The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, caused a furor this week with a speech at London's Centre for Policy Studies in London, a neo-liberal free-market think tank.
The section of the speech that caused the most anguish was, on the surface, about making sure London is a more meritocratic society. Johnson said he wanted to "shake the pack" to ensure that the most ablest people were able to rise to the top. He wanted to do this with selective state schools (known as grammar schools in the U.K.) and state-funded scholarships for the smartest students from low-income backgrounds to attend elite private schools.
However, in a passage where Johnson linked IQ to economic inequality, the Mayor of London betrayed a misunderstanding of meritocracy that many of the wealthy share. Here's the controversial passage:
Whatever you may think of the value of IQ tests, it is surely relevant to a conversation about equality that as many as 16 percent of our species have an IQ below 85, while about 2 percent have an IQ above 130. [According to the Guardian, Johnson then asked whether anyone in the audience had a low IQ. To muted laughter he asked: "Over 16% anyone? Put up your hands."]
There are many problems with this statement. First, it's a fudging of what IQ measures. IQ testing is designed to show someone's intelligence relative to others. An IQ of 100 is based on the median score, and higher or lower scores are based on their relation to this median score — scores each standard deviation (SD) up or down are defined as 15 IQ points greater or less. What this means is that if you somehow managed to make the everyone with an IQ below 85 leave the U.K., the curve on which IQ is based would shift, and there would be a new 16% of the population with an IQ below 85. All Johnson is really saying which such a statement is that some people score above average on a test, and some people score below average.
Then there's the question of whether IQ tests themselves are actually worthwhile. There has been a lot of controversy about this, but the evidence that IQ tests are — at best — flawed is persuasive. "Intelligence" as we conceive of it is now thought to be a very broad field, and one simple test is just not a good indicator of it. What's more, studies have shown that IQ tests can change dramatically over time depending on outside circumstances: They do not appear to show any kind of "innate" intelligence, but rather they appear to show how well someone has developed academically.
Then there's Johnson's assertion that high IQs strongly correlate with economic success. Johnson doesn't cite any data for this, but multiple academic studies have disputed this. “Your IQ has really no relationship to your wealth. And being very smart does not protect you from getting into financial difficulty,” Jay Zagorsky, author of the study on IQ and wealth and a research scientist at Ohio State University 's Center for Human Resource Research, said in one interview. Other studies have found that while IQ may help people get into certain professions, once they are in those professions their emotional ability plays a larger role.
These factors are almost forgivable, I'd say. Johnson isn't trying to be precise with this speech — he's a famously glib speech maker — and there's a lot of academic debate about these matters.
What is truly awful though, is the context. Johnson is a man who was born into a wealthy and well-connected family, and has had a fantastically successful life. Most of the people he was talking to at the Centre for Policy Studies were highly educated people involved in the finance world. When Johnson quipped "Over 16% anyone?" he was referencing this.
Meritocracy is, of course, a worthy aim for any society. But Johnson was using meritocratic ideas to justify the enormous, unprecedented success of an elite. Johnson may have thought he was talking about equality of opportunity, but with his comments about IQ, he made it clear he felt the current status quo clearly deserved their success, and should never be questioned. That's the very essence of elitism.
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