Flynn Flips: IQ Tests Do Matter
Despite hysterical politically-motivated attacks on them that have sometimes turned violent, researchers into human intelligence have by now produced a coherent and compelling scientific picture, as explained in books such as the 1994 best-seller The Bell Curve by Richard Herrnstein and 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 100).
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.
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 Murray christened 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 1942. For a discussion of other contributors to our understanding of rising test scores, such as Richard Lynn and Philip E. Vernon, see this 2005 Gene Expression posting, as well as its comments.)
Mainstream IQ researchers, who are used to being demonized when they are not being ignored, admire Flynn, 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 race-deniers 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. (The Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University has posted online a lecture 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. As 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 schooling, 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 Cambridge University because of the Plague, 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 shaped 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 magician? 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 apple 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 calculus, 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:
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?
Indicate the missing part from an incomplete
Use blocks to replicate a two-color design.
Assemble puzzles depicting common objects.
Using a key, match symbols with shapes or
Reorder a set of scrambled picture cards to tell
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
viewers 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. This
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
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.”[Are
children getting cleverer?
August 12, 2006]
Vineland 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
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
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
Richard Lynn and
Tatu Vanhanen has revealed few examples of
convergence. The overwhelming finding from the first
century of IQ research is the
stability 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?