-quality education” and letting the ones who have not learned as much “be denied college admission” instead of supplying them with the education necessary to bring them up to the required level, when this is the case, it is no wonder that IQ tests “predict” how well a child will do in the education system, since these tests to a large extent consist in puzzles that you grow better at solving the longer you have attended school – with success. 7 

Gleitman et al. are not blind to this fact when they hypothesize if the connection may be:

“intelligence -> better performance

but instead

intelligence -> encouragement -> more school -> more skills -> better performance”. (640) 8 

But instead of learning something from their own doubts, they once again resort to the utility value of the IQ testing:

“One way or the other, though, the fact remains that IQ scores do predict other variables of considerable interest, and this gives us reason to believe that the tests are valid.” (640)

It does not seem to bother them that again (for the forth time?) they have to accept that they have not really come up with a sensible answer to their question of what intelligence really is:

“But what exactly are these tests measuring?” (640)

And – to anticipate the final outcome – even though they almost stumble across the answer with their sea-serpent example on page 641, they are as unsuccessful as their colleagues at identifying what intelligence is. An intelligent thought is nothing but the correct explanation of a phenomenon that is not self-evident. If the explanation is wrong, it is unintelligent, no matter how well your brain was put together by a more or less intelligent designer. Between these two points it is very difficult to find a graduation that might be expressed in a “quotient” – and therefore the correct explanation is also completely uninteresting to IQ psychologists.

However, they offer another explanation: They insist that their tests do measure something, but since they cannot agree what this thing is, Spearman and others suggest that it be called “g” = “general intelligence” (642). And although even the advocates of the g spot of intelligence theory cannot agree on what exactly “g” is or where it is placed, Gleitman et al. once again resort to the customary solution, since “the practical (!) value of g measures remains strong, at the same time that the theoretical meaning of g remains open”. (644)

But then what is it that makes IQ tests so practical?

“We have emphasized a number of complexities and limitations associated with intelligence. But (!) the fact remains that intelligence tests do predict success in a number of different contexts (especially in Western cultures), and the test scores are widely used – by educators deciding whom to admit to a program and by employers deciding whom to hire.” (653)

In spite of the fact that Gleitman et al. have just given a couple of examples of people whose job qualifications among other things consist of the ability to “predict the outcome and payoffs in upcoming horse races” and whose ability to do so appears to be completely independent of their IQs, “the handicappers’ success turned out to be completely unrelated to their IQ’s” (649), and in spite of the fact that an investigation of “business executives” and their abilities to come up with “excellent predictors of business success:” “Interestingly, there was virtually no correlation between these measures of business success and IQ” (650), it still does not make them doubt the alleged causal connection which they have fabricated based on the “correlation”.

When “educators” and “employers” – and “widely” at that – use “intelligence tests” to choose candidates to fill out places of education or work, it is not so very strange that these tests to some extent are able to “predict” success! On the contrary, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy, “especially in Western cultures”. There are other cultures where for instance caste could be used to make the same rather certain prophecies, and the prevalent use of business astrologers even in Western cultures may eventually lead to astrology being recognized as an auxiliary science: If enough employers make use of the business astrology, earmarking people born in the astrological sign of Pisces as very bad employee potential, some day these Pisces may, statistically, turn out to get a place in the unemployment line instead of behind a desk more often than people born in e.g. Sagittarius.

Democratic racism

In spite of all the examples that intellectual faculties do not remain stable and very much depend on whether or not people are placed in enriching environments (p. 659-665),9  IQ psychologists cannot be convinced that success at school and in business is not somehow caused by IQ:

“People differ in their test performance, and these differences correlate substantially with success in our Western school systems.” (665)

This is the contribution of psychology to the democratic racism of today! As mentioned above, cultured Westerners no longer think that niggers belong in the cotton fields, because they were born with cotton wool brains:

“It turns out that this measure of the genotype (“to estimate the degree of African ancestry”) is unrelated to IQ, in contradiction to what we might expect of a genetic hypothesis.” (664)

But on the other hand, they do think that ultimately everybody is the architect of his own fortune, that the inherent differences between individuals lead some people to be winners and others to be losers, and that this, at least to some extent, is determined by genetics since “There is clear-cut (!) evidence that genetic factors are of considerable importance in determining variations within groups”. (666)

Alternative IQ – no alternative

For the last couple of years the democratic racial dogma in the shape of IQ tests has received competition – not from peop
le who think that ultimately society decides how many people are going to be national bank governors and how many destitute. The advocates of “emotional intelligence” may want to settle accounts with the dogma of IQ theory – “Is IQ destiny? Not nearly as much as we think.” – but only because they want to compete with the advocates of IQ theory by introducing another human characteristic as the factor responsible for success and defeat in the market economy:

