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Dr. James Flynn: Emeritus Professor, Political Studies and Psychology, University of Otago, New Zealand (Part Two)

August 8, 2014

Interviewer: Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Numbering: Issue 5.A, Idea: Outliers & Outsiders (Part One)

Place of Publication: Langley, British Columbia, Canada

Title: In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Web Domain:

Individual Publication Date: August 8, 2014

Issue Publication Date: September 1, 2014

Name of Publisher: In-Sight Publishing

Frequency: Three Times Per Year

Words: 3,613

ISSN 2369-6885

Dr. James Flynn

[Link to part 1/2]


Second part of a two-part comprehensive interview with Emeritus Professor of Political Studies and Psychology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand on the main subjects of his research: Jensen, Eysenck, and Rushton; black improvements in IQ corresponding to educational gains; moral commitment to the truth; environment, genetics, and the interplay in the development of IQ; activities associated with the highest level of general ability; TED talk entitled ‘Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents’; differential IQs of generations based on the Flynn Effect occurring over significant periods of time; future work; meaning of the paraphrase ‘system of jurisprudence uses the concept of praise and blame’; responsibility of academics to culture and society; moral and general influences; advice for young academics interested in moral and political philosophy; and worries and hopes for concepts in psychology having practical implications for the larger culture and societies in general.

Keywords: Academics, Dr. James Flynn, Emeritus Professor, environmental influence, Eysenck, genetics, Intelligence, IQ, Jensen, jurisprudence, moral imperatives, moral philosophy, New Zealand, political philosophy, Political Studies, Psychology, TED, University of Otago.

15. Recounting in the earliest part of this conversation about Jensen and Eysenck – and Rushton passing, what is the current state of this debate?

I think the current state of the debate is in my 2008 book, although stuff keeps coming out.  But the current status of the debate must take this into account: I showed along with Bill Dickens that blacks had erased 5 points of the old 15-point IQ gap.  Therefore, the improvement in the black environment is paying dividends.  Even now, you could hardly claim blacks are living in an equivalent environment to whites.  Maybe, the other 10 points will go.  As scientists, we have to hedge our bets until the evidence is in, don’t we?

I think that eventually blacks may close that gap.

16. A third of a standard deviation is quite a bit…

Yes, it is quite significant.  They were one standard deviation behind.  Now, they are two-thirds behind.  This is reflected in the Nation’s Report Card.  They gained the same amount of ground in academic performance.  I published an article in the journal Intelligence earlier this year.  They gave a whole issue of Intelligence to the Flynn Effect.  In the summary article there, I point out the correspondence between the black IQ gains and the black educational gains.

Now, the bad news is that until blacks perform better for IQ, which predicts their performance at university, they will have grave difficulty matching whites.  You cannot say, “These IQ gaps do not count.”  They count for a lot in terms of your life prospects.  The good news is, there is no reason to think they are genetically crippled.

17. Even though as scientists we must stay open to the data, what do you consider a knockdown, or very strong, argument for your position?

I know of no “knockdown” argument.  You do not have to be a scientist to be open to more data. (Laughs) But it helps to have a strong commitment – moral commitment, to the truth.  It is easy for any of us, and this includes me as well as Jensen, to dig yourself into a hole where you have fought so long for a particular point of view on a controversial issue that your mind is closed without your being fully aware of it.  So good science would say that would never happen, but it is good to also have a strong moral resolve and say, “I could be wrong.”

One of the things, which impressed me most, about Arthur Jensen is his quoting Ghandi’s, ‘I will never say anything in public, which does not match what I believe private.’  There are plenty of people on the left who have closed minds on the race and IQ issue.  That is, their attachment to the notion of equality is so strong that they will not look at evidence.

It cuts both ways.  You can either have progressive or regressive views, and essentially your reputation and your work become married to a position, so that you are not willing to look at further evidence.  I would like to think that every social scientist has a professional concern about methodology but it also helps to have some moral stamina with regards to these things too.

18. For the long-running and ongoing discussion about environment, genetics, and their interplay in the development of IQ, within your and others’ research, how much does the environment play a role in development of IQ compared to genetics?

That is a question that can only be answered differentially according to the cognitive ability.  The environment plays a much more powerful role in vocabulary than in, say, arithmetic.  Even when your genetic promise is fulfilled in arithmetic, that will not happen without a good environment.  The best performance comes when high ability and high-quality environment reinforce one another.

