Prof James Flynn at TED 2013

james-flynnOne of the big idea talks at this years TED Conference was professor James Flynn on Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents. Prof Flynn taught at Otago University in Dunedin for many years and is a global expert on his topic.

In simple terms our kids ( and ourselves) are smarter than previous generations, as measured by intelligence tests. Now that gives rise to many other questions as anyone in education will tell you but it does somewhat change the playing field.

“It’s called the “Flynn effect” — the fact that each generation scores higher on an IQ test than the generation before it. Are we actually getting smarter, or just thinking differently? In this fast-paced spin through the cognitive history of the 20th century, moral philosopher James Flynn suggests that changes in the way we think have had surprising (and not always positive) consequences.”

I remember a few years ago undergoing some IQ tests and thinking that the scores must be wrong as they were too high in historical terms.

It turns out they were accurate but that the entire cohort of scores has moved upwards and so everyone was smarter by that measurement.

We are all better at abstract thinking although it is arguable if we make better decisions as Prof Flynn recounts in his talk.

“Indeed, if you score the people a century ago against modern norms, they would have an average I.Q. of 70. If you score us against their norms, we would have an average I.Q. of 130. Now this has raised all sorts of questions. Were our immediate ancestors on the verge of mental retardation? Because 70 is normally the score for mental retardation. Or are we on the verge of all being gifted? Because 130 is the cutting line for giftedness.

Now I’m going to try and argue for a third alternative that’s much more illuminating than either of those…”

“Now, I should say one thing that’s very disheartening. We haven’t made progress on all fronts. One of the ways in which we would like to deal with the sophistication of the modern world is through politics, and sadly you can have humane moral principles, you can classify, you can use logic on abstractions, and if you’re ignorant of history and of other countries, you can’t do politics….”