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Binet and Simon’s “Ideal City”

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1500 words

Ranking human worth on the basis of how well one compares in academic contests, with the effect that high ranks are associated with privilege, status, and power, does suggest that psychometry is best explored as a form of vertical classification and attending rankings of social value. (Garrison, 2009: 36)

Binet and Simon’s (1916) book The Development of Intelligence in Children is somewhat of a Bible for IQ-ists. The book chronicles the methods Binet and Simon used to construct their tests for children to identify those children who needed more help at school. In the book, they describe the anatomic measures they used. Indeed, before becoming a self-taught psychologist, Binet measured skulls and concluded that skull measurements did not correlate with teacher’s assessment of their students’ “intelligence” (Gould, 1995, chapter 5).

In any case, despite Binet’s protestations that Gould discusses, he wanted to use his tests to create what Binet and Simon (1916: 262) called an “ideal city.”

It now remains to explain the use of our measuring scale which we consider a standard of the child’s intelligence. Of what use is a measure of intelligence? Without doubt one could conceive many possible applications of the process, in dreaming of a future where the social sphere would be better organized than ours; where every one would work according to his own aptitudes in such a way that no particle force should be lost for society. That would be the ideal city. It is indeed far from us. But we have to remain among the sterner and matter-of-fact realities of life, since we here deal with practical experiments which are the most commonplace realities.

Binet disregarded his skull measurements as a correlate of ‘intelligence’ since they did not agree with teacher’s ratings. But then Binet and Simon (1916: 309) discuss how teachers assessed students (and gave an example). This is then how Binet made sure that the new psychological ‘measure’ that he devised related to how teachers assessed their students. Binet and Simon’s “theory” grouped certain children as “superior” and others as “inferior” in ‘intelligence’ (whatever that is), but did not pinpoint biology as the cause of the differences between the children. These groupings, though, corresponded to the social class of the children.

Thus, in effect, what Binet and Simon wanted to do was to organize society along a system of class social class lines while using his ‘intelligence tests’ to place the individual where they “belonged” on the hierarchy on the basis of their “intelligence”—whether or not this “intelligence” was “innate” or “learned.” Indeed, Binet and Simon did originally develop their scales to distinguish children who needed more help in school than others. They assumed that individuals had certain (intellectual) properties which then related to their class position. And that by using their scales, they can identify certain children and then place them into certain classes for remedial help. But a closer reading of Binet and Simon shows two hereditarians who wanted to use their tests for similar reasons that they were originally brought to America for!

Binet and Simon’s test was created to “separate natural intelligence and instruction” since they attempted to ‘measure’ the “natural intelligence” (Mensh and Mensh, 1991). Mensh and Mensh (1991: 23) continue:

Although Binet’s original aim was to construct an instrument for classifying unsuccessful school performers inferior in intelligence, it was impossible for him to create one that would do only that, i.e., function at only one extreme. Because his test was a projection of the relationship between concepts of inferiority and superiority—each of which requires the other—it was intrinsically a device for universal ranking according to alleged mental worth.

This “ideal city” that Binet and Simon imagine would have individuals work to their “known aptitudes”—meaning that individuals would work where their social class dictated they would work. This was, in fact, eerily similar to the uses of the test that Goddard translated and the test—the Stanford-Binet—that Terman developed in 1916.

Binet and Simon (1916: 92) also discuss further uses for their tests, irrespective of job placement for individuals:

When the work, which is here only begun, shall have taken its definite character, it will doubtless permit the solution of many pending questions, since we are aiming at nothing less than the measure of intelligence; one will this know how to compare the different intellectual levels not only according to age, but according to sex, social condition, and to race; applications of our method will be found useful to normal anthropology, and also to criminal anthropology, which touches closely upon the study of the subnormal, and will receive the principle conclusion of our study.

Binet, therefore, had similar views to Goddard and Terman, regarding “tests of intelligence” and Binet wanted to stratify society by ‘intelligence’ using his own tests (which were culturally biased against certain classes). Binet’s writings on the uses of his tests, ironically, mirrored what the creators of the Army Alpha and Beta tests believed. Binet believed that his tests could select individuals that were right for the role they would be designated to work. Binet, nevertheless, contradicted himself numerous times (Spring, 1972; Mensh and Mensh, 1991).

