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Is Idiocracy Really The Future?
The Flynn effect versus dysgenics...who wins? YOU DECIDE!
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Written by Abel Dean.
According to the comedic movie Idiocracy, each generation is stupider than the one before it, because intelligence is largely genetic (this is true), and stupider people tend to have more children (this is also true). This type of natural selection is called “dysgenic” (the opposite of eugenic). The genetic variants for intelligence are decreasing in frequency and the expected end result is that, in a few centuries, the world will belong to idiots. If this is true, it is utterly inexcusable for our leading thinkers and institutions involved in analysing existential risk to have ignored one of the biggest. It is why this publication has tried to raise awareness.
And yet the measured IQ trends tell a different story: each generation has a greater IQ than the one before it. Every ten years, the average IQ increases by three points. Your own IQ is not increasing, but your rebellious adolescent spirit was not completely wrong, as you have an IQ perhaps six points greater than the average of your biological parents, who in turn have an IQ six points greater than your grandparents. Since 1909, IQ has gone up 30 points, or the difference between an average American and someone with an IQ qualifying for a mental disability, or, if we go the other direction, we go from typical to very nearly qualifying for Mensa, the high-IQ society. This IQ trend is known as “the Flynn effect,” named after James Flynn, who discovered in the 1980s that the trend was happening all across Europe. Other IQ researchers failed to notice the global trend because IQ gets reset every decade, more or less, so that the average of the UK or the USA/Canada stays at 100.
The dysgenic effect is real, but it is slower than the Flynn effect in the opposing direction. Picture a man trying to swim against a strong river current: he will still flow downstream but slower than if he were not actively swimming. The Flynn effect is about three times stronger than the dysgenic effect.
For another twist, many psychologists who focus on IQ have decided that Idiocracy is something like a documentary after all. They believe the Flynn effect to be little more than a numerical illusion, maybe just because students are getting better at taking tests.
On the surface, their position may seem unlikely. It is not just IQ that has risen over the last century, but also many other traits related to intelligence, both cultural and physiological. To name but a few: literacy prevalence, educational attainment, GDP per capita, fertility, longevity, height, skull size, brain size, and nearsightedness.
The psychologists who prefer the dysgenic model tend to be hereditarians, which means they take very seriously the genetics of intelligence, so seriously that they are willing to assert that the measured IQ difference between blacks and whites (15 points or one standard deviation) follows largely from heritable genetic differences. Whilst this is probable, the claim is often at the cost of their academic careers. For those hereditarians, a very large and fast change of two standard deviations (30 IQ) of a trait so strongly heritable (around 75%) is difficult to reconcile, and the easiest reconciliation is to simply deny the objective reality of it.
Of course it is not a mere denial. Hereditarians have many scientific arguments to reinforce their position. Their primary argument even convinced James Flynn, which is like convincing a father that his seemingly-alive child is a mere ghost. Flynn was no hereditarian — he was their primary opponent.
So, what is that flagship argument? It follows from a method developed by Arthur Jensen to argue that the Black-White IQ gap really is a genuine gap of general intelligence, not just an illusion: the method of correlated vectors (MCV). When I took a close look at that flagship argument, I noticed a gaping crack in the stern.
As a side note, Arthur Jensen in his time was denounced as a scientific racist, with the Southern Poverty Law Center calling him a “White Nationalist” who provided a scientific patina for neo-Nazis. But he won exceptional respect among his academic peers, even his critics. In his book meant to refute Jensen, Flynn wrote:
Jensen has forged a steel chain of ideas, the key links in which are heritability estimates and the absurdity of the concept of a blindfold or a factor X, and that steel chain of ideas leaves the environmentalist with almost no freedom of maneuver.
Flynn saw his own opposition to Jensen as like David against Goliath. Jensen’s argument from MCV is as follows: some IQ tests are divided into subtests, and those subtests have varying “g-loadings"— some subtests are more related to the g factor (the principal component of general intelligence, which is very strongly heritable), and some are less related. On a scatterplot of g-loadings versus d (for score differences between groups), you can draw a best-fit line. If the line has a positive slope, then it means that more g-loaded subtests predict a greater group difference, and therefore a difference in g exists between groups.
This argument served Jensen’s position that the Black-White IQ gap was a genuine difference of general intelligence, not an illusion such as a racial test bias. It is not a completely logical argument, but it is intuitive. Jensen then used a second argument to reinforce the primary MCV argument: if you extend the best-fit line to where g-loading is 1.0, emulating a test that is perfectly g-loaded, you will have a positive d. The logic now seems complete. But to Jensen this secondary argument was merely “also consistent” and “a further validating feature” serving MCV as the primary argument.
