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What Is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn Effect 1st Edition

4.2 out of 5 stars 24 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0521880077
ISBN-10: 1848162235
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The Flynn Effect refers to data the author studied indicating massive IQ gains in the developed world during the 20th century. Now Flynn speculates on the cause for these apparent gains. His answer centers on the replacement of concrete, experience-based thinking by abstract scientific thinking. Citing many scholarly works, Flynn paints a dynamic picture of what intelligence is and the role of a person's genetic background, physiology and neurology, immediate environment and broader social factors. He notes, for instance, that an individual's small genetic advantage can be multiplied greatly by environmental forces. An important chapter looks at a fatal consequence of IQ inflation: the use of outdated IQ tests and norms could lead to the execution of someone convicted of a capital crime who by today's standards is mentally disabled. Flynn's book is not always an easy read, given abstruse statistical analysis and some awkward writing (There is some evidence that members of Congress are less obtuse today at least in speeches designed for their peers). Despite these flaws, he has produced an impressively multidimensional and often wise look at the elusive topic of human intelligence. (Sept. 21)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.


"Flynn is a cautious and careful writer. Unlike many others in I.Q. debates, he resists grand philosophizing. His books ("What Is Intelligence?") consist of a series of plainly stated statistical observations, in support of deceptively modest conclusions, and the evidence in support of Flynn's original observation is now so overwhelming that the Flynn effect has moved from theory to fact...average I.Q.s shift over time ought to create a "crisis of confidence," Flynn writes in "What Is Intelligence?", the latest attempt to puzzle through the implications of his discovery.The best way to understand why I.Q.s rise, Flynn argues, is to look at one of the most widely used I.Q. tests, the so-called WISC (for Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children)."
--Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker

"It is not just the fascinating effect that makes the book special. It's also Flynn's style. There's an unusual combination of clarity, wit, apposite allusion, and farsightedness in making connections and exploring unexpected consequences. The Flynn effect, in Flynn's hands, makes a good, gripping, puzzling, and not-quite-finished story..."
--Ian Deary, Edinburgh University

"This book is a gold mine of pointers to interesting work, much of which was new to me. All of us who wrestle with the extraordinarily difficult questions about intelligence that Flynn discusses are in his debt.."
--Charles Murray, American Enterprise Institute & co-author of The Bell Curve

"This highly engaging, and very readable, book takes forward the Dickens/Flynn model of intelligence in the form of asking yet more provocative questions. . . A most unusual book, one that holds the reader's attention and leaves behind concepts and ideas that force us to rethink all sorts of issues.."
--Sir Michael Rutter, Kings College London

"Flynn provides the first satisfying explanation of the massive rise in IQ test scores. He avoids both the absurd conclusion that our great grandparents were all mentally retarded and the equally unsatisfactory suggestion that the rise has just been in performance on IQ tests without any wider implications.."
--N. J. Mackintosh, University of Cambridge

"Citing many scholarly works, Flynn paints a dynamic picture of what intelligence is and the role of a person's genetic background, physiology and neurology, immediate environment and broader social factors...he has produced an impressively multidimensional and often wise look at the elusive topic of human intelligence."
--Publisher's Weekly

"Mainstream IQ researchers, who are used to being demonized when they are not being ignored, admire Flynn, who is politically a man of the left, for his fairness, geniality, insight, and devotion to advancing knowledge."
--Steve Sailor, vdare.com

"In What is Intelligence? James R. Flynn...suggests that we should not faciley equate IQ gains with intelligence gains. He says that it's necessary to 'dissect intelligence' into its component parts: 'solving mathematical problems, interpreteing the great works of literature, finding on the spot solutions, assimilating the scientific worldview, critical acumen and wisdom.' When this dissection is carried out, several paradoxes emerge, which Flynn in this engaging book attempts to reconcile."
--Richard Restak, American Scholar

"The 20th century saw the "Flynn Effect" - massive gains in IQ from one generation to another."
--Scientific American Mind

"In a brilliant interweaving of data and argument, Flynn calls into question fundamental assumptions about the nature of intelligence that have driven the field for the past century. There is something here for everyone to lose sleep over. His solution to the perplexing issues revolving around IQ gains over time will give the IQ Ayatollahs fits!."
--S. J. Ceci, Cornell University

"What Is Intelligence? is one of the best books I have read on intelligence-ever...This is a brilliant book because, first, it helps resolve paradoxes that, in the past, seemed not to lend themselves to any sensible solutions...one of the best things about the book is Flynn's sense of humility...this is a masterful book that will influence thinking about intelligence for many years to come. It is one of those few books for which one can truly say that it is must reading for anyone."
--Robert J. Sternberg, PsycCRITIQUES

