Sunday, June 01, 2014

Away with mismeasurement

This past week, the Supremes decided that states could not use a single number on an I.Q. test to determine whether a person is intellectually competent enough to be put to death. Florida had instituted a cut off score of 70: if less, the defendant got locked away; if higher, death for the defendant. The decision requires states to attempt a more nuanced determination of capacity.

The New York Times estimates that:

the ruling affects roughly 30 death row inmates. The number is low because the vast majority of states follow modern standards of determining intellectual disabilities, going beyond using a single number to be considered disabled. But in those states that will be affected, death row inmates with low, but not low enough, I.Q. scores that have been previously rejected or never put forward can now seek to have their sentences reconsidered.

Now I'm certainly glad that defense lawyers will be able to raise the issue about this group, but the whole notion that this thing labeled I.Q. has any impact on the life of anyone seems quite absurd.

To quote Lewis Carroll's murderous Queen of Hearts. "Off with their heads!"

In fact, I find it hard to believe that anyone is still administering I.Q. tests for any purpose.

The only thing I.Q. tests measure is the facility of the person being tested at manipulating the sort of thing tested on I.Q. tests. This is no measure of whether someone should live or die -- or get a job -- or be accepted at a school -- or really, anything!

Anthropologist Scott Atran argues for retiring the whole idea of I.Q.

There is no reason to believe, and much reason not to believe, that the measure of a so-called "Intelligence Quotient" in any way reflects some basic cognitive capacity, or "natural kind" of the human mind.

... IQ is a general measure of socially acceptable categorization and reasoning skills. ...

If your definition of what is "socially acceptable" is different from the test writer's you're dumb. Didn't you know that?

The late Stephen J. Gould pretty thoroughly demolished the concept of I.Q. in The Mismeasure of Man. I.Q. tests were devised by 19th and early 20th century researchers to give a "scientific" gloss to their favored racial and ethnic categories. The U.S. psychologist Henry H. Goddard tried his tests out on new immigrants (that is, southern and eastern Europeans) and concluded that

83% of the Jews, 80% of the Hungarians, 79% of the Italians and 87% of the Russians were feeble-minded.

Robert Yerkes, a president of the American Psychological Association, got a chance to test the I.Q. of soldiers drafted for World War I and labelled "89% of negroes" as "feeble-minded." The content of his tests, which essentially measured familiarity with the mores and artifacts of upper middle class U.S. culture in his era, have been described acidly as a "kind of early 20th century Trivial Pursuit."

This "measure" measures only the assumptions of the measurer. The death penalty attracts and often depends upon this sort of insupportable pseudo-science. I.Q. and the death penalty are a toxic mix, despite the slight intervention from the court.

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