Jun 14, 2019

G: Problem Space

In the first episode of G, Radiolab’s miniseries on intelligence, we went back to the 1970s to meet a group of Black parents who put the IQ test on trial. The lawsuit, Larry P v Riles, ended with a ban on IQ tests for all Black students in the state of California, a ban that’s still in place today.

This week, we meet the families in California dealing with that ban forty years later. Families the ban was designed to protect, but who now say it discriminates against their children. How much have IQ tests changed since the 70s? And can they be used for good? We talk to the people responsible for designing the most widely used modern IQ test, and along the way, we find out that at the very same moment the IQ test was being put on trial in California, on the other side of the country, it was being used to solve one of the biggest public health problems of the 20th century.

This episode was reported and produced by Pat Walters, Rachael Cusick and Jad Abumrad, with production help from Bethel Habte.

Music by Alex Overington. Fact-checking by Diane Kelly.

Special thanks to Lee Romney, Chenjerai Kumanyika, Moira Gunn and Tech Nation, and Lee Rosevere for his song All the Answers.

Radiolab’s “G” is supported in part by Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative dedicated to engaging everyone with the process of science.

Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate

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PAT WALTERS: Hey this is G, a Radiolab mini series, episode two. I’m Pat Walters. And in episode one we told the story of a guy who was given an IQ test when he was a boy, and it changed the course of his life. Not for the better. His name was Darryl, but he came to be known as Larry P. He took on that pseudonym when he became the center of a court case that basically put the IQ test itself on trial. For months, lawyers presented evidence that the tests Darryl took were racially-biased. And in 1979, a federal judge banned the IQ test for use on African American children for making decisions about special education in the state of California. The test could still be given to white kids, Hispanic kids, Asian kids, just not to black kids.



PAT: And as you can imagine, this has caused some issues.


PAT: Test test test.


PAT: Chapter two begins about 25 years later.


PAT: We’re in Hayward, California. A little town just south of Oakland.


PAT: Not too far from where Darryl lived. And it starts--


PAT: Hello. How are you?




PAT: with a couple.


PAMELA LEWIS: Hi. Well my name is Pamela Lewis


RICKY LEWIS: My name is Ricky Lewis.


PAMELA LEWIS: I am Nicholas Lewis’s mother


RICKY LEWIS: I’m the dad of Nicholas, the son that we fought for to have equal rights. That’s it.


PAT: That’s great.


PAT: It’s 2004. Pam and Ricky have five kids; one’s in middle school, one’s in high school, and their youngest, Nicholas, is in kindergarten.


PAT: And how did you learn about this thing?


PAMELA LEWIS: It was just by pure accident. I picked up a stupid paper that my husband brought home from work one day because he worked for the Daily Review--


PAT: Back then, Ricky had a job delivering papers to local businesses.


RICKY LEWIS: They had extras. I would take one, mainly for the sports.


PAT: I see you got all your Warriors gear on.


RICKY LEWIS: Yes I do. Go Warriors [laughing].


PAT: Anyhow, one day Ricky comes in with some extra papers. Pam grabs a piece of it and she sees this article.

PAMELA LEWIS: It was just a little tiny thing.


PAT: About a court case. Not the Larry P. case, a different court case, but it mentioned the Larry P. case and it said black kids in California cannot be given IQ tests.


PAMELA LEWIS: And I seen it and when I was reading it I was like, this can’t be true, in this day and age?


PAT: She said she immediately thought of Nicholas.


PAMELA LEWIS: He didn’t look caucasian. None of my kids look Caucasian. You can tell they’re



PAT: And she thought, like, is this going to affect him? Like, are people gonna be making decisions about what tests he can and can’t have because of the color of his skin?


PAMELA LEWIS: It sparked me to call the school and find out, is this true?


PAMELA LEWIS: And he told us it was a 1968 court ruling and it was true.


PAT: Now just for the record, the case was decided in ‘79, not ‘68, but whatever.


PAT: At that point, were you thinking…


PAMELA LEWIS: I was dumbfounded. This ruling has lasted all these years?


PAT: Did he explain that, like the ruling banned tests that were found to be biased against African American students?


PAMELA LEWIS: I did not care Pat. I did not care. My son was going to have the same rights any other child.


RICKY LEWIS: I mean, my wife and I, we just told him, that's not right.


PAT: After that first conversation, Pam and Ricky ended up having a series of meetings with the school, some of which ended in yelling.


PAMELA LEWIS: I threatened. I told ‘em, I’ll sue you guys.


