Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

What IQ Tests Lack

When I was five years old, my parents took me out of my kindergarten class one day and brought me to a different school. They left me for a few hours with around thirty other children, along with a couple of adult supervisors. After everyone had settled down (to the best that a room of young children could), a teacher handed out a test of abstract, pattern-based questions, and told us to take our time.

I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but this was an IQ test — a requirement for the elementary school my parents were sending me to. I don’t know what I scored, but I must have squeaked by the admission guidelines.

The IQ test is an arcane yet widely-accepted method for attempting to quantify the intelligence of human beings. The test uses a series of pattern-based, arithmetic, or vocabulary-based questions to result in a numerical score. 100 is set as the baseline — the average amount of intelligence amongst tested subjects. Contrary to popular opinion, the 100 score is not constant — IQ tests are frequently adjusted, and the average is always set at 100. That is: if someone with an IQ of 100 in 2012 were to take an IQ test from a few decades ago, they’d score well above 100.

IQ tests have become the standard measure for human intelligence, which is odd. Despite their popularity and near-universal clout, IQ tests are subjected to many criticisms, from internal bias to outdated psychometrics.

But, critically, IQ tests don’t test for creativity, which I would argue is a massive component of what separates intelligence from recognition. Logic without creativity is a machine; things with creativity but without logic are children. IQ tests are, to a certain extent, something like a reverse Turing test, measuring how close a human being can be to a machine.

Recently on Quora, a user asked “why do so many writers use words that might be difficult for some readers?”. Laura Copeland offered a comparison of ways to write about stormy weather:

Now I have a readymade remedy for sentences like this one:

It looked like a storm was coming.

The grammar is sound. The words get the job done. But it’s nothing special, nor is the rest of the essay from which it was lifted. What to do?

I know! Those words could use some synonyms.

Let’s try some:

There was a bouquet of petrichor in the air.

Petrichor! The smell of rain on the earth! That is exactly what I wanted to say!

My spice rack has saved the day again, I think, until I read this:

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

That’s the opening line to Neuromancer. It’s simple, works well, and isn’t gimmicky.

The final phrase is more poetic. It’s “smarter”, despite using less complex vocabulary. It’s challenging or, perhaps, impossible to quantify that. The most intelligent people I know not only have a large knowledge of information, but are able to utilize that information in creative ways. They are able to see beyond the established constraints, and work through those limitations to produce spectacular results.

In 2009, the FIA introduced sweeping changes to the allowed aerodynamic features for that year’s Formula One cars. This, combined with the longstanding ban on moveable aerodynamic parts, created a tighter window in which teams could modulate the aerodynamics of their car. After a year of development, three teams found unique ways of working around these restrictions.

At the time, the front wing of an F1 car was allowed to flex only 10 millimetres at speed. In order to simulate this, the wings were tested by placing 50 kilogram weights on the ends. If the wing flexed less than 10 mm, it passed. Both Ferrari and Red Bull worked out a unique carbon fibre compound that would pass the 50 kilogram test with ease, but would flex much more at speed, allowing further modulation of the aerodynamics than the rules allowed. The FIA changed their testing method midway through the 2010 season to compensate.

McLaren also stretched the rules during the 2010 season. They added a so-called “F-duct” to their car for the season. Normally, the duct would pass fast moving air from the front through the cabin in an undirected manner. But the driver could cover a hole in the cabin with their knee, channelling the air in a more focused way over the rear wing, thereby buying the car nearly 10 kilometres per hour of extra speed.

Both of these methods are very smart ways to work within constraints. But carefully working through regulations in this manner would not be rewarded on an IQ test. IQ does not take this into account, and it is an egregious omission. Without creativity, intelligence is incomplete.