“Daniel Goleman argues that our view of human intelligence is far too narrow, and that our emotions play a far greater role in thought, decision making and individual success than is commonly acknowledged. (….) These are the qualities that mark people who excel: whose relationships flourish, who are stars in the workplace.” “Brains may come in useful, as may social class and luck, but as a predictor (!) of who will succeed (!) in any (!) area of life, EQ is the thing to worry (!) about.” (Quoted from the cover of Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence, Bloombury 1996) 10 

I will confine my own prophetic activities to the prediction of a boom in the test industry! And if you (cf. Hegel) are one of those whose reality is ruined by the products of this industry, it hardly pays to sue it for product liability. Your failure is caused by nothing but the inferiority of your own chromosomes!


– But …. do we all have the same intelligence?

– No, of course not! We also don’t have the same nose. To each his own!

– But what I mean is: Is it equally big?

– Unlike a discussion about noses, the question of the size of intelligence is completely idiotic. You make the assumption that intelligence is a prerequisite for a great many things – if, for instance, you are retarded, you won’t be able to grasp Einstein’s theory of relativity. However, this does not mean that intelligence is what decides whether you have success in this (social) life or not.

– Maybe not, but if you are mentally retarded, then it also means that you cannot become a brain surgeon, doesn’t it?

– Definitely not, but that is not the reason why so few people become M.D.s or something similar. When very few people get further and higher education, it is not because their IQs are insufficient. On the contrary, it’s because the state imposes competition for places of education: Along with the restricted admission to universities and similar measures, the grades determine that a lot of people cannot obtain admission to a large number of the most coveted educations. This excludes them in advance from getting the “success” they strive for. This would also answer one of the questions of Gleitman et al: “Why is it that some individuals fail on a particular problem while others succeed?” (644) For instance, it is very easy to answer the question about why some people manage to become doctors and others don’t. The answer is that some people are given permission to study for a medical degree, and others are denied this opportunity.

– But that is not implied in the question?

– No, of course not. It continues: “These are crucial questions if we wish to understand what intelligence is, and how intelligent thinking proceeds.” In other words, Gleitman et al. are searching for some kind of individual limitation in intelligence which prevents some people from becoming M.D.s. And as already mentioned there definitely are people, the retarded, who are affected by a natural limitation which prevents them from achieving certain knowledge and skills. However, the same limitation can’t be established in the spectrum of average intelligence …. unless the researchers some day manage to isolate the sequence of genes responsible for the grading scale and restricted admission to the universities!

– But do the natural variables make no difference? How about the identical twins, for example?

– Yes, inherent, brain-based variations of how fast people think or how many balls they can manage to hold in the air simultaneously, metaphorically speaking, may actually exist. But Gleitman et al. cite several examples of how these alleged natural limitations are transgressed every time researchers think that they have discovered a group of people with very low IQs. Move them to another place or supply them with better educational opportunities, and this limitation disappears immediately.

– Yes, but don’t they also say that while, on the one hand, there is “little evidence for a genetic account of the difference between groups”, there is “clear-cut evidence that genetic factors are of considerable importance in determining variation within groups”, on the other? (666)

– Yes, and they are probably right too. But even when the IQ of whole groups suddenly increase dramatically, when they are moved from one place to another, after all, the same groups do consist of individuals, don’t they? The point of insisting on this difference is a question of interests: Even if the average height of people changes dependent on the conditions of the conditions in which they grow up, there are also individual differences within groups.

– Yes, but what does a difference in height have to do with intelligence?

– Absolutely nothing, and that is the point! Nobody in this society wants to prevent people with short legs from buying trainers! In spite of the general assumption that they will probably never, at least as an average ‘within groups’, be able to run as fast as people with long legs. If, on the other hand, a societal objective did exist, aiming at limiting the access to trainers, that – and not some ingenious theory of nature and nurture – would explain the limitation.

– ????

– OK, then, let’s take a look at antiquity, which always seems to be so much easier to tackle for modern democrats: In ancient Rome they had gladiator struggles where two people were confronted and made to fight with their lives at stake. So who would die? Well, one of them would. Why? Because that was the whole idea! Spartacus and his followers knew that, which is why they rose in rebellion against slavery which treated people this way. Modern psychologists, however, are not rebels, but socially responsible citizens. They consider the democratic state and market economy to be a blessing to mankind, which is why it won’t penetrate their skulls that people become winners and losers in the system of education as well as in the labour market because that is the whole point of competition! Instead they search for a cause in the genes (nature) or in the childhood (nurture) of the individuals that society leaves no other choice than to compete. If Spartacus had been a psychologist or an IQ tester instead of a rebel, he would have researched the correlations between the deaths in the arena and the dysfunctional childhoods of the dearly departed.