PAT: And eventually, after a few of these meetings, the school administrator came back to them and said, basically, look, we know you're upset here is what we can offer you.


PAMELA LEWIS: You remember the offer that was given to us?


RICKY LEWIS: Well, he said that our child would be able to take that test if we just put him down as Caucasian.


PAMELA LEWIS: That ridiculous offer, “If you mark Nicholas down Caucasian, he will get the tests. But if you choose to mark him African American, then he will not.”


RICKY LEWIS: The superintendent said you had to mark either/or.


BLAINE COWICK: I remember this coming up.


PAT: We tracked down the school administrator who was on the other end of that conversation.


BLAINE COWICK: My name is Dr. Blaine Cowick,


PAT: He works in a different school district now. But back when he was meeting with Pam and Ricky he says...


BLAINE COWICK: I was in a situation of really having to defend this ruling,


PAT: And he says when Pam and Ricky got upset with this he actually called the state school board, asked them like, what are we supposed to do about this?


BLAINE COWICK: The only resolution that I was given to kind of help was that the parent has the right to determine what race the child is.


PAMELA LEWIS: And I turned around and looked at him. I looked at my husband. I looked back at him. I said, so you want me to deny my husband's heritage for my son to have this right?


PAT: That really got to her.


BLAINE COWICK: Yeah, I would agree. You know, it really doesn't make a lot of sense.


PAMELA LEWIS: I was totally pissed at this point.


JAMES HIRAMOTO: I've had many friends tell me that parents became irate, disappointed,


JANA BAKER: Very upset.




JANA BAKER: Very upset-


PAT: I ended up talking to a bunch of school psychologists who work in the California public schools.


JAMES HIRAMOTO: I'm James Hiramoto,


JANA BAKER: Jana Baker,


PAT: And they confirmed for me that situations like what happened with Pam and Ricky, they’re not that unusual.


JANA BAKER: Sometimes a reaction might be, “Well, why not?” Or, “Well, what if I say that it's okay?” Like as a parent. Can I just like sign something to prove that it's okay, that I don't care? Uh, no.


PAT: What happens if they check African American and Caucasian?


JAMES HIRAMOTO: If it's marked anywhere um-- there is there is no nothing that talks about percentage.


PAT: Have you had kids you've assessed where you've thought like, Well, maybe they’re  African American, and so just to be safe, I'm gonna not use an IQ test?


JANA BAKER: I have. I have.


PAT: That's so weird.


JANA BAKER: It is. It is a very awkward situation.


JAD ABUMRAD: Wait. Can I ask a basic question? Two questions actually.


PAT: Mm-hmm.


JAD: I mean, first, do schools still use the IQ tests as much these days as they used to back in the Larry P. days? When the ban was put in place?


PAT: Not quite as much as they used to, but they still use them a ton. So more than a million kids a year are given the WISC, which is that IQ test that we talked about all of the last episode. It's still the most widely-used IQ test.


JAD: Really? Wow.


PAT: Since then, lots of other IQ tests have been made and released.


JAMES HIRAMOTO: the Arthur Point scale, Cattell Horn infant intelligence scale, Columbia Mental maturity scale---


PAT: All of these tests you're hearing are actually banned for Black kids in California still.


JAMES HIRAMOTO: Gasol Developmental schedule. Goodenough hairs drawing test, Merrill-Palmer preschool performance test...


JAD: Well, that brings -- that brings me to my second question which is,


JAMES HIRAMOTO: Raven’s progressive matrices…


JAD: have the tests changed? I mean, it's been awhile. Have the places that were found to be biased been de-biased?


PAT: Yeah. Well, that question led me to...


PAT: Are you still there, Dr. Kaufman?


ALAN KAUFMAN: I am here.


PAT: this guy named Alan Kaufman.


ALAN KAUFMAN: I’m just trying to park and---


PAT: No, no problem.


ALAN KAUFMAN: A woman just left the OR blocking me…


PAT: Oh geez--


PAT: Caught him while he was driving. He’s a professor at the Yale Medical School and he says the tests have changed, and he would know. Because he was the first one to start changing it. The story is ...


ALAN KAUFMAN: Starting in 1968 I was working for the Psychological Corporation in New York City--


PAT: Alan was a young guy at the time,


ALAN KAUFMAN: I was 26--


PAT: And he starts working with a psychologist named David Weschler. David Weschler invented the WISC, the test we talked about in the last episode.


