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
explained in books such as the 1994 best-seller The Bell Curve
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.
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
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
researchers, who are used to being
demonized when they are not being
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.
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.
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,
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,
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
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
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."
Isaac murmurs, without raising his head.
"Ever since he came
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:
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?