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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