ALAN KAUFMAN: David Weschler was really the founder of clinical assessment


PAT: He was like this giant in the field. And Alan, this 20-something nobody--


ALAN KAUFMAN: My assignment was to help him revise the WISC.


PAT: Now, this was happening right as the Larry P. trial was getting started.


ALAN KAUFMAN: The Black Psychologists’ Association was very vocal--


PAT: So Kaufman says the test company had pretty much accepted, like, we need to change the test. But Weschler? Not so much.


ALAN KAUFMAN: So I would go to his apartment on the east side of New York City


PAT: And they would go question by question.


ALAN KAUFMAN: What is the color of rubies?


PAT: Kaufman argued “Uh that question is clearly biased.” I mean, the correct answer on the test is rubies are red but A...


ALAN KAUFMAN: If your family has more money, you were more likely to know what was a ruby was


PAT: And B, Kaufman says, Ruby was a popular name in the Black community. So certain kids might think the question was referring to people, not gems.


ALAN KAUFMAN: That item was eliminated


PAT: But I understand it didn’t always go that easily with him


ALAN KAUFMAN: No. No, and there was a little vein that he had on his scalp that I knew when he got upset it would start to pulse a little. And he was so upset I thought it was gonna explode.


PAT: He says they had knock down, drag out fights about IQ test questions. But many of the questions we talked about in the last episode ended up being removed.


ALAN KAUFMAN: There were a bunch of changes


PAT: So by the end of this process, how much of this test was different?


ALAN KAUFMAN: Oh. Probably 40 percent different.


PAT: Since that original revision, the WISC has been revised three more times


PAT: Hello, Susie?




PAT: This is Susie Rayford.


SUSIE RAYFORD: I'm the primary developer of the Wechsler Intelligence scales. I write the questions, design the research plan….


PAT: And Susie says all the questions on the test today are different than they were back in the ‘70s. In fact, about ten years ago, they replaced every question on the test.


SUSIE RAYFORD: And then we also statistically analyze the items...


PAT: She says they're now able to do these sort of advanced statistical comparisons where they can compare the responses of rich black kids to rich white kids, poor black kids to poor white kids.


SUSIE RAYFORD: It goes through that kind of scrutiny.


PAT: And if one group performs differently on a question, they’ll get rid of it.


SUSIE RAYFORD: But you welcome that, because you don’t want to put something out that’s wrong or that’s gonna hurt people.


PAT: The biggest change, though, is the way the test is standardized.


BRANDON GAMBLE: It usually tries to be representative of the census


PAT: This is Brandon Gamble again, the former school psychologist we heard from in the first episode.


BRANDON GAMBLE: How many African Americans were included


PAT: These days, the WISC is quote unquote “normed” on a population that apparently follows the US census.


BRANDON GAMBLE: The samples are much better.


PAT: So given how much the test has changed, like, how do you feel about the fact that this ban still exists? Still stops school psychologists from giving the test to Black kids in California?


BRANDON GAMBLE: Yeah. It’s ridiculous. I think--when the state dictates what psychologists can and can’t do, that to me is a problem.


PAT: Because Brandon says an IQ test can give him useful information about a kid, regardless of their race. [Find a piece of tape from Brandon here saying something about how IQ tests can be useful to him.]


BRANDON GAMBLE: When you’re talking about IQ tests, you’re talking about abilities. Your ability to see things visually and be able to answer questions around seeing patterns. So you can target particular skills around cognition.


PAT: Hello, are you there now?


JOHN CATOE: Yes. Can you hear me clearly?


PAT: I can


PAT: And I’ll admit I didn’t completely understand what Brandon meant until I talked to this guy


JOHN CATOE: My name is John Catoe, and I'm a dad of a young man who experienced a learning disability in his young life.


PAT: John's encounter with the Larry P. ban happened about 20 years ago. He was living in Santa Monica, California at the time. He works in transportation. He was managing the subway system there, and his son Justin ...


JOHN CATOE: He was I believe, seven or eight

PAT: And his teacher told John that Justin was having a really hard time with reading.


JOHN CATOE: Even if you gave them the simplest of things to read, he couldn't grasp what he read.


PAT: The teacher wasn't really sure what was going on. They were wondering, is this just a reading specific thing, or is there some broader cognitive disability happening? So John decided to talk to a specialist


JOHN CATOE: And he recommended first that I get an IQ test. And so I went to his elementary school and requested that from his principal. And she informed me that she--he could not have an IQ test because in the state of California it was not legal.


RC: And when the principal first said that, what went through your mind?


