domingo, 14 de diciembre de 2003

Una simpatica contribucion acerca del test Mensa, o de como la probabilidad de que 5 compañeros de FT, tengan un IQ de 155 es de 1 en 24 millones.........

Is Mensa dumbing down?
By Sathnam Sanghera
Published: December 12 2003 16:33
Financial Times

The other week I learned something new and rather exciting about myself: I am a genius. At the invitation of Mensa, I spent 45 minutes completing their Home Test, the first step you need to take to join the high IQ society, sent it off in the post to be marked, and waited for the result.

A letter came back a few days later saying I had an IQ of 155. To put this in a bit of context: the average IQ is 100; to qualify for Mensa, which takes only the top 2 per cent of the population, you need an IQ of 148 or above. A score of 155 puts me in the top 1 per cent. In short, I am very clever indeed.

But while this happy letter from Mensa confirmed what I had always quietly suspected, it presented a problem. I had also got four colleagues to complete the Home Test and was now terrified that they had fared worse than me. I would have to tell them my brilliant score, they would have to face the fact that they were not as bright as me, and, frankly, it would be awkward. Nobody likes a show-off.

My heart skipped a beat as they opened their respective envelopes. FT columnist Lucy Kellaway was first. It was a relief to see the slight smirk: she had got 155 too. management editor Mike Skapinker was next. Again, that giveaway smug grin. 155 too. Then it was Paul Solman, the deputy features editor. A self-satisfied smile. 155. Ditto for employment correspondent David Turner.

In one way it was the ideal result - none of us were exposed as being measurably dimmer than the rest. But I couldn't help feeling deflated. It's fun being a genius, but when everyone around you is a genius too, it's not so exciting. I began wondering about the accuracy of the Mensa test. Lucy Kellaway, the genius that she is, did a calculation on the back of an envelope showing that the likelihood of us all having an IQ of 155 was somewhere around one in 24m.

I fired off an e-mail to John Stevenage, the chief executive of Mensa, asking why we had all attained the same fantastic score. His prompt reply listed several possible explanations: we all work for the same clever newspaper so a high score is "quite possible" (our favourite explanation); some of us might not have kept very strictly to the allotted 45 minutes (our least favourite explanation); the Home Test is only a trial indicator - in order to formally join Mensa you need to pass a more reliable supervised IQ test, or submit a qualifying test score from an approved test.

But my genius colleagues and I came up with an alternative theory: Mensa is so desperate for members that it flatters people who complete the free Home Test in the hope that they will then sit a supervised IQ test and become paid-up members. It's a horrible, cynical thing to suggest about a great British institution such as Mensa - but could it be true? Surely Mensa isn't that desperate?

Unfortunately, membership figures for the society, which was set up in 1946 by Lancelot Ware, a postgraduate Oxford student, and Roland Berrill, an Australian with a private fortune, suggest that it might be. Membership in the UK currently stands at a lowly 26,247 - the lowest figure in 15 years, more than 17,400 below the figure 10 years ago, when membership reached an all-time high of 43,652. While Mensa has a worldwide membership of 98,861, British Mensa, the heart and home of the society, is in a very sorry state indeed.

So what has gone wrong? Well, pretty much everything. Mensa did very well for a period between 1980 and 1997, when Sir Clive Sinclair was chairman, growing from about 8,000 members to about 36,000 when he stepped down. The expansion was the result of Sinclair's high public profile in the 1980's and the work of chief executive Harold Gale, who aggressively increased membership by placing Mensa puzzles and adverts in newspapers.

But things went very wobbly in the mid-1990's when Gale was unceremoniously sacked for running a small puzzle business out of Mensa offices. Though his appeal to an industrial tribunal was successful, he never got over the depression generated by the publicity. In 1997 the 55-year-old drove his car into a railway bridge support arch. The official verdict was accidental death, but those close to him believe he took his own life. Before setting out he had left a note on his kitchen table. "It would have been better," he was reported to have written, "if Sir Clive and the Mensa committee had put a contract out on me than let me endure the last two years."

Things continued to fall apart when Sir Clive was in 1997 replaced as chairman by Julie Baxter, a sociable 45-year-old from Lancashire, the first ever female chairman of Mensa. In 1998 she resigned following a vote of no confidence passed at the society's annual meeting in Bournemouth. She had already been sacked once before by the board but was reinstated by the membership. She finally left threatening to set up a rival organisation, complaining that Mensa's leaders were "sexist, manipulative and bullying" and that there were "dark forces at work".

