James Flynn studied mathematics and physics at the University of Chicago, before switching to political philosophy. Currently, he is a professor of political studies at the University of Otago in New Zealand. His name has been lent to the “Flynn effect” — his discovery that IQ scores have risen significantly from one generation to another over the past century. He is 78.
IT: What does IQ measure?
JF: That depends what it is used for. Sometimes, an IQ test is a force for good. You have a kid at school who is doing badly and you think he seems brighter than that. You give him an IQ test and he knocks the socks out of it. So it can be used to help diagnose an individual’s educational problems. Some universities use IQ tests as part of an entrance exam.
The second thing they are often used for is to measure the difference between groups. However, this works only if their quality of environment is roughly comparable.
IT: Your book Are We Getting Smarter? talks about the recent IQ gains made by women.
JF: Women today match men, but only in advanced countries, where women get an equal shake. One of the most interesting things is that at university women do have IQs about two points lower than men, maybe three, and a lot of scholars say: “Ah-ha, that means women aren’t as bright,” but why do you think that might be?
IT: Is it to do with the type of people who pursue going to university?
JF: Well, it has to do with the fact that, if you take a girl of 17 from secondary school with an IQ of 100, she will get better grades than the typical boy. So that means that the girl with the IQ of 100 may well get to university and the boy will not. So the male sample is more elite; it has a higher threshold. This reveals one of the disturbing things about British education: If you look at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development [OECD] statistics, at the end of secondary school, only the top third of boys matches the top half of girls for reading. In America, only the top quarter of boys matches the top half of girls for written composition. This is why so many women are beginning to dominate journalism and law.
IT: If I took an early IQ test, would I find it baffling the way the problems are set?
JF: No, you would knock the socks out of it because people who designed the early IQ test were ahead of their time. They were highly professional people who had been schooled in the scientific ethos, and they weren’t typical of their day. Let’s take a question that you would get and an intelligent person of 1900 might not: If you were asked: “What do dogs and rabbits have in common?” What would you say?
IT: They are both mammals.
JF: Correct. A kid in 1900 would say: “You use dogs to hunt rabbits.” He would get the question wrong because, before people had lots of formal schooling, they had a utilitarian mentality, and they were fixated on the concrete world and using it to advantage. You have been raised in a scientific world where you think classifying things is an obvious prerequisite for understanding them. To you, a dog and a rabbit are just mammals; you are not interested in whether it is a beagle and good for hunting rabbits. So IQ gains over time are totally fascinating if you know how to interpret them and do not just run around saying: “Are we getting more intelligent?”