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Detecting Absurdities

PROCEDURE. Say to the child: "_I am going to read a sentence which has
something foolish in it, some nonsense. I want you to listen carefully
and tell me what is foolish about it._" Then read the sentences, rather
slowly and in a matter-of-fact voice, saying after each: "_What is
foolish about that?_" The sentences used are the following:--

(a) "_A man said: 'I know a road from my house to the city which
is downhill all the way to the city and downhill all the way
back home.'_"
(b) "_An engineer said that the more cars he had on his train the
faster he could go._"
(c) "_Yesterday the police found the body of a girl cut into
eighteen pieces. They believe that she killed herself._"
(d) "_There was a railroad accident yesterday, but it was not very
serious. Only forty-eight people were killed._"
(e) "_A bicycle rider, being thrown from his bicycle in an
accident, struck his head against a stone and was instantly
killed. They picked him up and carried him to the hospital,
and they do not think he will get well again._"

Each should ordinarily be answered within thirty seconds. If the child
is silent, the sentence should be repeated; but no other questions or
suggestions of any kind are permissible. Such questions as "_Could the
road be downhill both ways?_" or, "_Do you think the girl could have
killed herself?_" would, of course, put the answer in the child's mouth.
It is even best to avoid laughing as the sentence is read.

Owing to the child's limited power of expression it is not always easy
to judge from the answer given whether the absurdity has really been
detected or not. In such cases ask him to explain himself, using some
such formula as: "_I am not sure I know what you mean. Explain what you
mean. Tell me what is foolish in the sentence I read._" This usually
brings a reply the correctness or incorrectness of which is more
apparent, while at the same time the formula is so general that it
affords no hint as to the correct answer. Additional questions must be
used with extreme caution.

SCORING. Passed if the absurdity is detected in _four out of the five_
statements. The following are samples of satisfactory and unsatisfactory

(a) _The road downhill_

_Satisfactory._ "If it was downhill to the city it would be
uphill coming back." "It can't be downhill both directions."
"That could not be." "That is foolish. (Explain.) Because it
must be uphill one way or the other." "That would be a funny
road. (Explain.) No road can be like that. It can't be downhill
both ways."

_Unsatisfactory._ "Perhaps he took a little different road
coming back." "I guess it is a very crooked road." "Coming back
he goes around the hill." "The man lives down in a valley." "The
road was made that way so it would be easy." "Just a road. I
don't see anything foolish." "He should say, 'a road which

(b) _What the engineer said_

_Satisfactory._ "If he has more cars he will go slower." "It is
the other way. If he wants to go faster he mustn't have so many
cars." "The man didn't mean what he said, or else it was a slip
of the tongue." "That's the way it would be if he was going
downhill." "Foolish, because the cars don't help pull the
train." "He ought to say _slower_, not _faster_."

_Unsatisfactory._ "A long train is nicer." "The engine pulls
harder if the train has lots of cars." "That's all right. I
suppose he likes a big train." "Nothing foolish; when I went to
the city I saw a train that had lots of cars and it was going
awfully fast." "He should have said, 'the faster I can _run_.'"

(c) _The girl who was thought to have killed herself_

_Satisfactory._ "She could not have cut herself into eighteen
pieces." "She would have been dead before that." "She might have
cut two or three pieces off, but she couldn't do the rest."
(Laughing) "Well, she may have killed herself; but if she did
it's a sure thing that some one else came along after and
chopped her up." "That policeman must have been a fool.
(Explain.) To think that she could chop herself into eighteen

_Unsatisfactory._ "_Think_ that she killed herself; they _know_
she did." "They can't be sure. Some one may have killed her."
"It was a foolish girl to kill herself." "How can they tell who
killed her?" "No girl would kill herself unless she was crazy."
"It ought to read: 'They think that she committed suicide.'"

(d) _The railroad accident_

_Satisfactory._ "That was very serious." "I should like to know
what you would call a serious accident!" "You could say it was
not serious if two or three people were killed, but
forty-eight,--that is serious."

_Unsatisfactory._ "It was a foolish mistake that made the
accident." "They couldn't help it. It was an accident." "It
might have been worse." "Nothing foolish; it's just sad."

(e) _The bicycle rider_

_Satisfactory._ "How could he get well after he was already
killed?" "Why, he's already dead." "No use to take a dead man to
the hospital." "They ought to have taken him to a grave-yard!"

_Unsatisfactory._ "Foolish to fall off of a bicycle. He should
have known how to ride." "They ought to have carried him home.
(Why?) So his folks could get a doctor." "He should have been

more careful." "Maybe they can cure him if he isn't hurt very
bad." "There's nothing foolish in that."

REMARKS. The detection of absurdities is one of the most ingenious and
serviceable tests of the entire scale. It is little influenced by
schooling, and it comes nearer than any other to being a test of
that species of mother-wit which we call common sense. Like the
"comprehension questions," it may be called a test of judgment, using
this term in the colloquial and not in the logical sense. The stupid
person, whether depicted in literature, proverb, or the ephemeral joke
column, is always (and justly, it would seem) characterized by a huge
tolerance for absurd contradictions and by a blunt sensitivity for the
fine points of a joke. Intellectual discrimination and judgment are
inferior. The ideas do not cross-light each other, but remain relatively
isolated. Hence, the most absurd contradictions are swallowed, so to
speak, without arousing the protest of the critical faculty. The latter,
indeed, is only a name for the tendency of intellectually irreconcilable
elements to clash. If there is no clash, if the elements remain apart,
it goes without saying that there will be no power of criticism.

The critical faculty begins its development in the early years and
strengthens _pari passu_ with the growing wealth of inter-associations
among ideas; but in the average child it is not until the age of about
10 years that it becomes equal to tasks like those presented in this
test. Eight-year intelligence hardly ever scores more than two or three
correct answers out of five. By 12, the critical ability has so far
developed that the test is nearly always passed. It is an invaluable
test for the higher grades of mental deficiency.

As a test of the critical powers Binet first used "trap questions"; as,
for example, "Is snow red or black?" The results were disappointing, for
it was found that owing to timidity, deference, and suggestibility
normal children often failed on such questions. Deference is more marked
in normal than in feeble-minded children, and it is because of the
influence of this trait that it is necessary always to forewarn the
subject that the sentence to be given contains nonsense.

Binet located the test in year XI of the 1908 scale, but changed it to
year X in 1911. Goddard and Kuhlmann retain it in year XI. The large
majority of the statistics, including those of Goddard and Kuhlmann,
warrant the location of the test in year X. Not all have used the same
absurdities, and these have not been worded uniformly. Most have
required three successes out of five, but Bobertag and Kuhlmann require
three out of four; Bobertag's procedure is also different in that he
does not forewarn the child that an absurdity is to follow.

The present form of the test is the result of three successive
refinements. It will be noted that we have made two substitutions in
Binet's list of absurdities. Those omitted from the original scale are:
"_I have three brothers--Paul, Ernest, and myself_," and, "_If I were
going to commit suicide I would not choose Friday, because Friday is an
unlucky day and would bring me misfortune._" The last has a puzzling
feature which makes it much too hard for year X, and the other is
objectionable with children who are accustomed to hear a foreign
language in which the form of expression used in the absurdity is
idiomatically correct.

The two we have substituted for these objectionable absurdities are,
"The road downhill" and "What the engineer said." The five we have
used, though of nearly equal difficulty, are here listed in the order
from easiest to hardest. Our series as a whole is slightly easier than

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