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.

“It’s not that you leap from 70 to 100 and then you start industrialising. You go from 70 to 75 because you’re economy improves a bit and you can afford primary school. Then primary school raises your IQ a bit from 75 to 80 and you’re population is better educated and you get more industrialised and people start going to high school. That raises the IQ from 85 to 90. It’s like climbing a ladder.”

Although he rigorously critiques their analyses, Flynn is fair to his academic opponents. His new book features a tribute to the much-maligned Arthur Jensen in which he references John Stuart Mill: “When you suppress an idea, you suppress every debate it may inspire for all time.”

“I think you should argue with people evidentially,” he says. “I’m attacked ad hominem all the time. There’s a lunatic fringe on the left that attacks you as a racist for just discussing these issues. I met Arthur Jensen and I don’t think he would turn a hair if his daughter came home with a black fiancé. Even if I thought he had racial bias, what’s the relevance of it? Either I find the evidence is well-founded or I don’t.”

Flynn believes that those who argue for innate differences in intelligence between groups are missing a “sociological imagination” and that most IQ gaps have environmental explanations. This is why the IQ gap between men and women has disappeared in the western world since “girls were given a fairer shake” (women actually have a slight edge on men in IQ now, although Flynn thinks this is negligible).

Flynn’s outlook is partially a product of his politicisation in 1950s America. “I’m a mild social democrat,” he says. “That made me a dangerous radical in America in the McCarthy era. When I got my first teaching job at Richmond, Kentucky I was chairman of Core, the Congress of Racial Equality. The police used to beat up blacks for fun. There were only four hospital beds for the black community. When I was in Chicago there were black mothers of 18 so segregated they’d never seen Lake Michigan 10 blocks away. I was run out of the south for being too friendly to blacks and out of the north for being in favour of socialised medicine . . . We finally left for New Zealand when I was 29 because I kept getting fired because of my politics.”

Flynn maintains an interest in his native country. He wrote Where Have All the Liberals Gone? in 2008, a plea to revive social-democratic ideals. He also worries about young people; although they are in many ways brighter than their parents (they certainly have higher IQs), they are falling behind verbally.

“I think teenagers are distanced from their parents based on subcultures. The word teenager didn’t even exist until 1950. My generation wanted to become adults as fast as we could to get money, sex, motorcars and privacy.

“Teenagers have that now without becoming adults. And they’ve got their own slang, their own world on the internet, and instead of becoming gradually socialised into the world of their parents, they’re quasi-resistant to it.”

This year he published a book trying to address this, The Torchlight List: Around the World in 200 Books. He also published Faith and Philosophy, about religion, ethics and science, and a fourth book called How to Improve Your Mind: 20 Ways to Unlock the Modern World.

This is a primer, he says, on “elementary social analysis, what a good social-science survey looks like, how to understand international politics, and how to avoid flawed moral arguments like appeals to nature. You know, ‘gayness is unnatural’, that sort of thing.”

Now in his mid 70s, Flynn’s level of output flies in the face of another of his headline findings, his discovery of a “bright tax”.

“Until recently it’s been thought that bright people’s intellectual faculties deteriorated more slowly after 65,” he says.

“In fact, though it’s true of verbal ability, when it comes to analytical ability, the brighter you are, the quicker you go down . . . It may be, and this is just one theory, that bright people tend to have cognitively demanding jobs. So like athletes they build up an exercise advantage over the average person and at retirement they lose that edge. A lot of people retire to play bridge and watch television and aren’t exercising their minds.”

As for himself? “I never retired.”

The Flynn effect

JAMES FLYNN discovered that when new subjects take old IQ tests, they do significantly better than those who did the tests at the time they were devised. IQs are getting higher.

The question then, for Flynn, was what IQ measured, as the gains were too rapid for an evolutionary explanation. He concluded that it was a certain kind of abstract thought facilitated by urbanisation and wealth.

So, he says, when asked what connects “dogs” and “rabbits”, the correct answer in an IQ test would be that dogs and rabbits are both mammals. Someone from a culture of subsistence might say: “You use dogs to hunt rabbits.”

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