New scientific BS about IQ

October 22, 2007, 3:56 PM UTC


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When I was a kid there was always a little goober around who bragged about his IQ. “I have a genius-level IQ,” the kid would say, having just returned from a Mensa test designed to stock the world with future members.

The thing is? The kid who had the big, triple-digit IQ was never the smartest one in the class. He was very often boring. And sure, he was usually smart enough, okay, but no smarter than half the kids I knew. As far as I was concerned, he looked the same as anybody else when he was picking his nose.

At that time, in fact, a lot of us were told we were “as smart as Einstein” because we had been tested in school and done fairly well on whatever it was they were doing to us. My mother wouldn’t tell me mine, because the information would supposedly rot my brain and make me an egotistical jerk. So I never learned my IQ. It didn’t work anyhow, as anyone who knows me will tell you only too quickly. 

But whatever my IQ may be, it didn’t stop me from having all kinds of trouble in math and particularly physics, with its men walking backward in trains and people running counter-clockwise on Merry-Go-Rounds. I also do lousy on those Mensa tests you can take in your in-flight magazines. Craps has been explained to me so many times I’m ashamed to ask about it again. And I stink at chess. But my IQ? Fabu.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that from a very early age I have believed that IQ was BS.  I believe it’s basically a test to find out how good you are at being tested. Possibly it may also test how much time your parents may have spent trying to make you a genius.

Now the nail, as far as I’m concerned, has been driven in the smarty-farty establishment by one of its very own experts, James R. Flynn. The article is in the current issue of Scientific American Mind, which I buy while I’m in airports and losing mine. Mr. Flynn is the discoverer of the “Flynn Effect,” which documents massive gains in IQ from one generation to another. This jump in tested intelligence has been demonstrated in research from some 30 nations — everywhere, actually, where IQ results over time have been studied. 

The editor of the magazine observes, “To express it another way, if we put the score of today’s average American at 100, then the Americans of 1900 had a mean IQ of 50 to 70, signaling an obviously implausible plague of mental retardation among our progenitors.” These, you may recall, are the folks to built our cities, split the Atom, invented the car and the airplane. Now Mr. Flynn tells us why

Conversely, the data reveal that young people of today are, like, 30 IQ points higher than their grandparents, and that the trend is continuing. People are getting smarter and smarter and smarter, at least according to the IQ industry.

Now, that would be really encouraging news, if it didn’t seem like the exact opposite is the case. I believe any empirical study of our society would reveal that people are actually getting stupider all the time. I know I am. This situation is ameliorated by the fact that everybody around me is dumber than they used to be as well. It’s not like all the old guys are losing it and the younger X’s, Y’s and Zeros are coming up the ramp, either. For every Chad Hurley or Sergei Brin there’s a couple of K-Fed’s and two or three Miss South Carolinas.

Beyond that, the general level of discourse, particularly among the young, while no stupider than, say, your average conversation on a street in rural France in 1680, is by no means any more elevated. Back then, they said “Zut!” when they bumped into each other. Now they say “Dude!”

There’s a massive amount of complex scientific bushwah attending Flynn’s rationale for the ongoing bump in measured brainpower. You can read it. The question is important to him, because the data seem to contradict a) common sense and b) the value of IQ testing, which would be a disaster for a whole group of lab-coated people who make their livings on it.

After reading as much as I could of the stuff, I think it basically boils down to one thing: kids trained to take tests do well on tests; people prepared for certain kinds of challenges do better than those who are not. For the most part, better babies notwithstanding, we’re all pretty average.

It’s the guys with the high Killer Quotient who do best where I work.