JOHN CATOE: I thought it was crazy. I said, you know, she was trying to explain to me why it was not allowed. She knew there was some court case


PAT: And John says he got it. He understood. He remembered having to take an IQ test when he was a teenager to try to get ahead in the Army.


JOHN CATOE: To try to be a lieutenant, to be an officer.


PAT: And he says on that test


JOHN CATOE: There were terms I’d never heard of


PAT: Like magenta.


JOHN CATOE: Well, when you grew up in a very poor neighborhood, it's basic colors. It’s blue, red, purple, yellow, white, brown. I didn't know what that question meant.


PAT: Nonetheless, John says, when it came to his son, if taking that test, even if it was biased, could help him, so be it.


JOHN CATOE: And I understand you know, the whole, the economic and environmental impact

about an IQ test. But my son needed one. I was not accepting the argument because of his ethnicity they were prohibited from giving him a test. At first, I asked if I could waive it. “Is there any way can waive this?” And I was told no. I honestly said, “Well, okay, then he's not African American. His mother is Caucasian and my history of my family, it’s mixed race. So let’s reclassify him.” She said, “I guess you can do that.” And then I said to her, “Look, at the absurdity of that.”


PAT: Ultimately, Justin ended up getting IQ tested by that specialist outside the school system. And in the end, the test helped reveal that Justin had a very specific problem.


JOHN CATOE: What was determined was Justin has this imagination. So when he was reading when he was younger, he couldn't separate the two.


PAT: John says Justin would start to read a sentence, but before he could get too far into it, even just a few words, he would start to imagine what was going on and just get lost in that universe.


JOHN CATOE: He tried to read and go off and live it, and you can't do that


PAT: Like he would just never get very far before his imagination would take over.


JAD: And the IQ test helped them figure that out?


PAT: In a way, yeah. Because the thing about an IQ test is it’s made up of all these subtests. And so the psychologist was able to use it to figure out Justin was fine with math. His memory was fine. He had a good vocabulary, processing speed and puzzle solving abilities were fine, you know. So they were able to rule all these things out and investigate the root of the problem. Which turned out to just be his really active imagination.


JOHN CATOE: It was a book, one book that got Justin to read and it was Harry Potter. He wouldn't put that book down. He would stay up late into the night and start reading it. That was the end of his problem of reading.


PAT: Brandon Gamble says he’s worked with hundreds of kids like Justin, where an IQ test helped him figure out what was going on. And so that’s why Brandon says the Larry P. ban isn’t necessary anymore. He says the thing that he sort of keeps his eye on now when it comes to these tests isn’t so much the racial bias question, but something kind of bigger. The basic idea that an IQ test could be used to define a kid.


BRANDON GAMBLE: There was a period, and I would say from like the 1930s all the way through the ‘80s, people would just give the IQ or cognitive tests.


PAT: This is what happened to Darryl from the first episode. And of course, the test was skewed against him because of racial bias. But Brandon says even if wasn’t, even if Darryl had been a white kid, making a decision, any decision, about his future by just using an IQ test--


BRANDON GAMBLE: That’s horrible. You really don’t know that kid. It’s only a snapshot of a three-hour window of sitting down with this kid in a very abstract, clinical setting. That can’t be the totality of who that child is.


PAT: To really understand who a kid is, and every psychologist I talked to said this, you have to spend a lot of time with them.


BRANDON GAMBLE: Visiting the home, like observing the child in the classroom, like extensive interviews with their families. Especially if you’re working cross-culturally, there’s some things that you may not understand.


PAT: So, it sounds like your perspective on the IQ test is that like, you can evaluate the students without the IQ test.


BRANDON GAMBLE: Yeah, if you can’t do IQ testing, there’s 99 other things you can do.


JAD: Wait so then, why do it at all? I mean, I guess I get that it can be helpful sometimes like in the case of the kid with Harry Potter. But like really what it was that helped the kid was Harry Potter. You know, that’s what helped him read better so, if we’re in a situation now where we have all of these other tools available and we know that the IQ tests --- however useful it can be --- it also has some very bad mojo historically attached to it ----- well is it actually still worth keeping it around?


PAT: Yeah I found myself thinking that a lot. Just like from a pure cost-benefit perspective, maybe it needs to go. And that’s how I’d been feeling until we came across this one story that pretty much completely changed my mind about that.


JAD: Really?


PAT: We’ll do that story after a quick break.


PAT: Hey, welcome back to G, a Radiolab mini-series. I'm Pat Walters.