Speaking at the Mensa headquarters in Wolverhampton, where the society's collapse in membership has left the premises partially empty (they are looking for smaller offices), Mensa's current leadership - 47-year-old chief executive John Stevenage, and 55-year-old chairman Sylvia Herbert, a freelance PR consultant, admit that Mensa has been through a very difficult period. "In 1999 membership numbers were in freefall," says Stevenage. "It was a bit like stopping the Titanic going down. But we seem to have stabilised now."

Asked to explain why membership has collapsed so spectacularly, the two reel off contributing factors: Mensa suffered as a result of bad publicity over the Gale and Baxter affairs; the society can no longer afford to run adverts in the papers ("money got tight in the 1990's"); the membership fee has increased from £25 to £40; people have an increasingly large choice of things to do with their leisure time. But there is, I would suggest, another possibility: Mensa has a serious, almost insurmountable image problem. Rather than having cachet, membership of Mensa is now considered a mark of social inadequacy.

Again, it's a horrible thing to suggest, but I attended a recent Mensa social evening in London to see whether or not my prejudices were well placed. There are countless Mensa social meetings taking place every month - many of them, called Special Interest Groups, focus on particular areas of interest, ranging from board games to bible study to greyhound racing. The meeting I went to was a fairly unexotic new members meeting in a pub just off Oxford Street.

As with nearly all Mensa gatherings, the men outnumbered the women around two to one. And not everyone, of course, was a social misfit. But there were certainly more than your average proportion of eccentrics in the crowd. One middle-aged man arrived dressed in a yellow running top and tight black hotpants, looking a little like one of the guys from that 118 118 advert (On asking whether he had just come back from a jog, I was told: "No, that's his casualwear."). There was also an elderly gentleman in a tweed jacket who was using a tie as a belt.

When I asked a few members why they had joined, they all, invariably, gave the same answers: to prove that they were intelligent, despite having no flash academic qualifications; to meet like-minded people socially. Some of them had even met their long-term partners through Mensa. It confirmed what has long been said about the society, that it is essentially a social club or even a dating agency for nerds - "somewhere for egg-heads to get laid", or rather, somewhere for eggheads with chips on their shoulders to get laid. The last thing I witnessed as I left the meeting were two members snogging each other to death at the bar.

"Mensa is essentially a social thing," says Herbert, who was recently the face of Mensa in the BBC's IQ experiment, Test the Nation, and who enthusiastically reveals that Mensa has heard of seven engagements between members in the past 12 months. "If you have a high intellect sometimes you're not understood by the general population. At Mensa you will find like-minded people who will laugh at your jokes and that sort of thing."

However, when it was originally founded, with the aim of recruiting the top 1 per cent, rather than the top 2 per cent of the most intelligent people in Britain, Mensa wasn't just perceived as a social club. There was talk of members possibly advising governments. Even now it officially it has three aims, of which only one is "to provide a stimulating social environment for its members". The other two aims are "to identify and foster human intelligence for the benefit of humanity" and "to encourage research into the nature, characteristics, and uses of intelligence".

Many Mensans have tried to get the society to do something useful, in line with these latter aims, but efforts rarely get anywhere. In 1990 there was talk of setting up a school in London for gifted children, but it didn't happen. A while back a prominent member talked about setting up a sperm bank, but that didn't happen either. A few years ago, Mensa International, the umbrella organisation (national branches are almost completely independent of each other) launched Mensa Intellectual Capital Ventures, to offer advice to members who wanted to convert ideas and inventions into reality. Nothing has hit the market yet.

And this, perhaps, is the main reason why Mensa is doing so badly. It lacks a sense of purpose. What is the point of a bunch of people with high IQ's getting together? And surely IQ tests simply measure one's competence at IQ tests rather indicating real "intelligence"? Besides, with the internet, nerds now have thousands of opportunities to get in touch with each other - ways that don't require the hassle of an IQ test.

Mensa's leadership, of course, reject the suggestion that Mensa's time may have been and gone. They say membership levels are stabilising, that a new website next year will boost recruitment, and that it is becoming fashionable to be clever. Stevenage is confident that Mensa can expand commercially: the international organisation has just signed a new global publishing deal to release Mensa puzzle books, it is working on releasing a Mensa board game, and Stevenage is pushing the Mensa brand into new areas. "There's lots of potential - we could do IQ testing for companies."

But Jane Baxter, the former Mensa chairman who was ousted a couple of years ago, is not optimistic. "Where is Mensa going? Nowhere," declares the woman who now runs an internet-based society called Atticus, designed to "explore emotional intelligence in relation to religion, psychology and philosophy." "It's outdated. There's a lot of social and professional mobility and people just don't have a need for it. It's sad but I just don't think it's very relevant."

Harsh words, no doubt coloured by bitterness and rejection. But I can't help thinking she may have a point. And what I think must count for something - I am a genius after all.