Everyone has heard that one quote from Einstein about fish and bicycles. (EDIT MONTHS LATER: wow bicycles? for real? it’s a fish and its ability to climb a tree? This got past my own proof-reading in a post about intelligence? A little ironic…) It does relate strongly to this discussion, but I didn’t want to be predictable and include it as the main statement. I then accepted that it was probably inevitable that it would crop up somewhere in any discussion on intelligence whether I planned it or not, so I got it out of the way here. Now we can begin.
There are many different forms of intelligence, some harder to measure than others. Together, they form a vast and complex picture that is hard to make sense of. There is no way to definitively rate intelligence in a single number, yet we try anyway.
I have been told my whole life that I’m intelligent, and in many ways it is true. I was faster to learn things at school than most. I achieved good results with fairly low effort. I am now (hopefully) about to graduate with first class honours as a master of physics. I must be clever, right? Well, yes, but in as many other ways I’m useless. I can understand difficult mathematics with relative ease, but I have poor sense of rhythm and extreme difficulty in music. I can score highly in an exam about quantum physics but I can’t really tell the difference between a “kinda nice” photograph or painting and a truly artistic one. I am unobservant and miss obvious plot details in movies and books. I can barely start or maintain a conversation with anyone but my closest friends. Games that depend on strategy and keeping track of many potential outcomes are a nightmare to me. But for some reason, our society seems to put maths and science on a pedestal of brilliance, overshadowing artistic, musical, social, and literary intelligence, so everyone thinks I’m very clever. That’s not to say I consider myself stupid or feel my flaws outweigh my strengths – it was merely a look at the bigger picture. Yes, my academic records points toward high intelligence, but that’s because I was tested on my strengths, not my weaknesses. In an academic setting, I seem distinctly above average, while in a real world setting I’m clueless and overwhelmed. I, like every other human, am a mix of strengths and weaknesses. How could this many aspects of intelligence ever be quantified in a way that lets one person say to another, “I am objectively smarter than you.”
And that brings us to the more important point. Not only do I believe that it is impossible to measure intelligence, I believe we should not even try. The ability to make the above statement is the only thing that would be gained from unlocking the power to rank every individual by overall intelligence. A person’s level of intelligence does not define them or their worth. If Jim is twice as smart as Bob, it doesn’t matter – he’s not a better person for it. Higher intelligence does not grant anyone superiority, or the right to any more respect than anybody else. All we would achieve is creating a generation with even more superiority and inferiority complexes than we as a species already have.
The counter-argument here is something like, “Well, if you were ill, wouldn’t you want the most intelligent doctor you could have?”
And the answer is no. I would rather have the doctor who is best at being a doctor. Assessment of competence when applying for a job is obviously necessary, but a test of one’s ability to perform a certain role is not the same as a test of their overall intelligence. It is a test of a specific range of intelligence types. I want the doctor who can do their job best, not the one who could beat me at chess or write a beautiful poem about my illness.
Currently intelligence is impossible to measure accurately, and trying to make it possible is an unnecessary (and probably unachievable) goal. Ultimately, it matters far more whether some body is a good person than whether they are an intelligent one.