Flynn Flips: IQ Tests Do Matter

Despite hysterical politically-motivated attacks on them
that have sometimes turned

, researchers into human intelligence have by
now produced a coherent and compelling scientific
picture, as

in books such as the 1994 best-seller The Bell Curve


Richard Herrnstein

Charles Murray

With one exception.

For uncertain reasons,

all over the world
, raw IQ scores have been rising,
on average at the rate of about 3 points per decade.
Thus, a test performance that a half century ago would
have ranked at the 84th percentile (a score of 115) now
is only good enough for the 50th percentile (a score of

When IQ test publishers revise and renormalize their
exams every decade or two, they have to make scoring
tougher to make the mean stay at 100.

This is very strange. One of the more dubious-sounding
implications is that if you go far enough back into the
past, the average person would have been a complete
dolt, and the greatest genius of that earlier age would
have been no smarter than

George W. Bush or John Kerry

Rising test scores were pointed out by

Reed Tuddenham
in 1948, when he compared the better
performance on the

U.S. military`s IQ tests
of the draftees of WWII
compared to WWI.

In the early 1980s,

James R. Flynn
, an American-born political scientist
at the University of Otago in New Zealand, began to call
this phenomenon to academic and then public attention.
In his honor, in The Bell Curve, Herrnstein and

rising IQ scores the "Flynn Effect".

(Flynn says that if he had thought to name it, he would
have called it the "Tuddenham Effect", although

L. Wheeler
may have noticed it even earlier, in

. For a discussion of other contributors to our
understanding of rising test scores, such as

Richard Lynn

Philip E. Vernon
, see this 2005

Gene Expression posting
, as well as its


Mainstream IQ
researchers, who are used to being

when they are not being

, admire

, who is politically a man of the left, for his
fairness, geniality, insight, and devotion to advancing
knowledge. The Flynn Effect has often been seized upon
to dismiss IQ testing in general, especially by

who assume that it will cause

racial gaps in IQ to converge
out of existence.
Flynn himself, however, has never joined the mob in
unfairly attacking psychometrics—or psychometricians.

Nevertheless, the Flynn Effect did leave Flynn skeptical
about IQ tests.

Ulric Neisser
wrote in

The American Scientist
in 1997: "Flynn
concludes that the tests do not measure intelligence but
only a minor sort of `abstract problem-solving ability`
with little practical significance."

But Flynn has now written a book offering his considered
explanation of the Flynn Effect: What is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect.

Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University
posted online a

by Flynn summarizing his book.)

Strikingly, Flynn has changed his mind. He now sees the
Flynn Effect not as undermining IQ testing, but as
validating it. After decades of reflection, Flynn
believes people really are more intelligent in some ways
today —just as their raw IQ scores suggest. The reason:
we get more mental exercise now than in olden times.

Flynn and his collaborator

William Dickens
of the
Brookings Institute
argue that people mold their own
environments based on their genetic predilections. So
genetically smart people choose more mentally
stimulating environments, which makes them even smarter.

Steven Johnson
points out, mental stimulation, even
if it`s just

watching television
or figuring out what the buttons
on your new electronic gizmo do, is a lot cheaper today
than in the past.

To help you understand how the Flynn Effect could
coexist with the undoubted geniuses of the past, imagine
two young men in, say,

rural England
in the 17th Century.

The first, Thomas, is a farm laborer, who spends much of
his time in the fields not talking to anyone and goes to
bed not long after dark.

He gets little

mental stimulation.
He`d like more. He

went to a play once
about a

prince and a ghost
who wants him to kill his uncle
who married his mom. Thomas enjoyed it a lot, especially

the fighting part at the end
when everybody dies—but
players seldom come through his (ahem!) hamlet and they
are expensive when they do.

Thomas suffers from what Marx would later call,
unkindly, "the
idiocy of rural life
(By the way, the
urban-rural IQ gap has narrowed from six points to
merely two in recent decades as the countryside has come
to enjoy most of the stimulations of the city.)

