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Debunking Intelligence Experts: Walter Lippmann Speaks Out

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Essay title: Debunking Intelligence Experts: Walter Lippmann Speaks Out


A startling bit of news has recently been unearthed and is now being retailed by the credulous to the gullible. “The average mental age of Americans,” says Mr. Lothrop Stoddard in The Revolt Against Civilization, “is only about fourteen.”

Mr. Stoddard did not invent this astonishing conclusion. He found it ready-made in the writings of a number of other writers. They in their turn got the conclusion by misreading the data collected in the army intelligence tests. For the data themselves lead to no such conclusion. It is impossible that they should. It is quite impossible for honest statistics to show that the average adult intelligence of a representative sample of the nation is that of an immature child in that same nation. The average adult intelligence cannot be less than the average adult intelligence, and to anyone who knows what the words “mental age” mean, Mr. Stoddard’s remark is precisely as silly as if he had written that the average mile was three quarters of a mile long.

The trouble is that Mr. Stoddard uses the words “mental age” without explaining either to himself or to his readers how the conception of “mental age” is derived. He was in such an enormous hurry to predict the downfall of civilization that he could not pause long enough to straighten out a few simple ideas. The result is that he snatches a few scarifying statistics and uses them as a base upon which to erect a glittering tower of generalities. For the statement that the average mental age of Americans is only about fourteen is not inaccurate. It is not incorrect. It is nonsense.

Mental age is a yard stick invented by a school of psychologists to measure “intelligence.” It is not easy, however, to make a measure of intelligence and the psychologists have never agreed on a definition. This quandary presented itself to Alfred Binet. For years he had tried to reach a definition of intelligence and always he had failed. Finally he gave up the attempt, and started on another tack. He then turned his attention to the practical problem of distinguishing the “backward” child from the “normal” child in the Paris schools. To do this he had to know what was a normal child. Difficult as this promised to be, it was a good deal easier than the attempt to define intelligence. For Binet concluded, quite logically, that the standard of a normal child of any particular age was something or other which an arbitrary percentage of children of that age could do. Binet therefore decided to consider “normal” those abilities which were common to between 65 and 75 percent of the children of a particular age. In deciding these percentages he thus decided to consider at least twenty-five percent of the children as backward. He might just as easily have fixed a percentage which would have classified ten percent of the children as backward, or fifty percent.

Having fixed a percentage which he would hence-forth regard as “normal” he devoted himself to collecting questions, stunts and puzzles of various sorts, hard ones and easy ones. At the end he settled upon fifty-four tests, each of which he guessed and hoped would test some element of intelligence; all of which together would test intelligence as a whole. Binet then gave these tests in Paris to two hundred school children who ranged from three to fifteen years of age. Whenever he found a test that about sixty-five percent

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