Now, you also have to look at environment when it does not correlate with genes.  That is what we look at when we want to assess how much your environmental background has handicapped you.  Do not think that simply because your environment may someday match your genes, it has not done much to handicap you.

If your environment does not fully match genetic promise, and that can still be true of vocabulary at the age of 18, you will be handicapped on the SAT. Maybe, at the age of 35, you have a match between your cognitive environment and vocabulary, but your life is pretty much on its own railway track by that time.

Further, there is every reason to believe that someone can upgrade their environment beyond their genetic promise even in later life.  If you want to upgrade your cognitive competence at any age, exercise your mind by reading and thinking. This upgrading of your environment will pay dividends.  It is very possible my old professor Leo Strauss did not think of anything else except political philosophy from the time he woke until the time he went to bed.  I expect that he created an incredible mental environment, which is not advised if you wish to be sane, and that this probably upgraded his genetic talent even further.  As practice upgrades a musician’s talent, you can shoot above your genetic promise through cognitive exercise.

19. That does tie into a point, which I have thought about for some time. It deals with the highest levels of ability tending towards certain activities…

That depends, doesn’t it?  I think you should select the activities that are important for you?   Let’s say you are a person at about the 84th percentile for verbal intelligence. But let’s say you want to write a great novel and that you immerse yourself in great literature and develop your vocabulary, seeking out friends that challenge you verbally.  You could say, “That will not improve your intelligence.  It only improves your capacity to write a great novel.”  So what, that is what you want, isn’t it?  You do not want to necessarily upgrade your intelligence for block design, ravens progressive matrices, or object assembly.  You want to enhance your intelligence with a specific purpose in mind.

Yet, people are strange.  They say, “How can I upgrade my IQ?”  I ask them, “Why do you not want something more important?  What keeps you up at night?  What problems do you want to solve?  What do you really want to do?  Why do you not upgrade that?”  That is what is important for anyone who is not IQ-obsessed.  All these people joining Mensa because they have high IQs.  It might give you a sense of self-esteem, but I would trade 10 IQ points to be a better moral philosopher.  And I actually know how to upgrade my environment as a moral philosopher.  I know the things to read and think about to improve.

20. Back to the present, you did a TED Talk entitled ‘Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents’ a short time ago.

It has done pretty well, moving up to around 1,700,000 hits.  It does about as well as academics do.  It cannot compete with Stephen Hawking.  It cannot compete with John Dawkins at Cambridge – who questions the existence of God, and everyone in the world listens to it.  But for an academic talk, it did pretty well.

21. You stated, “If you scored people a century ago against modern norms they would have an average IQ of 70, if you score us against their norms we would have an IQ score of 130.” You ask, “Does this mean our ancestors were on the verge of mental retardation?” Conversely, you ask, “Or are we all on the verge of being gifted?”  You offer a third alternative.  For those that have not seen the video, what is that third alternative?

This is something everything goes crazy about.  How could our ancestors be so stupid, or how could we be so intelligent?  In the talk, I think I hit upon the solution.  It is one thing to compare a 70 against current norms when that person has never been exposed to the modern world.  It is another thing to score a 70 against current norms if you are living here and have been exposed to the modern world, and cannot make sense of it.

Yes, against current norms, people had a 70 back in 1900 because they did not live in a world that was visually rich, did not have the current level of formal education, lacked cognitive challenging work for 30% of people.  So not being exposed to that modern world makes the IQ of 70 quite understandable.  To compare it to someone who has an IQ of 70 today, who has been exposed to modernity, and does not have the innate talent to take it in, is such an obvious mistake.  They were not feeble-minded.  They were simply not modern.

Cognitive progress by generations over time has a tremendous influence.  The environment – over a 100 years – has been enormously potent.  When you say the environment is limited, you mean that its role today is limited in differentiating the two environments you and I have, when both of us are immersed in modernity. There is a different perspective there.  Over time environment is virtually the only thing influential in terms of raising human competence.   At a given time, if you and someone else came from much the same family, had much the same schooling, then genetic differences come into their own, but over time we have been upgraded by environment.

