IQ: A Smart History of A Failed Idea, by Stephen Murdoch

I have just finished reading IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea, by Stephen Murdoch, published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. in June 2007.

I first heard of this book on July 3, 2007 when I was listening to the interview with the author (New Book Raises Questions About IQ Test) on the National Public Radio’s program “Talk of the Nation.”

When I exchanged e-mails after the show with one of the callers I know, who primarily deals with gifted children and who earns her living in part by administering various tests, she said she wished she could have said more because the author was “spewing so much misinformation it was amazing.” That made want to read the book myself.

Overall, the book does not say much about the gifted part of the population and how the IQ tests affect them, except for a couple of places.

Chapter 1 titled “The Problem with Testing” describes a well-off, highly educated family from Washington, DC who were terrified that their 3-year-old son scored very poorly on an IQ test because that meant he would not get into one of the elite private schools in DC his daddy went to. The child got some speech therapy and occupational therapy while in preschool and went to a public kindergarten. He was tested again at five, at six, and at seven. While he scored in the 34th percentile when he was five, by the time he was seven he scored in the 98th percentile and was finally accepted at the school his father went to. Murdoch doesn’t say whether the child was “prepped” for the test by the overanxious parents. He probably was and that might explain the score difference. The author does make a strong point that although the most often used IQ tests claim to measure “intelligence,” they really measure learned information and can definitely be prepped for.

Chapter 10 talks about the eleven-plus tests in the United Kingdom and how this one test, supposedly again measuring “intelligence,” but according to the author heavily relying on educational knowledge gained in the elementary school, determined to what school a child would be sent at eleven years of age. So a child who went to a crappy elementary school that did not teach to the test and who had no private tutoring was highly unlikely to score well on the eleven-plus.

Other than that, Murdoch mostly writes about how the IQ tests were misused to mistreat people with low IQ scores, those on the left side of the bell curve. He describes how in the 1920s the U.S. began forced sterilization of the “feeble minded” which apparently continued until 1970s, and how the Nazi Germany carried the idea of not allowing the “feeble minded” to procreate into euthanasia, or basically murder. It’s truly terrifying.

I’m not a psychologist or a professional test administrator, so I cannot say if, and how much, misinformation there is in this book, but overall, I found it quite interesting and informative. And it did make me wonder about this whole IQ test business and whether it really measures anything meaningful adequately (which seems to be the main thesis of the book). Murdoch does make a good point that someone’s IQ score and a difference of a point off the scale can have too much weight in some situations—whether a murderer is executed or spends life in prison, whether a person with low IQ qualifies for a subsidy from the government, or whether a child gets into the gifted program or not. He also makes a good point that someone with high IQ scores will not necessarily have a great and successful career and happy life.

This brief description of the book is of course just a (very small) nutshell and does not really do justice to the book. Go read it for yourself. It really is interesting. Here’s the table of contents.

By the way, in the chapter titled “Alternatives to IQ” Murdoch writes about Howard Gardner’s idea of multiple intelligences, proposed in Frames Of Mind: The Theory Of Multiple Intelligences, published in 1983; Emotional Intelligence, written by Daniel Goleman, and published in 1995, and Robert Sternberg’s Successful Intelligence published in 1997. So, my list of “books to read” has just expanded.


  1. if you’re interested in reading Goleman’s work, you might also be interested in listening to his recent “Wired to Connect’ dialogue series where he discusses the applications of emotional/social intelligence with leading thinkers. there are audio samples available from the publisher at

Speak Your Mind