Want to hear something ridiculous? How about various media stories on presidential IQs?
Talk about fake news! Some so-called “professionals,” even a University of California professor, have presented “estimated” intelligence quotients on United States presidents who lived over 120 years before the first IQ test was ever conceived.
The two most common examples of these types of tests are the granddaddy known as the Stanford-Binet, and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale. Both have different scoring systems which make a raw IQ number meaningless without a reference to a specific instrument. Both have received revisions over the years to adjust for cultural biases, language and other societal changes.
The idea for an intelligence test was first developed by French psychologist Alfred Binet in the early part of the 20th century. It was refined at Stanford University by Lewis Terman. Later, German psychologist William Stern came up with the concept of an intelligence quotient. Terman adopted this notion for the Stanford-Binet using a mean (average) of 100.
The WAIS was created in 1955. David Wechsler expanded the definition of intelligence by have two different subscales — verbal and performance IQs. Averaged together, They produced an overall score called a “Full-Scale IQ.”
Currently, the most circulated version of the WAIS, which was released in 2008, now has 10 core subtests that make up the FSIQ.
This is in contrast to the Stanford-Binet, which originally emphasized areas such as verbal reasoning and knowledge, along with mathematical development and problem-solving. Over the years, however, it too has evolved into a wider range of examined areas, which include visual-spatial processing and quantitative reasoning.
As you can see from the differences in the two tests, as well as their evolvement over the last several decades, a raw test score unattached to any instrument is a worthless statistic — especially in the case of presidents where no test has ever been administered in the first place!
Even the final scores have different meanings. A top score on the Stanford-Binet, Fifth Edition, is around 160 but the WAIS hits a ceiling at about 130+.
Therefore, when you hear people say “Mary” has an IQ of 180 or 200, your next response should be: “Oh, really? To what test and to which scales are you referencing?”
It’s impossible to establish a modern IQ score to someone who lived two centuries ago. For example, composition style, spelling and vocabulary would have been quite different in George Washington’s day. Reasoning ability might have been more simplistic, related to the times, faith-based and built on cultural superiority, as compared to the situational and relative value system found in today’s intellectual world.
Obviously, information and knowledge would be multiple decades behind the present. Abraham Lincoln would have a hard time relating to a picture of a police car or an electric fan. “New” math concepts could have been challenging as well.
So, when you see such stories as George Washington had an IQ of 130, Abraham Lincoln 140, Woodrow Wilson 145, or George W. Bush is a 91, your skeptical red light should be flashing and your BS buzzer should be sounding loudly. While these numbers may appeal to someone’s political bias or wishful thinking, they are really complete claptrap and without any validity.
Usually when authors of these statistics are challenged, their answer is, “Oh, I base these conclusions on my professional experience, credentials and reading historical records about the presidents’ personalities.”
Not only is this approach unethical and unreliable, it is basically formalized fraud.
Steve Hansen is a Lodi writer and retired psychotherapist.