– But I still don’t understand what it has to do with IQ?

– Then you should consider this to be a test of your intelligence! You just flunked!!!


  • Michael Cole, Sheila R. Cole: The Development of Children, (Worth Publishers 2001)
  • Gleitman, Fridlund & Reisberg: Psychology, ch. 15: Intelligence – Its Nature and Measurement (Norton 1999)
  • Daniel Goleman: Emotional Intelligence – Why It Matters More Than IQ, (Bloomsbury 1996)
  • Karl Held (red.): The Psychology of the Private Individual (Resultate Verlag 1996)  
  • Richard J. Herrnstein, Charles Murray: The Bell Curve. Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, (Simon & Schuster 1994)
  • Freerk Huisken: Ungdomsvold – selvbevidsthedskulten og dens uønskede resultater, (politisk revy 1998)
  • Mogens Winther: Astrologi – vildfarelse eller videnskab?   Artikel i bogen Bedst af alle verdener – Myter i det 21. århundrede (Fremad 2000)

Translated by the author. First published in the magazine Social Kritik 72/2001  .
By permission of Social Kritik, it appeared online in Danish in Para-nyt, Dansk Skeptica, in 2002.  

More about IQ, in Danish:


  1. Quoted from Karl Held.
  2. If nothing else is indicated the page numbers always refer to the book Psychology   by Gleitman, Fridlund & Reisberg, (Norton 1999), in this case from p. 664.
  3. This is the basis of the joke by the famous (at least in Denmark) Danish humorist Robert Storm Petersen who asks which is the tallest/loudest (same word in Danish!): a clap of thunder or The Round Tower (in central Copenhagen)? If you use degrees Fahrenheit to compare two things, you measure their temperature. If instead you use metric tons, you compare their weight. It does not make sense to compare the temperature of bathing water of 82,1 with two tons of old newspapers.
  4. Grammar Training  
  5. It is quite amazing that most of the time internal and external examiners find it so easy to agree about grades in spite of the required power of abstraction. By the way, even before the final exams a selection takes place in the high schools: Students flunk out, are expelled or realize on their own, maybe after having been graded for the first time, that in their case the daily effort may not be worth while.
  6. That is also the way it is discussed in parliamentary debates. The phrase, “it has to be profitable to work”, in unambiguous words means: ‘We must render it impossible for the unemployed to sustain a decent living.’
  7. E.g. example 15.7 in Gleitman, p. 635.
  8. To get an intuitive idea of this approach, consider looking at a lake and seeing what appears to be serpentlike parts:
    Illustration A

    The viewer can entertain various hypotheses. One is that all visible parts belong to one huge sea monster. This would be analogous to the hypothesis that there is a unitary intellectual ability, tying together the various test scores:
    Illustration B
    There might also be several such beasts (analogous to a hypothesis of separate mental abilities):
    Illustration C

    Or finally, there might be as many sea animals as there are visible parts (analogous to the hypothesis that every test measures an totally different ability):
    Illustration D (p. 641)

  9. Otherwise education would be a waste of time!
  10. From the cover text of Daniel Goldman’s Emotional Intelligence. And one cannot even make allowance for Goldman’s ignorance of the subject. He talks about the “world-wide competition to drive down labour costs creating economic forces that press on the family. These are times of financially besieged families in which both parents work long hours, so that children are left to their own devices or the TV baby-sits; when more children than ever grow up in poverty; (…) when more infants and toddlers are left in day care so poorly run that it amounts to neglect.” (p. 234)
    And when he then asks, “If families no longer function effectively to put all our children on a firm footing for life, what are we to do?!”, it is almost self-evident that he cannot be interested in the obvious solution: to do away with the competition, to raise wages or to secure sensible working hours for parents! That the children and their parents have bloody awful conditions does not seem to worry him. What does worry him, however, is that so many of them attract attention to themselves in an unfortunate way, and therefore he prefers to dream of “how well-aimed correctives or preventives could keep more children on track.” (p. 234) and in this way “inoculate (Goleman’s favourite word!) them against the turmoil and pressures they are about to face.” (p. 275) – probably escorted by helpful psychologists like Goleman!