JAD: Ok Pat, so what is this story you were referring to that totally changed your mind about IQ testing?


PAT: Well, I'm gonna tell you. But first, let me do a quick digression.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Maybe I should take a step back first--


PAT: In talking about the ups and downs of the IQ test, it turns out that so much of it has to do with how we talk about it. So I wanna get back to an interview I did with Siddhartha Mukherjee.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Why is a cancer geneticist talking about G?


PAT: We talked to Mukherjee in the first episode of this series about the history of IQ tests, and G which is the shorthand for general intelligence. And in our interview, he kept circling back to this one idea about language.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: One thing that we learn over and over all from the history of medicine, is that the way you define terms, the way you define anything, makes an enormous difference as to how you evaluate it, what value society places on it. I can give you a thousand examples from the history of cancer. I can ...


PAT: One he gave me that I thought was really interesting has to do with breast cancer.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: The word "radical mastectomy" contained the word "radical" in it because it was meant to address the term "root."


PAT: Which apparently is what radical means: of, or pertaining to the root of something.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Radical as in radish. But it morphed socially and culturally into a word that meant aggressive and brazen, and therefore the right thing to do for a woman with a terrible disease.


PAT: Like, once that word came to mean extreme Mukherjee says, more and more people who saw their cancer as extreme started to feel like that would be the appropriate response. Even if it might not have been.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: These words that we use in medicine and science are extraordinarily important.


PAT: And when it comes to intelligence he says, the thing you gotta remember is ...


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: Right off the bat is that the word "intelligence" is a colloquial word. I just cannot emphasize that enough.


PAT: Like, the concept of intelligence way predates modern western science.


STUART RITCHIE: Yes, yeah. I mean, you can look at ancient literature and you'll see that some people are smarter than others. Like, Odysseus is really smart.


PAT: Intelligence researcher Stuart Ritchie again.


STUART RITCHIE: In ancient China …


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: It has been defined through social and cultural practice.   


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: It varies from one society to another, has varied from one society to another. And for the history of human beings, we have found that perfectly acceptable. We have ...


PAT: Everybody understood that there were lots of different ways to be intelligent. Like, to be intelligent just meant to be able to understand, which would mean a million different things. Until 1904, when Charles Spearman came along and said ...


STUART RITCHIE: We have planted our flag on intelligence. We know what this is and it is defined as your score on these tests.


PAT: But the fact is, according to both of these guys ...


STUART RITCHIE: It might be a lot more complicated than that.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: There is something captured on the IQ test called G. I don't have a problem with G. It maybe it sends a shiver down my spine because of human history. I don't have a problem with it fundamentally. It's a fact. But I do have an argument making a simple one-to-one translation between that idea and this thing, this word that carries so much value and meaning. The word being intelligence.


JAD: Is there a better word?


PAT: Yeah, well ...


STUART RITCHIE: Maybe we should have called it something like cognitive function.


PAT: I mean, a lot of the researchers I talked to, and psychologists, and even the test-makers, seem to be using words like "cognitive function" or "cognitive ability" more.


STUART RITCHIE: When I talk about intelligence, all I mean is -- see, look I'm using the word "intelligence," even though I said at the start of the interview I shouldn't use it.


PAT: Yeah.


PAT: But they also kind of slipping back into just calling intelligence a lot. I mean, Mukherjee says, like, what an IQ test measures is your ability to navigate in problem space.


JAD: Your ability to navigate in problem space?


PAT: Yeah. I don't really know what that means. Like, I can't picture problem space.


SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: I can't be more specific than that, because that is exactly what it is. Sometimes an analogy helps which is, you meet a person who is a good general athlete.




SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: And when you see them manipulating their way through space ...




SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE: ... they have a particular way of manipulating themselves through space, because they understand physical space.


PAT: According to Mukherjee, problem space is kind of like that, but mental. How well can you move ideas, pictures, and numbers around in your head.


JAD: Your ability to navigate in problem space?


PAT: Yeah it’s a little hard.


JAD: It gives me something though. I like the idea of space there because it’s boundaried. It’s bounded in some sense.


PAT: Yeah


JAD: It’s not everything. It’s just a space.


PAT: It’s a space and it leaves a lot of stuff out.

JAD: Yeah, exactly.


PAT: But regardless of what you call it -- even if you call it intelligence, G, or whatever -- f you use the test in a different way, at a different altitude, let’s say, it can change the world very dramatically and not just in a bad way.


