IQ Tests Have Always Been Bullshit, Which Is Why Trump Loves Them

Scroll down any web page with ads and you’ll find, mixed in at the bottom with “1 Weird Trick for a Flat Belly” cartoons and links to photos of celebrities who ruined themselves with plastic surgery, enticements to gauge your IQ. Sometimes against a celebrity, even!

You’re smart enough to recognize this kind of thing for the scam it is: an attempt to scrape your personal info. But maybe you’re still curious about measuring your intelligence. So you Google “IQ test” and come up with quite a few hits — you can take quizzes on official-sounding sites like 123test.com and A Real Me. The top result, however, is a test certified by Brain Metrics Initiative. Wow, fancy! What is that exactly? Just some phony “international collaborative project” that lets you answer a few multiple-choice questions before slapping you with a surprise $20 fee to peek at your score.

It’s probably just as well, since these online IQ assessments are universally bullshit; you can consistently kick back numbers in the superior 130–140 range just by picking answers at random as quickly as possible. Assuming Donald Trump has any justification whatsoever for repeatedly claiming that his own IQ stretches to this formidable level (a couple of years ago he went so far as to peg it at 132), I’d guess it’s in the form of a bogus online IQ test’s final screen (which he made an assistant print out and laminate).

Now Trump is in a tiff with Secretary of State and Jason Bourne villain Rex Tillerson, who apparently called him a “moron” — which is actually somewhat charitable! — and falling back on his faith in the IQ test as a bulletproof indicator of intellect. “I think it’s fake news,” Trump said of the Tillerson story in a Forbes interview. “But if he did that, I guess we’ll have to compare IQ tests. And I can tell you who is going to win.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders tried to spin the comment as a joke, which we all understand at this point to be White House code for “definitely not a joke.”


Because we live in hell, the IQ challenge immediately spawned stuff like this “Are you smarter than Donald Trump? Take our IQ test!” post from CNN hack Chris Cillizza, which directly mimics the dusty old format of IQ clickbait ads. The majority of the quiz is given over to painful punchlines concerning how great and smart Trump is (part of me wonders if Andy Borowitz ghostwrote), but the rest of the questions, we’re told, “are taken from actual IQ tests.” I’m assuming that means he lightly plagiarized some material from the likes of the distinguished Brain Metrics Initiative, but even if we were to give Chris the enormous benefit of the doubt and say he borrowed the questions from a cognitive psychologist for this gag test, could we claim that these basic math problems tell us anything relevant about a person’s overall capacity for constructive thought?

Beyond their mathematical abilities, probably not. To the extent that an IQ test works (and by the way, there are many kinds, meant to evaluate everything from abstract reasoning to verbal memory to social teamwork skills), it can only report on a specific idea of what constitutes intelligence. Trump, a dolt with a fetish for big numbers, clearly likes the idea of IQ “points” because they mean you can “win” or “beat” other people, as in his proposed challenge to Tillerson. So let’s take another improbable leap and suppose that Trump has already taken an individually administered, standardized IQ test — the fourth edition of the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale would be the most popular choice — and garnered an impressive “Full Scale IQ” based on four separate index scores for Verbal Comprehension, Perceptual Reasoning Index, Working Memory, and Processing Speed. Even that wouldn’t preclude him from constantly being a massive dumbass, especially in the job he now has, which calls for an application of critical faculties that the Wechsler doesn’t examine and that he has never possessed.

Keith E. Stanovich, University of Toronto professor emeritus of applied psychology and human development, has written extensively on the limitations of IQ tests, in particular the one most pertinent to Trump’s case: Traditional intelligence exams “miss some of the most important aspects of real-world decision making.” Moreover, “rational thinking can be surprisingly dissociated from intelligence,” and any correlation between the two “is usually quite modest.” If I may extrapolate a bit, that would mean an alleged IQ of 132 proves precisely nothing as concerns your ability to lead the free world, let alone think twice about demanding a “tenfold increase” in the U.S. nuclear stockpile, which is the very Trump comment that prompted Tillerson to call him a moron in the first place.

No matter. Trump is convinced that one’s IQ is a complete snapshot of one’s value, probably hereditary or otherwise inborn, and there he is in suitable company: The American history of intelligence testing began in part with Henry H. Goddard, who was the first to translate the groundbreaking Binet-Simon scale, devised by French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon in 1905 to separate children with learning disabilities from gifted students. Goddard pushed the concept deep into the racist realm of eugenics and administered IQ tests for steerage-class immigrants arriving in Ellis Island, concluding that “40 percent of the Jews, Italians and Hungarians” could be deported for “feeble-mindedness,” a scourge he worried would infect the American genetic pool with rank stupidity. For feeble-minded U.S. citizens, he advocated “institutional isolation or sexual sterilization” to prevent a continuation of the trait in children. These people, according to Goddard’s taxonomy, were still smarter than “idiots” (of IQs between 0 and 25) and “imbeciles” (IQ 26–50), and to distinguish those of IQ 51–75, he coined a term that is still, by every indication, with us today: “moron.”

To Goddard, the IQ-verified moron was the most pressing problem for the American race because, unlike the idiot or imbecile, he or she had the wherewithal to procreate. “The idiot is not our greatest problem. He is indeed loathsome,” Goddard once wrote. “Nevertheless, he lives his life and is done. He does not continue the race with a line of children like himself. … It is the moron type that makes for us our great problem.” In a fantastic turn you couldn’t make up, this ghastly principle of a debunked pseudoscience would seem to describe Trump perfectly, making Tillerson even righter than he knew.

Since Goddard, IQ tests have failed to shake off the problem of genetic interpretations, leading directly to Trump’s favorite pastime other than golf: racist rhetoric. We can’t really be shocked that he loves an intelligence standard that shows black and Hispanic people scoring lower than whites on average, since this would, in his pitifully unscientific mind, lend credence to the biases he brings to the table regardless. God knows someone he had a steak dinner with in 1994 probably summarized Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve for him; that book and its author remain the gold standards for bigoted hogwash on the subject of intelligence, as they both continue to find an audience in 2017 by recycling talking points for neo-Nazis. But as the late Stephen Jay Gould always pointed out, the racial gap is “a fact whose meaning is totally unspecified.”

Gould also argued, in The Mismeasure of Man, against the notion that intellect could be reduced to a singular quantity, but this, too, is surely beyond Trump’s reckoning. We may as let Mensa test him and Tillerson, as they’ve offered, with their own $30 exam on “logic and deductive reasoning.” I imagine most of us have sized up Trump’s mental acuity through reliable if amateur means, anyway. If it were up to me, the challenge would consist of a single question, at a live press briefing: Ask him what “IQ” stands for.