People Sorters

Francis Galton wearing a Trump toupee
Do you cordially recommend forgery?

The following is adapted from Questionnaire (Bloomsbury, 2016)
AT a speech in August in Youngstown, Ohio, Donald Trump proposed “extreme vetting” along ideological lines for immigrants to the United States. “Those who do not believe in our Constitution, or who support bigotry and hatred, will not be admitted for immigration into our country,” the Associated Press reported Trump as saying. “Only those who we expect to flourish in our country — and to embrace a tolerant American society — should be issued visas.”

From a man who’d launched his campaign by suggesting that Mexican immigrants were rapists and had already been talking publicly about a “temporary Muslim ban” for the past nine months, this kind of xenophobia was no surprise. But an interesting detail emerged as journalists tried to determine how Trump’s off-the-cuff policy proclamations might actually be implemented. “Trump aides said the government would use questionnaires, social media, interview with family and friends or other means to vet applicants’ stances on issues including religious freedom, gender equality and gay rights,” the AP reported. “Trump did not clarify how U.S. officials would assess the veracity of responses to the questionnaires or how much manpower it would require to complete such arduous vetting.”

That “Trump did not clarify” is a nice sly touch on the AP’s part. As usual with Trump, it’s not at all clear how any of this would actually work. (What’s to keep immigrants from lying about their ideologies on questionnaires? How heavily would social media be weighted, as opposed to other factors? Which family members and friends would be interviewed, and how extensively, and by who?) But the idea of regulating immigration by questionnaire is not so far-fetched, nor is it new. Indeed, the history of the questionnaire as an information technology is intimately bound up with the history of racism, and with American anti-immigrant nativism in particular.

The link between questionnaires and racism goes back at least as far as the 1870s, which is when personal data collection really came into its own, in the form of “anthropometrics”: the science of measuring the properties of human beings. One of its pioneers was Francis Galton, an English scientist who, with his 1874 volume English Men of Science: Their Nature and Nurture, more or less established the questionnaire as a legitimate instrument for the collection of empirical data. This was only one of Galton’s many contributions to science — he also did important work in statistics, genetics, criminology, and meteorology — but he is best known today as the father of eugenics, a term he himself coined. In a paper published in the American Journal of Sociology in 1904, Galton defined eugenics as “the science which deals with all influences that improve the inborn qualities of a race; also with those that develop them to the utmost advantage.” Racial “science,” per se, was not the innovation: eugenics was Galton’s dream of a discipline that would be able to not only understand human reproduction but control it, and would do it through data collection. Eugenics would allow the state to produce an “exact stocktaking of the nation,” allowing them to identify individuals who were “hereditarily remarkable” and encourage them to breed with one another. Their genetic inferiors — who were to be found, for the most part, among the lower classes and non-white races — would be discouraged from reproducing at all.

As with Trump’s proposals, the exact form this discouragement would actually take was left vague. Galton’s unpublished utopian novel, Kantsaywhere, did imagine state-run labor camps for “the naturally feeble,” but he never actually advocated forced sterilization. As for “stocktaking,” self-report questionnaires were Galton’s primary means of collecting information: the more personal information that could be collected, the better the government would be at cultivating the remarkable and suppressing the inferior. Galton devoted much of his energy to convincing his contemporaries to respond to more and more questionnaires, coming up with a series of incentives including cash prizes of up to £500 and appeals to Victorian domestic sentiment. (In 1884 he collaborated with Macmillan to publish a pamphlet entitled the Life History Album, in which parents could record the development of their offspring as they grew: the first baby book.)

GALTON’S dream of a nation-state organized along eugenic principles never came to pass, but the self-report questionnaire would be taken up by governments in the twentieth century, as well as other large-scale organizations like armies, schools, asylums, and corporations. In the United States, which quickly became Galtonian eugenics’ adopted homeland, questionnaires were particularly important to the nascent science of psychology. Galton had mostly focused on physical and genetic characteristics, but after the turn of the century most questionnaire-based research focused on two broad objectives: the measurement of intelligence and the assessment of personality. In 1916 Lewis Terman, a psychology professor at Stanford, revised the Binet-Simon scale, designed by French psychologists to measure the intelligence of children aged 3 to 12, to create the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scales. These, in turn, provided the model for the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the first national standardized intelligence test in the United States, introduced in 1926. This test, of course, is still in current use today, though it’s been heavily revised several times and even renamed. (In 1993 “Aptitude” was changed to “Assessment”; in 1997, this too was dropped, rendering the acronym meaningless.)

The SAT led the way for other intelligence and personality tests designed to group people into hierarchies or categories; the industry term for them was “people-sorters.” Galton’s questionnaires had simply been instruments for the collection of anthropometric data, which he and his followers used, in turn, to argue for the advancement of eugenic policies. But though the political conclusions drawn from that data would eventually affect the lives of millions — especially after the Nazis used eugenic theories to legitimize state racism in the 1930s — the consequences for the individuals who actually filled out Galton’s forms were next to nil. By contrast, standardized tests like the Binet-Simon, the Stanford-Binet, and the SAT were used for evaluative purposes from the start, and they’ve had (and have) a real and immediate impact on the life chances of those who took (and take) them. Scoring low on an intelligence test could get you barred from access to higher education or a white-collar job. It could also be aggregated with other scores and used to consign your entire race or ethnicity to subhuman status.