PAT: If the IQ test has sort of like a...heroic moment in American history--


JAD: Mmhm


PAT: --this is it. It--it sort of like stepped up and saved a lot of the people that it was designed to hurt.


JAD: Interesting. OK, tell me more...tell me more






JAD: Tell me more


PAT: Okay, So it's the early 1970s




PAT: And the story is about this guy named Herb Needleman


LYDIA DENWORTH: He was, uh, Needleman was--


PAT: He was a pediatrician in Philadelphia.


LYDIA DENWORTH: About six feet tall, brown hair, blue eyes. He was this intense kind of arrogant guy, very sure of himself.


PAT: That's Lydia Denworth.


LYDIA DENWORTH: I'm a science writer.


PAT: She wrote a book about Herb--


LYDIA DENWORTH: He was really engaging


PAT: Apparently when he had been a teacher students really liked hanging out with him because he was


LYDIA DENWORTH: At that point he was fighting the Vietnam War stuff.


PAT: He had gone to Vietnam and started a nonprofit where he would, uh, bring injured kids back to the US for treatment.


JAD: Wow.


PAT: He was kind of like this--students liked hanging out with him and hearing his sort of crazy stories. Anyway, when Neddleman was training to be a pediatrician---


HERB NEEDLEMAN: I was referred a child who was a very sick little girl.


PAT: That's Herb Needleman talking to Morry Regun on the NPR show Tech Nation


PAT: Needleman actually passed away a few years ago and they were nice enough to let us use clips from their interview. Uh, in any case.


PAT: this little girl shows up.


LYDIA DENWORTH: Little three year old girl, a Hispanic girl from the local neighborhood. It was a poor neighborhood where the hospital was located. And this little girl was really in terrible shape.


PAT: She was lethargic


LYDIA DENWORTH: Couldn't talk. It was acute lead poisoning.


HERB NEEDLEMAN: lead poisoning. Somebody else made a diagnosis and I knew what to do because I'd had a couple lectures on it.


PAT: It was known that lead could make you sick, but it was thought


HERB NEEDLEMAN: The conventional wisdom was--


PAT: That it could only make you sick at really high doses.


HERB NEEDLEMAN: When I started, the conventional wisdom was 60 micrograms per deciliter was a toxic dose--


LYDIA DENWORTH: For comparison, today, the CDC, the Centers for Disease Control, have what's called a reference level, which is that anything over five micrograms per deciliter is cause for alarm.


PAT: Wow, oh my gosh,


LYDIA DENWORTH: And in fact you know now that there is no safe level of lead in anybody's body--



LYDIA DENWORTH: --but especially in children.


PAT: And keep in mind, this is an era when lead




HERB NEEDLEMAN: Was all over.



HERB NEEDLEMAN: Almost all the houses were painted with white lead.


CLIP: This exciting new kind of beauty.


PAT: Lead paint was the standard.


CLIP: Instant paint.


LYDIA DENWORTH: The reason lead was put in paint was--


CLIP: You simply roll on--


LYDIA DENWORTH: that it made the paint go on the wall more smoothly.


CLIP: There has never been anything like it.


HERB NEEDLEMAN: It’s sticky. It's bright.


CLIP: Bold, shimmering.


LYDIA DENWORTH: And also when paint chips off and you get a big piece of it, lead paint is actually quite sweet.




PAT: Really?


LYDIA DENWORTH: Yeah so to little kids--it tastes good.


HERB NEEDLEMAN: Sweet and crunchy. They eat it.


PAT: So Herb is there in Philadelphia, sees this kid with acute lead poisoning. After her, sees another. Then another and another. He knows high levels of lead are bad, but he starts to wonder what about low levels?


HERB NEEDLEMAN: Well, I decided I would pursue it.


PAT: Question was, how?


LYDIA DENWORTH: So people knew that lead in the body went into bones, and it went-- It mimics calcium in the body so it would be anywhere in the body that calcium would be found


HERB NEEDLEMAN: So the tissue you wouldn't look at is bone, but you can't do that. You can't stick needles and kids bones.


LYDIA DENWORTH: You certainly can't go cutting out pieces of their bone. He knew he couldn’t get bone. And then one day, sitting there in his office at this community health clinic--




LYDIA DENWORTH: -- in north Philadelphia--




LYDIA DENWORTH: he looked at children playing in this school yard of this elementary school, and he thought, teeth! Teeth are the answer!




