The Flynn Effect or your lying eyes

This exam for 8th graders from 1895 is making the rounds.

In summary, my guess is that most college graduates today would not be able to pass the exam.

I remember a similar example from The Bell Curve.

I can think of two ways to explain why modern college graduates aren’t able to answer questions that 8th graders from 1895 could:

1) people are now dumber; and
2) education has been democratized (i.e. made mediocre) – in other words, we now educate everybody, whereas in the past we educated only the intelligent.

I think both of these answers are partially correct. It’s true that education used to be geared toward the intelligent. Some small sub-set of 8th graders are capable of learning these more complex things. Instead of bringing the best and the brightest up to their maximum potential level of knowledge, we have now decided that it is more important to educate everyone to the same level of mediocrity. Behold, Democracy! Personally, I think this decision will, in time, come to be seen as the beginning of the end for America.

Also, this phenomenon can be seen in more than just old tests. If you read old books, you will consistently encounter writing that is much better than the writing found in modern books and that is geared toward a much more intelligent readership.

For these reasons, I don’t believe that the Flynn Effect is actually measuring increases in intelligence.

6 Responses to The Flynn Effect or your lying eyes

  1. Jehu says:

    If you look at things like vocabulary and actual mathematical performance, the numbers haven’t changed much, maybe 3-4 points since then. Where things have really changed a lot are on the abstract things like progressive matrices and the like. My personal explanation is that these tasks are no longer culturally unfamiliar, whereas they used to be. The proof of this statement is left as an exercise for someone visiting a baby reseller show (the toys, not modern slavers :-)).

    There are two ways to try to measure IQ. The first is to measure something that everyone has practiced, and practices a lot. Things like the old SAT are in this category. When you do this, because the levels of practice are similar, you get results orderings that approximate the IQ ordering (or, in real terms, whatever it is that we as humans call ‘smart’).

    The second way is to pick a novel sort of mental task, that nobody really practices. If you look at a lot of this kind of IQ test, you’ll note that this USED to be more true, but it really isn’t any more. Lots of kid and baby toys look a lot like IQ test questions. Its as if sudoku was used as an IQ test before it was really known in the US, but now it and similar puzzles are fairly mainstream, at least as much so as crossword puzzles or cryptograms. The old CTBS memory tests were in that category also—they used really obscure words—alate means to have winds, a baloo is a bear, a shrewdness is a group of apes, etc—in an attempt to identify kids who ought to be tossed into a gifted program that had slipped between the cracks. They’d give you the words read to you on an audio tape and test you on them 3-4 hours later. Now imagine that these words had entered somewhat common usage.

    My conclusion is that some part of the Flynn effect is real (the 3-4 points I mentioned earlier), due to improved nutrition and reduced pollution (mostly lead), but most of it is an artifact of tasks on the tests which were once almost exclusively in category B moving more into category A. You’ll also note that the Flynn effect has largely stopped in the US, which is consistent with my hypothesis as well.
    The aggravating part of this is that it makes cross-national comparisons a LOT harder. The whole point of the category B tests was to wash out most of confounding factors in that sort of comparison. But people went ahead and insisted on making IQ-test like questions of this category an integral part of their culture and children’s toys 🙂

  2. Good analysis, good instincts.

  3. foxmarks says:

    My initial reaction was that I would have known most of that stuff when I was in 8th Grade. Eight ten years later, as a college graduate, some of it would have been internalized (gramar and math) and much would have been discarded as irrelevant (geography and history).

    After a few more decades passed, the rote rules are less accessible, but I know the stuff necessary to pay the rent. The ability to articulate rules is much less valuable than to have ingrained them as habit.

    • MaMu1977 says:

      Interestingly enough, I had the opposite result. The geography and history sections were easy to answer (I’ll admit that the math problems were far more difficult due to the differences in measurements between modern times and the times of yore.)

  4. […] – “The Flynn Effect or Your Lying Eyes“, “Foseti’s Theory of Crime and Punishment“, “Another Reactionary […]

  5. RS says:

    I’m not going to lie; the only section I know I’d pass is arithmetic and geography, which says something about their timelessness. Clearly my patriotism is in question, because I do not have a precise enough grasp of English to know how to properly use diacritical marks, nor do I live in Kansas.

    However, anyone who holds this against me is being facetious.

    This is humbling, however.

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