the two-stupid-question IQ test

a study released a few days ago shows that eldest children have the highest IQs in families, statistically speaking. i’m not interested in writing about that article or the study or IQ as a function of birth order. no, what i want to write about today is an NPR rebuttal to that story in which a reporter went around, found some eldest children, and did an impromptu IQ test.

this was a very tongue-in-cheek interview, but it still bugged me what the reporter did (or rather, how he did it). he asked two questions whose goal was supposedly to determine how smart someone was. the questions?

  1. what is the square root of π?
  2. what are the six types of quarks?

bueller? anyone?

  1. π is not a perfect square, hence has no exact square root; it’s pretty close to 1.77425. this lack of an exact square root is actually true of most numbers. in fact, the square root of 2 is not even defined (it’s actually irrational).
  2. the six types of quarks are up, down, charm, strange, top, and bottom.

better answers to these two questions are of course (1) let me get a calculator, and (2) who cares.

first, of course it’s silly to think that you could see how intelligent someone was based on only two questions. it’s pretty clear this was part of the tongue in cheek in this interview. second, the study related to IQ, and one could argue that there isn’t a perfect correlation between IQ and intelligence (no comment on this from the reporter). third, these questions have little to no bearing on intelligence. the thing i can’t figure out is whether or not the interviewer thought this was the case.

neither of these questions is difficult, but they rely on bodies of knowledge not needed in everyday life: number theory and particle physics. an inability to answer these questions accurately would mean you’re ignorant of these particular facts, not stupid. this is especially true of the second question, which is based on rote memorization and thus equivalent to asking someone, "who is the author of Portait of the Artist as a Young Man?"

it seems to me that most people, when asked these questions, wouldn’t be able to answer them, and might feel stupid because of it. why not pick questions that were either impossible to answer (e.g., can anything move faster than light?) or that were incredibly silly (e.g., how many politicians does it take to change a light bulb?). if you picked ridiculous questions on either end of the spectrum, it seems you’d get a laugh, make your point that two questions don’t an IQ test make, and not make anyone wonder whether or not they were being made fun of.

then again, maybe i’m just overthinking things. it just irks me when intelligence is conflated with knowledge, and that’s what i felt this NPR interviewer did with his two stupid questions.

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2 thoughts on “the two-stupid-question IQ test

  1. Chris

    100% agree. In fact it seems indicative of the media/press these days. In this case they take an initial non-story and devote time to, and thus giving it more weight. It also shows the reporter and editor didn’t take time to understand the story and came up with a follow up that only muddies the water rather than provide clarity.
    You have to wonder when we have some very serious issues these days and this is how NPR devotes time.
    Why not ask them how may deaths occurred in Iraq last week. Or, what are the principle greenhouse gas(es). At least you would be testing if people read!

    Reply
  2. chooky

    if you’re not interested then i’m going to have to write about this article. i haven’t looked at the source data but my gut tells me this is total bs.

    Reply

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