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Greg Boyed Interviews Professor Jim Flynn

Sunday 16 September, 2012

Greg Boyed Interviews Professor Jim Flynn

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Who is the cleverest of them all? I’m sure it comes as no surprise to know it’s women. In his new book Are We Getting Smarter? Professor Jim Flynn from Otago University has revealed for the first time women in some developed countries are outperforming men in intelligence tests. Previous evidence showed men with IQs a couple of points higher. So what’s changed? Why does a higher IQ mean a longer life? And what impact does it have on current events? To answer all that and more, a very good morning to Professor Flynn. First of all, our IQs are rising faster than any time in history. Why?

Well, they’re not rising any faster than any time in history. They’ve been rising quite consistently over about the last 150 years, and they’ve maintained the same rate. But the thing that’s happened over the last 50 years is that women have fully entered modernity, and that means that they’ve finally had equal opportunities with men for education and jobs. And in all the countries where we have good data, on a very excellent intelligence test, Raven’s, they now either equal men or are slightly ahead of them. But, you know, we’re missing the point when we focus too much on IQ. The other thing that psychologists talk about is executive functions, and that’s the ability to use your mind and not be distracted by temptation or immediate emotion. And that’s where the women are beating the men. If you take a 17-year-old boy in school and you take a 17-year-old girl in school of the same IQ, in America at least, only the upper third of boys would match the upper half of women on reading, and only the upper quarter of boys would match the upper half of women on written composition. And that’s why the girls are getting better marks and flooding universities and flooding professions like law and journalism. So the real news is that women, when exposed to modernity, do equal men for IQ. But in the formal educational setting where they apply their intelligence, they’re outperforming men all hollow.

GREG So given that, is there any reason to think at all that that gap isn’t just going to keep widening over the next, say, 50, 100 years?

JIM I don’t think it will keep widening because I think women are fairly fully exposed to modernity in many countries. Now, there are exceptions that prove the rule. For example, in Israel, about 20% of women are highly orthodox and cloistered from the modern world, and their IQs are about 10 points below men. So that’s, of course, an exception. And throughout the developing world, you have a situation that has to be remedied. One of the most interesting things is the South African data where white women equal men, but whereas in the coloured and the Asian and the black communities, the women still lag. And they’re areas where women, of course, have not achieved full entry into the modern world.

GREG So on the nature/nurture side of things, this is clearly about nurture being the winner in these numbers.

JIM Very clearly. At one time, it was suggested that women had some genetic deficiency, a mild one, that prevented them from matching men for mental ability, and that’s now been disproved.

GREG So, how do we grow our IQ, then, given that it is possible? We’re not talking evolution here. Let’s just make clear with that. We’re not talking thousands of years. It’s a very short amount of time. Evolution doesn’t come into it. How do we grow our IQ?

JIM We wouldn’t be interested in anything so trivial as growing our IQ. The time is doing that for us. What we should be interested in- I have a second book out called How to Improve Your Mind, and it says there are a lot of smart and well-educated people out there. The real trick is to teach them how to use their intelligence. Now, let me give you an example. Most people graduate from universities with a narrow education. They’re taught nothing of fundamental economic analysis, nothing about what good social science looks like, nothing about flawed moral argument. Now, my book attempts to give them a full tool kit of elementary concepts that they can use to examine what they’re told. And I’ll give you an illustration. Look at David Shearer’s comment on education. He says that he’s got to keep this standards business because it’s a measure. Well, every New Zealander who is properly educated should have been sitting there thinking, ‘Hasn’t he heard of a random sample?’ If you want to measure something, you take a random sample of 1000 or 10,000. You don’t put everyone through the hoop. If it’s not good for kids educationally, and you want a measure, you take a sample. But I doubt very many listeners were doing that. And that’s how our education is failing our students. Every one of them should have been able to make that response.

GREG This is a point in your book, actually. You make that example that if you’re going to have a sample and it’s truly random - it doesn’t have to be 10 billion people; it can be a small sample - as long as it’s truly random, that’s a good sample. The move away from concrete thinking, as well. Just broadening our thinking, looking at the wheres and whys behind what we’re being told. That’s a big part of what you’re talking about as well, isn’t it?

JIM Yes. Compared to our ancestors 100 or 150 years ago, we don’t just use logic on concrete problems. We don’t just say, ‘I want a good dog for hunting. Beagles are good for hunting, therefore I’ll buy a beagle.’ That’s logic applied to a concrete problem. We can apply logic to very abstract things that are symbols that don’t even represent concrete objects. And we can see relationships where the symbols actually shift. And this is part of tertiary education. It means that we have a much larger percentage of people who have the mindset that you can teach them maths and physics and analysis and what have you. Of course, it’s a matter of reciprocal causation - that is more education means that more people are freed to use logic on the abstract, and the more people like that there are, the more people who can make a go of it in tertiary education. But, once again, just churning out graduates that are narrowly focused means that you’re not capitalising on this ability. And it would be so easy to give them some grasp of elementary economic analysis. For example, very few New Zealanders could say why rent controls are almost always a bad idea. And that is, of course, they’re meaningless unless the rents fall below market value. And if they fall below market value, no one will invest in rental housing, and you’ll have a rental-housing shortage. And it’s that inability to capitalise on what’s happened to the modern mind that I think is the real scandal.

GREG All right, Professor Flynn, we will have to leave it there. Thank you so much for your time.

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