Thomas would score, say, a 60 on a modern IQ test,
although he

does his duties
much better than a

60 IQ person
would today. He just doesn`t have much
practice at the novel and abstract thinking that an IQ
test measures. If he was 23 in 2007, though, with ten
years of

, the

telly on six hours a day,
and a daily peek at the
football news in

The Sun
, he might score a respectable 90.

One sunny day in 1665, Thomas is doing some chores for a
widow who owns a farm in Woolsthorpe. She invites him
into the kitchen for a glass of cider. The widow tells
Thomas she wished she could get her son, who is the same
age as him, to do some work around the farm. "But
ever since he came home
from Cambridg
e University because of the

, he just stays in his room, doing funny
things you`ve never seen the like of. Here, I`ll take
him a glass and you can see for yourself."

She opens the door into a room that is dark except for a
single dazzling beam of sunlight that strikes an oddly

piece of glass
and then splits into all the colors
of the rainbow. A young gentleman with a long thin nose
sits bathed in colors, fiddling with another triangular
piece of glass.

"Here you go, Isaac, a
nice glass of cider."

"Thank you,"

Isaac murmurs, without raising his head.

"Ever since he came
back from

Trinity College,
he`s not much company,"

she sighs to Thomas.

For the next week, Thomas thinks a lot about the rainbow
man. Is he a

? But the few people he talks to don`t have
any idea what the fellow is up to. Thomas slowly forgets
about Isaac Newton.

Unlike the local yokel, Newton brings his own incredibly
stimulating environment with him, inside his head. Like
the farm laborer, he occasionally sees an

fall from a tree, but when he does, that gets
him thinking about the

system of the world
. Indeed, what Newton needs to
bring his smartness to superhuman levels is not more
mental stimulation, but the peace and quiet those 18
months at home will afford him—that stupendous year and
a half in which he worked on prisms, the

, and the beginning of the Law of Gravity.

Talking to himself makes him smarter than does talking
to other people, because, compared to him, they just
don`t have much worth saying.

How would Isaac Newton have done back then on a modern
IQ test? I suspect he`d max out any test.

According to Flynn, massive IQ increases are not seen in
all types of cognitive functioning, just in a couple of
areas, which explains why kids these days don`t seem all
that much smarter, except at programming their new
gadgets. The Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC)
is one of the most popular IQ tests. Here are its ten
subtests, ranked in order from smallest to largest IQ
gain over 55 years:

WISC Subtest

IQ Gains in Points, 1947-2002

Sample Question



On what continent is Argentina?



If a toy costs $6, how much do 7 cost?



What does "debilitating" mean?



Why are streets usually numbered in order?

Picture Completion


Indicate the missing part from an incomplete

Block Design


Use blocks to replicate a two-color design.

Object Assembly


Assemble puzzles depicting common objects.



Using a key, match symbols with shapes or

Picture Arrangement


Reorder a set of scrambled picture cards to tell
a story.



In what way are "dogs" and "rabbits"

We see only small changes in the first three mental

general knowledge
, arithmetic, and vocabulary. And
yet these are the skills that come up most in our casual

However, there have been substantial improvements in the
next six subtests, most of which involve visual logic.
The proliferation of visual imagery was one of the major
changes in the social environment in the 20th Century.
People have much more practice at decoding images
quickly than in the past.

For example, consider how the television remote control
and cable television led to channel surfing.

Before, you`d flick the On/Off knob on your TV, sit down
while it warmed up, and spend about five minutes
watching whatever came on while you slowly decided
whether it was worth getting off your couch to turn to
another channel—of which there were only a few. In the

, however,

with remotes and cable started to rapidly
shuffle through dozens of channels. They developed the
ability to figure out quickly what was going on and
whether they wanted to linger for more than a few

Finally, the fastest rising subtest on the WISC,
Similarities, rewards abstract scientific thinking, what
Flynn calls viewing the world through "scientific

child gets a maximum score for replying that dogs and
rabbits are "mammals." A kid in 1947 who had
never seen a nature documentary on TV would likely have
said "They have four legs" or something else more
concrete than the Linnaean category "mammals."

