Feature

Book of the week: Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century by James R. Flynn

A political scientist working in the field of IQ testing examines some of the implications of the global intelligence boom.

(Cambridge, $22)

You might not be the brightest bulb on your block, but at least you’re more intelligent than your ancestors. So argues James R. Flynn, a political scientist who for decades has been “one of the most original thinkers” working in the field of IQ testing, said Bruce Bower in Science News. In his provocative new book, Flynn examines some of the implications of what he describes as a global intelligence boom. Twenty-five years ago, Flynn’s meticulous research identified a phenomenon now known as the “Flynn Effect,” a rise in IQ scores since 1930 that has pushed many nations’ results up by about three points per decade. We’re so much better at analytical thinking and classification, says Flynn, that in some countries, an average performer on an IQ test would be classified as a near genius if sent back in time 30 years. How’s that for food for thought?

Don’t get a big head just yet, said Bryan Caplan in The Wall Street Journal. Despite the rise in IQ scores, Flynn is cautious about declaring us clearly “smarter.” Though we’re better at solving puzzles and at dealing in hypotheticals, we’re poorer at arithmetic. And most American adults are more or less scientifically illiterate, scoring less than 60 percent on a basic true-false science quiz. Flynn writes that it’s better to think of ourselves as simply “more modern,” having adapted to a world that favors abstract thinking. From there, his book becomes a “grab bag of IQ-related topics,” touching on everything from the effects of IQ growth on death-penalty sentences to variations in IQ growth by nation. Though Flynn “never quite gives us the big picture” about exactly how our cognitive abilities are changing, the random highlights are “well worth the price of admission.”

“The most interesting chapter is the one that deals with youth and aging,” said John Naughton in The Guardian (U.K.). No one knows, he says, why U.S. adults have developed richer vocabularies over the past half century but gotten worse at communicating with their teenage children. And there’s “good news and bad news” about how aging affects intelligence. The good is that aging barely affects verbal facility, especially for those with higher IQs. But there’s a price paid for high intelligence—a “bright tax” that manifests as a steeper age-related decline in the analytic abilities of the high IQ’d. “Sobering stuff, eh?” It might even inspire a few middle-age readers to take up chess.

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