Flynn Effect in SciAm

Hal Finney (
Fri, 18 Dec 1998 00:25:53 -0800

The January, 1999 issue of Scientific American has a profile of James R. Flynn, discoverer of the Flynn effect, which we have discussed here occasionally. This is the observation that IQ test raw scores have steadily risen over the last century, suggesting that people are in some sense getting smarter. It appears that the average person today would have scored at near genius levels on IQ tests 100 years ago.

Gregory Sullivan gave a URL last year for more information on the effect, Ulric Neisser, the author of that article, also has a book on the Flynn effect, based on a 1996 symposium of the American Psychological Association. The book, _The_Rising_Curve_, is described at (and can be ordered from there, as well as from

Flynn is an interesting character, with a far left wing background that prompted him and his wife to leave the United States and move to New Zealand, where they felt more at home ideologically. He initially went into IQ studies to oppose people like Arthur Jensen, who were arguing that black people were intellectually genetically inferior. While looking at the data in detail he discovered the remarkable rise in IQ over the decades.

Despite Flynn's political beliefs, he says he has deep regards for Jensen as a scholar. Nevertheless, he "nearly roars" out a denial when asked directly whether he believes that black people "are genetically inferior for a kind of intelligence that pays dividends in the computer age."

I found this somewhat inconsistent; if he is so certain about this that he is willing to shout his denial, how could he respect someone who has come to the other view? Could a geologist respect the scholarship of a flat-earther?

My conclusion is that Flynn probably does not view the matter as clearly established, and that intellectually he can see how someone could come to the opposite conclusion. However, emotionally he remains deeply commited to his belief in equality. His high-volume response reflects depth of emotion rather than a strong intellectual belief.