why iq isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be

November 5, 2009

Have you recently taken an IQ test and got a really nice, high score in the 120 to 145 range? Good job. You’re among the top 10% of the population. But before you rush to tell everyone about your results, consider that the high score on a standardized IQ exam doesn’t say anything about your overall intelligence. And while you may be good at logic, spotting patterns and abstract reasoning, you might be a total washout in the critical thinking department and not even know it. If you want to be really intelligent, you need both academic knowledge and what we generally call street smarts. Basically, you want to be a cross between a scientist and Bugs Bunny.

This is the point of an article in New Scientist that focuses on a long known flaw of today’s IQ tests, which are decent at grading working memory and basic logical skills but offer no way to figure out whether the test taker will actually use them in the real world. As a result, we could have someone get a score of 160 on one of the several standardized tests out there and find her totally incompetent in the real world because all that ability to reason and make decisions based on logic is limited solely to test taking.

But most researchers agree that the correlation between [IQ] and successful decision-making is weak. The exception is when people are warned that they might be vulnerable to a thinking bias, in which case those with high IQs tend to do better. This, says Evans, is because while smart people don’t always reason more than others, “when they do reason, they reason better”.

So next time you’re talking to a reasonably smart person and he or she drops a major whopper on you, filled to the brim with obvious pseudoscience or nonsensical New Age woo, you have an answer as to why someone who seems so clever can be so irrational. They really are clever, but they just don’t, or won’t, apply their critical thinking skills out in the real world. But that doesn’t mean they’re doomed to languish in the world of woo until the end of time. Just like you can train to get a better IQ test score, you can also train your mind to be far more skeptical and analytical. A scientific mindset is built by training and constant questioning and they can too. All they need is a good reason to start…

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  • ColonelFazackerley

    Another thing that an intelligent person needs to be useful, is creativity. I don’t necessarily mean good at painting, but able to think in new ways. For example, Einstein wondering what the ramifications would be if the speed of light was the same for all observers.

  • han

    I had an IQ test administered at age 7 which revealed my IQ as 145. At the time, I enjoyed being labeled as a genius and finally having an explanation for why I was so weird. But I think in the long run it hindered me because I assumed I was too smart to be fooled by anyone. I believed in things like astrology, past lives, and homeopathy, without questioning their validity. All those silly beliefs are behind me now, thanks to a more psychological than intellectual shift in my thinking. Being a “genius” doesn’t mean I know everything, and nobody’s too smart to be wrong some of the time.

  • Google hires the Profoundly Gifted by standardized test scores, GPA, and objective performance in a withering Google entry exam. Google enfolds Asperger and autist aberrant social behavior in a supportive environment, feeds them, gives them tasks, and assures they will be bored. A brain cannot abide silence. Severed limbs become phantom limbs, deaf ranges become tinnitus, and bored genius creates.

    The intellectually prodigious cannot be counterfeited. Rather than foster brilliance we allocate for its suppression as equal opportunity, affirmative action, compassion, social engineering, reverse discrimination… DIVERSITY. There is no level playing field that will not reveal genetic, developmental, and behavioral trash; reproductive warriors, religious hind gut fermenters, Enviro-whiner Luddites; the stupid, the pathetic, and the Officially Sad. You may call a turd a sausage and eat it with relish, but it it still a turd.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    … you might be a total washout in the critical thinking department and not even know it.

    If you knew it, you would by definition not be a total washout in critical thinking…

  • reggie

    So, I can officially laugh in the face of anyone who tries to win a debate by relaying their IQ score to me? Finally!

  • Greg Fish


    You know, I think that someone who needs to invoke how well they passed an IQ test probably doesn’t have a very good argument to begin with.

    And yes, you should laugh at them until your sides hurt.

  • North of 49

    I’ve seen a variant of this phenomenon, where a person can have robust critical thinking skills in one area but not be able to apply them to others.

    An elderly couple I know quite well can, for example, thoroughly Fisk an op-ed piece from our local rightwing think tank, the Fraser Institute: they can spot the fallacies, uncover the hidden assumptions, identify the cherry-picking of data, rage over the application of a specific case to fake up a (false) general principle, and all the other slimy tricks the paid liars use.

    But they are also deeply into New Age and CAM woo, and for years now have pretty much swallowed it whole. They’re going to get the seasonal flu vaccine, as they have for years, but will refuse the swine flu vaccine. Wait, what? They’re going to refuse the swine flu vaccine because… because… well, I never did get a coherent answer, except that Guillain–Barre Syndrome figured in it somewhere, as did the “it hasn’t been tested!” battle cry.

    Oh, and they were — almost — taken in by one of these “get rich in real estate using other people’s money” scams, “only four spaces left in the next seminar at our low discount price of ONLY two thousand dollars”. Obvious high-pressure sales tactics for a dubious product (if you can get so rich doing this why are you teaching a course in it and not out there doing it), yet they didn’t spot it.

    I still don’t understand what kind of mental short circuits are necessary for an individual to be able to think critically in one area and not others, but they indisputably exist. It’s as if different classes of input are siloed into different cognitive structures, i.e. the way to think about rightwing propaganda is This, while the way to think about crop circles is That, and there is no connection between the two, no recognition that there are similarities in the patterns of each of those and that the same mechanisms for the dissection of truth claims can be applied to both.

  • lutefisk

    You now have all the ingredients necessary for a perfect circular argument!
    Religion (or environmentalism, or whatever you claim as woo-woo) isn’t true because any truly intelligent person can see right through it.
    If anyone tries to argue that by pointing at an intelligent, religious person, you just say
    “well, they’re not TRULY intelligent, because a necessary factor of TRUE intelligence is not being taken in by this kind of nonsense.”
    Behold, an argument that no one can ever breach!
    Isn’t that nice – a definition of intelligence that automatically excludes anyone who disagrees with you.
    I think there’s a logical fallacy in here somewhere.

  • Greg Fish

    “If anyone tries to argue that by pointing at an intelligent, religious person, you just say ‘well, they’re not truly intelligent, because a necessary factor of true intelligence is not being taken in by this kind of nonsense.'”

    This line of argument is known as the No True Scotsman fallacy and it’s not the one being made by the article or the post. Actually, the whole point is that waiving your IQ around in any debate is a ridiculous notion in the first place and any argument should stand or fall by the weight of its empirical evidence, not throwing out IQ scores.

    The only time the issue of intellect vs. critical thinking would apply is when someone makes a very clear and obvious double standard, i.e. “prove to me that you can safely inject a child with 10,000 doses of vaccines as written in a pediatric journal by taking a baby and injecting him or her with 10,000 doses of a vaccine, but when it comes to chelation and detox, all I need are a few testimonials on a random website to know it works much better than this poison-filled Western medicine.”