James R. Flynn is a philosopher and psychologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, as well as Distinguished Associate of the Psychometrics Centre at Cambridge University. His best-known paper, “Massive IQ Gains in 14 Nations,” (Psych. Bulletin, 1987), documented what Herrnstein and Murray later called the “Flynn Effect”: A long term increase in average IQ’s across the developed world. This widely-reaffirmed result contradicted the folk wisdom that a coarsened culture and dysgenic fertility were making the rich nations less intelligent. In his new book, “What is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect,” (Cambridge University Press), he argues that changing social and economic forces can explain both the Flynn Effect and group differences in IQ. To fully understand the Flynn Effect, he contends, we need to understand the “cognitive history” of the 20th century. Perhaps most importantly, he proposes a variety of practical empirical tests so that one can see whether his explanations are correct.
The author of four books and dozens of articles in the fields of moral philosophy and psychology, Professor Flynn has repeatedly spurred psychologists to rethink exactly what it is that intelligence tests measure.
1. In your new book, What is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect, you emphasize that IQ research is so focused on g, the general factor of intelligence, that they’ve been unable to see other important features in the IQ data. In particular, the “g-men,” as you call them, seem to think that if the Flynn Effect is an overall increase in all IQ subtests, or an overall increase in a random subset of IQ subtests, then they can just ignore the Flynn Effect completely. So, what are the g-men missing out on?
Over time, changing social priorities alter the cognitive demands made on our minds. For example, society may want more and more people to put on scientific spectacles so they can understand the world rationally through education. IQ tests like Similarities and Raven’s pick this up as enhanced performance. Yet, thanks to a more visual culture, society may not require us to enlarge our vocabularies – meaning no higher scores on the WISC vocabulary subtest. These trends are of great significance. If you dismiss these trends because they do not tally with the various tests’ g-loadings, you miss all of that. G rather than social significance has become your criterion of what is important.
2. Over the decades, you’ve carried on an extensive correspondence with Arthur Jensen, the controversial and enormously influential intelligence researcher at UC Berkeley. You summarized some of your early thoughts about Jensen’s work in your 1980 book Race, IQ, and Jensen, a book that, in my opinion, sets the standard for how do discuss this controversial topic. What have you learned about Jensen over the years, and what have your interactions with him taught you about the nature of scientific research?
I never suspected Arthur Jensen of racial bias. Over the years, I have found him scrupulous in terms of professional ethics. He has never denied me access to his unpublished data. His work stands as an example of what John Stuart Mill meant when he said that being challenged in a way that is “upsetting” is to be welcomed not discouraged. Before Jensen, the notion that all races were genetically equal for cognitive ability had become a dead “Sunday truth” for which we could give no good reasons. Today we are infinitely more informed about group differences. Equally important, the debates Jensen began are revolutionizing the theory of intelligence and our understanding of how genes and environment interact.
3. In an earlier book, Asian Americans: Achievement Beyond IQ, you contended that Asians appeared to do just as well as Whites on IQ tests-no worse or no better, with the possible exception of some narrow visuospatial abilities. You showed, in fact, that a lot of the apparent high Asian IQ scores were driven by the Flynn Effect. Since then, a number of studies catalogued by Lynn and Vanhanen seem to reinforce the conventional wisdom that Asians are usually doing better than Whites on IQ tests. Are you still convinced that there’s no substantial difference in average IQ between whites and Asians, and if so, what’s wrong with the recent data?
The Chinese Americans I studied were the generation born in 1945-1949. They were no higher than whites even for non-verbal IQ yet out-performed whites by a huge margin in terms of eventual occupational status. That meant that they could give their own children the kind of privileged environment they had never had. The result was a pattern of IQ that put the subsequent generation of Chinese Americans at an IQ of 109 at say age six gradually falling to 103 by the late teens, as parental influence faded away in favor of peers. The extra 3 points the present generation has as adults is due to the fact that they are in cognitively more demanding universities and professions and because they have internalized a positive attitude to cognitively challenging activities and companions.
