The idea that civilisation is in decline is as old as civilisation itself. Of course, comparing the past to the present is deeply unfair to the latter. The ‘best bits’ of the ages are bound to outshine the unedited output of the now. The ever-increasing rate at which we create new ‘content’ only accentuates the effect.
Until recently, however, there was a simple way of squashing the idea that we’re dumbing down – and that was to point out the quantifiable evidence to the contrary. IQ tests show that, over the 20th century, we actually got smarter. This is the so-called Flynn Effect named after the social scientist, James Flynn.
As Timothy Bates explains in the Spectator, the recorded increase in IQs across the world have been clear, consistent and highly significant:
“The gains Flynn discovered were so large, they suggested an average child would be regarded as a ‘genius’ by their great grandparents.”
The 20th century was a period in which changes in our ‘cognitive environment’ – such as the shift from blue collar to white collar jobs – brought about profound changes in how we used our brains. It’s therefore not surprising that we became better at abstract reasoning.
However, the Flynn Effect appears to be running out of road:
“…Flynn has now changed his mind. In a speech he gave earlier this year at the International Society for Intelligence Research, and now published in Intelligence, a peer-reviewed academic journal, Flynn announced that this forward movement in IQ scores across the West has been slammed into reverse. In some nations (like the USA) the increase has continued. But, starting in the mid-90s, other nations have gone backwards (e.g. Sweden). According to Flynn’s latest findings, the Nordic nations are projected to see national intelligence scores drop by a total of seven points by 2025. Scores in other European nations are mostly flat…”
“In the UK, IQ scores for the very highest-achieving children have started to decline, says Flynn…”
Does IQ actually matter? The cynical response is that IQ mainly measures the ability to do well in IQ tests. Cynical, but also ignorant: IQ is in fact one of the most rigorous, reliable and useful measures in social science. Its correlation to various life outcomes that we very much care about has been extensively documented. IQ may not be a comprehensive measure of human intelligence, but it really does matter.
Therefore, the evidence that the IQ improvements of the 20th century have stalled or gone backwards is worrying. Given that IQ can be so easily measured, it’s ridiculous that we don’t do so systematically:
“…a nation’s IQ doesn’t just go in one direction. Something has happened in the last decade or so that has put progress into reverse in some countries and failed gifted children in others. We need to find out why and what to do to make sure its upward trajectory is restored.”
It would, for instance, be interesting to find out whether there’s any link between IQ changes and the big behavioural shifts that have been observed in teenagers over the last decade. The impact of smartphones on mental health and social development has been blamed for the latter, but might an environment of constant digital distraction also be having can impact on cognitive development?
These are vital issues and not investigating them strikes me as, well, stupid.