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November 24, 2007

Flynn on "The Flynn Effect"

To continue on the discussion of genetics and intelligence a bit, one of the more important trends in IQ studies is the so-called "Flynn effect," which describes the rise in IQ numbers over the past century. This would, to some, seem like definitive proof that something's very wrong with the way we test IQ -- if the scores are changing, that wrecks the metric's claim to be an objective measure of natural capacity. Not so, say hereditists, you can look at studies of twins where they end up with similar IQs. Well James Flynn himself just wrote a book called "What Is Intelligence," in which he argues:

Flynn’s most intriguing and controversial claim concerns the preponderant influence of the environment over genetic inheritance in determining intelligence. The direct effect of genes on IQ accounts for only 36 percent of IQ variance, Flynn tells us, with 64 percent resulting from the indirect effect of genes plus environmental differences uncorrelated with genes. Yet this cheeky claim would seem to be contradicted by the fact that identical twins separated at birth and raised apart end up with very similar IQs, presumably because of their identical genes. Not so, says Flynn, who buttresses his argument by drawing on an analogy from basketball.

If on the basis of their genetic inheritance, separated-twin pairs are tall, quick, and athletically inclined, both members are likely to be interested in basketball, practice assiduously, play better, and eventually attract the attention of basketball coaches capable of transforming them into world-class competitors. Other twin pairs, in contrast, endowed with shared genes that predispose them to be shorter and stodgier than average will display little aptitude or enthusiasm for playing basketball and will end up as spectators rather than as players. [...]
According to Flynn, the environment will always be the principal determinant of whether or not a particular genetic predisposition gets to be fully expressed. “There is a strong tendency for a genetic advantage or disadvantage to get more and more matched to a corresponding environment,” he writes.

Obviously, the implications of that are rather serious, and they suggest, again, that it's essentially impossible to tell what is and is not genetic. The interaction of genes and proclivities with environment is simply too complex.

Also interesting is Flynn's case study of Chinese-Americans:

Chinese-American entrants to Berkeley in 1966 had an IQ threshold seven points below their Caucasian classmates. This held true whether the students were born in the United States or in China. Yet by 1980 55 percent of the Chinese members of the 1966 class occupied managerial, professional, or technical occupations compared to only 34 percent of their Caucasian classmates. Flynn attributes this unexpected result (in terms of their lower IQ scores) to a parentally instilled passion for intellectual achievement. He noted that “Chinese Americans are an ethnic group for whom high achievement preceded high IQ rather than the reverse.”

Not surprisingly Chinese Americans in the highly successful class of 1966 provided their own children with an even more enriched cognitive environment than they themselves had enjoyed. Their children, as a result, by age six had a mean IQ nine points above Caucasian students. But as the children matured further, a surprising finding emerged. By age 10 the IQ differential had fallen four points. By age 18 IQ had declined further to only a three-point advantage. The reason for this IQ drop? According to Flynn, “Much of their advantage was lost when school began to dilute parental influence.”

Those are significant swings that a) aren't related to race and genetics and b) suggest that the influence of IQ on overall achievement may not, in fact, be as large as some argue. That's not to say that cognitive capacity has no influence at all, but it's probably significantly less determinative than some wish to believe. Now, why so many wish to believe that achievement is the result of immutable genetic proclivities is a more troubling question...

November 24, 2007 in Science | Permalink


My question is why such a well written post on your part has to end with a knee-jerk reflexive and invalid accusation of racism? Successfully arguing that IQ is a meaningless metric is not the same at all as arguing that "achievement" cannot be related to genetic proclivities.

We'll tell every girl that she can be a prima ballerina.
We'll tell every student that he or she can be the next Einstein.

Posted by: jerry | Nov 24, 2007 2:09:45 AM

"we'll tell every girl that she can be a prima ballerina."

what iq test would you use to determine the gifts of a prima ballerina?
what relevance would an iq test have to her specific abilities, if her intelligence and reasoning were judged on a test for linguistic and mathematical abilities?
her remarkable abilities would not be quantifiable on an iq test, and if no-one gave her training, encouragement to practice and a pair of ballet slippers, she wouldnt be a ballerina at all.
achievement is a combination of many factors, and the proclivity to do something well is not necessarily a guarantor of success or accomplishment.
what is creativity and artistic expression, if not a form of intelligence and sentience?
where would that be measured on a standardized test?
compartmentalized tests tell us little about the breadth of intelligence and gifts of a person, and in that sense, i think they are a meaningless metric.

Posted by: jacqueline | Nov 24, 2007 2:49:12 AM


that's not the problem with his question. the problem with his question is that it seeks to link race (the racist part jerry) to something that is not per se race driven.

his analogy is more aptly written as follows

We'll tell every black girl that she can not be a prima ballerina.
We'll tell every mexican student that he or she can not be the next Einstein.

these are the real context of the debate. one must ask in what version of reality does jerry and others exist in which all blacks and all mexicans are being told they can all be ballerinas and einsteins rather t han being told what they can not do? once you break it down as the way the world really works- namely being told what we can not do- it's clear how racist this discussion is.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 24, 2007 2:59:15 AM

ps my point is that these are conclusions after the facts- why not ask why white students are less intelligent than asian students in America? after all we know asian students are more intelligent than jerry because of their scores. so it follows that asians should be the wealthiest and most powerful class in america right now.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 24, 2007 3:02:11 AM

I was addressing Ezra's apparent belief that achievement is [NOT] the result of immutable genetic proclivities is a more trouble question..

Clearly Ezra is suggesting that if we encourage our children to be ballerinas, basketball players, and rocket scientists, they can become so and their genetics are apparently irrelevant and we are racist to look for that connection.

That I am not an playwright, astronaut, surgeon, or telenovela heroine I can now blame on my parents for not providing me the self-esteem, encouragement, and discipline I needed and it has nothing to do with my immutable genetics, their's, or my grandparent's.

This leaves me very angry with my parents. /Shakes fist.

Posted by: jerry | Nov 24, 2007 3:04:13 AM

no he's pointing out that the complex between biology and environment is not simple. that's not the same as saying that all our children can be prima ballerinas or einsteins, but it is an argument against saying all black children are x or all mexican children.

for a guy who thinks he is so damn smart jerry you come across as lacking critical reasoning skills.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 24, 2007 3:09:32 AM

Thank Akaison for projecting your own racial issues onto me. My issue with Ezra is as I stated, after successfully, once again, demonstrating that IQ tests are pretty meaningless, he goes further and states that achievement itself is not related to genetics.

Achievement has little to do with IQ tests.
Genetics has little to do with race.
Isn't that exactly what you have been insisting?

Knocking out IQ says nothing about Achievement unless you think that IQ IS related to Achievement. Knocking out race says nothing about Genetics unless you think there is some strong form of genetics in which everything you inherit comes only from some racial component and not just from your family.

Ezra goes way too far in his conclusion, and he did so just so he could get his needless piece of snark in, which is his real claim that anyone that even wants to discuss any sort of relation between IQ and race is a racist, unless they enter with the predetermined conclusion that there is no connection.

I would appreciate it Akaison if you would deal with what I write, and not what you need me to write to fit your prejudices.

Posted by: jerry | Nov 24, 2007 3:13:39 AM

And to make it clear, I don't believe IQ is a meaningful metric for intelligence, and I don't think race as is commonly understood has much if anything to do with intelligence or achievement, but I take exception to Ezra's need to shutdown speech (and scientific inquiry is definitely free speech) by demanding that people start out with his conclusions or else be labeled as racists.

As liberals we depend on the ability to have open discussions about any issue and to be able to ask any question without being called names even before we arrive at any conclusions.

Calling people racists because they ask questions is completely reprehensible behavior for a liberal and it offends me that we so easily cede the first amendment to the right wing.

And more than that, it is invalid science. Let's be the party of science and not the party of political correctness.

Posted by: jerry | Nov 24, 2007 3:27:08 AM

"Obviously, the implications of that are rather serious, and they suggest, again, that it's essentially impossible to tell what is and is not genetic. The interaction of genes and proclivities with environment is simply too complex."

We don't have a good theoretical model of what is, and is not genetic, about "intelligence". And, for some reason, we don't seem capable of reasoning from the evidence at hand, either by defining "intelligence" more closely, or by observing how genetics affect what might somewhat analogous composite characteristics, such as height, "athletic ability", or physical attractiveness (i.e. beauty).

Nothing is more revealing of the determined racialist agenda of a Charles Murray than the tendentious way the definition of "intelligence" is handled.

I would think it rather obvious that "intelligence" refers to an undefined number of abilities, or to a composite of them.

We don't know enough about what these abilities are, to analyze closely what their genetic basis is. I have no doubt that science will gradually identify more and more of these abilities, some of them verbal, some numerical, some of them related to other aspects of learning: analytical modeling, mechanical analysis, thematic and metaphorical analysis, language, musicality and rhythym, empathy, etc. But, right now, we don't have even the bare outlines of that kind of analysis of intelligence.

When, at some far future date, we have a genetic analysis of intelligence into its component forms, will we have some monotonic 'g' to justify the social hierarchy? Not likely. Will there be definite associations of some intellectual abilities or propensities and "race"? Yes, almost certainly. But, they are not going to be explanations of "averages".

Like any characteristic, which is a composite of many genetically determined abilities, enhanced or handicapped by environment and experience and chance, average will not mean much, because there will not be any central tendency held in common by all the members of any racial group.

In the end, it will not be hierarchy, but the social division of labor, which will be reinforced by the recognition of diverse abilities.

Genetics being what it is, inevitably, some enhancements exemplified in one individual will be linked to a gene, which, in another individual produces a handicap. And, the peculiar constellations of genes and abilities and nurturing/stressful experience, which contribute to producing a genius in a particular field or game, will astonish. But, none of it will repeal the 14th Amendment.

Posted by: Bruce Wilder | Nov 24, 2007 3:31:01 AM

Wow, you really do lack critical thinking and/or reading comprehenson skills. What Ezra wrote is "Obviously, the implications of that are rather serious, and they suggest, again, that it's essentially impossible ti tell what is and is not genetic. The interaction of genes and proclivities with environment is simply too complex.'" In other words, it's complicated. We can't reduce it as simply to genetics or even easily know what is or is not genetics. A fairly nuianced, rather than over the top statement. Indeed, you are the one who talks in absolutes here, not anyone else. In response to him writing it's complicated Jerry you wrote absolute statements. He didn't say any of the shit you are writing. Indeed, the discussion is in the context of race, not because I am making it about race, but that's the point of this diary, the last diary and the people that he is discussing. You know what, never mind. I don't think you have the capacity to get it since you so misrepresented what has actually been written thus far as to border on incomprehensible how you reached the conclusions you reach.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 24, 2007 3:35:59 AM

ps, and as I said above, the more accurate statement- and as reflected correctly above is what does your list of absolutes do if we put them in the reverse. Do we wall a society that says all black girls can not be Eistensien even if we took your silly constructed strawman to its logical conclusion? The answer is no- why> well as bruce mentions see the 14th Amenment, but more importantly- because they really might be the next Eistein and there is no way to k now .

Posted by: akaison | Nov 24, 2007 3:41:33 AM

Yeah, no shit akaison, that's why I've wrote in the very first sentence that it was a well written post except for the conclusion that went way too far.

Take away all but his last sentence, and I agree with every word of his post.

His last sentence though is complete bullshit.

I won't attack you as you've attacked me by saying that you're a racist, or that you lack the reading comprehension to understand even the very first sentence I wrote, or state that you don't have the capacity to get it.

Posted by: jerry | Nov 24, 2007 3:49:30 AM

Oh tell it to someone else. Your more "apt" statements is purely a racist attack on me, and not only did I not attribute any of the racial garbage you needed to toss in, but your apt statements don't even follow logically or scientifically from what I said.

If you actually want to discuss this, try not to poison the well.

Posted by: jerry | Nov 24, 2007 3:55:35 AM

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Posted by: wow gold | Nov 24, 2007 6:15:01 AM

There is no biological, let alone genetic, definition of a black person, a hispanic or an Asian or caucasian.

These are social, geographic and political categories based primarily on physical characteristics--which, notably, do not include intelligence.

On that basis alone, any claim of a connection between race and intelligence is racist.

And just because proponents of such a connection couch their conjectures in the language of science doesn't make them valid. Bad science is no better than bad political motives.

Bad science gave us the notions of ``caucasian'' and "negro" races, without which, racism as we know it could not exist.

In addition to a better definition of intelligence, we need a more precise definition of racism.

And can someone please explain to me what is "scientific" about blurring the distinction between someone's race and their genetic makeup. Genetic variation with "races" as we know them, is as wide as that among "races."

Posted by: bunkerbuster | Nov 24, 2007 7:47:23 AM

jerry i dont talk to people will emotional issues on here anymore, good luck.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 24, 2007 9:10:20 AM

In another example, I stumbled across this yesterday, from a book published in 1972:
Defeat also made for dullness. It appears settled, for example,
that the IQ of the Irish in Ireland is a full standard deviation
hind that of the English in Ireland. The implications of such a gap
for the number of genuinely clever persons that will appear in one
group as against the other are greater than might be supposed.
Perhaps it is merely that defeat made for flight, and that the bright
ones left. No one seems to know, but what remains is . . . well,
what remains. A decent quiet country.

The Irish now somewhat outscore the English on IQ tests. And I'm not sure whether to be more amused at the "settled" in that quote, or at the Ellipsis of Quiet Tact.

Posted by: kali | Nov 24, 2007 9:46:44 AM

What is tiresome and discouraging is that this pseudoscientific crap seems to be impossible to kill off once and for all. We need to drive a stake through its metaphorical heart. The premise behind these kinds of inquiries, that we can make sweeping generalizations about intellect based on racial indentity, is inherently flawed, as well as offensive, for reasons pointed out by bunkerbuster among others.

I am not surprised that Will Saletan, master of the "abortion is icky" ambivialence would also jump on this bandwagon as a show of his intellectual fearlessness. In reality, he is a mediocre mind with a heart and head of mush, another reason I long ago ceased reading Slate. It is interesting how his contrarianism (as well as that of Kaus and Sullivan) is virtually always aimed at targets of the right. We should just write these clowns out of respectable company and leave them to the oblivion they so richly deserve.

Posted by: Klein's Tiny Left Nut | Nov 24, 2007 10:50:03 AM

why not ask why white students are less intelligent than asian students in America?

The dodge seems to be that for the particular case of Whites vs. Asians, it is suddenly decided that IQ isn't all-important for success, and that other attributes of "white people" are considered more "valuable," like charisma and "leadership."

In these discussions and, in fact, the discussion of intelligence/IQ over the entire 20th century, seems to be one of trying to explain why IQ is all-important because it explains/justifies why the mainstream culture (whether whites vs. blacks or english vs. irish) is on top or that it is not that important to justify the exact same group coming out on top (whites vs. Jews when it came to college admissions, and why Bush should be elected president).

We'll tell every student that he or she can be the next Einstein.

First and foremost: the most insightful thing I heard from a physics professor about why there's no physicist we view on Einstein's caliber nowadays was that now there are so many brilliant physicists out there that we can't anoint one of them as "today's Einstein." Next, how do you know that a student couldn't be the next Einstein? I don't think that no brilliant physicists come out of isolated west texas towns that no one ever leaves because west Texans are stupid. I think it happens because the absolutely brilliant people did what other absolutely brilliant people have done for most of the history of humanity-- continued working their family business or small-scale jobs in the local economy, perhaps in ways quite a bit better and more innovative than most of their peers, rather than becoming physicists.

