Is IQ a Sham? Jay Gould on the Mismeasure of Man

This article explores Gould’s account of the measurement of man and how measurements have been used to justify existing hierarchies.

Aug 21, 2023By Klejton Cikaj, MSc in Social Philosophy, BA Philosophy

jay gould mismeasure man


Writing in a time of charged ideological tension between rising neoliberals who wanted to cut social spending and end affirmative action and those who supported the continued existence of the welfare state. Gould shows how arguments of biological determinism, especially those of inherent intelligence, could affect policy in favor of existing class, gender, and race hierarchies. This article goes through contemporary strains of this type of thinking, its implications about the futility of state interference to remedy inequality, and the history of the development of the ideas behind it.


The Measurement of Man as “Just Stating the Facts”

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Portrait of Sam Harris,18 March 2016, by Christopher Michael, via Wikimedia Commons


One of the most prominent ways of measuring human beings has been to try to quantify intelligence. The notion of IQ is at the core of heated political and social debates. It goes to the heart of the conflict between conservatives, or those who want to maintain the hierarchy of class, gender, and race, and those who want to change it. As Gould notices, those on the side of biological determinism often tend to see themselves as apolitical, as simply stating scientific facts.


These types of commentators claim to be delegates of science, of hard, cold facts that a lot of people don’t want to admit. In one of his lectures, Jordan Peterson, a famous conservative psychologist, says that:


“(IQ) is a massive contributor to lifetime success. I don’t know what to do about that. Why do smart people make more money? Well, they get to where the edge of production is faster. If you have 1000 people and you rank them by IQ, the smart people are going to come up with ideas first.”


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Depiction of a brain, via

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Isn’t that nice? Our society is simply the unfolding of people’s inherent potential (with some input from the environment, which they don’t entirely deny). Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to interfere in order to remedy social or economic inequality. What happens in society is simply a natural consequence of inherent inequality in people, and it is not based on systematic forms of oppression or material conditions.


Sam Harris, another thinker who views himself as telling it like it is, says the following:


“People don’t want to hear that a person’s intelligence is in large measure due to his or her genes and there seems to be very little we can do environmentally to increase a person’s intelligence even in childhood. It’s not that the environment doesn’t matter, but genes appear to be 50 to 80 percent of the story. People don’t want to hear this. And they certainly don’t want to hear that average IQ differs across races and ethnic groups”


The Mismeasure of Man

stephen gould
“American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould poses in his office at Harvard University in USA,” taken on October the 26th 1987 by Ulf Andersen, via Getty Images


In these quotes, American thinker Jay Gould sees an attempt to appeal to a notion of objectivity of science which simply is nonexistent. Science is a political project, and scientists, according to him, aren’t simply rational robots collecting facts. If they think of themselves this way, they become prone to two fundamental errors which Gould identifies:


  • Reification: turning abstract concepts or metaphors into existing entities
  • Ranking, or the tendency to evaluate everything that exists by quantity


These errors lead to what Gould calls “the mismeasure of man.” According to Gould, all that IQ tests have been able to measure has been little more than social prejudice. Biological determinism is a theory of limits. People who hold certain prejudices, use biological determinism to conclude that, maybe, their prejudices are scientific after all. What is a product of systemic oppression or inequality is naturalized, localized within the subject itself and – most importantly – rendered unchangeable.


“We pass through this world but once. Few tragedies can be more extensive than the stunting of life, few injustices deeper than the denial of an opportunity to strive or even to hope, by a limit imposed from without, but falsely identified as lying within.”
(Gould, The Mismeasure of Man)


Indeed, one can’t help but feel sad for the hundreds of thousands of young and old people who think that their contribution can’t be worth much because they didn’t have a high IQ score. Social media videos on the subject are filled with people convinced that they have nothing to offer, nothing to think that hasn’t been thought just because they didn’t find what way an arrow would be pointing towards in the test they took.


Race Science and the Obsession With Numbers

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British scientist Sir Francis Galton, January 01, 1880, by Hulton Archive via Getty Images


Gould traces the fascination with the number to Francis Galton, a pioneer of statistics and a social Darwinist who coined the term “eugenics.” Galton believed that everything could be measured, from the mental capacity of Black people to the efficacy of prayer or the boredom during a meeting. Not surprisingly, he also believed that intelligence could be measured and that it differed amongst races or gender, with men and whites being superior to Black people and women.