PAT: So he partners up with the dentists. And he has the dentists ask the parents to bring in their kid’s baby teeth. Right away the parents are like, ‘well we’ve got a little bit of a tooth fairy problem here. You know, the kids aren’t just going to give away their teeth. I’m not going to find your research study with my tooth fairy money. So Herb like


LYDIA DENWORTH: They started by-- Needelman went out, and he got all these silver dollars


HERB NEEDLEMAN: I was the Tooth Fairy--tooth fairy.


PAT: So he gets the dentist to bribe the kids to give him the teeth. He then tested the teeth,


HERB NEEDLEMAN: Measured the tooth lead levels


PAT: And brings in a bunch of the kids, gives them a series of tests,


HERB NEEDLEMAN: Extensive battery of neuropsychological tests








PAT: And what he discovered, the key thing he discovered...if you get just a little bit more lead in the body--like for every ten micrograms per deciliter more lead in your blood, and that’s an extremely small amount, your IQ score--




PAT: Falls four points.


JAD: So if you’re, um, exposed to just a tiny bit more lead, you get four points quote unquote dumber, so to speak, on the IQ test?


PAT: Essentially, yes.


JAD: I don’t quite have a sense of scale. I mean is four points a lot?


PAT: So the interesting thing about it is like the IQ test is set up to kind of put everybody on this bell curve.


JAD: Mmhm


PAT: Where you have most everybody is in the middle and then you’ve got these sort of tails were you have the people who score really high and the people who score really low. High would be around 130, 140. And low would be down around 70. And so four points in the middle, doesn’t make that big of a difference.




PAT: But if you think of it on a much larger scale, cause really what we’re talking about is shifting an entire population down by four points, well, what that means is that--


PAT: At the top, you--you end up with half as many people who are going to score above 130.


JAD: Wait, that feels like a lot.


PAT: Yeah and twice as many people scoring below 70.


JAD: Wow.




HERB NEEDLEMAN: When we published that in the New England Journal of Medicine in 1979, it had a considerable impact.


LYDIA DENWORTH: It was a huge deal.




LYDIA DENWORTH: It made national news. He had done it. He had shown that a long term, low level lead exposure was actually connected to a kid's day to day experience in the classroom, right? And in life.




PAT: The study led the government to ban the use of lead in paint, put some limits on how much lead that could be in gasoline.


LYDIA DENWORTH: Not too surprisingly, the lead industries were not happy


PAT: And they tried to discredit Herb Needleman


HERB NEEDLEMAN: It was a nasty period in our lives


PAT: They accused him of scientific misconduct.


LYDIA DENWORTH: There was a big fight over whether his 1979 Boston study was accurate. The long story short, they re-analyzed it multiple times and the numbers held up. So then what happens? In the mid 80s,




LYDIA DENWORTH: lead had been reduced some and-- in the environment.


PAT: But then in comes Ronald Reagan.


CLIP, RONALD REAGAN: There are no constraints on the human mind. No walls around the human spirit except those we ourselves erect.


PAT: And he decides, let’s cut the industry a break. Let’s loosen things back up again.


LYDIA DENWORTH: And there was a guy at EPA named Joel Schwartz, who had been hired as an economic analyst there. Joel Schwartz is asked by his bosses in about 1985 to calculate how much industry would save if the regulations on lead in gasoline were lessened, which was what the Reagan administration wanted to do.


PAT: Mmhm


LYDIA DENWORTH: And he says, well, but what about the health effects? And he's told, “Ah you know, this is the way it is, is what they want.” So what he does-- So Joel Schwartz was a clever guy, he says. OK, I will do this job. I will calculate how much industry will save if they don't have to regulate leading gasoline. And that number was about $100,000,000.


PAT: Okay


LYDIA DENWORTH: But then he did something else. He did the first major cost benefit analysis that linked health effects and economics. And the really innovative thing that Joel Schwartz did was to also calculate the cost to society of leaving lead in the gasoline. And the way he did that was that he used those four IQ points. They did an economic analysis where they were able to figure out that for each one point change in IQ, that equated to a 1% change in the wage rate.


PAT: Huh


LYDIA DENWORTH: Again on a population level with every step down in IQ, there's a connection to how much money somebody can earn. You got lower levels of educational attainment and ultimately lower levels of earning. So when he did this calculus, the industries could save $100,000,000 if they have lead. Society, if you count based on Needleman’s four IQ points, the cost of society of leaving lead in gasoline was close to $1,000,000,000


PAT: Woah


LYDIA DENWORTH: And that's based on lost education, lost wages and increased health care costs.