4. At least at first glance, reading comprehension appears to involve a high degree of abstraction. If, as you argue in your new book, the Flynn Effect is largely driven by an exogenous rise in abstract thinking, then why hasn’t the reading comprehension score increased by very much?
The Comprehension subtest of the WISC does show significant gains, though not nearly as great as Similarities and Raven’s. But it is not a test of reading comprehension but a test of perceiving the “logic” of social arrangements – for example, why streets are numbered in order. The reading tests of the Nation’s Report Card show no gain at age 17 because you are expected to read adult novels. Since young people today have no larger vocabularies and funds of general information than their ancestors did, they cannot read these works with any greater understanding.
5. In What is Intelligence?, you discuss the importance of “Short Hand Abstractions” or “SHAs” as part of an educated person’s mental toolkit. What are they and how do they relate to your intelligence research?
IQ tests have missed a striking cognitive development of the 20th century, namely, that the various sciences and philosophy have enriched our minds by gradually giving educated peopl
e short-hand abstractions (SHAs) that allow us to critically analyze our world. For example, the word “market” no longer stands for a place but for the law of supply and demand and you can use it to see why rent controls are self defeating. The concept of “tautology” can make us more sophisticated about history. If someone says “Christianity has been a force for good”, and explains away all the slaughter Christians have perpetrated by saying that they “were not real Christians”, we can immediately see the flaw. If only good people qualify as Christians, the goodness of Christians has been established by definition! Sadly universities never give their graduates a full tool kit of these wonderful analytic concepts.
6. Recently, some IQ researchers have argued that if the Flynn Effect is g-loaded, then we should see a fall in the factor loadings across subtests over time. Their story is that cross-sectionally, we know that people with high IQ scores have more specificityâ€“that is, they have greater strengths and weaknesses relative to the average person. Do you place much weight on that hypothesis, and do you think it might explain why IQ gains over time are distributed the way they are?
The IQ gains are not g-loaded so the prediction is beside the point. The importance of cognitive trends over time is a matter of their social utility. Whether they happen to be greatest on skills that have the highest g-loading is a distraction.
7. The Dickens-Flynn model (Psych. Review, 2001) attempts to explain the apparent high heritability of IQ by arguing that people with good genes end up endogenously in good environments, which in turn raises their IQs even more. In your new book, you propose a number of ways to test this hypothesis. Do you think that the Dickens-Flynn model is all that’s needed to explain differences in average IQ across ethnic groups, or do you think that other explanations might be needed?
The Dickens-Flynn model does nothing to evidence that IQ gaps between groups are environmental rather than genetic in origin. That evidence must come from specific environmental hypotheses about what handicaps (say) black Americans suffer as they age. What the model shows is that twin studies (which emphasize the effects of genetic differences between individuals) do nothing to prejudice an environmental explanation of group differences.
8. Out of the many research designs you propose in What is Intelligence, which one would you most like to see performed and why?
The one that calls for investigation of urban and rural Brazil. I think the former approximates where Americans are today, and the latter approximates where Americans were in 1900. We could get direct evidence for or against the cognitive history of Americans in the 20th century that my book relates.
9. You’ve long said that you disagree with Richard Lynn’s view that the Flynn Effect is largely driven by better nutrition. One of Lynn’s pieces of evidence is that IQ gains show up at very early ages, which would be surprising if the Flynn Effect were entirely sociological. Why do you think IQ gains show up at such an early age, and about what fraction of IQ gains do you think might be due to nutrition?
Changing ratios of adults to children in the home (smaller families) and changed modes of dealing with infants affect cognitive development from birth. The nutrition hypothesis explains little in America since 1950 – the evidence is in the book.
10. You’ve shaken up the field of intelligence research every time you’ve published a book on the topic. What are you working on for your next project?
My next book is in press. It will be called: The hollow center: race, class, and ideas in America. It will attempt to shake Americans into awareness that they are blind to the state of black America, that their foreign and domestic policies have perverse priorities, that they are class blind, and have lost their way it terms of Jefferson’s humane ideals. It is, however, a hopeful book in the sense that there is much in America’s history that can show us how to find our way.