Content warning: references to disablism, racism, misogyny, other hatefulness
The continual valuation of intelligence, or fast learning1, over other personal traits is dangerous. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with being a fast learner or being interested in learning, but there is a problem with attaching an absolute value judgement to intelligence. As I said in my most recent entry prior to this one, I’m a reasonably fast learner myself and grew up with a ‘gifted’ label, but I don’t see myself as being better than anybody else. My worth comes from my being human, and my moral character is determined by my behaviour, not any inborn characteristic I may have. I just happen to learn quickly. It’s what I do with it that matters, and I choose to study ways to make the world fairer and kinder.
I was reminded of the perils of attaching moral and qualitative values to people’s intelligence when coming across the website of the so-called intelligence expert, Paul Cooijmans. His website is often quoted as an authoritative source of information on intelligence, personality and other traits, and he hosts a number of tests and quizzes ready for social-media sharing. (Admittedly, most of the people citing him aren’t reporting for major media sources, but the Spectator and BoingBoing articles are exceptions.) I haven’t seen anybody else criticise his awful content, so I decided to do it. Are people not paying attention, or are they so ensconced in privilege that they can afford to ignore it? His material often sounds as though it could have come straight from a Nazi speech or an American eugenics leaflet from the early 20th century.
The first hint that there is something unsavoury on his site appears in his guide to ranges of human intelligence. There are a number of problems with this page:
- This guide is completely unsourced, apart from a postscript stating that he used a ‘combination of sources’ on intelligence and intellectual disability. If he used a combination of sources, he needs to cite them; it’s good academic practice. It’s intellectually dishonest not to provide sources if you claim to have them—people may very well assume that you pulled these data from your ass. I do, in any case.
- He provides a range of IQ scores, but does not state which tests these scores are based on. Every IQ test has different ranges, confidence intervals and cutoff points. The Stanford-Binet, the Wechsler tests, the Woodcock-Johnson and the Cattell tests will all yield different results. Moreover, previous versions will also produce different results from current tests that are based on different norms.
- His classifications of ‘R—ded’, Below Average, Average, Above Average, ‘Gifted’ and ‘Intelligent’ are not in current use on any real IQ test, apart from any term containing the word ‘average’. The first term is the infamous ‘R-word’ – an out-of-date and demeaning term for people with intellectual disabilities. Gifted, another questionable term, is generally used by some educational systems to refer to anyone who scores above roughly 130 on mainstream IQ tests, and is also used in a general way to refer to very fast learners. Intelligent isn’t an IQ range; it’s a generalised term for fast learners. Again, he gives no citations for these classifications.
- He claims that only very fast learners can think rationally.
- The page is oozing with disablism. His disdain for slower learners is such that he revels in using such outdated and dehumanising language.
- This page appears on the first page of results when googling ‘IQ classifications’, above several legitimate websites.
Once you go further into his site, though, his fascistic, hateful views come into even fuller display. It seems to get worse the further you go. He is intensely racist, misogynistic, disablist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-immigrant and classist. For a man who boasts about how enlightened he is, he does not shy away from expressing benighted views that have been long since debunked by mainstream science. Most of his content is regurgitated, discredited pseudoscience that had its heyday in the 1920s. He may as well be claiming that the luminiferous aether and phlogiston are real things.
He has an online quiz to test whether you are a cultural Marxist or not. Cultural Marxism is a dog-whistle term used by alt-righters and neo-fascists to refer to people who hold any views to the left of Donald Trump, Geert Wilders or Marine Le Pen. The questions are incredibly loaded and obviously favour right-wing views about gender, culture, disability and race. The viciousness towards marginalised people that he expresses is evident in nearly every question, and it is especially apparent in how he talks about intellectual disability.
I was most horrified, though, by the third page of his I saw. Cooijmans presents a harrowing tale of societal degeneration spawned by intellectual decline. It is clear that he views people with intellectual disabilities as being half-human brutes, unworthy of civil rights or fair treatment.
There are lots of classic right-wing talking points scattered throughout this awful article, including support for capital punishment, corporal punishment, lax gun laws, loosening human rights laws and other cruel social policies.
The disablism from his intelligence-ranking article and the ‘Cultural Marxism’ quiz is in full display here, too. He claims that fast learners are qualitatively superior to other people, and that fast learning automatically grants you morality.
But in this article I have assumed a continuous decline to sketch what would happen. I hope this will open the eyes of those people who, knowing that I am occupied with intelligence, in a warning and patronizing manner say things to me like, “Intelligence is not important or valuable in itself!”, “A more intelligent person is not a better person!”, “A society with higher intelligence is not a better society!”, or “Higher intelligence is not something worth striving for!”
I have complicated feelings about JK Rowling, but I think Dumbledore’s line from Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is apropos:
It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.
You can be devastatingly intelligent and a truly horrible person with no concern for others’ feelings, wellbeing or existence. You can be a slow learner and be kind, generous, moral and considerate. It’s not about whether you learn quickly or slowly, but what you do with those learning abilities. Cooijmans’ conflation of intelligence with goodness is particularly troubling, especially considering the lack of moral consideration he expresses for others as you read further into this article. (His personal profile also suggests that he does not value decency as a personal value, which I find horrifying.)
This line is particularly chilling:
Of course, a full degeneration like this can only occur when there is no other society around to destroy, enslave, colonize, or “help” the degenerating population. (emphasis mine)
This is advocacy for genocide, colonisation and slavery. A person who thinks that slavery and colonisation are ways to prevent societal decline is downright fucking evil. This is not the work of someone who values goodness or decency. This is the work of somebody who is so consumed with hate that they will casually advocate for the elimination of populations because they learn too slowly. I myself would say that the author himself is a perfect example of how goodness and intelligence are not synonymous with each other.
For an antidote to this series of scientifically unfounded, hate-spewing pages, have a look at Tim Wise’s ‘Race, Intelligence and the Limits of Science’.
If you have any modicum of decency and care about human rights and the dignity of all human beings, regardless of their origins, identities or abilities, please stop citing this odious excuse for a human being and people like him. He does not deserve to be treated as an authority. You may as well be citing Richard Spencer or some other neo-fascist, jackbooted thug who thinks that they are superior by virtue of the circumstances of their birth. Moreover, stop attaching absolute value judgements to intelligence, fast learning, ‘giftedness’ or whatever you want to call this combination of skills. Again, it is your choices and attitudes towards yourself and the other people around you that determine your morality. People have intrinsic value through their existence. We should work towards honouring each other’s existence as it is, rather than placing some of us over others.
I’ll finish with some lyrics from Depeche Mode’s ‘People are People’:
So we’re different colours and we’re different creeds
And different people have different needs
It’s obvious you hate me though I’ve done nothing wrong
I’ve never even met you so what could I have done?
I can’t understand what makes another man hate another man
Help me understand
People are people so why should it be you and I get along so awfully?
Addendum, 20 January 2018: Cooijmans has expressed more obviously Nazi-friendly views here. Again, if you are against Nazism, fascism and political extremism of this nature, please stop citing him as an authoritative source.
- Fast learning is a value-neutral term to refer to what is typically thought of as ‘intelligence’ in western society. I alternate the terms in this article, and do the same with slow learning and intellectual disability. ↩︎