Psychologist at Large: An Autobiography and Selected Essays

By Edwin G. Boring | Go to book overview

The Logic of the Normal Law
of Error in Mental Measurement
1920

This paper is one of my dearest, one of my least influential, and, as I still firmly believe, one of my soundest. In 1918, when the First World War reached America, I went from Titchener's introspective Laboratory at Cornell, where consciousness was regarded as the only proper subject matter for psychology and where mental testing and the study of human and animal behavior were taboo, to work under R. M. Yerkes at intelligence testing in the U.S. Army. After the Armistice in November, Yerkes brought me to Washington to be in charge of the section on results in the mammoth report, Psychological Examining in the United States Army (Memoirs of the National Academy of Sciences, 1921, vol. 15, 890 pp.).

In Washington I found that some mental testers, not all, thought that they could discover that a "true" scale of intelligence could be obtained by seeing how the arbitrary test scale must be altered to make the distribution of a large homogeneous sample normal. This was Quetelet's old view (1846) that the normal law is given a priori in nature, is the "true" law of any "natural" distribution. This view seemed to me so preposterous that I went to the Library of Congress to read up on the theory of probability and came away with the conviction that the psychologists' statistics of the late 'teens was founded upon unproven and unprovable assumptions.

____________________
Reprinted with permission from the American Journal of Psychology, 1920, vol. 31, 1-33.

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