Intelligence test

Kimberly Swygert told you so: It’s dumb to rely on IQ scores to judge who’s smart enough to be executed for murder.

IQ scores are not absolute, they’re not error-free, and they’re not invariant within examinees. It certainly would be easy to fake a low score if the alternative is the gas chamber; a judgment of mental retardation based on such data would be fraught with error. What’s more, an inmate could genuinely get smarter over time if the prison had a helpful education program – or if his lawyer helped him learn. (For some criminals of deprived backgrounds, prison is the most instructive and structured environment they’ve ever known.) If that were to happen, which IQ score should be used when assigning punishment? Should an inmate essentially be punished for improving his mind in prison?

That scenario has unfolded for Daryl Atkins, the Virginia man whose case led the U.S. Supreme Court to rule it’s unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded. Atkins’ IQ scores have risen, probably due to the mental stimulation of interacting with legal team. He no longer scores as mentally retarded. A defense expert says his IQ is 74; the prosecution expert says 76. Virginia says anything above 70 is normal enough.

“Oddly enough, because of his constant contact with the many lawyers that worked on his case,” the psychologist, Dr. Evan S. Nelson, wrote in a report in November, “Mr. Atkins received more intellectual stimulation in prison than he did during his late adolescence and early adulthood. That included practicing his reading and writing skills, learning about abstract legal concepts and communicating with professionals.”

Kimberly says the rise in IQ from 59 to 74-76 is too large to be random variation. Atkins got smarter in prison. Does that mean he should die for crimes he committed when he was less capable? How smart is too smart to live?

About Joanne


  1. RationalBuddhist says:

    How stupid do you have to be, to not understand advice from your lawyer that you should fake being really stupid on an IQ test.

  2. Richard Nieporent says:

    When I first heard of this ridiculous Supreme Court decision, it immediately reminded me of the short story, “Examination Day”. I guess you would have to say that this is the ultimate in high-stakes testing!

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Anyone intelligent enough to recognize he has done wrong, as in trying to hide or escape, is intelligent enough to die for his crime. Tens of thousands are killed every year by murderers let loose to kill again by soft headed judges.

  4. Save for the right-leaning blogs and edublogs, I haven’t been able to find discussion about the psychometrics involved in this case anywhere on the web. Pretty appalling, when one considers that at least part of the culpability issue comes down to how confident we are about IQ test scores.

  5. Walter E. Wallis says:

    How about calibrating IQ scores against real world accomplishment?

  6. Dear goodness, I know two-year-olds that can tell right from wrong. It’s not that difficult. As far as I’m concerned, if your IQ’s higher than, say, 20 you’re responsible for your actions.

  7. I have an easy solution…. abolish capital punishment. OTOH, the sort of conditions under which I’d happily place convicted murderers for the rest of their natural life might make them wish they were dead. And would hopefully be significantly cheaper than the current death row.

    Which is the whole point.

  8. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Jeff, look up Richard Speck’s last video.
    No executed criminal has ever committed another crime. Once the courts start rejecting irrelevancies like they do in Texas, and start punishing lawyers who waste time with specious arguments, we can get back to garbage disposing instead of being up to our knees in garbage.

  9. Walter: It depends. I haven’t looked into the facts of this case, but I do know of cases where a retarded teenager committed murder because the only way he could find of escaping from an intolerable situation was to kill the man who created that situation. I’m sure you or I would have found a better way of handling it, but someone with an IQ of 56 isn’t going to see all the options.

    And in other cases, someone else manipulated a moron into doing murder. It can’t be too hard, considering how often people of perfectly normal and high intelligence have been convinced that wrong is right. Nazi Germany. Communism. The medieval churchman who said, “Kill them all, God will know his own”.

    I’m glad I don’t have to judge these cases…