A Closer Look at Jordan Peterson’s IQ

My fairest attempt to evaluate the strongest arguments of the IQ-ists


I may have already dabbled in criticizing IQ testing once or twice, but recently, I have been watching a lot of Jordan Peterson?s lectures, and I have to say, I have a better idea now why so many psychologists have such high confidence in IQ ? the science of it isn?t unintelligent.

Ignoring for a moment my previous arguments about the intellectual narcissism and racism connected to the concept, multiple types of intelligence probably existing, and that it isn?t clear what?s being measured here even if something real is definitely being measured, there may be more subtle, complex, or potentially deep problems with how the IQ testing data is being measured and interpreted that deserve to be questioned.

I recommend watching this Peterson?s video first, as it sums up his view:

There is a number of interesting findings that Peterson keeps mentioning, chiefly that it is illegal for the U.S. Army to enlist anyone with IQ below 85. The reasoning behind it is that the army had figured out that people with IQ below 85 are essentially untrainable, that there?s no way of making them do anything that?s overall more helpful than unhelpful.

And fair enough, as I may have mentioned before, I don?t dispute that you can probably identify that somebody is mentally dysfunctional. I may have used an example in the past of having a shovel lodged in your cerebellum being provably detrimental to your ability to think. IQ only starts being questionable when you use it to make sweeping claims about intelligence beyond some threshold of basic mental functionality.

The findings that are supposed to substantiate that IQ measures intelligence are those that show that various IQ score levels correlate with people occupying progressively more complex (and presumably higher-paying) jobs, from packers squatting just above 87 to physicists skyrocketing past 130. Let?s ignore for now that correlation doesn?t necessarily equal causation.

The way that Peterson explains this distribution does actually make some sense. Like I said in one of my previous articles, this type of intelligence testing strongly favors specifically fast thinking, and Peterson says that a lot of what intelligence is, in how it often translates into success, is speed ? making you the one who solves a difficult problem first. Let?s ignore for now that many successful businesses weren?t the first to try a new thing.

Different jobs can therefore be sorted objectively by how fast you need to be able to solve various puzzles that come with them or by how many things you?ll have to juggle in your mind at once. Given that not all people were born equal in this laser-focused mental attribute, not everyone can effectively hold a job of any complexity. Given that the progressively faster and multithreaded thinkers are progressively more rare the more you push this ability to the extreme, you should expect faster jobs being better paid.

Which makes IQ certainly a real measure of something, something that may even have something to do with something that you could call intelligence. But in light of this more detailed understanding, I definitely have an issue with IQ being called a measure of ?general? intelligence.

Think about it like this, if high IQ is all you have, if you?re good at solving puzzles fast, what do you not have that?s also considered intelligence, or more broadly, any type of smartness, useful mental ability, or wisdom? To make it even simpler, using Peterson?s own example, in what ways would you call a stereotypical mathematician or physicist stupid?

Here are only some of the areas where such a person tends to be lacking (or is at least not particularly helped by their high IQ) ? emotional intelligence (empathy and social intelligence), ability to control their body and do precision-based manual tasks or athletic feats, artistic creativity and general good taste, critical self-awareness, political or business savvy, and the list goes on. Fast problem-solving is at most one capacity among many.

According to Peterson, it is a good thing that according to IQ statistics, the most intelligent people are the most successful. But come on, look at any number of current presidents and tell me that high IQ specifically is what got them the job. If higher IQ only helps in most of the above average-paying jobs or in specialized fields like technology or law, it doesn?t make the society as a whole governed by the people who are the most intelligent.

Moreover, since IQ clearly doesn?t cover more than a sliver of the intelligence spectrum and definitely isn?t equal to anything that can fairly be called general (implying sufficiently complete) intelligence, even if we were ruled by the most high-IQ people, it wouldn?t be a good thing by itself.

Sure, being governed by only the emotionally intelligent people would have its own problems (think PC culture to the extreme), or only by athletes (think ancient Sparta), but that?s precisely the point. A better thing is to be ruled by whole, well-rounded human beings. People who are not the mentally slowest, but who also are self-aware, compassionate, creative, well-socialized, and physically healthy. Our tech overlords, technically the most successful people right now, all lack some or most of these attributes.

Peterson himself admits that you still have to be stress-resistant to be able to make use of your high IQ in the career sense, and the other statistics that he keeps mentioning are those that show that character traits like conscientiousness and disagreeableness also play a role in career success.

It?s clear that anything can be enhanced by high IQ, as you can compose mathematically intricate music or moneyball any sport you?d like, but an aspect of intelligence being generally useful doesn?t make it general intelligence. Am I making sense? It really doesn?t seem to be a difficult argument to grasp. Jobs are not valuable only if you have to be quick-witted to do them. People are not only intelligent/valuable if they learn fast.

The parallel that I think should be drawn is between quick wit and hotness. Both are genetic accidents that aren?t in any way earned, but which contribute to quantifiable outcomes like your chance of being hired or getting a raise. I am highly skeptical that rewarding anything character-unrelated can be considered good in any ethically defensible sense.

To be crystal clear, genetically or otherwise externally predetermined personality traits like the Peterson?s favorite Big Five (openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism) are also not character-related by the definition of ?character? that I?m using ? earned mental and moral qualities, which is about individual intent and effort. Arguably, trying to do the right thing is a laudable quality, not what your starting point or final destination are.

The reason why our economic and political system is mostly designed to reward talent and outcomes is at best because it was designed by people who were entirely amoral (completely lacking any compassion or wisdom), or at worst with the malevolent intent to circumvent ethics. Likely a mix of both.

A high-IQ person, removed from all other considerations, is at most a useful tool to solve particular classes of legal, mathematical, organizational, or technological problems, much like a highly athletic person can be viewed as a weapon. However, being useful is only good if what you?re used for is good, much like hard work is ethical only in the service of an ethical goal.

Beyond that, penalizing or rewarding people on the basis of their inborn traits is eugenics. I?m sorry, but it is. You could say that we?re currently not being as harsh as we could be, merely giving fewer resources and less recognition to the inferior subcreatures, as opposed to outright oppressing and genociding them. And fine, let?s call it soft eugenics. Eugenics light.

By the way, I?m not saying that Peterson supports eugenics, he merely reports the situation with appropriate accuracy and grimness, rightly calling for these issues to be politically addressed better than they are now. It?s not so much that his facts are wrong or that he?s coming from a wrong place ethically, it?s that he, much like many other researchers, takes the facts at face value.

With behavioral social science, it is extremely important to understand in what way your theories are a reduction of reality. Yes, people who do better at symbolic pattern-recognition intelligence tests may also have a tendency to do better at achieving career goals or at holding more complicated jobs, but these facts alone do not explain a number of important things:

  • Other factors for not doing well on tests other than objective dumbness
  • The arbitrariness of reasons why jobs are what they are right now
  • The cultural arbitrariness of what gets rewarded or punished today
  • The recursive effect of people being aware of IQ being a thing

Some of these problems are almost addressed by Peterson, since he mentions them, but doesn?t analyze them in detail, as if they couldn?t account for significant percentages of measured effects. For example, in the video above, he praises the test for using visual patterns instead of language-based tasks. Why would that be praiseworthy? Precisely because many IQ tests use culture-specific questions, like when I was taking an American Mensa test and one whole section was about U.S. history.

Obviously, but somehow not obviously to many IQ test designers, having learned any particular language or history has nothing to do with intelligence, other than maybe how long it took you, but that?s not what?s tested in such cases. And I?m still being charitable by not assuming malevolent intent to use such questions to paint minorities as idiots.

I would hope that all of the data that he refers to that proves what IQ correlates with is based on non-culture-specific questions, but I don?t know that and I don?t think I should assume it. Or more broadly, that all of the IQ science is based on IQ test designs that aren?t fundamentally flawed or too different from each other. In which case the numbers wouldn?t be solid.

