22 Jun 2020

Understanding intelligence - Professor James Flynn

From Afternoons, 2:30 pm on 22 June 2020

An internationally recognised expert on intelligence says attention spans among young people have dipped along with their ability to think critically.

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Professor James Flynn is an emeritus professor at Otago University and despite being 86, still teaches almost a full timetable and is a prolific author.

He tells Jesse Mulligan apparent shorter attention spans among students is now a problem affecting education and the development of critical faculties and rationality. Instead emotive responses are dictating opinions, which can be simply politically correct, or even prone to conspiracy theories, he says.

“It’s sad, when you lecture today if something isn’t immediately relevant you tend you lose the student.

"I used to use examples from philosophy and history to illustrate my point, but I found most of the kids weren’t familar with any of these. I think the shortage of attention span is because of the failure to read good literature and good history.

“I think the ability of people to believe in conspiracy theories has a great deal to do with not reading serious literature and just depending on the net."

He suggests an overly-PC focus within the universities themselves is not helping matters.

"I have a book out called A Book too Risky to Publish and it has to do with all the things that universities do that discourage people from the sort of critical thinking that would allow them to recognise conspiracy theories. That is the university administrators don’t want any trouble.

“The students go there and they’re not racist or sexist and they don’t want fundamental problems examined rationally and the general attitude of students at university is that they don’t develop rational intelligence and I try to look at all the things that are destructive of your ability to criticise received opinion.

"I emphasis the point that the students at university really are intolerant of anyone who hurts anyone’s feelings. They don’t want anyone to hurt the feelings of women, or blacks, or feelings of religious fundamentalists, but they do not have the critical ability to reject conspiracy theories.”

Flynn has spent decades looking at the nature of intelligence, how it is measured, and what role it plays in societies. He even established the concept of the Flynn Effect in his field -  the substantial and long-sustained increase in both fluid and crystallized intelligence test scores that were measured in many parts of the world over the 20th century.

“The Flynn Effect is to do with progress in terms of your ability to answer IQ questions and the average person in 1900, they gave them a test called Raven's Progressive Matrices and it’s a very good test because essentially it’s about how well your mind has adapted to the modern world,” he says.

Raven's Progressive Matrices or RPM is a nonverbal group test used in educational settings. It measures abstract reasoning and is regarded as a non-verbal estimate of fluid intelligence. It is the most common and popular test administered to all age groups ranging.

“What you need in our society is of course over the 20th century the skills, those that allow you to perform academically and climb the social ladder," he says.

“So, a broad definition of intelligence could be your society at a particular place in time prioritises certain intellectual skills. It does that in terms of your ability to cope with every day life - and if your way of life is different here as it was in 1900, then it’s going to be a different set of skills.

“But the fundamental thing is whatever skills society demands you can learn them better and faster than the next person.”

He says use of logical abstractions or abstract thinking wasn’t useful earlier in the century as it wasn’t socially valued but has become more so since then as society is organised in a manner that necessitates it.

Flynn points out the IQ test was created in 1900 by westerners, so the criteria for determining intelligence is culturally biased and based on western values and technological needs, although with some universal aspects like memory.

In 1900 psychologist Alfred Binet was commissioned by the French government to identify students who needed educational assistance, so he devised the first intelligent quotient (IQ) test. 

 The government had required that all children attend school, so it was important to find a way to identify children who would need specialised help.

"They were interested in devising a test that would tell which child had a background which would allow them to progress in school and which kids needed special help.”

French testers found that children from privileged social backgrounds had been conditioned to excel in areas such as mathematics and the use of proper language structure.

With an emphasis on training working-class children to develop these skills it was possible bridge this gap and allow natural ability to grow and excel too. It was a means of forwarding an egalitarian agenda within industrialised French society, he says.

Being able to think abstractly and problem solve using logic became more and more useful as the societies evolved with technological advances.

This progressive ability to think abstractly over the century has not just made people more adapted to the intellectual rigors of the modern world, Flynn says. It has also accounted for a greater universality of ethical positions.

“Today kids would generalise moral principles… whereas my father’s principles were like precious jewels. They were things you inherited from your parents and you never thought of generalising them. So, one effect of the Flynn Effect over time is we do generalise our moral principles and that makes us much less sexist and racist.”