Re: Flynn Effect in SciAm

Hal Finney (
Fri, 18 Dec 1998 11:33:37 -0800

Timothy Bates, <>, writes, quoting my article on the Flynn effect:
> >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.
> Not the average person by any means, but yes, since the war increases of
> up to a standard deviation have been observed on some, but not all, tests.
> Defining genius as scores >140, 9.2% of Netherlanders would score in this
> range using 1945 norms.

I was extrapolating back farther, 100 years or so, based on gains of 13.8 IQ points in 45 years, leading to estimates of ~30 point gains around 1900, where IQ 130 could be said to be "near genius level". In the November, 1995 SciAm, an article on the Flynn effect said "Flynn concluded that someone scoring in the 90th percentile 100 years ago would be in the fifth percentile today."

> >Flynn is an interesting character, with a far left wing background
> and foreground as well, i understand. far left for this list anyhow ;-)

Yes, and for the United States as well. Not many people are willing to move halfway around the world for ideological reasons.

> >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?
> because anyone who has talked to Art for more than 10 minutes recognises
> that he is a real scientist: insightful and precise with an honest
> curiosity. his latest book on the g factor is virtually an encyclopedia.
> His previous works are in daily use when most texts are propping up
> equipment in the back of the lab.

The point isn't Jensen's respectibility, it is Flynn's consistency. How can he be so (apparently) sure that Jensen is wrong and still respect him? If Flynn really thinks that Jensen may be right, he shouldn't be so vehement in his denials of Jensens' belief.

> >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.
> The "matter" is simply one of fact: scores have increased.

In the context of my message, the "matter" is whether black people "are genetically inferior" intellectually. That is what Flynn's debate with Jensen has been about and what got Flynn into IQ studies in the first place.

> The real question is why? This is in no-way settled.
> Flynn argues that we cannot be more intelligent (he sees no signs of it)
> and that therefore the tests are to be viewed as rather distant
> indicators of general ability.
> There are a range of other interpretations, most simply, there are two
> main alternatives.
> 1. Average IQ HAS increased. Scholars argue that this could be due to
> either a decrease in the the number of people with nutritional
> deficiencies for instance.

I would like to see more discussion of this possibility; in particular, refutations of the arguments against it. Superficial arguments like "where are all the geniuses" are meaningless. For all we know, the only reason we are able to make continued scientific and technological progress in the face of increasingly difficult problems is because of the greater intelligence we are able to bring to bear. Diminishing returns cancel the Flynn effect in determining the rate of progress.

> 2. The tests have been made less valid as all children now have 7 years
> of head start at macdonalds (it is the macDonalds place-mat type tests
> which have shown the greatest grade inflation. This could easily account
> for the increase in the same way that giving a person the same crossword
> puzzle every day for 7 years might explain their filling it out rather
> rapidly ;-)

This analogy doesn't apply, since the tests are not kept identical. A better analogy would be someone who improves his ability at solving crossword puzzles by working on a great many of them over time. But in that case it might well be valid to consider his intelligence increase as real.

In a way it seems meaningless to argue about whether intelligence has increased. It comes down to a definition of intelligence. If it is a certain kind of problem-solving ability, then the fact that people are better able to solve abstract problems is directly observable in the raw data.

I think the real issue is whether society is benefitting from these improvements. Are we actually making greater technological progress and solving harder problems than we would have been able to without the Flynn effect? This is what Flynn seems to be arguing against when he fails to see a new renaissance.

It comes down to the possibility that the specific cognitive skills where improvements are seen turn out to be unimportant. Flynn has to maintain that abstract problem solving ability (where the Flynn effect is maximized) is not helpful in terms of social contributions and discoveries. It could be that other aspects of intelligence, such as creativity or memorization of facts, are more important in making progress, and these areas show much less in the way of gains.