I made two mistakes in the TED talk.  One was not meant to be there at all.  I mentioned an Islamic father not who kills his daughter for being raped.  In defense, he says, “It is not in the Quran.”  I should have made him say, “It is not in our family code of honor” – because there is no passage in the Quran to that effect.  But many people in Islamic countries have inherited a traditional morality that dictates family honor.  The other mistake I made, and I cannot imagine how I made it, was attributing the final quote to Dickens rather than Kipling.

The pressure is unusual.  I always speak extemporaneously, but here the time limits are strict.  You have a text in advance.  I find it easier to either read a speech or to speak extemporaneously – instead of pretending to read extemporaneously and stick to a text. (Laughs) Here you must speak extemporaneously, but not deviate from a fixed text.

That reference to the Quran, I was not implying that the passage was in the Quran.  I was merely implying that for someone to give up their inherited code of honor, they would need something like the Quran to override it.  Since you are speaking quickly, you do not read in the necessary qualifications.  I had a number of Islamic scholars saying, “There is no such passage in the Quran.”  I have had to e-mail them back saying, “I know that.  I know that.”  I tell them I meant the code of honor, not the Quran, but one would need something like the Quran to override the code of honor.

22. What about future work?

In the future, I have other books, which I would like to write.  I want to write a book on the way we mis-educate students for critical intelligence in higher education.  I published a book in 2012 entitled How to Improve Your Mind: 20 Keys to Unlock the Modern World.  It gives the education for critical intelligence which universities do not provide, but I still want to look at the universities in detail and show the way in which they are going astray.

Also, I feel insulted that I do not know in detail how to keep merchant bankers from bringing the world down into chaos every 20 years.  I want to look at the behavioral problem involving the incentive system that would keep these guys from doing it.

Finally, I have a “law” book, which I want to write looking into the way the system of jurisprudence uses the concepts of praise and blame.  Most immediately, I want to write on the way to teach political philosophy.

23. What do you mean by ‘system of jurisprudence uses the concept of praise and blame’?

In my book Fate and Philosophy, it has a section on ‘Free Will’.  Half the time the law acts as if it believes in free will, “You did this.  You were wicked.  We are going to punish you for punishments sake.”  Other times, it says, “No one is responsible for a divorce breaking down.  We will have no-fault divorce.”  I am not necessarily saying there is an inconsistency in treating divorce that way.  I may be better for the kids, but I would like to look at the use of praise and blame in the law – see if we can be consistent about it.

24. If any, what responsibility do academics and researchers have for contributing to society and culture?

They have to be people that care about society and culture.  There is nothing about being an academic that gives you better empathy with humanity than a carpenter. But if they have that, they have an unusual responsibility to weigh in on areas where informed opinion can carry society with it.  If most American academics had not lost faith in the Vietnam War, heaven knows the consequences would have been.  If only people who are knowledgeable could come to a common opinion about climate change, we could do something about it.

Unfortunately at present, they are in sad disarray.  Although, the more expert you are, the more likely you are to take it seriously.  There are certain issues, foreign policy issues in particular – where the weight of opinion by the decision-makers is heavily influenced by the people who write the editorials in the New York Times.

25. Who most influenced you morally? Why them? Can you recommend any books or articles by them?

I have a list of them in Fate and Philosophy at the end of the book.  I say, “You ought to try and be humane.  Here are 20 people I admire.”  They range from Hillel to Jesus Christ to Martin Luther King to Eugene Victor Debs.

26. What advice do you have for young academics interested in moral and political philosophy?

They will not be interested in it, unless it becomes a near obsession for them.  Educate yourself widely because you cannot solve the basic problems of moral and political philosophy without a good grounding in the social sciences.  Also, reading literature widely is helpful.

27. What worries and hopes do you have for the study of concepts in psychology, e.g. Intelligence, having practical implications for the larger culture and societies in general?

Hard to tell, I am not a professional psychologist.  I do not have too much insight into what psychologists are doing.  I see no reason why psychology should not clarify the potentialities of human autonomy, despite the influence of genes.  I have hopes that will happen, but a hope based on faith more than any survey of the work psychologists are doing.


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In-sight by Scott Douglas Jacobsen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


© Scott Douglas Jacobsen, In-sight, and In-Sight Publishing 2012-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Scott Douglas Jacobsen and In-sight with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.  All interviewees co-copyright their interview material and may disseminate for their independent purposes.


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