Measuring the immeasurable



IQ tests are an attempt to measure something as elusive as human intelligence. The tests assume that human intelligence is measureable just like human height, weight and other features. This supposition is fraught with dangers. Any attempt to brand human beings as morons or geniuses is bound to be full of pitfalls because such categorization will have serious consequences on a person's life, like his access to an educational institute or job opportunities. Even if it is granted that human intelligence is measureable and these tests measure it, still miscalculations occurring due to human errors, during the administration of the test and the interpretation of the data, cannot be ruled out.

Intelligence tests: tools for measuring the immeasurable

Tests designed to measure intelligence, known in common parlance as IQ tests, claim and are designed to measure human intelligence. This would not and should not have been a cause for discord, and that too a very fierce one, had there been an accord on what intelligence is. After all nobody even whimpers when they are weighed on a weighing machine and then labeled as obese, under weight or normal. Reason for discord over IQ tests is that the concept of intelligence, which these tests claim to measure, is very illusive. As Sternberg has pointed out, in order to arrive at a definition of intelligence, acceptable to everyone, two dozen theorists were asked to define intelligence. They all gave two dozen different definitions (cited in Report of a task force, 1995). This is the claim that Gould had made in his book The Mismeasure of Man, that intelligence is not a ‘single, innate, heritable and measureable thing” (cited in Bartholowmew, 2004). Similarly, a journalist Walter Lippmann stating that IQ tests are a “series of stunts” said that how can intelligence be measured when it has not been defined (cited in Strydom & Plessis).

What is intelligence?

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One of the foremost reason for distrusting intelligence tests is that the matter of their subject i.e. intelligence, eludes any definition or description. It does not exist in the real sense, such as the subject matter of physics or chemistry do. Due to this, there are as many definitions of intelligence as there are theorists. Proponents of psychometrics treat intelligence as a one dimensional thing, capable of quantitative evaluation on a single dimensional scale. However, this is a pitfall against which we were forewarned by none other than Alfred Binet himself. He had specially specified that these tests are designed only to measure children with learning disabilities and their scope does not allow them to measure intelligence as a whole, “because intellectual qualities are not superposable and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measure” (cited by Strydom & Plessis).

However, this is exactly what psychometrics does, that is it implicitly treats human beings as strictly one dimensional. That one dimension, i.e. a person's analytical abilities is measured to some extent by these tests. But it leaves many other aspects of human intelligence out of its scope. To put it simply, the tests are not holistic in their aim, and approach.

Attempts have been made to define intelligence more comprehensively and holistically. Sternberg presented his triarchic theory of intelligence, stating that there are three types of intelligences: analytical, creative and practical. While IQ tests address the analytical abilities of a person, they do so at the neglect of other faculties (Kalat, 2007, p. 339). Gardener adopted a similar approach towards intelligence, arguing that “paper-and-pencil format” of the tests fail to measure various types of personal intelligences, like musical and bodily-kinesthetic intelligences (cited in the Task force report, 1995).Similarly Steven Rose, too raised voice against “improper quantification” of intelligence believing that intelligence is too “subtle and many-sided” and any attempt to “force it into the narrow mould of a single dimension” would be “absurd” (cited in Bartholowmew, 2004).

The above discourse makes it quite clear that although the word intelligence is used in everyday conversation and people seem to understand what they mean when they say that someone is more intelligent than others. However, “its meaning is too imprecise to be useful for scientific treatment of the subject” (Bartholowmew, 2004, p. 142). Human intelligence is too complex and “multidimensional” and any attempt to treat it like any other human attribute, such as height or weight, would be to commit the “error of reification” (Bartholowmew, 2004, p. 144).

Unreliability of the tests

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Even for argument's sake we agree on any one definition of intelligence and further agree that IQ tests do measure intelligence in the sense that word has been accepted by everyone. The tests will still not be completely reliable and accurate, despite the above mentioned supposed consensus.

The tests give inaccurate results due to number of other factors that have nothing to do with the definition of intelligence. “Irregularities and deviations in the results of the tests have been known to be caused by examiners' errors, over interpretation of the test data, failure to include certain age group of students and marketability” (Czubaj, 1995).

According to Larry C. Hunnicutt, mistakes and errors made by experienced and certified examiners, on well established tests, are not too negligible to be ignored. During his study, he found that the types of errors made by “licensed assessment specialists” ranged from “difficulties in scoring verbal response, incorrect raw score, clerical mistakes, full scale IQ discrepancies, and performance subtest scoring error” (cited in czubaj, 1995).

Another factor that adversely affects the reliability of the tests is their marketability. According to Osgood, by 1920s IQ tests had become “a multibillion-dollar industry” (cited in Strydom & Plessis). The tests are meant to be sold. Their designers always keep this thing in mind while designing them. This commercial aspect puts serious question marks on their ability to measure their subject impartially and objectively. Market forces are always prone to affect the way these tests are designed. Noting this, Sternberg said that “testing companies will stoop to almost anything to sell tests” (cited in Czubaj, 1995). Accuracy and reliability take second seat to commercial interests.

Conclusion. Committing the error of reification, Intelligence tests try to measure scientifically, something that has many facets and dimensions. This attempt at quantification of intelligence on a single dimensional linear scale makes their results inaccurate and unreliable.


Audiblox. IQ test: Where does it come from and what does it measure. Retrieved April 3, 2010, from

Bartholomew, D. J. (2004). Measuring intelligence: Facts and fallacies. Cambridge: Cambridge university press.

Board of scientific affairs of The American Psychological Association. (1995 August, 7). Intelligence: Knowns and unknowns. Retrieved April 3, 2010, from

Czubaj, C. A. (1995). Standardized assessment used in American public schools are invalid and unreliable. Education. Winter (1995)

Kalat. J.W. (2007). Introduction to psychology. Belmont, USA: Cengage Learning.