For researchers who think the Flynn effect is an illusion, they use a similar primary argument, where d is the difference between generations: the best-fit line has a negative slope. So, the more g-loaded a subtest is, the lesser the score gain across generations. Therefore, they say, the Flynn effect is not a rise of general intelligence, it is just a rise in IQ.
Yet you can no longer use Jensen’s secondary argument to reinforce the primary argument. If you extend the negatively-sloped line to where g-loading is 1.0, then d may be positive, negative or zero, depending on the locations of the data points. When I analyzed the paper of Rushton (1999), which pioneered this argument against the Flynn effect being on g, I found that d at g-loading=1.0 is indeed a positive value (though it isn’t certain, as the confidence band widens hyperbolically outward covering some negative territory). A negative slope implies neither a stall nor a fall of g, but it means merely that the rise of the non-g component is greater than the rise of the g component (the non-g component can be likewise estimated by extending the line to where g-loading is zero).
I illustrate with a pair of plots below.
I argue that Jensen’s secondary argument should have been primary. The positive slope does not prove his point, but the extension of the best-fit line does so. And, not only can we decide the presence or absence of the group difference, but we can have a rough numerical value for that difference: by my math the Flynn effect is a change of g of 1.5±4.5 IQ points per decade.
I submitted a paper with this argument to the journals Intelligence and Personality and Individual Differences, but they both rejected it, largely because this idea is not novel. Yes, it was Arthur Jensen’s idea, but he mistakenly relegated it to secondary importance. Arthur Jensen’s primary argument focused on the sign of the correlation — he was passionately married to the statistical construct of correlations, and anything else was his mere mistress. A heckuva lot of intelligence researchers remain misled by that mistake, believing the Flynn effect to be an illusion. So, I will try a third journal, Journal of Intelligence.
If I am correct, and if the Flynn effect really does represent a large increase of general intelligence, then how do we reconcile that with the strong heritability of intelligence? The difficulty depends on an understanding of biology that’s a century out of date. Strongly heritable traits can change drastically across generations, because the DNA need not change, only the gene expressions. For example, locusts and the respective grasshoppers are the same species (even the same race), and their state of being either a locust or a grasshopper is strongly heritable, but it takes only a few generations to completely change state. Humans are likewise. We don’t need to depend on intelligence as the main example — adult height is even more heritable than intelligence, and adult height has increased even more than two standard deviations in some populations across the 20th century. How absurd we would be to solve the puzzle by claiming faulty measuring tapes!
In fact, many other human traits changed across the century, and a good framework for making sense of those changes may be life-history plasticity: whatever is relevant for survival and reproduction has been changing in favor or greater “quality” and away from “quantity” on an offspring quantity-quality trade-off (much like locusts, which have greater individual quality and lesser offspring quantity than grasshoppers, surprisingly). But the unlikely belief that the Flynn effect is not on g has deterred researchers from modeling the Flynn effect as a life-history phenomenon. The only exception is the hypothesis of Michael A. Woodley of Menie, in which the Flynn effect is a life-history shift in spite of the Flynn effect not being on g. How does he do it? He speculates that the Flynn effect is not a shift of general intelligence but instead a divergence into many specialized skills. This would be a novel model of intelligence, not just of the Flynn effect. A mistaken belief needlessly complicates his life-history approach.
Hereditarian intelligence researchers are mostly correct. Their science is at odds with our ideologies; our ideologies should adjust to conform, and the science need not budge. Intelligence is the most explanatory and the most socially-relevant psychological trait, but few such researchers exist — the journal Intelligence estimates the existence of only 150 intelligence researchers in the world (hereditarian or not). The topic of study is littered with career landmines — anyone who does too much work on racial IQ differences, even those with tenure, will be fired. The field is at odds with all popular ideologies, and it receives little funding, so there are few truth-tellers. Each of them accepts a heavy responsibility to get the science right. A simple fallacy lasting for decades is therefore a huge obstacle to the progress of their field. If the fallacy misleads them about a core element of a human theory of everything, then everyone is affected.
At the very least, getting it right will help us figure out the true due date for the coming Idiocracy.
Abel Dean has studied the psychology of intelligence and other social sciences for over ten years. He has university degrees in completely-unrelated fields: land surveying and hydrographic science (he fully agrees that you should not simply accept his opinions).
Tomorrow, ISF supporters will have access to a reply from Prof Edward Dutton.