Flynn`s WISC table points out that the surprising
success of IQ tests—they are now 102 years old and
appear to be as valid as they ever were since they
matured between World War I and World War II—stems from
the inventors of IQ testing anticipating which way the
world would move.

Flynn told me in an email last week: "I often say to
audiences that right from the start the framers of IQ
tests themselves looked at the world through scientific
spectacles and therefore anticipated the spread of such
through the general population."

also suspect that standardized tests have remained
useful predictors of competence in part because the
world, in going electronic, has gotten more
standardized. Programming your

cell phone
is a rather like answering questions on

the Raven`s Progressive Matrices IQ test
: it`s
purely logical and there`s only one way to do it.

In contrast, early in the 20th Century, people dealt
more with farm animals, crops, raw materials like

wood, and simple machinery.
A Model T could be
jury-rigged in various ways to

get it back on the road
. But a DVD-recorder, like an
IQ test question, is a black box that can only be
programmed in a prescribed fashion.

So, it`s by no means clear that people are getting
smarter overall. But they do seem to be getting smarter
at the things IQ tests measure … which have proven to be
quite important in the modern world.

The Flynn Effect shows up less in the general factor of

the g factor
, which accounts for roughly half of

individual differences in intelligence.
suggests that if people are getting better at some
tasks, they might also be getting worse at others.

And indeed, some non-IQ tests suggest that people are
becoming less competent at dealing with old-fashioned
physical objects in the real world rather than with
images on glowing screens. One study found that British
children had lost the equivalent of 12 points from 1975
to 2003.

Richard Tomkins
reported in the Financial Times:

"The results achieved
by 11-year-olds had fallen to the level that children
aged eight to nine had been achieving 30 years ago … A
sample question involved pouring all the water from a
tall, thin beaker into a short, fat one, refilling the
tall, thin beaker to the same level and asking which
contained the greater volume of water."
children getting cleverer?
 August 12, 2006]

Similarly, the

test of "daily living skills" has
found a decline in basic ability to cope.

suspect that people may be getting mentally quicker, but
not more profound. For example, this year`s hit comedy
The Simpsons Movie contains

several hundred jokes
, at least an order of
magnitude more than the number in the much slower-paced
1964 comedy

Dr. Strangelove
. Yet, I suspect the half-dozen
best jokes in Dr. Strangelove will be remembered
after all the laughs in The Simpsons Movie are

Perhaps we`re only getting smart enough to keep treading
water as the world gets more complicated. Complexity for
the sake of complexity seems to be our era`s weakness.

For instance, I recently reread some of the old

Time-Life science and
nature books
that families bought in bulk
in the 1960s—such as The Forest and The Desert.
They calmly featured text on one page and a picture on
the facing page. That made them vastly more readable
than the frenetic science books for sale to young people
today. Contemporary science books for children are
attention deficit-disordered, featuring dozens of images
per pair of pages, along with captions, call-outs, and
other distractions.

Flynn does hope that his Effect will someday narrow the

racial and national gaps in average IQ
. But he
doesn`t have much evidence that it`s happening yet. The
collection of hundreds of IQ studies from all over the
globe by

Richard Lynn

Tatu Vanhanen
has revealed few examples of
convergence. The overwhelming finding from the first
century of IQ research is the

of these gaps.

Flynn advises that, whatever your genetic endowment,
mental exercise will help you come closer to your
potential: "The best chance of enjoying enhanced
cognitive skills is to fall in love with ideas …"

May I take this opportunity to recommend making
VDARE.COM part of your daily brain workout?

[Steve Sailer [email
him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and

movie critic

The American Conservative
His website
features his daily