Sunday, May 10, 2009

The Flynn Effect and IQ

There are a number of good articles in the current edition of American Scientist.

Charles Nelson III et al write about the effects of deprivation on the infant human brain, a study based in the orphanages of Romania. High-quality foster care can turn the damage around, but it still takes years.

We all remember the bet between the ecologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon in the context of the "Club of Rome" report on the 'Limits to Growth'. The economist won that round, but the underlying limits to the carrying capacity of the earth for humankind have not gone away. A review article notes that a critical parameter is the energy required to obtain each unit of energy we consume. The ratio has been steadily increasing. When it reaches 1, you can't afford to acquire the energy source and a limit to growth has been reached. Maybe nuclear fusion is the answer ...

I was perhaps most impressed by Cosma Shalizi's book review of "What is Intelligence" by James Flynn. Shalizi's remarkably level-headed review starts by describing how IQ tests are continually rebased year-on-year from a reference set of test-takers, used to normalise any new test at mean = 100, standard deviation = 15.

However, someone who got 100 on an IQ test in 1990 would only get 70 in 2000. This is the phenomenon of the secular rise in IQ of up to 6-7 IQ points per decade, which has been called the Flynn effect after its discoverer.

Shalizi knows that 'general intelligence', 'g', (considered to be what IQ tests are designed to measure) emerges from factor analysis. Is 'g' a physiological or merely a statistical reality? The evidence seems to suggest that it correlates with neural efficiency and is not a mere statistical convenience - I'm not sure that Shalizi agrees.

Shalizi's belief is that the dominant driver for the Flynn effect is the increasing abstractness of modern industrial society. This is training people to think in a manner whose competence is measured by tests such as Raven's progressive matrices. Such coaching effects are decisive and outweigh other factors such as improved nutrition, Shalizi believes.

Anyway, judge for yourself, his review is here. He is not, BTW, the first person to acknowledge that bright people have a problem with so-called 'culture-free' IQ tests in that 'what's the missing pattern/number/word' type questions seldom have a compellingly-unique answer. You get to have a measured high-IQ is you consistently think like Mr Raven!

I was looking at some of the Masters courses in theoretical physics. Take for example the one year full-time/two year part-time MSc at King's College. This comprises eight taught modules of which at least five will be from the list:
  • Mechanics, Relativity & Quantum Theory;
  • Quantum Field Theory;
  • Lie Groups & Lie Algebras;
  • Manifolds;
  • General Relativity;
  • Supersymmetry & Gauge Theory;
  • Point Particles & String Theory.
The remaining modules can be drawn from the wide range of theoretical physics or pure mathematics MSc courses. Based on the amount of work in a single OU course, which lasts a year, this seems extraordinarily intensive.