Features Australia

Out like Flynn

9 November 2019

9:00 AM

9 November 2019

9:00 AM

James Flynn is not an obvious enigma, even if he does hold the distinction of possibly being the only scholar resident in New Zealand to have had an enigma formally named after him. Right now the name of this self-described atheist, scientific realist and social democrat is more immediately associated with controversy.

No doubt, the preference of this tousle-haired emeritus professor of political studies at New Zealand’s University of Otago would be to be known as a lifelong supporter of free speech. This was to have been the subject of Flynn’s new book. A rather penetrating book it was to be, too, according to what would have been its British publisher, whose 2019 catalogue positively gushed about the content

In Defence of Free Speech: The University as Censor, in the words of Emerald Press’s 2019 catalogue, offered a timely reminder that the ‘freedom to debate is essential to the development of critical thought’. Readers would marvel at its impressive ‘overview of recent failures to uphold free speech on the part of universities’, in addition to its discussions about ‘controversial topics such as race, gender and IQ’.

The palmy advance notices continued — even in the subsequent letter sent to Flynn to explain why Emerald had abruptly decided to pull the work. In the letter, excerpted in the online periodical Quillette, the publisher acknowledged that the work was indeed ‘editorially powerful’ and written in obvious good faith.

‘The challenging manner in which you handle these topics as author, particularly at the beginning of the work,’ it continued, ‘increase[s] the sensitivity and the risk of reaction and legal challenge [and] could be seen to incite racial hatred under United Kingdom law.’ While Flynn had ‘no intention of promoting racism’, the question of intent was irrelevant. If it were ‘likely’ that racial hatred could be stirred up as a result of the work then that could be enough to spur litigation.

So farewell, then, free speech. Flynn’s work may no longer be in the Emerald Press catalogue but his recent experience has been in the sights of colleagues and commentators who have generally underscored the irony of the debacle.

But Flynn is not just the author of a rejected manuscript. He has produced many other scholarly papers and works, some of which have to do with the phenomenon he first identified in the 1980s and which is now named after him.  He is the intelligence researcher experts in the field have in mind when they talk about the Flynn effect.

Eponyms are rather a big deal in academe. Usually they are awarded for the discovery or treatment of a particular condition. James Parkinson got one for his initial descriptions of a progressive nerve disorder whose symptoms included shaking. So did the Baltimore physician Leo Kanner after first observing the ‘extreme aloneness from the beginning of life’ experienced by a group of American kids whom we would now call autistic, but used to be said to be suffering from Kanner’s syndrome.

In Flynn’s case, what was eponymously observed was not a malady but a phenomenon having to do with intelligence. This actually has some bearing on his most recent dispute, too.

The Flynn effect relates to his startling discovery that each successive generation is getting better and better IQ results, something that was not appreciated until he went through thousands of raw test results across dozens of advanced countries.

Today’s average young Briton, for example, is up on his or her counterpart from the 1940s by 14 per cent while some European nations such as France have seen rises of up to 25 per cent. In fact, for all of the 20 industrialised nations Flynn looked at, today’s test-takers are making yesteryear’s test-takers appear almost feeble-minded by comparison.

But this is where the phenomenon becomes an enigma. Despite these inexorable rises, there has been no obvious uptick in classroom intelligence. Wendy Williams, a professor of human development at Cornell University, has called this ‘one of the great unanswered questions of our time’. A book, scholarly papers and even a symposium have since been devoted to unriddling it.

‘As a moral and political philosopher,’ Flynn once told me, ‘I do find it a bit bizarre that I will probably be remembered for this. Of course, any recognition for one’s research is gratifying. But this is a sideshow.’

Yet for many years it has been a pleasing enough sideshow for him.

The American-born scholar actually began his research on IQ data in the hope that he might refute theories that showed blacks to be inferior to white Americans, a subject of particular interest for him because he was involved in his homeland’s civil rights movement. He was keen to test theories about class and race that would find their most volcanic expression in the publication of The Bell Curve, by Charles Murray and the late Richard Herrnstein. His search for stateside information proved inconclusive. But as he researched, Flynn also noticed that standard IQ test results, which are mostly scaled between 70 and 130, hid these increasingly higher raw scores — 14 per centage points up in the case of the United States — of test-takers.

His colleagues thought he was nuts. Nevertheless, he persisted, embarking on a global quest that was eventually to take in 35 nations. Here again the accumulated data showed the same trend. He also found that these improved scores were most notable the further one moved away from educationally-based tests (maths, for example) to culture-free tests involving the likes of mazes and diagrams. But then — poof! — those gains disappeared altogether when it came to conventional academic tests.

Various explanations have been tendered: improved nutrition, increased outbreeding, material prosperity and urbanisation. Flynn doesn’t know the correct answer, but neither, really, does anyone else.

One of the unlikely benefits about this latest free speech tempest is that it at least vividly underscores what seems to be the central point of the Flynn effect. While many societies are indeed getting better and better at intelligence tests, there is absolutely no evidence that many people — including some publishers, alas — are getting terribly smarter about anything else.

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