Before we start, I'd like to thank listeners Don-e Merson and Seasoncolor, who have posted some more nice reviews on iTunes. Thanks guys!
Now, on to today's topic. Did you know that, measured by constant standards, the average Intelligence Quotient, or IQ, of the world's population has been steadily increasing as long as it has been measured? In fact, by today's standards, your great-grandparents most likely would be formally diagnosed as mentally retarded. It's a little confusing, since the IQ tests are continually re-normalized, so the "average IQ" at any given time is pegged to 100. But if we look at the raw test scores and compare them across decades, we see that in every modern industrialized country, the IQ has slowly been creeping upwards. This effect is known as the Flyyn Effect, named after the New Zealand psychiatrist who first noticed it in the 1980s. This seems pretty surprising-- could our entire population really be steadily increasing its intelligence?
When I first heard about this effect, I was a bit skeptical. If you've read Stephen Jay Gould's classic "The Mismeasure of Man", you have learned about all sorts of broken and ridiculous ways in which people have attempted to measure intelligence at various times. My favorite example was an IQ test from the early 20th century where your intelligence was, in part, dependent on your ability to recall the locations of certain Ivy League colleges. Even though such egregious examples no longer are likely to appear, you could easily hypothesize that the Flynn Effect was merely measuring the fact that over the past century, kids have been progressively exposed to a lot more miscellaneous trivia first through radio, then TV, growing mass media, and finally on the Internet.
Even simple things such as the expanding access to books and magazines throughout the 20th century might have contributed; I remember all the hours I spent biking between local used bookstores as a teenager, looking for cool math and science books, and I doubt my father had such an opportunity at his age. My daughter won't even have to think about such absurdities, having instant access to virtually all major literature published by the human race over the Internet. But it turns out that the belief that this IQ growth is just measuring access to accumulated factoids is not quite right-- the growth has been very minor in tests dependent on this type of factual knowledge, and is really measuring an increased ability to do abstract reasoning using simple concepts.
In our modern lives, we take the concept of abstraction for granted: the ability to talk about and compare ideas, rather than just discuss concrete items and actions that are immediately relevant. And of course all of modern mathematics, including topics we often discuss in this podcast, is dependent on the ability to do this kind of abstraction. But this is not something to take for granted: it has been slowly growing in our society from generation to generation. For example, one of the online articles linked in the show notes talks about a study done on an isolated tribe in Liberia. They took a bunch of random objects from the village and asked the villagers to sort them into categories. Instead of sorting into groups of clothing, tools, and food, as we might do, they put items together that were used together, such as a potato with a knife, since the knife is used to cut the potato. So apparently modern IQ tests are largely measuring our ability to think in abstract categories, and this is the ability that is increasing. Flynn has argued that we should really label this kind of thinking as "more modern" rather than "more intelligent"-- can we really say objectively that one kind of thinking is better? However, we probably can say that this modern thinking is a critical component in the explosion of science and technology that we observe in the modern world.
There are numerous theories to try to explain the Flynn Effect. Most center on social or societal factors. Perhaps the explosion of media exposure is important not because of miscellaneous factoids, but because of the generally more cognitively complex environment, forcing us to think in abstractions to make sense of the massive bombardment of ideas coming at us from literature, television, and the Internet. The growth of intellectually demanding work, where more and more of us have jobs that involve at least some thinking rather than pure manual labor, may also contribute. Another possible factor is the reduced family size in the Western world: with fewer kids around, each gets more parental attention, and this may foster development of abstract thought. And of course, in recent years, I'm sure there has been an IQ explosion among the very important subset of the population who listen to Math Mutation.
Aside from social factors, there are more basic physical ones: basic improvements to health and welfare, such as massively reduced malnutrition and disease, could also be important here. You may remember that back in podcast 110, "One Intestinal Worm Per Child", we discussed how simple health can have a much bigger effect on educational success than fancy computers. There is also the theory that we are simply measuring the effects of Darwinian natural selection, where parents with this more modern thinking style are more likely to reproduce, due to coping better in our technological 20th-21st century society. But most biologists believe that the Flynn effect has set upon us too quickly to be evolution-based.
To further complicate the discussion, some recent studies in Northern Europe seem to show that the Flynn Effect is disappearing or getting reversed. It's unclear whether this is a real effect, or an artifact of recent population shifts: over the past two decades, there has been massive immigration from the Third World into these countries, and it could be that we are just measuring the fact that a lot of new immigrants are just in earlier stages of the Flynn Effect treadmill. But as in every generation, there is no shortage of commentators who can find good reasons why today's young whippersnappers are supposedly getting dumber, such as a focus on repetitive video games and social-network inanity. We need to contrast this with their parents' more intellecutal pursuits, such as Looney Tunes and Jerry Springer.
So, what does this all mean? We certainly do see some effects in society that may very well be partially due to the Flynn Effect, such as the explosion of new technology in recent years. I think we should do whatever we can to continue making our kids smarter, and enabling more modern and abstract thinking-- though of course, that would be true with or without the Flynn Effect anyway. Encourage your kids to engage in cognitively complex tasks such as reading lots of books, learning to play a musical instrument, and discussing cool math podcasts. But when they tell you in a few years that you're going senile, don't take it personally, you really are dumber than they are, due to the Flynn Effect.
And this has been your math mutation for today.