Good and Bad Uses of IQ Testing

James FlynnI’ve long been a fan of sorts of James Flynn. He is a moral philosopher and psychologist who is best known for his work on intelligence. He is responsible for the Flynn Effect, which is this bizarre tendencies for IQ scores to go up over time. In fact, if you compared people from a century ago to people today, they would come out with an average IQ of 70 rather than the 100 of people today. Given that we can read the work of Mark Twain and James Clerk Maxwell, we know they weren’t dullards. So there must be something wrong with the tests; it isn’t that people today are just super brilliant compared to people a century or more ago.

The big problem, from my perspective, is that IQ tests don’t demonstrate what people think they do. They test specific kinds of thinking. And what makes the human brain unbelievably amazing compared to a computer is that brains think in countless different ways. What’s more, Richard Feynman supposedly had an IQ of 125 — higher than average, but not even “gifted,” much less “genius.” Yet Feynman was one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century. You really have to wonder about the utility of a test that doesn’t find someone like Feynman gifted.

But the Flynn Effect is still perplexing. I spent a lot of time several years ago studying it. And I do mean “study”: I was reading actual scientific papers about it, including Flynn’s own. And I never got to the bottom of it. Now that might have been because scientific papers don’t tend to speculate. They make modest claims that they can back up. Thus, I was very excited to see that Flynn had recently given a TED Talk, Why Our IQ Levels Are Higher Than Our Grandparents’. Check it out:

In the talk, Flynn argues that the issue is abstract thought. A hundred years ago, people didn’t need to use abstract thought and so they weren’t good at it. In the talk, he notes that a century ago, about 3% of jobs were “cognitively demanding.” Today, the number is 35%. This is very interesting, because what it shows is that the IQ score is highly dependent upon environmental factors. And this is exactly the opposite of the ways that IQ test have been sold. We’ve been told that they are age independent (they aren’t) and that they test “intelligence” and not “knowledge.” But clearly that is not the case.

This has huge political implications. Both Jason Richwine and Charles Murray push racial differences in IQ tests as a reason to ignore social and economic inequality. But what Flynn is discussing shows that any effect there may be between different races surely moves in the opposite direction: poor children with few opportunities will not get as much practice learning the cognitive skills that are reflected on IQ tests. Last year, without this knowledge, I noted about the two men:

Similarly, we only know of Richwine because of his hopelessly sloppy work purporting to show that comprehensive immigration reform would cost the country a fortune. It turned out that it would actually save the country money. Is it any wonder that people would be skeptical about either man’s work on intelligence? It certainly seems that they both have preferred policies and they are using intelligence testing as a way to justify those policies. And that isn’t the way science is supposed to work.

What I think all this means is that IQ tests could be used for a good purpose. We could use them to determine if our schools are providing a good learning environment that is opening up children’s minds. (It would certainly be better than the current testing regime we have.) But used to make arguments about how some groups are hopeless and others are not is morally dubious and scientifically invalid. Yet neither Richwine nor Murray (who has been a guest on The Colbert Report) are social outcasts. Can anyone really argue that we live in a post-racial society?

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