Nature 296:5857 8 April 1982 p.506
The Mismeasure of Man. By Stephen J. Gould.
Pp.352. ISBN 0-393-01489-4.
(W.W.Norton: 1981.) $14.95, L9.95
WITH a glittering prose style and as honestly held a set of
prejudices as you could hope to meet in a day's crusading, S.J.
Gould presents his attempt at identifying the fatal flaw in
the theory and measurement of intelligence. Of course
everyone knows there must be a fatal flaw, but so far reports of
its discovery have been consistently premature.
The theme of this particular book is that since science is
embedded in society, one must expect to find the prejudices of
the age presented by scientists as fact. Most authors, given
such a theme, would be content to document and catalogue
instances in support of the proposition. Gould, however, goes
one better by writing a book which exemplifies its own thesis.
It is a masterpiece of propaganda, researched in the
service of a point of view rather than written from a fund of
knowledge. For the best propaganda requires not the
suppression or distortion of facts but their careful selection,
emphasis and juxtaposition. So, in a work which declares its
concern to be with the notion of intelligence as a single
measurable "thing" in the head, we find that two-thirds of the
argument is given over to a careful reworking of early attempts
to establish craniometric and anthropometric criteria of
intelligence, and an admirably disturbing account of the Gadarene
rush to press IQ tests into the service of social engineering in
the USA in the first half of this century. As Gould rightly
emphasizes, many of the uses to which tests were put made
mockery of their original purpose.
The final third of the book is the attempt proper to debunk the
notion of general intelligence as arising specifically in
the school of factor analysts starting with Spearman. But by
this stage the reader has been presented with sufficient
examples, sufficiently carefully examined, of racial and social
prejudice in the work of scientists, of distorted data, fudged
analysis and twisted interpretation as to the inexpert might
establish a necessary connection.
Add to that the soft target of Cyril Burt [RS note: Burt appears
to have been the victim of a politically-motivated slander, and
the case agaainst him is now collapsing: see _Nature_ 340:439 (10
Aug. 1989); 352:120 (11 July, 1991); 354:97 (14 Nov. 1991)], some
rather inaccurate observations on the role and effects of the 11+
examination system in Britain and a remarkably detailed account
of antique methods of factor analysis, and you have all the
makings of a lively, plausible, opinionated and zesty
But verbal fluency is no substitute for good arguments in the
long run. The substantive discussion of the theory of
intelligence stops at the stage it was in more than a quarter of
a century ago. Consequently there is no account of attempts to
characterize the psychological nature of general intelligence,
no indication that multivariate methods have progressed
beyond Thurstonian techniques, no discussion of the effects of
ageing, of brain damage, of compensatory programmes, no account
of modern behavioural genetics, of heritability studies other
than Burt's, no hint of the current interest in cybernetic models
or recent attempts by experimental cognitive psychologists to
account for psychometric findings.
Gould even gives a perfectly straightforward account of
what heritability would and would not mean in terms of the
modifiability of intelligence, but fails to point out that
such arch-hereditarians as Eysenck and Jensen have
published essentially identical accounts. One is, presumably,
meant to conclude that adherence to the notion that there
is a measurable single dimension of intelligence necessarily
involves the kind of radical nativism which was prevalent in
times when genetic theory and statistical methods were in their
But this is a book with a double punchline. Or to put it
another way, Gould performs the remarkable trick of pulling the
rug from under his own feet whilst appearing to stand stock
still. For not only does he propose a totally unobjectionable
definition of intelligence ("the ability to face problems in an
unprogrammed . . .manner"), which, far from being novel, is a
nice rewording of a definition proposed by Cattell in the context
of a heavily factor analytic theory and something of a
commonplace amongst the intellectual heirs of Spearman, he
even proposes essentially craniometric criteria of neoteny as a
basis for the adaptability of Homo sapiens, and produces a
photographic comparison of adult and infant chimpanzees with
the remark that "if a picture's worth a thousand words . . . ".
The truth of the matter is that Gould has nothing to say which
is both accurate and at issue when it comes to substantive or
methodological points. His "fatal flaw" (the purported dependence
of the notion of general intelligence on details of factor
analytic technique), the unsupported assertion that
"disadvantaged" groups always perform worse on IQ tests, his
strictures on the application of the notion of intelligence
across species boundaries, his attempt to link the use of IQ
tests in Britain with a rigid class structure, all have the
routine flavour of Radio Moscow news broadcasts when there really
is no crisis to shout about. You have to admire the skill in
presentation, but what a waste of talent.
Steve Blinkhorn, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Hatfield
Polytechnic, is currently working at the Neuropsychology
Laboratory, Stanford University.
Robert Sheaffer - Scepticus Maximus - firstname.lastname@example.org
Past Chairman, The Bay Area Skeptics - for whom I speak only when authorized!
"Envy is the cause of political division."
- Democritus, 460-370 BC.
(Fr. 295, ed. Diels, II, 195.)