A History of Intelligence Testing: Cautions and Controversies

Intelligence tests have a sordid history.  Alfred Binet developed the first intelligence test, the Binet-Simon Test.  This was the beginning of modern mental testing.  Binet’s intentions were noble enough.  He simply wanted to find less intelligent students so they could be given additional help.  From the outset, Binet was aware of potential misuses.  As Binet lost direct control over the Binet-Simon Test, he could no longer guarantee its ethical use.  Among others, Lewis Terman would translate and arguably misuse Binet’s test.  Terman began using the results of the Binet-Simon-Test (in America now named the Stanford Binet) to classify people as normals, idiots or imbeciles. These terms were not then pejorative, as they are now.  Nonetheless, it was at this time that intelligence testing was recruited to a dangerous cause.  This was the eugenics movement, begun in England, transplanted to America and thereafter imported to Germany in its most virulent form.  Eugenics was the unfortunate misapplication of Darwinian principles.  Eugenics was a dubious social experiment; an attempt at human breeding.  By restricting reproductive rights to the intelligent and capable, eugenicists, such as Charles Davenport, hoped to create a utopian America. Of course, eugenicists simply created a human rights travesty through hundreds of individual family tragedies.  Families, such as the Bucks, had multiple members forcibly sterilized.   And, above all else, it was intelligence, as measured by intelligence tests, that had pride of place.  It was the intelligence test that decided whether someone was fit or unfit; worthy of reproduction or worthy of sterilization.   It was in America that intelligence tests were used to decide who should and who should not reproduce.  Nevertheless, this says more about the time, than the tests.

Dr. Steven C. Hertler
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