SubScribe: A little knowledge... Google+

Wednesday 13 February 2013

A little knowledge...

She describes herself as a bit ditzy, she's blonde, uses spray tan and fake nails - and she lives in Essex. But don't fall for the stereotype. Lauren Marbe is no TOWIE airhead; she packs more brainpower than Einstein.
Or so we were told today by The Times, the Mail, the Telegraph, the Mirror, the Sun and assorted websites. All reported that the 16-year-old Loughton schoolgirl had scored 161 in a Mensa IQ test, 'beating' Einstein's IQ of 160.
It is compulsory for all stories about clever people to make reference to Einstein, just as it is for weather reporters to compare the temperature in Bournemouth with that in Malaga or Cairo if the sun comes out for more than a couple of days.
There is no doubt that pictures of pretty girls liven up news pages.  Men like looking at them, women like looking at them. But it helps if there is some justifcation, a figleaf of newsworthiness, and a complete absence of patronising cliches.

My heart sank when I saw this on The Times's iPad edition:

Not bad for an Essex blonde? Whatever next? The tone of the caption is offensive, screaming 'hey, a good looker who has a brain, who would have thought it?' But my despair was over the fact that her IQ score was being reported at all. There was no context, beyond the inevitable mention of Einstein, and  it was clearly more important for the writer/sub to use the few words available to mention the fake tan and TOWIE than to put her achievement into perspective.

A quick swirl round the laptop with our faithful friend Google suggested that I was suffering from news-sense failure. Most other papers had carried the story - and Lauren's triumph had reached Australia, Kuala Lumpur, America and Brazil. She was also, understandably, the star of her local rag, the Wanstead and Woodford Guardian.
Here we discovered that she was one of 29 pupils from Roding Valley High School to take the test. Lauren was among five to emerge with an IQ of more than 148, high enough to be invited to join Mensa, and one of ten to score more than 135 - apparently putting them in the top 1 per cent of the world's population. 
Well, my goodness. What are the chances of that? A third of a random group of children from the same school turn out to be cleverer than 99 per cent of everyone else in the world. Amazing. People will be queueing outside the estate agents at dawn to find homes in the catchment area.

The teenagers took what is known as the Cattell IIIb intelligence test, which is one of a number of recognised IQ tests. Others include Wechsler, Ravens and Culture Fair. Every test starts on the premise that the mean score will be 100. The scale then fans out in either direction to cover the most mentally disabled at one end and geniuses at the other.  Realistic comparisons of  IQs can be made only if we know which test was taken.  Children who sit Cattell at Mensa in London can record a maximum IQ of 162, adults a maximum of 161.
To qualify for Mensa membership you have to score 148 on Cattell, but only 132 on Wechsler. Such scores will put you in the top 2 per cent of the population.
(Hang on, isn't 135 enough to put you into the world's top 1 per cent? Yes -  but our population is more intelligent on these measures than the world in general.)

The Cattell IIIb curve

Which brings us to Mr Einstein. Which did he take? Er, well actually he never took an IQ test. Someone somewhere once estimated that if he had, he would have scored between 160 and 180. For some reason the 160 figure stuck.
And what about other superbrains mentioned in coverage of the Lauren story? Charles Dickens at 180, Galileo at 185? Did they sit down and compare squares and triangles and fill in missing numbers?
Of course they didn't. In 1926 an American psychologist called Catharine Cox compiled a list of estimated IQs for 300 historical greats. She assessed their intelligence on the basis of biographies, books, school reports and even anecdotes about their lives up to the age of 26.  She then graded them in line with yet another index  - the Stanford-Binet, which was developed in the early years of the last century.  
The figures were later adjusted to take into account movements of the mean score - ie the number of people on the 100 point line - over the centuries. As new generations take old tests, scores rise, perhaps through better education, perhaps through better nutrition,  and the average  no longer sits on the 100 line. That means tests have to be updated regularly to hold the line, and equally past scores need to be downgraded to make any meaningful comparison with the results of modern tests. Thus Galileo had his (hypothetical) rating of 185 reduced to 163, while Darwin's fell from 165 to 143. 