This dream of an “ideal city” was taken a step further when Binet’s test was brought and translated to America by Goddard and used for selecting military recruits (call it an “ideal country”). They would construct the test in order to “ensure” the right percentages of “the right” people who would be in their spot that was designated to them on the basis of their intelligence.

What Binet was attempting to do was to mark individual social value with his test. He claimed that we can use his (practical) test to select people for certain social roles. Thus, Binet’s dream for what his tests would do—and were then further developed by Goddard, Yerkes, Terman, et al—is inherent in what the IQ-ists of today want to do. They believe that there are “IQ cutoffs”, meaning that people with an IQ above or below a certain threshold won’t be able to do job X. However, the causal efficacy of IQ is what is in question along with the fact that IQ-ists have certain biases that they construct into their tests that they believe are ‘objective.’ But where Binet shifted from the IQ-ists of today and his contemporaries was that he believed that ‘intelligence’ is relative to one’s social situation (Binet and Simon, 1916: 266-267).

It is ironic that Gould believed that we could use Binet’s test (along with contemporary tests constructed and ‘validated’—correlated—with Terman’s Stanford-Binet test) for ‘good’; this is what Binet thought he would be done. But then, when the hereditarians had Binet’s test, they took Binet’s arguments to a logical conclusion. This also has to do with the fact that the test was constructed AND THEN they attempted to ‘see’ what was ‘measured’ with correlational studies. The ‘meaning’ of test scores, thusly, is seen after the fact with—wait for it—correlations with other tests that were ‘validated’ with other (unvalidated) tests.

This comes back to the claim that the mental can be ‘measured’ at all. If physicalism is false—and there are dozens of (a priori) arguments that establish this fact— and the mental is therefore irreducible to the physical, then psychological traits—and with it the mind—cannot be measured. It then follows that the mind cannot be measured. Further, rankings are not measures (Nash, 1990: 63), therefore, ability and achievement tests cannot be ‘measures’ of any property of individuals or groups—the object of measurement is the human and this was inherent in Binet’s original conception of his test that the IQ-ists in America attempted with their restrictions on immigration in the early 1900s.

This speaks to the fatalism that is inherent in IQ-ism—and was inherent since the creation of the first standardized tests (of which IQ tests are). These tests are—and have been since their inception—attempting to measure human worth and the differences and value between persons. The IQ-ist claims that “IQ tests must measure something.” And this ‘measurement’, it is claimed, is inherent in the fact that the tests have ‘predictive validity.’ But such claims of that a ‘property’ inherent in individuals and groups fails. The real ‘function’ of standardized testing is for assessment, and not measurement.

The “ideal city”, it seems, is just a city of IQ-ism—where one’s social roles are delegated by where they score on a test that is constructed to get the results the constructors want. Therefore, what Binet wanted his tests to do was (and some may ever argue it still is) being used to mark social worth (Garrison, 2004, 2009). Psychometry is therefore a political ring. It is inherently political and not “value-free.” Psychologists/psychometricians do not have an ‘objective science’, as the object of study (the human) can reflexively change their behavior when they know they are being studied. Their field is inherently political and they mark individuals and groups—whether they admit it or not. “Ideal cities” can lead to eugenic thinking, in any case, and to strive for “ideality” can lead to social harms—even if the intentions are ‘good.’


1 Comment

  1. lui, il senza-nome says:

    Psychology is hardly a science. Psychiatry is not a science at all. I’ve long been aware of the “sciency”-looking yet unprofessional way psychiatrists approach topics like mental illness, intelligence etc.
    Psychology and especially psychiatry are built on ad hoc assumptions. Because children perform worse than adults on IQ tests, the poor score of adults is said to reflect a mind that thinks like a child. Being very bad at IQ scores gets you a diagnosis where your intellectual deficiency and your child-likeness is officially affirmed. We, for example, don’t let children drive a car. Instead, we tell them what to do. Some parents even go as far and decide every little thing for them.
    Then, we might ask. If the mentally deficient think like children, should we not treat them like children? Restrain them, command them, imprison them etc.

    I’m not here to talk about the situation of the “intellectually disabled”. I don’t know whether or not this site here is even the right place for discussions about psychiatry.

    I only think that it is a priori obvious that IQ tests, just like any other psychometric test, will be used to rank and to classify people and that in the broadest sense, IQ is a feature like anything else. You can have a high or low IQ, brown or blond hair, be good-looking or ugly etc. Some features are better than others. It’s the way humans work. Your right to live is always renegotiated.

    Like

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