Q&A with author James R. Flynn
You've often said that our minds are not becoming more intelligent, but rather, more modern. What do you mean by that?
Raven's Progressive Matrices uses images to convey logical relationships; the Wechsler tests consist of 10 subtests, some of which do much the same but others of which measure the traits intelligent people are likely to pick up over their life time, such as the ability to classify objects.
We do so well on these tests because we are new and peculiar. We are the first of our species to live in a world dominated by categories, hypotheticals, non-verbal symbols, and visual images that paint alternative realities.
There has been a transition from using the mind to manipulate the concrete world for advantage toward logical analysis of symbols increasingly abstracted from the appearance of the concrete world and even the literal appearance of the symbols themselves. This is what I call supplementing "utilitarian spectacles with "scientific spectacles"—which does not imply that the average person knows much science.
The great psychologist Alexander Luria did some wonderful interviews with pre-modern people:
There are no camels in Germany; the city of B is in Germany; are there camels there or not?
Reply: I don't know, I have never seen German villages. If B is a large city, there should be camels there.
But what if there aren't any in all of Germany?
Reply: If B is a village, there is probably no room for camels.
Note how the pre-modern mind refuses to abandon the concrete world and refuses to use logic to analyze a hypothetical situation. Today, we automatically classify things rather emphasize their differences, take the hypothetical seriously, and use logic to analyze both the hypothetical and abstract symbols.
What misconceptions about IQ do you disprove in your new book?
First, that IQ tests can measure intelligence over cultural distance. Some believe the low IQs of developing nations show that they do not have the intelligence to industrialize. In 1910, the US and the UK had a mean IQ of 70 and yet, they still industrialized.
Second, that IQ gains tell us nothing except that people do better on IQ tests. Take moral argument. It seems incredible to us that a father would kill his daughter because she had been raped for the sake of "family honor." We would ask, "What if you had been knocked unconscious and sexually assaulted?" But if he sees moral maxims as concrete things, impervious to change, rather than as general principles subject to logic, and sees no point in "speculating" about hypotheticals, he will dismiss your question as totally irrelevant.
Since 1950, gains on Vocabulary and Information subtests, at least for adults, have been large. More words means more concepts conveyed. More information means more connections perceived. Better analysis of hypothetical situations means more innovation. As the modern mind developed, people performed better not only as scientists and technicians but also as chief executives of corporations.
Third, that women average lower IQs than men. The most recent data for five advanced nations show women equaling or slightly surpassing men.
Fourth, that you should use outdated tests to execute capital offenders. Many of these men are not mentally competent. They took obsolete tests at school and since the standards of the time were lower, it looks as if their IQs are nearer to normal than they are.
Will IQ scores ever reach a plateau, or will the "Flynn effect" keep marching on?
Gains seem to have stopped in Scandinavia. Presumably, this is because certain causes have exhausted their potency. They have eliminated poverty, provided modern schooling for all, parents interact with their children from infancy, the ratio of adults to children in the home cannot fall further if they are to replace themselves, even solo-mothers are not isolated, leisure has becomes as filled with cognitively demanding pursuits as anyone would welcome, the economies have as many cognitively-demanding jobs (administrative, professional) as feather-bedding can provide.
One of my surprises was that gains are still robust in the nations for which we have recent data: America, Britain, Germany, and South Korea. I suspect none of them are as socially progressive as the Scandinavians. Gains will certainly keep marching on in the developing world, unless their progress is impeded by civil war, wars over water, or natural disasters.
Whether the gains continue or not, it will be tragic if we do not capitalize on those we have made thus far. Tertiary education turns out graduates with professional or vocational skills. But they do not get the key concepts they need to react critically to the mass of information the modern world uses to confuse them. How many graduates can do elementary economic analysis, recognize good social science, or know that appeals to nature in moral argument (heart transplants are unnatural) are bankrupt?