(Funnily enough,the papers all chose to make their comparisons with the higher  figure 
 - there must have been  a glimmer of sense that told them that it was unlikely  that 
 Lauren was cleverer than Leonardo da Vinci - 180 on Cox's estimate, reduced to 158.)
Goethe emerged  from the Cox exercise as the greatest intellect, with a score of 210/188. Interesting as it may have been, Ms Cox was essentially indulging in a sophisticated parlour game, as pundits do now when they create cricket matches in which Dennis Lillee bowls to WG Grace. In terms of  accuracy, the results bear comparison with Auntie Maud's interpretation of Gone With the Wind after an afternoon on the Christmas sherry. 

And Stephen Hawking? and Bill Gates? They're still with us, so do we  know their IQs?  When asked outright, both modestly declined to divulge.  Hawking replied 'People who brag about their IQs are losers', while Gates said 'I took some tests when I was younger, I did well. But I'm good at gooky tests.'  Even so, the consensus today is that they both rank at 160  - and thus information gleaned from a swift google is regurgitated over and over as gospel.

So back to young Lauren and her moment  in the spotlight. How unusual is her score? And how original is today's reporting of it? Well here she is on the Mail website ...and here's Olivia Manning, who featured last October...

...also in October,  Fabiola Mann, a 15-year-old London student hailing from Goa, earned her place in Mensa, as had Jatin Chunilal, 12, of Edgware, the previous July. Both scored the maximum of 162. For some inexplicable reason the Mail did not report these achievements....

...but it had gushed about Victoria Cowie's score in April 2011, and a year later we were all agog when the youngest star, little Heidi Hankins of Winchester, qualified for Mensa at the age of four. Irritatingly, she failed by a single point to match Einstein and Hawking....  


Well, we were always told there's nothing new under the sun. Not even pretty smart girls.

Heidi's achievement did, however, prompt one journalist - the American science writer Stephanie Pappas -  to put the $64,000 question to Mensa. Was the child really a point behind Einstein? Frank Lawlis, American Mensa's supervisory psychologist, blew the fantasy out of the water, saying  it was impossible to compare a child's IQ scores with an adult's.
 'All you're doing is testing within a certain age group. You're saying that the four-year-old is smarter than 99.5 or 99.8 per cent of her age group, but that doesn't mean you can compare to another age group.' 
And, presumably, not to a long dead physicist who never took a test anyway.

The fact is, Mensa offers a bulk purchase deal on intelligence testing for schools and colleges. The organisation says it helps the teachers to identify their gifted pupils, and that it can give both the schools and the children a boost.
It also generates income and publicity.
There's nothing wrong with that. But if our media decide to report the results as news (presumably on the basis of a Mensa press release or a local correspondent's pitch), they might at least do the reader the courtesy of checking whether anything like this has happened before and whether it has any significance. 
And if they still want to proceed, then perhaps they could vary the presentation - and leave Einstein out of it.

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  1. Wondered if she was famous for anything other than her brains, and having checked out her Twitter, have lost all interest!

  2. Surprised they didn't mention Brian Glover's '88' character in Alien 3 - nicknamed by his IQ level...Or perhaps they should also list the IQ of the reporters who regurgitate this tripe without question - SAW

  3. I'm sorry to say that, ludicrously, subs are seldom given the time to check facts nowadays, such is the pressure to churn out "lively" news stories for the print edition, then move straight on to the various digital variants with no time to recuperate. It's a poor state of affairs. News journalism is now infested with a host of line managers and associate editors of various sorts rather than a back bench, a chief sub and a team of downtable subs.

  4. The problem as a sub isyou don't have the authority to say "This story is total nonsense, it needs to hit the spike." The news editor has decreed that it's going in, and if you take out the dubious "colour" then often there is no story left. With 15 minutes till press time which brave sub will raise his or her head above the parapet and point out that the emperor has no clothes?

  5. Great blog -- I took the liberty of suggesting it to Dom Ponsford at the Press Gazette as a replacement for Grey Cardigan. Hope you don't mind.

  6. Sometimes it feels like the Mail can't get any lower but then you read analysis like this and realise it always can. Depressing to see The Times - Britain's 'paper of record' - getting in on the act too

  7. I think brainy children is a good thing. The problem with journalism imo is opinion - people should not criticise each others' opinion so much. Rather assess whether negative criticism is justifiable and why. That way we are being more logical and constructive in our analysis.