Intelligence and its Discontents

Reflections on the Lies and Limitations of IQ

Tim Wise
8 min readJun 5, 2019

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Image credit: Mashable

By all accounts, Donald Trump is obsessed with IQ.

For years he has articulated his belief that intelligence is something one either has or doesn’t. Unsurprisingly, in his mind, he possesses an abundance of it, even if his balance sheets, failed businesses, or daily behavior suggest otherwise. And to hear the president tell it, the credit for his genius — and a very stable genius at that — is owed to “good genes.”

Presumably, these genes have now been passed on to his children. If so, they appear to be taking a bit longer than usual to express, as genes sometimes do.

But I’m sure it’s just a matter of time.

Trump insists he has the best words. He’s “like, really smart,” he declares, ignoring how that particular phrasing tends to undermine one’s confidence in the previous assurance. And he knows more about every subject than you do, even if you’ve spent your life studying it.

Seriously, you name it, and he’s the leading expert: trade, taxes, renewable energy, drones, ISIS, infrastructure. He even insists he knows more about Cory Booker than Booker knows about himself.

That people with even above average intelligence — let alone real brilliance — rarely feel the need to brag about the size of their brains should be self-evident. There are no records of Einstein following up E=mc2 with something about the superiority of his gray matter. Neither Galileo nor Newton or Imhotep seem to have ruminated about how much smarter they were than everyone else.

No, cognitive greatness doesn’t typically avail itself of cheerleaders, to say nothing of the placement of one’s name in giant letters on everything one touches — a trait so grandiose even Nero never thought of it, nor Narcissus, for whom the president’s defining psychological condition is named.

As a general rule, advertising one’s intellect is not a trait of inventors, scientists, or mathematicians. Instead, it appears to be the purview of real estate developers, failed steak salesmen, and game show hosts — no offense to Alex Trebek.

In any event, I won’t waste bandwidth explaining why the notion of IQ is flawed, or why…

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Tim Wise

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)