Intelligence testing: a history of a fierce debate


Annette Mülberger is a professor of History of Psychology at Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona and Secretary of the History of Science Centre (CEHIC) at UAB.

Is the intelligence test an “objective”, scientific device or just a way to “execute” social discrimination? This article (based on 1) presents the latest steps to trace the history of one of the most problematic chapters in psychology’s history: the application of intelligence testing. By informing about the history of the IQ debate I want to point out the uses of history, more precisely the ways in which historical narratives serve for accusing or defending the actions of scientists in the past.

Much has been published on the history of intelligence testing. After some early assessments mainly focused on the life and work of Alfred Binet, considered to be the founder of the first intelligence test (together with T. Simon), in 1974 the psychologist Leon Kamin started the debate about the legitimacy of intelligence testing. His book offered a history of mental testing that aimed to criticize the practice for representing an erroneous and socially dangerous type of psychological science, subordinated to ideological and political agendas. His efforts mainly concentrated on exposing methodological mistakes or, as he stated, denouncing in both scientific and moral terms the conceptual and empirical errors of IQ scientists and related to heritability2. His conclusion was straightforward: the examination of empirical evidence of past (and present) studies of intelligence based on mental testing, shows that there is no support for maintaining positions supporting hereditarianism. Unintentionally, IQ psychology had served as an instrument for oppressing the poor and the foreign-born through its use to justify deportations and forced imprisonment in asylums.

The social psychologist and historian Franz Samelson reacted3 with a vehement repudiation of Kamin’s publications, identifying two kinds of problems: he claimed that for the historian, the book contained no new information and offered no fresh insight. Furthermore, Samelson questioned the accuracy and validity of Kamin’s account (see also Kamin’s reply4), asserting that the historical figures were much more complex human beings than Kamin recognized, changing their ideas over time, influenced by others and by social movements such as eugenics. Eugenics was diverse, containing many strains, and was interpreted differently at the beginning of the 20th century (often connected to what was viewed as progressive and liberal attitudes) than in the 1930s.

What Samelson seemed to be asking implicitly was: what is the use of picking out and exposing, as Kamin does, a few quotations from the most extreme statements of some historical figures and then denouncing that former psychologists (and this would presumably hold for all scientists today as well) were putting their science at the service of political interests and social concerns? While Kamin believed in the neutrality and power of psychological facts, Samelson denounced this attitude as naïve, remarking that no scientific effort or point of view is value free, not even Kamin’s search for methodological errors and conceptual weaknesses in the work of his ideological opponents. In the 1960s the nature-nurture debate unsettled and divided both the scientific and public spheres. The debate had clearly influenced Kamin.

Soon after the American paleontologist, historian, and popular writer Stephen Jay Gould published his book on “The mismeasure of man”5, which had a major impact among educated Americans. Gould uses his writings to support the victims of IQ politics in his country. The book seduces a wide readership by offering an attractive combination of straightforward hard-hitting statements written in language that is very easy to understand, together with a rather sophisticated and well-documented technical critique that outlines some crucial fallacies and methodological mistakes committed by well-known anthropologists and psychologists such as: Morton, Broca, Lombroso, Binet, Spearman, and especially Burt and the American testers Terman, Yerkes, Goddard, and Thurstone.

The historian of science Michael Sokal 6 correctly criticized Gould’s approach from various angles. His main objection consists in pointing out that the book is based on the widely accepted claim that science is part of the social world, while at the same time Gould seems to personally accuse certain scientists of failing to escape from the influence of society. The result is a black-and-white picture in which the reader meets heroes such as Binet, helping the low-scoring children with his “mental orthopedics” and “bad guys” such as Goddard who, for example, is accused of having faked the photographs of the Kallikak children by inserting heavy dark lines to give eyes and mouths a diabolic appearance and enhance their mentally impaired appearance (Gould, 1981). Although such a story can be entertaining, historians require more dispassionate and thorough research on this topic.

This has recently been achieved by the historian John Carson. He deals in his book “The measure of merit” 7 with theories on intelligence and on how intelligence and merit intersected as scientific and political projects. He starts his extensive research with the U.S. declaration of 1776 that all men are created equal. The social system of the “old world”, founded on inherited status, had to be overthrown. Nevertheless, certain social groups were still interested in highlighting human differences. Now, however, these distinctions had to be justified and legitimated along new lines; lines in accordance with “the republican celebrations of equality and the sovereignty of people” (Carson, 2007, p. 1). Therefore, the book mainly “tells the story of how the American and French republics turned to the sciences of human nature to help make sense of the meaning of inequality” (Carson, 2007, p. 1).

In Carson’s view, the new basis for understanding such inequality and justifying social distinction was “merit”, mainly conceptualized as intelligence. In the U.S., the growing authority of scientific justification for racism in the late 19th century pushed intelligence to the forefront of explanations of the hierarchical ordering of races and people. For Carson, in this historical context, intelligence proved to be an attractive concept with which to unify the democratic and meritocratic (Carson, 2007). It was used to regulate, in “objective” terms, the increasing demand for limited educational resources and occupational opportunities. The result was that members of privileged socioeconomic groups generally scored well in the intelligence tests, while the door was kept open to exceptional members of disadvantaged groups, who historically had been excluded. Some exceptional “climbing up” of a few talented individuals would not be viewed as a threat to overall social stability. So it seemed to be a rather clever way to mask “conservative” policies with democratic labels and scientific insights.

Now that we know a bit about how the intelligence testing was used in the US and France, it is highly time to take a look on how IQ policies evolved in other countries and locations. Some work on this is already been done (see, for example, the monographic issue on this topic of the journal History of Psychology, vol. 17, issue 3, August 2014).


  1. Mülberger, A. (2014). The need for contextual approaches to the history of mental testing, History of Psychology, 17, 3.
  2. Kamin, Leon (1974). The Science and Politics of I.Q., Journal of Social Research 41,3, 387-425.
  3. Samelson, F. (1975). On the Science and Politics of the IQ. Social Research,42,3, 467-488.
  4. Kamin, L. (1975). Reply to Samelson. Jorunal of Social Research, 42,3, 488.
  5. Gould, S. (1981). The mismeasure of man. U.S.: Norton
  6. Sokal, M. (1987). Psychological testing and American Society (1890-1930). New Brunswick: Rutgers University.
  7. Carson, John (2007). The Measure of Merit: Talents, Intelligence, and Inequality in the French and American Republics. Princeton University.

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