Are you smarter than a 10-year-old?
James Flynn, the man who discovered that IQs were rising, talks about race, gender, age and the ‘sociological imagination’
WOMEN ARE smarter than men, youth culture makes young people stupid, clever people get dumber faster as they age, and we are all turning into super-geniuses. These are some journalistic simplifications of James Flynn’s findings in Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the 21st Century.
“The media like to do that,” says Flynn, speaking over the phone from his home in New Zealand. “They go through the books, take statistics out of context, and you’re at their mercy.”
Flynn is a moral philosopher by training who ended up revolutionising the study of IQ. His major contribution is the discovery of “the Flynn Effect”. He determined that people consistently did better on older IQ tests than those who did them at the time they were devised, which meant IQs were rising.
“Back in the 1970s I started a book that I didn’t publish until 2000,” says Flynn. “It was called How to Defend Humane Ideals and the reason I didn’t publish it is that I got distracted. I began to wonder what evidence humane people could use against racists. And I ran across the Arthur Jensen controversy. Here was an eminent scholar, obviously not a racist, who really thought there was a genetic component in the black/white IQ gap. And I thought ‘Oh, I’ll devote 10 pages to this.’ I ended up writing a whole book about it.”
Racist pseudoscience has often been used to justify inequality – social Darwinism, craniology, the warped racial classifications of apartheid South Africa. In recent years there have been controversies around books by Charles Murray and Richard J Herrnstein (The Bell Curve, 1994), Richard Lynn (IQ and Global Inequality, 2006) and the aforementioned Jensen. All believed the IQ gaps between racial groups were innate. Others have used their work to argue that certain ethnic minorities shouldn’t be encouraged to go to college and that developing world populations are incapable of governing themselves.
In recent decades the most consistent argument against this point of view comes from Flynn. His discovery that IQs have been rising suggests that IQ couldn’t be a measure of actual brain power and that the IQ gaps between groups weren’t fixed and were in fact closing. He believes that IQ is actually a measure of a certain kind of abstract thinking – a gauge, not of innate intelligence, but of modernity.
“In IQ and the Wealth of Nations, Richard Lynn essentially says that as you go south people get worse genes for IQ and that many developing nations aren’t bright enough to industrialise,” says Flynn. “In my new book I present six case studies where developing nations experienced IQ rises. America a hundred years ago had a mean IQ of 70.