PAT: He writes this report gives it to one of the top officials at the EPA, this guy named Joseph Cannon, who had pretty much already made up his mind he was not going to regulate the lead industry anymore.


LYDIA DENWORTH: They didn't need regulation. There was no need for more regulation.


PAT: But apparently he looks at this report


LYDIA DENWORTH: And he said you just cannot look away.




LYDIA DENWORTH: You know, you cannot look away.




LYDIA DENWORTH: January 1st, 1986 the EPA effectively banned lead from gasoline


PAT: And within just a few years


LYDIA DENWORTH: The average blood lead level of Americans dropped by 90%




HERB NEEDLEMAN: And blood lead levels around the world began to fall after that. It was a pretty important effect




PAT: The thing this lead story made me realize is that, uh, that these IQ tests, they measure certain thinking abilities…Whatever you want to call it, uh, intelligence, G, problem space, but when you need to find out if like an environmental toxin is affecting the way kids think, having this standardized measurement of that is really powerful. And so something like the IQ test lets you see these almost invisible, um, like subtle effects on large groups of people.


JAD: Mmhm


PAT: And after that lead thing, there have been many, many, many, many studies. Like you can go on PubMed and search like, ‘IQ test environmental effects’ and you find all of these amazing studies


JAD: Really?


PAT: People use IQ tests to look at the way smog affects kids’ thinking abilities or--or like violence in the neighborhood.


JAD: Wow


PAT: And there is a whole list of this that Rachel has


JAD: That’s interesting, you know, I--it just reminds me of what that judge said in the last episode, in the--in the ruling, that um essentially IQ tests are social evil masquerading as empiricism.


PAT: Mmhm


JAD: This is kind of the universe. And you know, it’s basically the same test.


PAT: And the thing we don’t say in the in the lead story--


JAD: Hmm


PAT: Which we should add, or say here, is that Herb Needleman, he did the studies on only white kids.


JAD: Really?


PAT: So the people would couldn’t say like, ‘oh the poor kids are scoring lower because they’re black.’


JAD: Wow, he did it only on white kids, why?


PAT: He did it only on white kids because he was worried--because a lot of the poor kids who were being affected by lead were black and other minority kids. And he was worried that if he took a sample of, you know, affluent white kids who had low lead exposure, and he took a group of poor kids with high lead exposure who also were black, that people would say, ‘oh those kids--the poor kids scored lower not because of lead exposure but because they are black. And black people--


JAD: Ohhh


PAT: --are less intelligent than white people.’


JAD: Wow. So he actually--he actually segregated his sample.


PAT: Yeah.


JAD: So that he could avoid bias. Their bias.


PAT: Exactly.


JAD: Wow, that’s complicated.


PAT: Yeah so at the end of the day I don’t think you can really say that the IQ tests or even the whole idea of like measuring human intelligence in this way is any one thing. The test isn’t inherently evil in this way that a lot of people, you know, not psychologists necessarily, but regular people think about it. But it does have this--this, um, power in it, and it was designed to do a certain thing–a bad thing. By--if you went all the way back to the eugenic roots of it. And that is always in there. But it’s not the only thing that’s in there.


BRANDON GAMBLE: Sounds like an Agents of Shield episode and a--084 or like an unknown entity that still has power after centuries.


PAT: Wait, what are you talking about? What is an 084, like what--what is that?


BRANDON GAMBLE: Well, 084 is an unknown phenomena--on, uh, within Marvel comics.




PAT: What was the metaphor that psychologist Brandon Gambles threw out during our interview. Uh, he was talking about the IQ test but he was referring to this TV show called Agents of Shield.


BRANDON GAMBLE: A Strategic Homeland Interagency Logistics Division. I’m a total nerd.


PAT: He says every so often the heroes in that show will find this object that they call an 084


BRANDON GAMBLE: And an 084 is this unknown phenomena


PAT: And it’s an object they know is powerful...They don’t understand...what kind of power it has. Or how to use it.


BRANDON GAMBLE: And sometimes these unknown phenomena can, you know, you don’t even know what it is but if you touch it


[CLIP]: [screaming]


BRANDON GAMBLE: It takes you back in time, it can disrupt you, it’s toxic. Um, it can even kill you.


PAT: Or it could save you.


BRANDON GAMBLE: It’s an inanimate object by itself but once it’s activated it becomes this extra thing.


PAT: He says, it’s a little bit like that with the IQ test, with the science of intelligence. Sort of became that the moment G walked into the room. It became this powerful thing with many different potentials that we’re still struggling with.