"...In this thoughtful, well-written book, Flynn offers an account of why the so-called Flynn effect occurs and what it means (and does not mean)....This is the clearest, most engaging work on intelligence....All will learn from the author's nuanced arguments. Some may quibble with Flynn's observations, but their work is cut for them: one cannot fault his clarity or ingenuity. Essential.
--D.S. Dunn, Moravian College, CHOICE

"...James Flynn is best known for having discovered a stubborn fact...he established that in every country where consistent IQ tests have been given to large numbers of people over time, scores have been rising as far back as the records go, in some cases to the early 20th century. What Is Intelligence? is Flynn's attempt to explain this phenomenon, now known as the Flynn effect... an important take on what we have made of ourselves over the past few centuries and might yet make of ourselves in the future."
--Cosma Shalizi, Assistant Professor in the Statistics Department at Carnegie Mellon University and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute, American Scientist

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 274 pages
  • Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (August 27, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1848162235
  • ISBN-13: 978-0521880077
  • ASIN: 0521880076
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.6 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,062,778 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I have read about this subject a lot and came across the "Flynn Effect" several times. This is the phenomenon that the general population IQ has steadily increased by about 3 IQ pts per decade. Detractors of IQ such as Stephen Murdoch IQ: A Smart History of a Failed Idea argue that the Flynn Effect proves IQ measurements are meaningless. IQ proponents such as Charles Murray Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (A Free Press Paperbacks Book) and Arthur Jensen The g Factor: The Science of Mental Ability (Human Evolution, Behavior, and intelligence) vest little importance to the Flynn Effect. Yet, they have not managed to explain it away. I thought I'd study this strange phenomenon from the horse's mouth.

I was stunned. This book is brilliant. Flynn goes much beyond his predecessors in explaining what intelligence is and how it does change over time. The first thing Flynn did is disaggregate the IQ trends into their subcomponents. He observed that the improvement over time were very different depending on the domain. On arithmetic and vocabulary questions, IQs remained virtually flat for decades; Meanwhile, on `similarities' and `picture riddles' IQs went through the roof.

What's going on here? Flynn explains that our social context of everyday life has become more complex and scientific minded that have lead the population to think critically.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I find this book hard to characterize. If you are an IQ maven, it is an essential read. On the other hand, much of the book deals with issues the author obviously feels strongly about, but issues that do not cast much light on the nature of IQ. The Flynn effect is the secular increase in IQ scores in developed countries over the past 50 years and possibly longer. It is well documented but not well understood. Flynn offers an explanation for the effect that I do not find particularly convincing. He maintains that over the past 50-100 years we have been increasingly viewing the world through "scientific spectacles" and this changing perspective explains why the gains in IQ are confined to certain subtests. (The subtests that show the most improvement involve the ability to discover rules that apply to patterns that the subject has never encountered before. Subtests devoted to vocabulary and arithmetic skills show virtually no change.) I have been associated with science education for over twenty years and have seen no data that support Flynn's optimism with regard to growing understanding of the scientific approach to problems.

The case can be made that over the past century we have encountered an increasingly complex visual world with the advent of new technologies (movies, TV, computer-based games) and these complexities have required the development of "higher-order" pattern discovery. (I am troubled by the uniformity in the rate of increases in IQ score, because it seems implausible that the visual environment has been growing more complex at a constant rate.) What the data seem to show is we are experiencing a secular increase in our ability to formulate rules that apply to both visual and verbal patterns.
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Format: Hardcover
This book may not be the final word on the Flynn Effect, but it makes enough progress in that direction that it is no longer reasonable to describe the Flynn Effect as a mystery. I'm surprised at how much Flynn has changed since the last essay of his I've read (a somewhat underwhelming chapter in The Rising Curve (edited by Ulric Neisser)).
Flynn presents evidence of very divergent trends in subsets of IQ tests, and describes a good hypothesis about how that divergence might be explained by increasing cultural pressure for abstract, scientific thought that could create increasing effort to develop certain kinds of cognitive skills that were less important in prior societies.
This helps explain the puzzle of why the Flynn Effect doesn't imply that 19th century society consisted primarily of retarded people - there has been relatively little change in how people handle concrete problems that constituted the main challenges to average people then. He presents an interesting example of how to observe cognitive differences between modern U.S. society and societies that are very isolated, showing big differences in how they handle some abstract questions.
He also explains why we see very different results for IQ differences over time from what we see when using tests such as twin studies to observe the IQ effects of changes in environment on IQ: the twin studies test unimportant things such as different parenting styles, but don't test major cultural changes that distinguish the 19th century from today.
None of this suggests that the concept of g is unimportant or refers to something unreal, but a strong focus on g has helped blind some people to the ideas that are needed to understand the Flynn Effect.
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