Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Of Presidents and IQ


Why the obsession with GW's IQ? For the past five years, there has been one feeble "analysis" after another intended to assure us that he's actually pretty bright. Whether it is the analysis of his SAT scores or, more recently, his Air Force Officer Qualifying Test score.

A friend of mine once commented that what he found surprising is that it is quite easy to tell when somebody is not as smart as you are, but it is a lot harder to tell when somebody is smarter than you are. That's not to say that you cannot identify a situational brilliance - most will concede that Stephen Hawking can outdo them in the field of theoretical physics. But there's another side to this - even with his physical limitations removed from the equation, few would thereby conclude that Stephen Hawking was highly qualified to be President.

That's not to say we don't want a smart president - we obviously do. And obviously a great number of Bush supporters are sufficiently obsessed with "proving" that their candidate is sufficiently smart that they pore over dusty academic records and apply mathematical formulae they, well, seemingly make up, to prognosticate that when Bush was at one young age or another his IQ was somewhere in the mid-120's. A respectable IQ, although probably not particularly remarkable for Capitol Hill, which (whether or not you like the way they apply their intelligence) has more than its fair share of bright people.

We can easily get past the "IQ is meaningless" argument - it is apparent that IQ is quite meaningful within a broad range of common contexts. Bush's IQ is extrapolated from his SAT score - what, then, should we make of Paul Allen's combined 160, or Bill Gates' combined 1590 SAT scores? Is it a mere coincidence that two men whose SAT scores were "perfect" and "near-perfect" are co-founders of Microsoft (even if we wouldn't necessarily want either as President)?

But IQ isn't everything. A person can have a very high IQ but lack the social skills or even the thinking skills which make the IQ relevant. A high IQ score, of itself, doesn't make you conscientious or motivated. Of itself, it doesn't make you honest or trustworthy. Of itself, it doesn't make you a good or creative thinker. Of itself, it doesn't make you realize what every truly "smart" person knows - that learning is a lifelong experience, and that you will never have all of the answers. That is, life answers more questions than answers - and that the more you learn, the more you realize you do not yet know. And, of course, the measure of few IQ points one way or another is more likely to tell you something about the test and its margin of error, or how tired or bored the subject was when tested, than it is to tell you about any given individual.

President Bush may well have an IQ in the mid-120's. But if he does, he doesn't apply it well. He gave up on the journey of learning a very long time ago, apparently before he even got to college, and in many ways his campaign is effectively centered on his concrete operational thinking patterns - those which make him so certain that he is right and so unwilling to reconsider his mistakes. His more intelligent supporters who recognize these patterns - and recognize that they are indicative of a lower intelligence - obsess over proving he is "smart". And they keep going back to the same tired issue, over and over, because they know that Bush's public statements suggest that by Capitol Hill standards, whatever his IQ, Bush is at best a middling intellect.

Those supporters should remember two things. The reason that candidates like Clinton, Gore and Kerry aren't defensive about their intelligence is that they are confident of their intelligence - and their supporters share that comfort. And they should also remember that bragging that your friend is a few IQ points, or a few percentage points, higher than somebody else is a playground taunt, without any real world significance.

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