Reporter Goes to Mensa conference, Misses the Point

 

New York magazine recently published an article about Mensa, “My Week with America’s *Smartest People,” by Eve Peyser. She attended Mensa’s Annual Gathering in July, wrote 2,800 words about what a nice time she had, and concluded, “But if my time at the Mensa Annual Gathering taught me anything, it’s that being ‘smart’ and doing well on tests have virtually nothing to do with each other.”

How did this well-meaning writer miss so much about what made the AG enjoyable for her? I’ve been a Mensa member for a long time. Rereading, I could see how her expectations colored how she interpreted what she saw and heard.

Actually, being intelligent – whatever she meant by “smart” – and doing well on tests specifically designed to measure intelligence have virtually everything to do with each other. That is, the tests work. That wouldn’t mean much, it’s nearly a tautology, but the significance of the tests is that measured intelligence is highly correlated with major life outcomes – for better or worse. All else being equal – though it seldom is – higher IQ is associated with better outcomes.

For one thing, I think Peyser was unfamiliar with the real-world importance of IQ. She uncritically quoted from an interview with Dr. Adrian Owen, lead researcher on a 2012 study of IQ. “When we looked at the data, the bottom line is the whole concept of IQ — or of you having a higher IQ than me — is a myth,” Owen said. “There is no such thing as a single measure of IQ or a measure of general intelligence.” I think she misunderstood what Owen meant. That study identified three major components of intelligence – short-term memory, reasoning and verbal facility. Yes, those are all distinguishable. But they’re also all highly correlated, and all are reflected in an IQ test score.

She goes on to say, “Mensa’s members seemed to be, on average, as dumb as the general populace,” She based that on several sessions she attended where someone offered an opinion that Peyser thought was dumb. Smart people commonly believe some dumb things, that’s not news. I won’t belabor the point here, but Ricochet had a two-part podcast in January, hosted by Steve Hayward with guests Charles Murray and Steve Sailer (https://ricochet.com/podcast/powerline/a-conversation-with-charles-murray-and-steve-sailer-pt-1/) which I recommend if you haven’t heard it.

But my Mensa experience also offers some clues. I joined in 1977 when my son started kindergarten, because I had read somewhere that it was sort of a support group for parents of very smart kids, and I thought someone was going to need a support group when he and the schools encountered each other. I didn’t, as it turned out, and I wasn’t an active member, but I kept my membership because I thought Mensa was a Good Idea in principle.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1992 – new job, in a state where I’d never lived and knew no one, just divorced – and decided to check out the local Mensa group by attending an open house in a nearby suburb. The person who answered the door welcomed me, and said, “You’re new, aren’t you?” I asked him how he knew. “You knocked,” he said.

Then he asked me a few questions, and having learned I taught for a year in Shanghai, introduced me to someone who had been a Peace Corps volunteer in rural Thailand. I didn’t know anything about Chinese agriculture, but as a conversation starter it was worlds apart from the weather and TV football. I had a great time, and kept going back. I attended half-a-dozen Regional Gatherings while I lived in California, and have been to four AGs. Where I live now, in Minnesota, I edit the local newsletter, and I’m looking forward to our first RG since pre-covid. (Many regional gatherings are open to non-members, if you’re interested.)

Peyser’s introductory anecdote is about meeting Kimberly Bakke, “basically Mensa royalty,” she writes. I never met Kimberly, except maybe as a baby, since I did know her mother Cookie Bakke from several of those California RGs. How did Peyser end up talking with Kimberly, among 1,100 people attending? Well, she went to a session on polyamory, met someone there who’s a friend of Kimberly’s, and introduced her. 

She notices that a common thread among her conversations at the AG is that Mensa is a place where they fit in, where they found “their people,” where the crowd gets their jokes. She thinks that is a good thing, but she doesn’t quite get why people would need it. She writes, “I have never in my life struggled to find smart friends who get my jokes, … but high IQ is not in the top ten or 20 or 100 qualities I look for in a friend or community.”

Many intelligent people are already in social communities where they mostly know other intelligent people – college faculty, for example. It’s a safe bet that pretty nearly anyone with a Ph.D. could qualify for membership, but they rarely do because they already know lots of Mensa-eligible people, so why bother?

That’s related to another significant fact: Nothing about Mensa is representative. The qualification is scoring in the top 2% on any of a large number of IQ tests used professionally by psychologists. SAT and GRE scores no longer count, but when they did, before the scoring was “recentered” in the 1990s, the qualifying score was 1250.

