Wednesday, 2 October 2013

How big is the IQ cognitive elite?


For Herrnstein and Murray publishing The Bell Curve in 1996, the cognitive elite comprised those of:

IQ 125 and above, or 5% of the population - that is one person in twenty.

But for Cyril Burt writing in 1924^, the cognitive comprised those of:

IQ 150 or above, or 0.1% of the population - that is one person in a thousand.

So Burt's elite was fifty times more elite than Herrnstein and Murray's!


A small part of this difference is due to Burt using the 'mental ratio' method of calculating IQ - which is that an IQ of 150 is attributed when a child's performance in intelligence testing is the same as the average child fifty percent older (up to a plateau of about 14-16 years old) - for example when an 8 year old performs at level of an average 12 year old.

By contrast, H&M use the 'percentile' method of calculating IQ - which tests a (supposedly population-representative) sample of subjects and puts their results into rank order and then fits onto this a normal distribution curve with 100 IQ points as the mean average and a standard deviation of 15 - such that the IQ of an individual is a statement of their percentile position if the normal distribution assumptions are assumed to be true and if extrapolation beyond the available data is regarded as valid.

(I will soon post a comparison and critique of ratio versus percentile methods of measuring IQ, especially higher than average IQ, separately.)


But this accounts for only about 5 IQ points difference in Burt's standard (i.e. Burt's IQ of 150 would be approx. equal to H&M's IQ of 146).

There just is a very big difference in the size of the cognitive elite; and an equally profound difference in the kind of jobs that people of different intelligences ought to be doing.

('Ought' - that is - from Burt's late 19th-early 20th century Left-wing Fabian eugenic meritocratic perspective of optimal rational efficiency.)


Burt has eight grades of intelligence, which I will here express in terms of rounded percentiles.

1. Top 0.1 % - Higher Professional: appropriate for university scholarships and honours degrees - occupations include university academics, doctors, lawyers, higher administrators in business and civil service.

2. Top 2 percent - Lower Professional: appropriate for secondary (high) school education, but not for college or university. Occupations include elementary school teachers and higher level clerks.

3. Top 15 percent - Clerks and Highly Skilled Workers: higher elementary education, leaving school about 14 years old; the occupations are of 'intelligent, but moderately routine character' - such as highly skilled manual workers and most clerks.

4. Top 50 percent (above average, but below the above groups - comprising about 35% of total population) - Skilled workers and most Commercial Positions: occupations in skilled labour such as shopkeepers, small scale tradesman, shop assistants for large firms.

5. The approx 35-40% who fall just below the average (that is, IQ roughly between 85 and 100) - Semi-skilled Labour: such as (I guess) underground coal miners, shipyard workers, steel workers, farm foremen.

6. Those above the bottom 4% but below the group of semi-skilled (that is, IQ roughly between 70 and 85) - Unskilled Labour - (I guess) farm workers, navvies, most labourers.

7. & 8 The bottom 4% described as "Casual Labour, Imbeciles and Idiots": are those who are more or less mentally handicapped - some can be basic domestic servants and rural labourers, most are incapable of work and presumably live under family care or in institutions.


What is striking about Burt's classification is how minute are the elite; and what a high intellectual standard, compared with nowadays, he expects would be required for each level of occupation.

This fits with my idea that nowadays we are living in an over-promoted society

Compared with about a century ago, the average cognitive competence of occupational strata has decline by at least one of Burt's categories, sometimes more like two categories.

Part of this is due to the inflationary expansion of the upper categories - which means that people have higher level occupations in name, but not in terms of what they actually do; and part of it is due to the decline in general intelligence over these period, such that the proportion of the population in each high level category has declined.

For example, intelligence at Burt's highest level was attained by one in a thousand as measured in 1924; but this level would now probably now be attained by only one in five or ten thousand (or less).


Burt envisaged a society with a small and very able cognitive elite, selected and allocated afresh each generation; and the mass of people doing manual labour and routine clerical jobs.

Yet we apparently see in the modern West is a society in which only a small proportion do manual labour (due to increased use of machines and computerization) and a third or more of people do what appear to be higher level jobs in Burt's categories 1 and 2.

I think the meritocrats of Burt's era would interpret this in terms of a massive expansion of make-work - instead of making unemployed the mass of the manual and routine clerical workers displaced by mechanization and computers, they have been allocated pretend work at a higher level than they are competent to accomplish.


What the early meritocrats would not have envisaged, since they lived in a much more honest society than ours, was that we could have this current situation of massive over-promotion, gross inflation of occupational status, and incomprehensibly vast erosion of the value of educational qualifications - and yet to deny outright that this is the case: indeed to pretend that the average person in a given category is smarter, better educated and more competent!


^Burt C. The principles of vocational guidance. British Journal of Psychology. 1924; 14: 336-352.


Robert said...

