Sunday, October 28, 2012

‘The Flynn Effect’: Are We All Becoming Über-Geniuses?

University College London; Nature

The phenomenon of incrementally increasing IQ first circulated in 1984, following a study in that year by James R. Flynn, purporting to show that citizens in advanced nations like the U.S. have experienced massive IQ gains over  time. (The term itself was coined by Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, authors of The Bell Curve ).

Specifically and quantitatively, Americans – for example – have gained 3 IQ points per decade from the early 1900s to today, as reflected in both the Stanford –Binet and Wechsler Intelligence scales. By another test’s standards (the Raven’s Progressive Matrices) – for which scores go back to people born in 1872- the gains disclosed amount to 5 IQ points per decade.

Using the Raven’s and scored against today’s norms (a key point to which I will return) our ancestors in 1910 would have an average IQ of 70, or about moron level. By comparison, our mean IQ today – that is, disclosed within the ‘hump’ portion of a Gaussian distribution – would range from 130 to 150 depending on the test. Now, for reference, 130 basically gets you into Mensa (accepting the top 2% of IQs) and 150 marks you as a “genius”. Are we all geniuses on our way to becoming Über-Geniuses?
I don’t think so, for a number of reasons.

First and most importantly, the ranks of neither Mensa or Intertel have increased markedly. Select a random sample of the populace, say 10,000 – and dispatch them to sit the Mensa and Intertel IQ tests and only 2% and 1%, respectively, will get through, as has been the case for decades. Ditto for the ever receding proportions in the Über IQ societies such as 'The Poetic Genius Society’. (If you believe seriously that you measure up to the standards of the latter, google 'Mega Test' and try to take it to qualify!)

This means, again, that under current norms of IQ testing, geniuses will still be geniuses, Mensa high IQ types will remain in the upper 2%, morons will remain morons, and average (IQ = 100) types will remain stuck in the middle of the Gaussian ‘hump’. Hence, under the ‘Flynn Effect’, one can only regard oneself as some kind of daunting high IQ type relative to the (IQ-testing) norms of one’s ancestors, say your Great Grandpa or Great Grandma – alive in 1910.

Second, we know IQ changes or can change over time. Indeed, a teen’s IQ can rise or fall as much as 20 points in just a few years. This can be traced to environmental conditions, internal brain changes or both. If true, it means IQ is not a stable quantity or entity but can fluctuate. If it can do so (and some studies disclose it can in adults as well!) it means ‘Flynn Effect’ type conclusions come with lots of provisos and qualifications. These variations also imply the standard deviations (and standard errors) will be significant, so the question then is whether these will be large enough to wipe out any abiding significance.

There is some truth also in the claim (‘Are We Getting Smarter?’, WSJ, Sept. 23-24, p. C3)that the Flynn Effect shows that education in the modern world “has changed the human mind itself”. The very act of Googling, for example, enables a rapid assimilation of information, knowledge unthinkable ca. 1910 or even 1960. The use of computer number crunching, solving software – like my Mathcad 14 program – would have appeared like ‘magic’ to my 1962-63 high school self, still working with a Mannheim slide rule. Indeed, the first time symbolically solving an integral using Mathcad – say in front of a math prof from Loyola in 1964, might have enticed him to speculate about “demonic influence”!

Then there is the wide array of You tube physics experiments, chemistry experiments etc. that can be instantly downloaded, not to mention the raft of high level abstract courses (see examples highlighted in my previous blog, from MIT and Yale).  These comprehensive visual learning vehicles would confer an immediate advantage over any guy from 1910 stuck with ordinary text books and hardly any dynamic interplay or control over learning rate.  This advantage would also be reflected in abstract tests, say like the Raven's or Stanford-Binet.

Add to that the spate of video –computer simulated games. For example, older adults have actually managed to enhance their fluid intelligence (how well a person tackles new problems or tasks, as opposed to factual knowledge).after playing the video game ‘Rise of Nations’ (cf. Scientific American Mind, ‘Building Better Brains’, p. 61).

Back in the early 20th century, however, my great grandpa wasn’t worried about such things nor did they matter. Life then pivoted not so much on 'book learnin' but on the practical issues of how to make enough profit for a given crop acreage – and given enough livestock – to last through the winter and into the next year.

Somehow, I doubt the average genius today or computer game wunderkind – if suddenly transported back to 1910 and a fifty acre farm in rural Arkansas with 1,000 hogs and 500 cows, along with assorted crops, would know how to translate those assets into livable profit to last a year or more. It would be one time-travel experiment I'd really be curious to perform.

But imagining ourselves as rapidly becoming Über-Geniuses is the sort of mistake we make, in assessing something as subtle as intelligence, especially when we try to compare chalk and cheese.

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