James Robert Flynn is a political philosopher and an intelligence researcher based in New Zealand. He is most famous for his publications about the continued year-after-year increase of IQ scores throughout the world, which is now referred to as the Flynn Effect. His last manuscript, entitled “In Defense of Free Speech: The University as Censor,” and initially scheduled for publication in September 2019, was withdrawn by its own publisher.
Grégoire Canlorbe: Besides your inquiries in intelligence research, you got involved in the exegesis of Aristotle’s philosophy… your very first published book developing “an Aristotelian view” on ideology in politics. What does your current polemical case for free speech owe to this Aristotelian background?
James Flynn: I believe that I would defend free speech my debt to Aristotle aside. Any censorship turns what should be a contest of ideas into a test of strength—who has the power to shut their opponent up—and “might makes right” is hardly a principle that will maximize truth. But Aristotle was well aware that dialogue rather than authority was the proper method. He said: “Plato was a friend to us all, but an even better friend must be the truth.”
Grégoire Canlorbe: While Aristotle’s pre-scientific physics attested to a kind of intelligence more empirical than imaginative, and more qualitative than measurement-oriented, Galilei’s intellect would exhibit qualities of speculation and inspiration, and mathematical and logico-experimental aptitudes, from which modern, properly scientific physics would spring. How would those two distinct sorts of intelligence translate into a contemporary IQ test?
James Flynn: The current IQ tests are culturally relative in the sense that they try to measure skills appropriate in a modern scientific society. Look at the subtests of the Wechsler IQ test: (1) Vocabulary measures when you have a command of the language of a school-educated person; (2) Similarities measures whether you can use abstractions to classify and generalize as scientists do; (3) Arithmetic measures whether you are numerate; (4) Digit span measures whether you have a working memory for numbers; (5) Coding measures whether you note correlations between two systems of identification.
Grégoire Canlorbe: It has been hypothesized that the Flynn Effect essentially originates in improvements in pre-natal and early post-natal nutrition; and besides, manifests itself into gains that are not related to the general intelligence factor (or g factor). How do you assess this way of conceiving the scope, and the source, of the Flynn Effect?
James Flynn: Society varies over time in terms of what skills it priorities. For example in 1950 when most Americans drove cars, it emphasized map-reading; today with automaton guidance systems that is no longer needed. It does not use “g” as a criterion to measure its varying needs (map-reading is very low g and yet rose quickly).
Nutrition and health have been very important factors mainly (for advanced societies) up to 1950. But these better nourished brains simply sped up the pace at which new skills develop—the list of new skills was determined by the evolution toward a more scientific society in which everyone gets more schooling.
Grégoire Canlorbe: You early immigrated to New Zealand. As a well-known advocate for meritocracy and racial equality of rights, how do you judge the legal and economic integration of Māori in New Zealand society?
James Flynn: Māori deserve the chance to preserve whatever they value most in their traditional culture (such as their language). But if they wish equal achievement in a modern education-oriented society, they must adapt to learning all the skills required therein, tread the same path that ethnic groups did in America. For example, Chinese-Americans (quickly) and Irish-Americans (more slowly).
Grégoire Canlorbe: The positive correlation between the economic development level of a given nation and its average IQ is staring us right in the face, so to speak. But what is the exact tenor of the apparent cause and effect link? Do you see China hoisting itself to the rank of the cognitive super-power of tomorrow?
James Flynn: The more “scientifically efficient” a society is, the more affluent it is likely to be—up to a point. It is not clear how China will adapt to the challenges of the next century: periodic financial crises; automation’s effects on skill requirements; and the huge cost of coastal flooding with global warming.
That interview was first published on European Scientist, in October 2019