By Ashley Bowen ~
Alfred Binet’s intelligence tests, originally developed in 1905 for the French public school system, took America by storm. The test promised to generate reliable, objective data reduced to a single number that captured a child’s overall aptitude and potential. Although Binet’s test generated interest among psychologists and educators around the world, professionals in the United States adopted the idea with an unmatched enthusiasm.
Articles in The Psychological Clinic, a journal edited by the founder of clinical psychology Lightner Witmer, offer today’s researchers the opportunity to review early 20th century practitioners’ initial data generated by use of the Binet test. Additionally, these articles can themselves serve as valuable data for the historian working on how IQ tests came to dominate American educational, legal, and medical systems in the mid-20th century. The Medical Journal Backfiles Digitization Project, an ongoing joint effort between the National Library of Medicine and the Wellcome Collection, has made it easier than ever to locate and follow the professional dialogue about the Binet test and its revision as it happened.
When The Psychological Clinic dedicated an entire issue to a “Symposium on the Binet Tests” in December 1911, Alfred Binet had already revised the test twice: once in 1908 and a more substantive revision just before his death in October 1911. The three articles that make up this special issue cover both early data derived from the tests and guidance about how best to administer the test to students. These articles add to historians’ understanding of early intelligence testing and the professional disagreements about the test’s strengths and limitations.
Perhaps the most interesting piece for historians in this special issue is the first one: Lewis Terman’s article “The Binet-Simon Scale for Measuring Intelligence.” In this piece, Terman shares some of his initial findings from the use of the test on “about 400 children in the vicinity of Stanford University.” In 1916, Terman and his colleagues at Stanford would publish a major revision of the test—the Stanford-Binet Test—that quickly became the gold standard of IQ testing. Although no data from the initial research on California students is reproduced in this article, Terman’s critiques of Alfred Binet’s test, including that it was too easy at the younger end and too difficult on the older side, are introduced in this piece.
Opening the special issue with an article that is critical of the Binet tests sets the tone. Although Terman proposes “a far more radical revision of the scale than any one [sic] else” suggested at the time, he also expressed an unwavering conviction that, “measuring scales of this general type are feasible, and that when corrected, extended and multiplied, they will prove of great practical and theoretical value.” Despite recognizing the limits of the test as it was used in the United States, none of the authors in The Psychological Clinic’s special issue question the core premise of intelligence as measurable and reducible to a number.
IQ tests have been controversial since their introduction. Even as many experts celebrated the Binet test’s promise of a standard, unified measure of intelligence, some experts voiced some concerns about its limitation across cultural groups and the kinds of skills it used as a proxy for intelligence. In the following decades, sociologists, anthropologists, practicing psychologists, educators, and other scholars critiqued how IQ tests reinforce racial, class-based, and gendered hierarchies. Although the Binet test promised to provide an objective measure of someone’s innate ability divorced from their social position, that was never the case. All three articles in the symposium issue of The Psychological Clinic avoid any lengthy discussion of race. Even the rare early studies that tried to account for a child’s social conditions, like the December 1914 article by Philadelphia school principle Byron A. Phllips in The Psychological Clinic, tended to reinforce stereotypes of inferior and “retarded” African American children. The cultural bias in intelligence testing and the best way to correct for or account for bias remain a point of discussion today.
The Psychological Clinic, like other professional journals, documents the development of best practices, refined tools, and new insights. Although the data presented in these pages is problematic today, especially when it was interpreted with racist assumptions, it documents a moment when intelligence testing remained in flux. These articles digitized as part of the Medical Journal Backfiles Digitization Project provide texture to contemporary histories of the use and abuse of IQ tests.
We hear about data every day. In historical medical collections, data abounds, both quantitative and qualitative. In its format, scope, and biases, data inherently contains more information than its face value. This series, Revealing Data, explores how, by preserving the research data of the past and making it publicly available, the National Library of Medicine (NLM) helps to ensure that generations of researchers can reexamine it, reveal new stories, and make new discoveries. As the NLM becomes the new home of data science at the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Circulating Now explores what researchers from a variety of disciplines are learning from centuries of preserved data, and how their work can help us think about the future preservation and uses of the data we collect today.
Ashley Bowen, PhD is a Mellon/ACLS Public Fellow and Digital Engagement Manager at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia. She was recently guest curator for the Exhibition Program in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine.