I.Q., Africa, the Flynn effect and all those young smartarses

by John MacBeath Watkins

I was reading something on a conservative website about development in Africa. One of the commenters claimed that the average IQ in Africa is 71, so no wonder all those people aren't succeeding.

I don't know the age of the poster, but I suspect he was an old curmudgeon. Therefore I hope he is ready for a shock. Young people today may get a lot of flak for not knowing their math or their language skills as well as they should, but the IQ test scores keep having to be adjusted because the young smart arses today are doing better on those tests than their older relations did. It's called the Flynn effect.

The Flynn effect shows that every new generation that takes the IQ tests tends to do better on them than the generation before. From Wikipedia:

IQ tests are updated periodically. For example, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), originally developed in 1949, was updated in 1974, in 1991, and again in 2003. The revised versions are standardized to 100 using new standardization samples. In ordinary use IQ tests are scored with respect to those standardization samples. The only way to compare the difficulty of two versions of a test is to conduct a study in which the same subjects take both versions. Doing so confirms IQ gains over time. The average rate of increase seems to be about three IQ points per decade in the US on tests such as the WISC. The increasing raw scores appear on every major test, in every age range and in every modern industrialized country although not necessarily at the same rate as in the US using the WISC. The increase has been continuous and roughly linear from the earliest days of testing to the present.[9] Though the effect is most associated with IQ increases, a similar effect has been found with increases of semantic and episodic memory.[3]
Ulric Neisser estimates that using the IQ values of today the average IQ of the US in 1932, according to the first Stanford–Binet Intelligence Scales standardization sample, was 80. Neisser states that "Hardly any of them would have scored 'very superior,' but nearly one-quarter would have appeared to be 'deficient.'" He also writes that "Test scores are certainly going up all over the world, but whether intelligence itself has risen remains controversial."[9]

Heh. Kids today and their giant brains, huh?

And yet, some people are happy to claim that people are dumb in societies that have not had the sort of testing and schooling that seems to produce these gains in IQ.

There are excellent reasons to believe that the problem with African IQ is a load of bull, and only some of them are related to racism. Today I'm going to focus on the fact that any test is, to some degree, an achievement test. Any written test is first and foremost a reading test, for example. On a continent where a great many languages are spoken, it is also often a test of one's competence in a foreign language.

I once met a village chieftain named Twan Bessar Ryok (transliteration, don't blame me for the spelling) who was a former headhunter. He was Dyak, from a village in the jungles of Sarawak, which since that date has become part of Malaysia. He was traveling with my uncle, who was a missionary.

Skulls in a Dyak longhouse (image from Wikipedia)
He was an intelligent and rather adventuresome man, who did not really believe that he would ever return home, but went on his journey to America anyway (I met him on Okinawa, where my father was stationed at the time.) I believe, from the shock of white hair on his head and the lines on his face, that he was in his sixties. He had an extremely sharp sword that he had not used for headhunting since he had been a young man, and a dignified, intelligent manner that one might expect of a leader of his people. (I've been in a Dyak longhouse where the rafters were lined with skulls, but none looked new in the mid-1960s, and I don't believe any headhunting has been practiced since World War II, when the Japanese treated the Dyaks very badly.)

My uncle was able to communicate to him a little with the aid of a Malaysian dictionary, but the old man was a Dyak, and did not speak Malay very well at all. I don't believe his people had a written language.

How would this intelligent, dignified old man have done on a written IQ test? Was there really any way to test his abilities?

Really, I should love IQ tests, because I do very well on them. I score more than two standard deviations above the norm. The problem is, I don't believe in them, except as a kind of achievement test.

IQ tests, because they are timed exams, do test how quickly you respond. That's why my brother wrote his PhD dissertation in Mandarin. Chinese universities don't rely on the Graduate Records Exam. American universities saw his bad scores on these timed exams and assumed he was dumb, rather than realizing that he has about a two-second delay in his reactions. I don't, so I kicked the GRE sideways. I believe that I have a different sort of mind than my brother does. I do not believe I could have written my master's thesis in Mandarin, let alone a dissertation. Chinese universities looked at my brother's grades, his essays, and talked to him. They realized that he is brilliant. American universities were prisoners of their tests.

Which makes me wonder what the Flynn effect really shows us. I'd like to think that they show we are getting smarter as the generations proceed, and as I grow older, young people will become more interesting to talk to than my own generation, and make smarter decisions than my generation has made.And by the way, they must be smarter, because young folks agree with my political views more than people my age.

But then I remember the Dyak chieftain, who was as smart as anyone I've met, and realize that it's just another artifact of culture, and people everywhere and everywhen are about the same. The chief was able to charm the Okinawan waitresses and musicians at the restaurant we took him to without sharing a common language with them. Most Americans, no matter what their intelligence or language skills, would have had difficulty succeeding as well as he did.