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Friday, June 12, 2009

Compel candidates for public office to reveal their SAT scores

Two days ago the NY Times reported that Sonia Sotomayor described herself as an "affirmative action baby" who got into Princeton and Yale Law despite lower standardized test scores than many of her classmates. She attributed her lower test scores to "cultural biases" that are "built into testing." (Strangely, those cultural biases don't seem to affect first generation Asians.)

I'm dying to know what Sotomayor's scores were.

If Sotomayor's Bronx background hampered her performance on the SATs, which is certainly understandable, one would think that after four years at Princeton -- where, after all, she graduated summa cum laude -- she would have caught up enough to have aced her LSATs. But her statement implies that she didn't do well there, either.

Sotomayor has certainly made her grades public. Why not her board scores? They are probably a better indicator of her intelligence than her grades (which, after all, can always be grubbed for). S-A-T does stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test. It isn't entirely an intelligence test, since you do need to know stuff like the formula for the area of a circle, and your vocabulary is tested as well (I've been helping my son study for the test recently). But there are also tests of comprehension, and logic, and problem solving of the sort that more closely resemble an IQ test than does, say, kissing a professor's behind.

(Unfortunately for Sonia, she hasn't been able to kiss the Supreme Court Justices' rear ends, which may have something to do with why they have reversed 80% of the decisions she's made that they've reviewed.)

Why shouldn't we know how intelligent candidates for (either elective or appointive) public office are? During the course of a campaign we find out about their job history, their tax history, their marital history (and often, extramarital history), if they've hired any undocumented workers, and their past statements and writings. Much of that is a reflection of their intelligence. Why not find out more directly about their intelligence, though their test scores?

Obviously, people only hide things when they have things they want to hide. Sotomayor's refusal to reveal her SAT scores, and perhaps more to the point, her LSAT scores, indicate she is trying to hide a less than stellar intelligence. What other conclusion can we draw?

(And why has Obama sealed his academic records, for that matter?)

In 2004, most people were shocked to find that George W. Bush's combined SATs were 1206, higher than John Kerry's 1190. Even more surprising was that Bill Bradley, the Rhodes Scholar and Senator who ran in the Democratic primaries in 2000, got only a 485 for his verbal SAT score. These facts are revealing.

The public has a right to some sense of the brainpower that will go into the decisions that affect their lives. The SAT is the closest thing to an intelligence test that everybody has taken under the same conditions. If a candidate feels that he would be embarrassed by his scores, well, embarrassment is part of the contract you sign when you decide to become a public figure.

An aspiring politician may have other qualities he feels qualify him for public office; let him publicize those. There are certainly other qualifications for leadership that are more important, such as character and experience. (No one has ever suggested that these should be hidden.) And no electorate is ever going to opt for the average dork from MENSA anyway. But raw intelligence is important as well. Otherwise you end up with.....the government we have.

Think about it. Wouldn't, say, Warren Buffett have made a better President than any of our recent ones? Or Charles Darwin? Or Albert Einstein? (It's a stretch to imagine the latter two as politicians, but I suspect that they would have been quite adept at solving -- or at least accurately analyzing -- society's problems had they put their minds to it. The problem is, people like them often have neither the appetite nor the stomach to run.)

Which world leaders have had raw IQ points just dripping from their every pore? Abraham Lincoln. Winston Churchill. Mikhail Gorbachev. Wouldn't they inspire more confidence than some of our recent ones?

It would be nice to have all candidates for public office -- either appointive or elective -- take a pure IQ test under controlled conditions and see how they would do. A good IQ test contains no questions which can be studied for beforehand. It's all about reasoning, memory (of what you just read), patterns, spatial sense, etc. The problem with that is, the motivation to cheat would become very large, poorly paid test administrators would be susceptible to bribes, and the conditions under which the test would be taken couldn't be controlled as well as the SATs are. (No seventeen year old will use his wealth to obtain a copy of the test beforehand in anticipation of an eventual run for public office.)

So, we're stuck with the SAT, our impure IQ test.

People have been elected for all sorts of worse reasons -- would Dan Quayle ever have been elected Senator from Indiana if he hadn't been nice-looking? Would Arnold Schwarzenegger have been elected Governor if he hadn't been a movie star? Would a junior Senator from Illinois have been elected President if a wide swath of white people hadn't craved a sanitized, eloquent black candidate to vote for to prove to themselves that they weren't racist? Would George W. Bush ever have even been elected dogcatcher if he hadn't been the son and namesake of the President?

Shouldn't intelligence rank ahead of these other criteria?

Let's make it, if not mandatory to reveal one's SATs, at least clear that not revealing them is tantamount to an admission of low wattage.

Of course, my personal preference would be that everybody have their IQ tested at age twelve, then get that number permanently tattooed on their foreheads. Some might consider this a bit, well, inhuman. But think how much time you could save that way -- both in your personal life and when it comes to winnowing the field for potential Supreme Court nominees.


Anonymous said...

The only problem with SAT tests is they don't account for all areas of intelligence. According to Gardner's 7 Areas of Intelligence, SAT's only test for Mathematical-Logical and Linguistic Intelligence but they fail to recognize a person's Interpersonal, Musical, Intrapersonal, Physical, or Spatial Intelligences. There are plenty of talented, successful, and compelling people who did poorly on their SAT's but still make excellent candidates for both public office and other influential positions.

Just to keep things open and transparent... my SAT's are 630 Verbal and 720 Math.

John Craig said...

Anonymous -- Thank you for your comment. There's no question that the SAT's are an imperfect IQ test, as I said in the post. But they're still the best indicator we have that practically everyone has taken under the same conditions.

As far as Gardner's 7 Areas, most IQ tests don't test interpersonal, musical, intrapersonal, and physical intelligences. I'm not familiar with Gardner, but it sounds like one of those measures cooked up specifically to offset the racially-skewed results of standard IQ tests. (A Michael Jordan would score extremely high on a test of "physical intelligence" even if he didn't do so well on a standard IQ test.) And how exactly would a normal test measure interpersonal "intelligence"? That can only be accurately measured by seeing how well one does interacting with a wide range of people.

There's no question that standard intelligence is but one measure of what makes a good politician. Character (especially honesty and incorruptibility), interpersonal skills, the ability to work well with others, and desire for public service are all at least as -- if not more -- important than a standard measure of IQ. But, having said that, intelligence is also relevant, it's not an aspect of a candidacy that should remain hidden. The electorate has the right to a sense of the wattage which will be applied to leading them.

Anonymous said...

I think Chrchill's early record (school, military academy entrance exam) suggests that he struggled academically. His later insight, oratory and writing certainly indicates a keen intelligence, but I'm not sure it was a product of "raw IQ". I suspect he would have had uneven and unimpressive SAT scores.

John Craig said...

GD (or Guy, if I maybe so bold)-- Thank you for your comment. I suspect that Churchill's SATs, had he taken them, would have been a lot better than his early grades. Grades are more a function of how much of a grind you are (and Churchill had too much of a wild streak to be a grind), SATS come closer to measuring raw IQ. I'm not familiar with the military academy entrance exam, but I'd guess it's more of an achievement test, the equivalent of, say, a history or physics AT, than it is of an aptitude test like the SAT. Then again, I may be overly swayed by having been to the Cabinet War Rooms and Churchill Museum five years ago. That guy had more good lines than any other politician I can think of; it's hard to believe there wasn't a very high IQ behind them.