Posted by: Tyro | Nov 24, 2007 11:39:24 AM

Worth recalling here that Einstein finished university with below-average marks, and was working as a patent clerk -- a job he found not by excelling in some IQ or other exam, but by the time-honored method of connections -- when he wrote his seminal papers. Einstein is, in fact, a fabulous argument against the process of IQ testing, tracking students generally or jumping to conclusions about people based on their performance on fill-in-the-bubble tests.

Ugh, standardized tests.

Posted by: wcw | Nov 24, 2007 12:22:15 PM

Can we stop this trope about Einstein? While a bit undisciplined as a youngster, he was always known to be smart and had
really good scores in science and mathematics on his university entrance exam. He grades over overall above-average, with top grades in the sciences and moderate grades in other fields.

Ugh, standardized tests.

While performing well on standardized tests as a young person is not a requirement to live a successful life later on as an adult, the tests measure what they test, and people who are good at reading tend to do well on the reading section, people who do well in math classes tend to do well on the math sections, and people who aren't, don't. And certainly good, promising academic performers do well on the tests and those with more academic problems have more trouble.

However, as a large number of professions in America are related to salesmanship, the relevance of the scores on the tests are going to be lower than someone thinking of going into accounting, science, or appellate law. The system breaks down when we use these scores as a substitute for some kind of innate, immutable attribute that applies across ethnic groups.

Posted by: Tyro | Nov 24, 2007 1:16:43 PM

Off-topic but a related point:

Journalists covering science need to spend more time in science classes. The methodological rigor, at least as described above as results, is poor.

The Chinese-American discussion has no mention of statistical signficance, which is a clear question when deal with potentially small sample sizes. This is extremely obvious and the fact its missing here is pretty appalling.

More importantly, few things in science and medicine are known with the certainty assumed by journalists or the lay public. Scientists are comfortable dealing with the spectrum of ambiguity involved and are able to describe their findings accurately in such a fashion. Journalists needs to be able to figure out how to do the same thing-- along with communicating the ambiguity that exists in these fields.

A conclusion that this is "complex"-- really isn't a conclusion at all. Welcome to science.

Posted by: wisewon | Nov 24, 2007 1:38:03 PM

``Journalists needs to be able to figure out how to do the same thing-- along with communicating the ambiguity that exists in these fields.''

Therein lies the rub.

Journalism is, and always will be, part entertainment. Scientists write papers that will be required reading, even if only by their peers in review. Newspapers must attract readers to survive and as a couple of centuries of trial and error have shown, the mass reader tolerates little nuance and wants nothing at all to do with vagueness.

Journalists writes stories. They state a thesis, provide evidence and, forcefully if their good, guide the reader to conclusions.

Most literate people know better than to believe what they read in the newspaper. Interestingly, Americans tend more than other nationalities I have known, to want to believe that journalism can and should be a source of objective truth.

Truth is very, very hard to produce, let alone on a deadline, on a budget, at a profit in the alloted time and space.

Posted by: bunkerbuster | Nov 24, 2007 6:29:33 PM

I take exception to Ezra's need to shutdown speech (and scientific inquiry is definitely free speech) by demanding that people start out with his conclusions or else be labeled as racists.

Take exception first to the junk science from the race-IQ determinists, then come back and talk to us. They're the ones -- especially Sullivan and Saletan -- who shat in the punchbowl.

Posted by: pseudonymous in nc | Nov 24, 2007 8:40:27 PM

"A conclusion that this is "complex"-- really isn't a conclusion at all. Welcome to science."

Hence why i find Jerry's knee jerk responses against "liberalism" amusing. Here no one has claimed any absolute except Jerry with his "all" statements. The reason I brought Asians into the mix is to as Tyro hints point out the context at play here. Certainly, the game being played here becomes even more confused with Latinos who can be anything from white to black- are we suppose to conclude the white Latinos are smarter than the black ones? No one really cares about the science or non science or pseudo-science of all this. It's just pretext or a conclusion to justify feelings already felt. It's really ALL about justitying why our society is the way it is so that people can get off pretending it's a meritocracy rather than a complicated mess not reducible to any simple minded constructions.

Posted by: akaison | Nov 24, 2007 8:46:43 PM

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