Of the 6 million Americans who could join Mensa if they wanted to, less than 1% are current members. Of the current members, less than 2% attended the AG. Generalizing about “Mensa members” from such a small sample is a fallacy, on the same scale as generalizing about Americans based only on Mensa members. Danish IQ researcher Emil Kierkegaard has a recent Substack post, at https://kirkegaard.substack.com/p/the-mensa-fallacy, on exactly this error, a study conducted among about 600 Mensa members in Europe, which found higher rates of mental illness among the study subjects and presented it as information about highly intelligent people. 

Kierkegaard’s post reviews the extensive history of this error.

He also links (https://www.medrxiv.org/content/10.1101/2022.05.26.22275621v1) to a paper presented at the 2022 conference of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), in Vienna, Austria, in July 2022. That paper used UK Biobank data to examine the difference in the prevalence of mental health disorders between individuals with high (7,266 people) and average (252,249) general intelligence. Those in the higher group (2 standard deviations above the population mean) were less likely to suffer from general anxiety and PTSD, and no more likely to suffer from other mental disorders.

I knew psychologist Arthur Jensen when I lived in the Bay Area, and interviewed him for Mensa’s magazine. (The interview was spiked by a nervous editor.) Jensen said he did recruit Mensa members for some of his research, because they were easy to find and often willing to join a study. But he was far too careful a researcher to claim they were representative of all high-IQ people. 

(Peyser’s article is https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2022/08/my-week-with-americas-smartest-people.html but it’s behind the paywall now.)

Published in General
This post was promoted to the Main Feed by a Ricochet Editor at the recommendation of Ricochet members. Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 331 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. Hoyacon Member
    Hoyacon
    @Hoyacon

    Peyser’s introductory anecdote is about meeting Kimberly Bakke, “basically Mensa royalty,” she writes. I never met Kimberly, except maybe as a baby, since I did know her mother Cookie Bakke from several of those California RGs.

    Regents of the University of California v. Bakke?  Relation?

    • #1
  2. Linda Seebach Member
    Linda Seebach
    @linsee

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    Peyser’s introductory anecdote is about meeting Kimberly Bakke, “basically Mensa royalty,” she writes. I never met Kimberly, except maybe as a baby, since I did know her mother Cookie Bakke from several of those California RGs.

    Regents of the University of California v. Bakke? Relation?

    Not that I know of. Allan Bakke was an unsuccessful applicant to the med school, he didn’t have anything to do with Berkeley otherwise. There are several thousand people named Bakke.

    • #2
  3. Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot) Member
    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patriot)
    @ArizonaPatriot

    How neat to have known Jensen.  I’m somewhat knowledgeable in the field, and my impression is that Jensen was one of the very top scholars, along with Ruston and Gottfredson, Herrnstein and probably Nyborg.

    A lot of people don’t want to believe the facts in this area.

    • #3
  4. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    Nice FP.  Welcome!

    • #4
  5. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Claiming that size doesn’t matter is often the mark of genius-envy. 

    • #5
  6. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    I will say this about anti-Mensa sentiment; people are suspicious of exclusive clubs they can’t join, and wonkophobia is generally a good policy. 

    As long as geniuses aren’t running the world I’m pretty chill about not getting invited to their house parties. 

    Bitches. 

    • #6
  7. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Linda Seebach: It’s a safe bet that pretty nearly anyone with a Ph.D. could qualify for membership

    I know a lot of PhD’s, and that has not been my experience.  Not at all.

    I was active in Mensa for a while, and am still a member.  But I no longer participate.  I’m glad your experience was so positive.

    • #7
  8. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat
    @drbastiat

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Linda Seebach: It’s a safe bet that pretty nearly anyone with a Ph.D. could qualify for membership

    I know a lot of PhD’s, and that has not been my experience.  Not at all.

    Incidentally, I don’t think that many of my physician colleagues would qualify for Mensa, either.  Maybe 10%?  I’m not even sure about that.  They’re generally reasonably bright, and they have the work habits to stay in school until they’re 30.  

    But I think there are very few geniuses out there in medicine.  

    Which is fine.  If you’re reasonably smart, you work hard, you know your limitations, and you give a crap, you can be an outstanding doctor. 