In 1906 Robert Bean conducted research with the purpose of showing that the brains of Black and white people were different, with a thinner corpus callosum explaining the lack of intelligence in Black people. After the study was posted and attracted some noise, Bean’s mentor, suspicious of how perfect the numbers were, repeated the research again. He, however, could not distinguish which brains belonged to who during the measurements. Unsurprisingly, Franklin Mall found no difference. Mall would eventually find out that Beans’ measurement had been incorrect.


In this example, Gould tells us that biological determinists, far from being detached rational observers, are actually invested in their own prejudices and seek to confirm them with numbers. Numbers don’t inform their worldview; it’s the other way around.


Another example is that of Paul Broca, the famous physician who conducted research with similar motivations as Bean and arrived at the same conclusion of racial inequality when it comes to brains. Gould shows that whilst Broca was far more rigorous than Bean in his appreciation for data, his data was still cherry picked to support his pre-existing notion of racial hierarchies. Broca actively dismissed precisely those measurements that didn’t validate his worldview and only published those which confirmed it.


The Birth of IQ

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Alfred Binet, 19th Century, via Encyclopedia Britannica.


Alfred Binet, the mind behind the notion of IQ, did not think that intelligence could be measured with a number, nor did he suggest it was an inborn trait. Indeed, he warned people of the potential misuse of IQ in the future. His tests were simply meant to identify those children who might need special help with learning.


Years later, Goddard would popularize the Binet scale, but unlike Binet, he thought that the scale was identifying an innate characteristic of people. He also believed that people could be segregated and categorized, even for breeding, based on this scale.


Spearman would introduce the notion of “g” or “general intelligence,” a factor of intelligence that could be measured objectively and inherent to everyone. The g would be a factor which all intellectual activities have in common, no matter how varied. The g was quantifiable and would finally set psychology on the path of becoming a hard science. IQ tests work only when they are designed to measure g. Thunderstone would later show that Spearman’s mathematical interpretation had been arbitrary. Gould points out that the notion of g suffers from a glaringly obvious issue:


“Positive correlation is the prediction of almost every contradictory theory about its potential cause, including both extreme views: pure hereditarianism and pure environmentalism. In the first, people do jointly well or poorly on all sorts of tests because they are born either smart or stupid. In the second, they do jointly well or poorly because they either ate, read, learned, and lived in an enriched or a deprived fashion as children. Since both theories predict pervasive positive correlation, the fact of correlation itself can confirm neither. Since g is merely one elaborate way of expressing the correlations, its putative existence also says nothing about causes.”
(The Mismeasure of Man, p. 345)


Jay Gould Against The Bell Curve 

charles murray
“Charles Murray speaking at the 2013 FreedomFest in Las Vegas, Nevada,” 11 July 2013, by Gage Skidmore, via Wikimedia Commons.


In 1993, Murray and Herrnstein publicized a defense of the notion of IQ as a measure of an immutable, important, and hereditary characteristic. The argument here is familiar and validates all hierarchies at once; Races are unequal due to IQ. Genders are unequal due to IQ. Classes are unequal due to IQ. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense to try to interfere with what is immutable, inherent, and hereditary in order to promote equality. In fact, one could now argue the opposite. Those with higher IQs should be treated better and given more power since they can make better decisions.


According to Gould, the authors provide no justification for using IQ as a measurement for some inherent characteristic in one’s head. Instead, this assumption is taken for granted. He also notes other issues. For example, he points out the effect that material conditions can have on IQ. Black and white people in America, of the same IQ, do not have the same opportunities, and therefore IQ is not a reliable predictor of lifetime success.


Murray and Herrnstein even declare that intelligence doesn’t depend on social/material differences but that the opposite holds true: that the difference in intelligence explains the social/material difference. Gould notes that the correlations shown by Murray and Herrnstein are extremely weak, and they attempt to hide this fact by not plotting the strength of the correlations in their graphs.


Besides the technicalities, the general point being argued by Murray and Herrnstein is that of cutting welfare spending, ending affirmative action, and defending education for the underprivileged. In the era of neoliberal reforms, this book was nothing but a sign of an onslaught on public spending for egalitarian ends, an attempt to restore rigid hierarchies of race, sex, and gender, and a general attempt to naturalize systemic inequalities.

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By Klejton CikajMSc in Social Philosophy, BA PhilosophyKlejton holds an MSc in Social Philosophy from the University of Tirana in Albania. Klejton has a deep interest in all philosophy-related fields, from metaphysics to epistemology, to the philosophy of mind and politics. Klejton is dedicated to making the substance of philosophy accessible to regular readers without diminishing its quality.