When I was tested at age 12, I remembered thinking “how are they going to test my intelligence?  Every question you can ask me reflects not just my intelligence, but the knowledge I have acquired.  How do you create a test of innate intelligence separate from acquired knowledge?”

One of the reasons I fell in love with the Wechsler scales is that when I finally sat down to be tested, I was blown away by one of the subtests.  It was the purest, most culture reduced intelligence test I could imagine.  It required nothing but coloured blocks being manipulated to create abstract designs.

It struck me as such a culture free test, that not only could you travel back 2000 years in times and give this test to Jesus, but you could go back 40,000 years and give it to wild Neanderthals.

Another fairly culture reduced test on the Wechsler involved repeating digits from memory, however this would need to be translated into the language of Jesus and Neanderthals to get good results.

Many people don’t think culture reduced tests are possible.  I remember asking my cognitive science professor in university what she thought of the idea, and she said the very idea of testing is a cultural act, so no test could be culture fair.

While academics find the idea of comparing different human races on “culture reduced tests” to be anathema, they have no problem comparing the intelligence of humans and non-humans on such tests.  For example, a respected study in 2007 by the prestigious Max Planck institute compared “chimps, orangutans and 2.5 year-old children” on a battery of tests and “found all to be about equal in the physical cognitive skills of space, quantities and causality. In the social skills of communication, social learning and theory-of-mind skills, the children were correct in about 74 percent of the trials, while the two ape species were correct only about 33 percent of the time.”

How can intelligence tests be culture reduced enough to compare wildly different species, yet too culturally biased to compare different human cultures?

I think part of the answer is that most of the culture reduced tests used for cross cultural comparison have been paper-pencil tests like the Raven Progressive Matrices, and paper-pencil tests are inherently cultural because they require looking at a page in a culture specific way, and school acquired habits like sitting down and concentrating.

To be truly culture reduced, tests need to have some kind of practical relevance that all cultures can relate to, such as getting food for example, as this test of crow intelligence illustrates:

As Arthur Jensen noted on page 248 of Bias in Mental Testing, more support for culture reduced tests comes from this quote from a psychologist who gave a lot of Performance type IQ tests to Kalahari Bushmen.  There was clearly a positive correlation between how well the Bushmen did on these culture reduced tests and how smart the Bushmen considered each other, suggesting the tests were indeed valid for Bushmen.  The Bushmen

accepted as a matter of fact that the “clever ones” would do well on them.  The kind of individual the Bushmen recommended to us, e.g., as a guide when we needed one or as one whose opinion in important matters must be obtained, tended to have above average scores on our tests.  The Bushmen’s concept of “practical intelligence” does not appear to differ essentially from ours (Reuning, 1972, p. 179)