    • #8
  9. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    I qualified as a kid, and went to a welcome meeting or some such.  I couldn’t identify it at the time, but now I know that the unpleasant vibe suffusing the place was hippie leftism, in its snootiest, most patronizing glory.  This left me with a tremendously unfair but lasting impression.  

    First, this was Santa Fe, NM.   I was new to the town, and I did not yet know that my parents at the time probably constituted a quorum of conservatives in town.  Also, single impressions made in childhood are not reliable indicators for things like this.  Still, that was my impression and it lingered.  

    So I never joined. 

    Had I joined, perhaps I would have applied my own competitively snooty superiority to actual study, rather than to sabotaging my own education by crushing tests and in the shortest time despite not studying and doing no homework.  I spent my seed corn on the satisfaction of making it look effortless long past the point where that was no longer true.  The next phase of that of course is finishing first regardless of the result.  Second, third, that’s okay.  Eventually, as the tests crushed me, I learned not to care.  How else to maintain my sense of superiority?

    Hell, I was halfway to being a a Democrat myself at that point.  

     

    • #9
  10. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Linda Seebach: Reporter goes to a Mensa conference, misses the point

    I’m more surprised when a reporter DOESN’T miss the point.

    • #10
  11. Jim McConnell Member
    Jim McConnell
    @JimMcConnell

    I went to one meeting, but it seemed that the only social conversations were limited to comparing scores. I never went back.

    • #11
  12. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    BDB (View Comment):

    I qualified as a kid, and went to a welcome meeting or some such. I couldn’t identify it at the time, but now I know that the unpleasant vibe suffusing the place was hippie leftism, in its snootiest, most patronizing glory. This left me with a tremendously unfair but lasting impression.

    First, this was Santa Fe, NM. I was new to the town, and I did not yet know that my parents at the time probably constituted a quorum of conservatives in town. Also, single impressions made in childhood are not reliable indicators for things like this. Still, that was my impression and it lingered.

    So I never joined.

    Had I joined, perhaps I would have applied my own competitively snooty superiority to actual study, rather than to sabotaging my own education by crushing tests and in the shortest time despite not studying and doing no homework. I spent my seed corn on the satisfaction of making it look effortless long past the point where that was no longer true. The next phase of that of course is finishing first regardless of the result. Second, third, that’s okay. Eventually, as the tests crushed me, I learned not to care. How else to maintain my sense of superiority?

    Hell, I was halfway to being a a Democrat myself at that point.

    I like intelligent people and geniuses are ok, I guess, but I really can’t stand intellectuals. 

    • #12
  13. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Linda Seebach: It’s a safe bet that pretty nearly anyone with a Ph.D. could qualify for membership

    I know a lot of PhD’s, and that has not been my experience. Not at all.

    I was active in Mensa for a while, and am still a member. But I no longer participate. I’m glad your experience was so positive.

    Post-doc foreign policy fellows at Hopkins are pretty darned smart.  And generally a friendly group.  Too bad they all want to take over the world.

    • #13
  14. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Linda Seebach: It’s a safe bet that pretty nearly anyone with a Ph.D. could qualify for membership

    I know a lot of PhD’s, and that has not been my experience. Not at all.

    I was active in Mensa for a while, and am still a member. But I no longer participate. I’m glad your experience was so positive.

    Post-doc foreign policy fellows at Hopkins are pretty darned smart. And generally a friendly group. Too bad they all want to take over the world.

    For the world’s own good, of course.

    • #14
  15. Flicker Coolidge
    Flicker
    @Flicker

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Flicker (View Comment):

    Dr. Bastiat (View Comment):

    Linda Seebach: It’s a safe bet that pretty nearly anyone with a Ph.D. could qualify for membership

    I know a lot of PhD’s, and that has not been my experience. Not at all.

    I was active in Mensa for a while, and am still a member. But I no longer participate. I’m glad your experience was so positive.

    Post-doc foreign policy fellows at Hopkins are pretty darned smart. And generally a friendly group. Too bad they all want to take over the world.

    For the world’s own good, of course.

    It’s business and pleasure.

    I once complimented a young Austrian guy (late 20s) on his cowboy boots.  He took his cigarette half out of his lips, gave me a sideways look and said, “They ah Gaucho bootz ahktually.”  Spanish not Argentine.

    • #15
  16. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Welcome, Linda. Excellent first post here, but then it sounds as if you have a lot of writing experience.

    First thing, don’t believe @robtgilsdorf. He’s sandbagging. He started his own group based on a six sigma IQ. The Mega Society members wanted to get in, but none qualified. Thus, he gets lonely and comes to Ricochet to make fun of us little brains. And does so with the best sense of humor on Ricochet.

    I had an experience similar to @jimmcconnell‘s, and haven’t really tried going back to Mensa. Of course, that was about forty years ago. Maybe the chapter around here would be better than it was back home. I would bet that the majority of Ricochet people would qualify for Mensa. Ricochet is an odd place. It’s certainly the site on the Internet that I have enjoyed the most as we’ve explored sciences and culture, perhaps a little too much politics, and a wide variety of other topics. I’ve learned more here than anywhere else I have been, whether job or club or other group. I highly recommend joining the other threads, knocking about the place, maybe joining our Group Writing or Quote of the Day features or the Saturday Night Classics. Not every conversation we start has to be as well thought out as what you have above.

    There are also some really great resources for getting involved. For instance, Claire Berlinski’s How to Write a Great Post. She is a former editor here at Ricochet and provided eleven tips for writing your conversation starter. One of my favorites is to ask a question to get the conversation started and flowing.

    I have also written a few things about getting more out of Ricochet in the past.

    If you’re the praying sort or want prayers, we have the Divine Help Group.

    I hope you enjoy your experience and association with Ricochet. If you have any questions, feel free to ask.

    • #16
  17. TBA Coolidge
    TBA
    @RobtGilsdorf

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Welcome, Linda. Excellent first post here, but then it sounds as if you have a lot of writing experience.

    First thing, don’t believe @ robtgilsdorf. He’s sandbagging. He started his own group based on a six sigma IQ. The Mega Society members wanted to get in, but none qualified. Thus, he gets lonely and comes to Ricochet to make fun of us little brains. And does so with the best sense of humor on Ricochet.

    It’s true, I was measured as the world’s only supermegagenius and I owe it all to good genetics and the lax security measures of Diebold’s IQ-O-Tron™. 

    • #17
  18. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    EJ Hill +++ has updated Claire’s guidance.  While he has trimmed it to about half its original length, I am looking for another guide published years ago…   I’ll let you know just as soon as I find it.  Here’s EJ:  https://ricochet.com/654719/how-to-write-a-pretty-good-almost-passable-downright-adequate-post-and-some-value-added-comments/

    • #18
  19. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    BDB (View Comment):
    I am looking for another guide published years ago…

    Whose? I’m pretty good at finding things.

    • #19
  20. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Arahant (View Comment):

    BDB (View Comment):
    I am looking for another guide published years ago…

    Whose? I’m pretty good at finding things.

    Really?  Even with the ludicrous “Ricochet Search Feature?”

    • #20
  21. BDB Coolidge
    BDB
    @BDB

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    BDB (View Comment):
    I am looking for another guide published years ago…

    Whose? I’m pretty good at finding things.

    Really? Even with the ludicrous “Ricochet Search Feature?”

    Yeah, only took an hour or so:

    https://ricochet.com/234572/ball-diamond-balls-seven-tips-on-how-to-read-a-great-expletive-post/

     

    • #21
  22. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    BDB (View Comment):
    Yeah, only took an hour or so:

    Oh, that guy’s. 😜

    • #22
  23. Linda Seebach Member
    Linda Seebach
    @linsee

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    I went to one meeting, but it seemed that the only social conversations were limited to comparing scores. I never went back.

    That’s very atypical. As in, I can remember exactly one, where a new member asked about other people’s scores and was gently but firmly informed that is simply Not Done. 

    It is permitted to brag about the really dumb things you’ve done – it’s sometimes even a scheduled event, for self-identified Densans, at big gatherings.

    Some people join Mensa for bragging rights, of course – outside of Mensa, that is – but member surveys have shown that many members avoid letting people know when they join,  sometimes even their own family. I had a column spiked once because it was about a presentation I’d seen at an Annual Gathering, and I had to mention that. My editor thought readers would resent anyone claiming to be a Mensa member, and he was probably right.

     

    • #23
  24. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Linda Seebach (View Comment):
    It is permitted to brag about the really dumb things you’ve done – it’s sometimes even a scheduled event, for self-identified Densans, at big gatherings.

    How long do these conferences last? “Forgive me, brothers and sisters, for I have erred. . .”