ASIDE from the creation of the SAT, the most significant spur to the growth of psychological testing came with America’s mobilization for the First World War. In 1917, following the United States’ entrance into the war, the American Psychological Association formed a Committee on the Psychological Examination of Recruits, chaired by APA President Robert Yerkes. Out of their inquiries came the famous Army Alpha and Beta Intelligence Tests, a series of multiple-choice examinations used to determine the “mental ability” of new draftees. The Alpha tests, routinely administered to groups as large as five hundred, combined various different kinds of arithmetical and verbal exercises in an attempt to measure overall intelligence. (The Beta tests were a nonverbal version for non-English speakers and the illiterate.) In addition to the Stanford-Binet scale and other tests of basic intelligence, recruits took tests of “practical judgment” that included multiple-choice questions like the following:

Why ought every man to be educated?   Because
?   Roosevelt was educated
?   it makes a man more useful
?   it costs money
?   some educated people are wise

Why is beef better food than cabbage?   Because
?   it is harder to obtain
?   it tastes better
?   it is more nourishing
?   it comes from animals

The correct answers, in case you’re struggling, are B and C.

A test of literacy administered to recruits at Fort Devens in Massachusetts began with short yes-or-no questions that were extremely simple in grammar and vocabulary (“Do dogs bark? Is coal white? Can you see?”) and then advanced steadily in linguistic and semantic complexity (“Do clerks enjoy a vacation? … Do you cordially recommend forgery?”) before reaching a practically psychedelic pitch (“Are instantaneous effects invariably rapid? … Is an infinitesimal titanic bulk possible?”).

The immediate aims of the Alpha and Beta examinations were pragmatic: they allowed the Army to identify exceptional individuals who might be suited for officer training and consign the lowest-scoring recruits to labor battalions and other menial posts. But the project also enabled psychologists to amass an unprecedented amount of anthropometric data on the American population. That data was, predictably, analyzed according to the prevailing eugenicist assumptions of the time. Yerkes’ mammoth Psychological Examining in the United States Army, published in 1921, sorted soldiers according to race (“White” and “Negro,” but also “black,” “brown,” and “yellow”-skinned subsets of the latter category) and place of origin. Whites scored higher than blacks across the board, and people born in the United States scored higher than those born in foreign countries. Of course, the Alpha tests were far from what we would now call “culture-blind”: that is, what they measured was not “intelligence” (whatever that means) so much as familiarity with a specific cultural context. “Why ought every man to be educated?” is, of course, a question with more than one possible answer, but only “it makes a man more useful” was the right answer, in this case.

In scientific terms, such tests are virtually useless as measurements of intelligence or ability, and in fact this has been the consensus view among psychologists since the 1930s. But they had powerful political uses. The military study’s findings were quickly weaponized by the anti-immigrant nativist movement. In 1923, for example, Yerkes contributed a foreword to the psychologist Carl C. Brigham’s A Study of American Intelligence, which used the results of the Army Alpha and Beta examinations to argue for the superiority of the Nordic Race over the Alpine and Mediterranean and warn that “each succeeding five year period of immigration since 1902 has given us an increasingly inferior selection of individuals.” “The author presents not theories or opinions but facts,” Yerkes claimed. “It behooves us to consider their reliability and their meaning, for no one of us as a citizen can afford to ignore the menace of race deterioration or the evident relations of immigration to national progress and welfare.” Writing for a popular audience in the Atlantic Monthly in the same year, Yerkes’ nativism was even blunter: “Whoever desires high taxes, full almshouses, a constantly increasing number of schools for defectives, of correctional institutions, penitentiaries, hospitals, and special classes in our public schools, should by all means work for unrestricted and non-selective immigration,” he wrote. The next year, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act, which limited the number of immigrants allowed into the nation each year; eugenicists like Yerkes and Brigham were among its strongest supporters.

The American eugenicist consensus didn’t last long — Brigham publicly disowned his own conclusions in a 1930 paper called “Intelligence tests of immigrant groups,” and scientific racism began to go out of vogue even before it became thoroughly tainted by association with the Nazis in the 1930s and 40s. But it laid down deep roots. It isn’t hard to convince American politicians that immigrants are a threat to our society; though the case against them is most often made, nowadays, in economic (they’re taking our jobs!) or criminal (they’re raping our women!) terms, other lines of argument are always available. And science, which has at times been neutral on questions of race and at other times strongly progressive, has a way of supplying the justifications that state power needs to crack down on populations perceived to be a problem. Demagogues, dictators, and even sensible liberal technocrats can always find the right test to legitimize their fantasies of racial destiny and control: tests of intelligence, tests of loyalty, tests of knowledge, tests of personality, tests of tolerance, tests of “Americanness.” If we need them, there are experts who can craft them for us. All we need to do is ask.

A Time for Treason

A reading list created by a group of Black, Brown, Indigenous, Muslim, and Jewish people who are writers, organizers, teachers, anti-fascists, anti-capitalists, and radicals