Peterson also mentions that some companies use some type of IQ testing in disguise to filter candidates, despite it being technically illegal (since again, it is eugenics). Much like some universities, including my alma mater, use it to decide which students to accept. If that?s the case, then why shouldn?t higher IQ correlate with higher-paying jobs? It would correlate because without high IQ, you wouldn?t be given opportunity to even get a degree, let alone the job eventually even if you have a relevant degree. Where are the exact numbers for the precise size of this likely real effect? IQ-ists don?t say.

All that is before you even consider problems like the Flynn effect, a sustained increase of intelligence test scores over time. Assuming that the so called fluid and crystallized intelligences are a thing (which Peterson explains pretty well in the video, actually), why do we have to assume that they are themselves untrainable? Where are the numbers proving that? Flynn effect is numbers, and they seem to suggest that more than genetics is at play here.

According to Peterson?s best understanding, fluid intelligence is what forms crystallized intelligence, after which it can go away and you?ll still get to keep the crystallized intelligence. Fair enough. That still means that what you have learned, the crystallized intelligence, is literally learnable, or trainable, so if IQ is about (un)trainability, like the army, academia, and employers see it, we?re only talking about the fluid component anyway.

As someone who has always been considered intelligent by my teachers and peers (not always a positive, trust me), and who has focused a lot on introspection over a long period of time, I simply don?t believe that you can reduce everything that I have learned to a single number that I was dealt at birth. I may have always had a natural talent for languages and math, the sort of thing that IQ tests measure, but with only that, I wasn?t me now.

When I was around 10 years old, the high IQ was all I had. I was physically weak (compared to my peers) and considered not well suited for manual tasks of any kind. I was thought of as someone unable to sing or dance. I was quite un-self-aware and socially inept. I was unfunny. There was a point when my understanding of English was zero. At that point, I could have simply stuck to my natural talents and do nothing in other areas.

Since then, I have thrown myself into all of the areas where I was considered to be an idiot, which I initially definitely was, and it always resulted in me developing understanding and skills, apparent intelligence, in all of them. I became successful at sports, I learned musical composition and how to sing, I mastered English, I learned how to juggle knives. Being naturally good at symbolic pattern recognition only helped my English.

When I compose music, engage in a physical activity, or try to be a good person, I?m flexing entirely different mental muscles, I essentially am several different people, some of which many of my friends and relatives can hardly reconcile with each other. As the adage goes, I am different people in different languages. All of who may happen to have a reasonably high IQ, but they don?t really care about that. They don?t need to.

As for what a good measure of general intelligence is, when I only had high IQ, I truly was generally speaking an idiot. I had dumb goals, I treated other people poorly, and my ability to actually achieve things was severely limited. Limited to a few narrow areas in which I could excel, true, and end up as a great career success statistic, but belying a thorough failure at life and being a decent human person.

Instead of IQ, you could at the very least measure scores in all of the fundamentally different, but equally essential mental capacities, and add them up to an aggregate score. But I understand that may sound like a hassle. If there is any single general intelligence capacity, then I believe it would have to be whatever allowed to me to realize what I was doing wrong, how I was failing myself and others, what my potential was.

In one word, I would call it insight. It?s the difference between knowing and understanding. It?s the difference between solving a problem handed to you, and starting to question why this is the problem that you should be solving. It?s the difference between being a well-oiled biological machine going through the motions, and being a free agent. That?s smart. It?s not measured by speed, it?s measured by depth, by how many levels of delusion and illusion you have managed to peer through and free yourself from.

Achieving not being a puppet, a literal dummy, how?s that for success?

In my case, my insight may correlate with my relatively high IQ, but again, correlation doesn?t necessarily equal causation. I don?t even know to what extent my insight is genetic, and to what extent it is trainable in anybody. Transcendent understanding is not being measured by scientists. However, it seems to be a real phenomenon and something that if I was hiring, I would definitely be looking for above all else, along with benevolence and integrity. Spoilers: intelligence is never enough on its own, not even all of it.

But whom you should hire is a whole another truckload of barrels filled to the brim with cans of worms, so I?ll have to table that for now. What do you believe, is insight a real thing and does it matter? How does it relate to IQ? I?m genuinely interested to learn what people think about that.

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