Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Are We Getting Smarter?

James Flynn writes in the Wall Street Journal about the steady rise in IQ over the last century and what's responsible for it. It's a fascinating article. Here's part of it:
IQ tests aren't perfect, but they can be useful. If a boy doing badly in class does really well on one, it is worth investigating whether he is being bullied at school or having problems at home. The tests also roughly predict who will succeed at college, though factors like motivation and self-control are at least as important.

Advanced nations like the U.S. have experienced massive IQ gains over time (a phenomenon that I first noted in a 1984 study and is now known as the "Flynn Effect").

In 1910, scored against today's norms, our ancestors would have had an average IQ of 70 (or 50 if we tested with Raven's). By comparison, our mean IQ today is 130 to 150, depending on the test. Are we geniuses or were they just dense?

These alternatives sparked a wave of skepticism about IQ. How could we claim that the tests were valid when they implied such nonsense? Our ancestors weren't dumb compared with us, of course. They had the same practical intelligence and ability to deal with the everyday world that we do. Where we differ from them is more fundamental: Rising IQ scores show how the modern world, particularly education, has changed the human mind itself and set us apart from our ancestors. They lived in a much simpler world, and most had no formal schooling beyond the sixth grade.

A century ago, people mostly used their minds to manipulate the concrete world for advantage. They wore what I call "utilitarian spectacles." Our minds now tend toward logical analysis of abstract symbols—what I call "scientific spectacles." Today we tend to classify things rather than to be obsessed with their differences. We take the hypothetical seriously and easily discern symbolic relationships.
Flynn offers several examples of the difference in the way people tended to think a century ago compared to how they think now:
The mind-set of the past can be seen in interviews between the great psychologist Alexander Luria and residents of rural Russia during the 1920s—people who, like ourselves in 1910, had little formal education.

Luria: What do a fish and crow have in common?
Reply: A fish it lives in water, a crow flies.
Luria: Could you use one word for them both?
Reply: If you called them "animals" that wouldn't be right. A fish isn't an animal, and a crow isn't either. A person can eat a fish but not a crow.
The prescientific person is fixated on differences between things that give them different uses. My father was born in 1885. If you asked him what dogs and rabbits had in common, he would have said, "You use dogs to hunt rabbits." Today a schoolboy would say, "They are both mammals." The latter is the right answer on an IQ test. Today we find it quite natural to classify the world as a prerequisite to understanding it.
Flynn offers more discussion in the article of the difference between our contemporaries and our forebears. Flynn maintains that our brains have evolved to make us smarter, but I think this is unlikely. Evolution doesn't occur with such rapidity. I think it's more probable that our world is so much different from the world of 1910 that our brains utilize abilities that have been latent in the brains of human beings for millenia but which few people before the present era would ever have had need to utilize. Anyway, the rest of the article is worth reading.

In the Absence of God

A friend writes to say:
Thanks for telling me about your book, In the Absence of God. I bought it last Tuesday for my Kindle and finished it in two evenings, although the last evening lasted until 3:05 a.m.. I could not put it down. Thought provoking, good story lines and characters, entertaining reading, and very educational. Absolutely loved the book and have been talking about it to my kids, family and friends.

Good job, my friend.
Reading In the Absence of God in two nights is impressive as the book is close to 500 pages. You can get your copy, and one for a friend, at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or at my favorite bookstore, Hearts and Minds.