Date: Saturday, January 21, 2006

The “third culture” Web site has a provocative New Year’s ritual: the Annual Question.

This year’s question, suggested by Harvard psychologist Stephen Pinker, is, “What is your most dangerous idea?”

The Edge describes it this way: “The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?”

By third-culture intellectuals, they mean people who believe in the importance of a synthesis of C.P. Snow’s “two cultures.” That is, “The third culture consists of those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.”

And a variety of them have at it.

Some of the ideas verge on the cosmic. We are/we are not alone, in the universe. Often, if someone proposes one side of an idea, someone else proposes its opposite. Michael Shermer defines the best way to live as in a free society, characterized by free-market economics and democratic politics, fiscal conservatism and social liberalism. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi says the most dangerous idea is the hegemony of the free market.

And some ideas leave you wondering: “Panpsychism. Each object has a mind. Stars, hills, chairs, rocks, scraps of paper, flakes of skin, molecules — each of them possesses the same inner glow as a human, each of them has singular inner experiences and sensations.”


Most of the contributors appear to have interpreted “dangerous” as meaning something like “subversive,” challenging to one or another received orthodoxy.

In that spirit, here is my dangerous idea: Every child in school deserves an individual IQ test.

And the corollary: Every statistical analysis of school- and district-level data should include individual IQ as one of the variables measured.

Why is that subversive? Because so many people, especially in education, are terrified to admit that individual IQ has anything to do with academic achievement, because it is not evenly distributed demographically.

In fact, Pinker’s answer to his own question is, “Groups of people may differ genetically in their average talents and temperaments.”

For purposes of deciding on good public policy, however, it is not necessary to determine why groups of people differ. One may declare oneself, as Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein did in The Bell Curve, “resolutely agnostic” on the “why” question, and still acknowledge the need to deal with the consequences of differences that demonstrably exist.

Eventual adult IQ for most people is reliably established by the time children enter middle school, say sixth grade. That would be a natural time to administer an IQ test, under guidelines that need further study but that would include at least the following: Every child entering sixth grade would be offered the opportunity to take a brief, standardized, culture-fair IQ test.

Parents would have the legal right to exempt their children, without penalty.

Parents could obtain the results of the test, on request.

The results would be used only for statistical purposes, and no individually identifiable information would be accessible to classroom teachers or other school staff working with individual children except at the parents’ initiative.

Why would you want to do this? The goal, and the likely result, would be not to amplify the significance of group characteristics such as race, class and gender, but to diminish it.

Here’s a thought experiment to ponder. A young couple become the proud parents of identical twin girls. As the children grow, the parents notice that the younger one, whose birth records show she was born 9 ounces lighter than her sister, has trouble keeping up. When they start school, the difference is unmistakable; the older girl soars, the younger one struggles.

The parents take the girls for a thorough professional evaluation, and the results are unequivocal. The older girl has a measured IQ of 115, the younger, 85.

Race is not at issue; whatever image formed in your mind when you read “identical twin daughters,” the girls match.

Socioeconomic status is not a factor; whatever it is, they share it. They have the same genes.

And their parents love them equally, and will choose the best possible educational setting for each of them. It probably won’t be the same setting though, and they won’t indulge in the folly of trying to “close the achievement gap” between their daughters.

Schools trying to close the achievement gap — and they should try — should first make certain they have considered all the ways it may arise.

About linsee

Linda Seebach retired in 2007 from the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, where she was an editorial writer and columnist.
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  1. LynnG says:

    I was very fortunate to hear Steven Pinker speak last year. It like the “dangerous idea” project. I’ll have to give it some thought, but I appreciate you sharing your idea.

    So here is a couple thoughts about your IQ for all — first, what benefit does the IQ test give the hypothetical twins’ parents? From the way you present the facts, at most, the IQ test confirms what they already believe or know about their daughters. How much value is there in such a confirmation? I don’t believe there is much, unless it somehow gives you options you didn’t have before.

    The parents clearly already know there are intellectual differences between the kids, as do most parents. For parents and students, an IQ test (when accurate) tells us what we already know or strongly suspect.

    It might be nice to know this and have some independent confirmation of it, but in today’s society, it doesn’t amount to much. For example, despite our school system giving IQ tests to all kids in the 3rd and 5th grade, they all follow the same path until high school, where finally, honors and AP are offered.

    My second thought is, even if you found some benefit in having that IQ test score, who do you know that writes a brief, standardized, culture-fair — and I add, accurate — IQ test? I’m not sure such an instrument exists.

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