Thursday, April 4, 2013

Nobody Should Brag About Their IQ

[This rant is largely fueled by a series of recent exchanges I have had with some rather annoying individuals.]

Nobody should brag about their IQ, and (apart from the simple fact that it's an annoying behavior) I'm going to tell you why.

Now, first off, many people who make claims like this do so on the basis that it's not the only means of measuring intelligence. That's certainly true, but in terms of assessing pure mental processing power, it's still probably the best (and certainly the most widely accepted) system we've got. Thus, I'm not going to attack it on that basis. Nor is this going to be the angry rant of a man who feels snubbed because his own score isn't high enough for his liking. I've actually taken a real IQ test (not one of those phony internet ones) and my score placed me comfortably within the 99th percentile, so I personally have nothing to gain from this post. If anything, most of this is a direct attack on me and people like me.

What this really is, with IQ simply serving as the most obvious and easily measurable target, is an attack on people who believe that they are entitled to praise for being intelligent.

Human intelligence, in its simplest form, is a brain's ability to receive, analyze, sort, store, access, and apply information. Every measure of intelligence, from creative problem solving to trivia games, employs some combination of these basic mechanisms. As such, while you can study, learn, and actively engage your mind in any number of ways that will help improve your knowledge or critical thinking skills, pure intelligence is largely a product of predetermined brain development. In short, you don't really have a choice in the matter. As unpleasant as this notion may be, it is basically true. Studies have consistently shown that the wide range of "brain enhancing" activities parents employ with their children have a minimal effect, and while some activities (like playing chess) do have a more positive cognitive effects than other activities (like watching Jersey Shore), again these effects are relatively minor when compared with overall patterns of brain development.

So, while you can help out the process a little bit, nobody really gets to decide how smart they are. Obviously that does not mean that intelligence is valueless, though it does mean that nobody should really be proud of it. I didn't choose or achieve my own level of intelligence any more than I chose to be 5'11". If people with IQs over 130 want to form groups like Mensa where they pat each other on the back for their brainpower, then fine. But it's a bit like people who are over 6'6" forming a club where they all sit around congratulating each other on being tall. It is, in a word, pointless.

Now as I said, I'm not claiming intelligence has no value. In fact, I think it's extremely valuable, which is why it really bothers me when people fall back on it as a way to feel good about themselves when their lack of personal achievement is highlighted.

"Well I may not have accomplished anything, but at least I'm smart." (I realize nobody actually says that, but I'm paraphrasing a basic idea we've all encountered far too frequently.)

See, the problem here is the notion that a failure to achieve is somehow softened by intelligence. It is not. If anything, a person who has never accomplished anything despite the tremendous advantage of being really smart ought be ashamed of themselves more than anything else. People who join groups like Mensa feel the need to have their intelligence recognized. Why? If they've never done anything with it, what praise and recognition do they deserve? Do all those tall guys deserve recognition for the fact that they, in theory, were born with the physical tools to become NBA stars? Of course not. If you didn't choose something, and you haven't used it to do anything productive, then it's meaningless as a focus for praise. On the other hand, if you are intelligent and you actually have done something with it, then you are probably already getting praise and respect for curing AIDS or inventing hover-shoes or whatever. So if you're smart and nobody seems to care, maybe the problem is you. Instead of running around telling strangers on the internet how high your IQ is (stupid Patrick, I hate that guy) maybe you should use that supposedly mighty brain to come up with something worthwhile.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why nobody should brag about their IQ.

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