    • #24
  25. Linda Seebach Member
    Linda Seebach
    @linsee

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Welcome, Linda. Excellent first post here, but then it sounds as if you have a lot of writing experience.

    Thank you, @Arahant. Yes, I was an editorial writer and columnist for 15 years (retired in 2007). I estimate I had around 2 million words in print during that time. The first paper was the Los Angeles Daily News, which was a partner paper for the NYT. So I had the enormous privilege of having my weekly column carried on the NYT’s pony wire, where it could be picked up by any paper that subscribed to the NYT’s wire service. Later I moved to the Rocky Mountain News, which was a Scripps paper, and Scripps at that time had its own wire service.

    • #25
  26. kedavis Inactive
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Linda Seebach (View Comment):
    It is permitted to brag about the really dumb things you’ve done – it’s sometimes even a scheduled event, for self-identified Densans, at big gatherings.

    How long do these conferences last? “Forgive me, brothers and sisters, for I have erred. . .”

    “My name is Arahant, and I am a bragoholic.”

    “Hello, Arahant!”

    • #26
  27. Linda Seebach Member
    Linda Seebach
    @linsee

    Jerry Giordano (Arizona Patrio… (View Comment):

    How neat to have known Jensen. I’m somewhat knowledgeable in the field, and my impression is that Jensen was one of the very top scholars, along with Ruston and Gottfredson, Herrnstein and probably Nyborg.

    A lot of people don’t want to believe the facts in this area.

    Yes, he was someone I greatly admired. I started writing about IQ research in 1989 when I was a grad student at Minnesota and (on a whim) applied for a job on the student paper. My first assigned story was about campus protests over the study of reunited identical twins, because it was partly funded by the Pioneer Fund. Philippe Rushton was one of the people I interviewed and so was Linda Gottfredson, whom I later met a number of times at conventions of the National Organization of Scholars.

    Jensen told me he aspired to be an orchestra conductor, but when he realized he would never be in the top rank, he decided to pick a different career. He was assuredly in the top rank in the career he chose.

    • #27
  28. Linda Seebach Member
    Linda Seebach
    @linsee

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Linda Seebach (View Comment):
    It is permitted to brag about the really dumb things you’ve done – it’s sometimes even a scheduled event, for self-identified Densans, at big gatherings.

    How long do these conferences last? “Forgive me, brothers and sisters, for I have erred. . .”

    It’s more like “Can you top this?” than “I have erred . . .”

    If you’re asking about the length of a single presentation, often about an hour, but they’re usually scheduled about an hour-and-a-half apart because people want to keep their conversations going, or to take a break.

    If you’re asking about the length of regional or annual gatherings, RGs are commonly Friday afternoon to Sunday afternoon, and there will be two, sometimes three, parallel tracks. There will be talks, panel discussions, open discussions, games (I won a round of Carnelli at the 60 anniversary world gathering in London!) talent shows, a dance, stand-up comedy, business meetings, a Mensa test session and other participatory events. Chicago’s Halloweem offers “Pretentious Drinking.” Local tours, a well-stocked hospitality room for just hanging out, a game room, sometimes a separate youth track. 

    The AG is longer, usually around the Fourth of July, but this year it wasJuly 6-10, with a separate day, July 5, for Colloquium. The program schedule is public, https://s23.a2zinc.net/clients/mensa/ag22/Public/Sessions.aspx

    It’s exhilarating. You should try it! The 2023 AG is in Baltimore. And no one will ask you about your scores.

     

    • #28
  29. Paul Stinchfield Member
    Paul Stinchfield
    @PaulStinchfield

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Linda Seebach: Reporter goes to a Mensa conference, misses the point

    I’m more surprised when a reporter DOESN’T miss the point.

    • #29
  30. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Jim McConnell (View Comment):

    I went to one meeting, but it seemed that the only social conversations were limited to comparing scores. I never went back.

    There was a very funny episode of The Bob Newhart Show where Emily qualified for membership in a MENSA-like group, and brought Bob (who didn’t) along to a meeting.  There was one guy who would speak everyone’s name spelled backwards – when they got to Bob – “Well, not much we can do with that, is there?”

    I qualify based on my SAT scores, never been to a meeting.  I’ve talked to a few people who have, and they’ve been pretty much unanimous in that it seemed to be a club for people with severe personality disorders and/or drinking problems (no offense Linda, I’m sure it was probably a local thing…)

     

     

    • #30
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.