How would this work in Nassim Taleb's criticism of "efficiency"? He would seem to be saying that, yes, it might only take an IQ of 100 to teach elementary school, but wouldn't it be better to have in at least some of these jobs those with higher IQs, so they will be even better, more interesting teachers? They would have "surplus capacity". With online education, why should anyone learn from an "average teacher"? Unless schools really are just warehouses. The world seems to be moving in the direction of an incredibly small elite teaching everyone, electronically.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Robert - Actually, I tend to think online education of a kind worth having is not really possible except for a minority of highly intelligent and motivated people (I don't mean anything as ultra selective as the cognitive elite, but still quite a small minority).

Real education is much more vocational than most people suppose - its natural place is in a face to face apprenticeship (preferably where the Master and Apprentice have both chosen each other).

The next best is face to face education in a room and group small enough for direct eye contact and a sense of participation and human contact, questions and questioning.

Quite a bit of education is proving the framework to encourage, supervise and check the results of practice, repetitions and drills - which are what build skills.

Brad said...

I would agree with you, Bruce, on the importance of an apprentice/master relationship, although, doesn't the very term Master seem to spark the fiercest sort of social repulsion as if we were advocating a return to the cotton fields, Django, and a plantation? I figure that the moreways of society tend to want to debase talent so that people's baser jealousies aren't aroused. That's why we grade on multiple-choice tests in classrooms instead of masterworks in ateliers or studios.

Reminds me of what Schoenberg said in the beginning of this Theory of Harmony, which I will have to paraphrase without the benefit of looking it up or having it at hand: That most arts benefit from having a master craftsman at the pinnacle of their achievement. There are master painters, master carpenters, master sculptors, master wood- and stone-workers, master poets even, and great writers. But in the university setting, the art of music is taught by music theoreticians who are by and large not musicians themselves.

It's the most absurd of circumstances. You entrust the devolvement of your technical studies to a non-practitioner of that field. Any other art than music this would seem immediately ridiculous: a carpentry theorist, a think-tank on motley, or a scientific specialist on glass baubles would be laughed out of the room. Yet that is the precise juncture where we find ourselves. In music in particular we find ourselves advised by people without technical proficiency at the "highest" end of things, but who are so jealous of their lack of competence that they'll fight for their rights as only men who have rightfully stolen something will.

It seems to be just the very nature of a society, where we talk about things instead of doing them, that breeds this churlishness. A dancer who dances and loves to dance, or a painter that paints because she loves to paint, or a musician that invests his time in the studio, a comedian on stage, a writer at his desk, or a mathematician at work at his problems and proofs--there seems to be a much different idiom of learning, a much different effervescence in the character of such a person (you would think) than people who sit about and converse perhaps in fear of doing the very work they are speaking about.

Maybe the difference is like men who return from the hunt and talk about other things than the hunt around the campfire, versus layabouts (children?) that fantasize about what the hunt actually is but are too scared or weak yet to participate. Perhaps that's what we are, then. Maybe we're scared so we talk instead of doing, a sort of cultural regression back to infancy.

Thursday said...

What is striking about Burt's classification is how minute are the elite; and what a high intellectual standard, compared with nowadays, he expects would be required for each level of occupation.

He is being ridiculous. The 98th percentile is an IQ of 130. Plenty good enough for university. And all elementary teachers with an IQ of 130 with all doctors, lawyers with an IQ of 145! Absurd.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Thu - Well, we could reject it as absurd - but Burt was not hiding anything (like modern educationalists do), he was 'brutally' honest about what he was saying and its consequences - and he was extremely powerful and influential in his field (although also very controversial and strongly opposed from both Left and Right - as would be expected).

Charles Murray would be perhaps the nearest modern equivalent (although without the power and influence) - and I'm NOT getting at CM, who is a penfriend - an honest and rigorous thinker about elites, and about as near to an old-style meritocrat as we get nowadays.

What I am trying to do here is understand this really astonishing shift in the concept of a cognitive elite over the past century, the gross 'inflation' of the category.

Many of the not-PC people who participate in public discourse imagine that they are meritocrats - but when I examine the really out-and-out meritocrats of a 100 years ago (and these were all Leftists) - the difference is remarkable. Another world!

griffin leader of the world said...

I thought that, even for the 1920s, recruiting doctors exclusive from the top 0.1% of the IQ ladder was extreme. In a country like Canada, only about 20,000 working-age adults have IQs over 150. Assuming half became doctors and the other half professors, lawyers, top engineers, etc., we'd have 1 doctor per 3000 people, which is too low (the actual ratio is 1:500).

I'm posting under my son's pseudonym, simply because he's logged in on my computer

Bruce Charlton said...

@glw - I suppose someone like Burt would have said that societies can take any number of people they like and give them a diploma and allow them to practice medicine - but that is not the same as performing the function of a doctor well, or even adequately.