Blinded by Science: IQ Is Dumb

Get ready for gentler aptitude ratings like Ideaphoria and Foresight.

By Bruno Maddox|Wednesday, May 23, 2007
RELATED TAGS: LEARNING

The good news, such as it is, is that I never wanted to perform hair transplants professionally, I don’t think. I have a lifelong aversion to the scalps of middle-aged men—you can ask anyone—as well as a more general but just as visceral aversion to people’s pretending to be things they aren’t. Unless the person is me, admittedly, but that’s only because artifice and affectation are all I have.

The bad news is that I couldn’t give men hair transplants even if I wanted to. Not good ones, anyway. A man with a stopwatch has just timed me transferring a pile of steel pins, using tweezers, into a wooden board riddled with little holes. Then he broke the bad news. While perhaps in some other life, some future world, I’ll know the satisfaction of a mantelpiece groaning with Christmas cards from grateful clients—photos of them and the wife in a cherry-red Porsche Boxster, the ocean and sunset behind, two manes horizontal in the Pacific Coast Highway wind—that joy will not be mine in this world. For it turns out I have the Tweezer Dexterity of a bowling ball.

Go ahead, please, mock me. Though before you do, you might want to know that I also have the Number Facility of a supercomputer, the Pitch Discrimination and Rhythm Memory of a young Mozart, and Inductive Reasoning skills almost literally up the wazoo.

Also know this—that you may be next. Because after a century of bogus meritocracy based on crude vertical assessments of an essentially fictional human attribute known as “intelligence,” the science of aptitude testing may be making a comeback. And having already crushed one reporter’s dream of a career in hair-loss solutions, it may be about to change everything else.

The Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation (JOCRF) in New York City has been testing the innate aptitudes of Americans since 1922, and the atmosphere is thick with history. Frankly, this whole chunk of Lower Manhattan has always had a Death of a Salesman vibe to it: lots of rheumy-eyed Jack Lemmon types sitting on benches eating sandwiches they brought from home, staring up at tiny oblongs of sky between the crenellated facades of old banks. But up here on the 18th floor, the sense of faded hope has a particularly keen edge. I spend $600 and the better part of two days in the JOCRF, being poked and prodded and tested for a total of seven hours, and it is only toward the end that I put my finger on the poignant center of gravity, which is that I haven’t seen anyone else having their aptitudes tested. There was a woman in the waiting room, once, when I went to use the watercooler, but when I looked again, she was gone.

This would have broken Johnson O’Connor’s heart. O’Connor emerged from a stint as an engineering manager for General Electric convinced that aptitude testing was the key to saving America. Different people are good at different things, he’d discovered. If a means could be devised for testing those inborn talents, people could be directed into jobs they were good at and enjoyed, thereby allowing the nation as a whole to reach its full potential.

The genius and/or madness of Johnson O’Connor’s approach to testing human aptitudes was its reliance on empiricism. O’Connor didn’t start with some private, grandiose conception of how the human brain was divided up and then proceed to put those various compartments through their paces. Instead, he simply gathered lots of data and looked for correlations between performance on various tests and quantifiable human attributes.

As a result, to the layperson many of his tests don’t seem to, how you say, make any sense. After flunking Tweezer Dexterity—and apparently the hair-transplant industry really does use O’Connor’s system to weed out potential scalp butchers—I was stuck in a room, given some headphones, and asked to write an essay on what I think would happen to the world if it were suddenly announced that in seven days every human being alive was going to lose the power of speech. It was a compelling scenario, and I scribbled out several pages, along the way making the point that the news would be particularly hard on women, given their documented fondness for what sociolinguist Deborah Tannen calls “rapport talk”—that constant stream of friendly jabber that seems to reassure them that they’re still alive and that no one’s currently threatening their young. My attitude going into the tests was one of letting chips fall where they may, so I resigned myself to a diagnosis of misogyny and braced myself for the news that I might not want to pursue a career in the fields of mammography or prenatal yoga.

But no! What was actually being tested, it was later revealed, was something called Ideaphoria, loosely defined as the rate of the flow of ideas. My testers hadn’t read my essay for content but had merely counted the words. The more words someone wrote, O’Connor determined, the more likely he was to be the kind of person who wakes up in the night and scribbles down a blueprint for a sewing machine.

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