Friday, May 24, 2019

Dumbing Us Down

Do you believe in IQ? Of late the measure has become somewhat controversial, what with Nicholas Nassim Taleb taking out after the test. By Taleb’s reasoning IQ means nothing. Taleb normally regales us with a mountain of statistics, so we tend to take him seriously, even though we understand nothing about statistics. And yet, the American military, to take a flagrant example, still tests for IQ and rejects recruits who fall below a threshold of 84… if I recall correctly. The military has decided that anyone below that number is hopeless, cannot be taught or trained. As opposed to Taleb, and using one of Taleb’s favorite concepts, the military has skin in the game. Thus, one is inclined not to dismiss IQ so cavalierly.

Besides, isn’t it fairly obvious that America is getting dumber. We might imagine that American young people have been indoctrinated in the most absurd radical ideologies, that they are incapable of judging  a narrative in relation to facts, that they can do nothing more than tell stories, but doesn’t this show that they are suffering from an IQ deficit, that they are being dumbed down. After all, most of what passes as ideological truth is nothing more than high falutin storytelling.

We like to think that we can offer better teaching, but what if leftist ideology and conspiracy theories are the best that students can do… given their incredible shrinking IQs.

As it happens, Evan Horowitz does not believe that the American IQ is falling. He does not believe that the lower IQs he sees in Western Europe has yet arrived at our shores. I think he is being optimistic, and I believe that he has missed what is happening in America. Still, I will report his assessment of the way that IQ in Western Europe is being dumbed down… even within families.

Horowitz considers it a worldwide phenomenon, but his examples all turn out to be in enlightened progressive Western European countries (plus Australia):

People are getting dumber. That's not a judgment; it's a global fact. In a host of leading nations, IQ scores have started to decline.

Though there are legitimate questions about the relationship between IQ and intelligence, and broad recognition that success depends as much on other virtues like grit, IQ tests in use throughout the world today really do seem to capture something meaningful and durable. Decades of research have shown that individual IQ scores predict things such as educational achievement and longevity. More broadly, the average IQ score of a country is linked to economic growth and scientific innovation.

Even children born to high-IQ parents are slipping down the IQ ladder.

It’s an amusing coda on the wide-eyed optimism of Steven Pinker, who believes that human life is getting better, getting better all the time… to quote his Beatle gurus. And yet, if people in Western Europe are getting dumber all the time, what does that bode for our future.

As it happens, you know well, we do not much care about lower IQ. In our national conversation, we are obsessed with diversity. And with triggering. Isn't it the case that if smart people become dumber, then dumb people will not feel as bad for being dumb?

What does it mean? Horowitz has a bleak assessment:

So if IQ scores are really dropping, that could not only mean 15 more seasons of the Kardashians, but also the potential end of progress on all these other fronts, ultimately leading to fewer scientific breakthroughs, stagnant economies and a general dimming of our collective future.

You see, if we are going to compete in the world, and if we want to live in a functioning liberal democracy, we require a certain level of intelligence. Not everyone has it. And not all cultures foster it.

In truth, IQ had been moving up. Giving us cause for optimism. At least, it was until around the turn of the twenty-first century:

These raw scores have been rising on a variety of standard IQ tests for over half a century. That may sound odd if you think of IQ as largely hereditary. But current IQ tests are designed to measure core cognitive skills such as short-term memory, problem-solving speed and visual processing, and rising scores show that these cognitive capabilities can actually be sharpened by environmental factors such as higher-quality schools and more demanding workplaces.

For a while, rising IQ scores seemed like clear evidence of social progress, palpable proof that humanity was getting steadily smarter — and might even be able to boost brainpower indefinitely. Scholars called it the "Flynn effect," in homage to J.R. Flynn, the researcher who recognized its full sweep and import.

These days, however, Flynn himself concedes that "the IQ gains of the 20th century have faltered." A range of studies using a variety of well-established IQ tests and metrics have found declining scores across Scandinavia, Britain, Germany, France and Australia.

Why is this happening? No one seems to know. One interpretation suggests that people with lower IQs are having more children. Does this mean that the brilliant are having fewer children, but that said children are still whip smart? Is the number being dragged down by the higher reproductive rates of dumb people?

Horowitz dismisses the conjecture. He notes that even within families IQ rates are diminishing. A study conducted in Norway pointed to decreasing IQ in families. Children are generally dumber than their parents.

How about some other possible explanations?

One leading explanation is that the rise of lower-skill service jobs has made work less intellectually demanding, leaving IQs to atrophy as people flex their brains less.

There are also other possibilities, largely untested, such as global warming making food less nutritious or information-age devices sapping our ability to focus.

Yes, indeed, less nutritious food and electronic gadgets. And yet, our nation, to take a conspicuous example, seems hellbent on promoting diversity over academic achievement, even if it means dumbing down some of New York City’s finest public high schools.

Obviously, making admission contingent on factors other than test scores will tend, as many parents have already said, to dumb down the curriculum. The same reasoning would suggest that as colleges and universities accepted more and more underqualified and underperforming students, they have diminished students’ abilities to think clearly and consequentially.

Of course, this does not begin in college and it is not merely a function of diversity. If we want to understand why IQ is declining, we need to ask two more pertinent questions. Curiously, Horowitz does not address them.

We, however, can raise them.

The first concerns pedagogy. Now that the American educational system, especially in elementary and high school education has been infected with something called Common Core, we should at least ask whether these teaching techniques are doing more harm than good. Are they teaching children math or are they getting them confused about math? If a child’s ability to think about math and language is undermined by poor teaching, one might expect the negative effects to show up on tests.

And then there is the eight hundred pound gorilla: how well or poorly are children being brought up, and by whom? We do know that cognitive development is a direct function of how many spoken words a child hears in his first three years of life. It makes good sense to think that in the best circumstances these words are spoken directly to the child by his mother. The reason is that children focus far more attentively on their mothers’ voices. And thus, they are more likely to respond physiologically to words spoken by their mothers.

Do today’s children receive a sufficient amount of maternal care? Or are they being brought up in day care or by a village. Is IQ declining in the West because of maternal neglect? Consider that a thought for today.


UbuMaccabee said...

Two things I notice: one, almost no interest in serious reading. I meet very, very few people who read anything demanding when not compelled. They read fluff if they read at all. Second, the interest in serious music is also almost non-existent. Classical, opera, and jazz are all in decline. Anecdotal yes, but I believe it is suggestive.

trigger warning said...

I'm laughing about this IQ thing because I clearly recall the screeching following Murray and Herrnstein's magisterial book on the subject, "The Bell Curve". Back then, the screeching was "there's no such thing as race" and now the same folks are screeching "nothing matters but race".

IQ and "intelligence", whatever it is, are not synonymous except in the domain of operational definitions and the statistically arcane discipline of psychometrics.

Nevertheless, IQ is a meaningful, if noisy, measurement. While not perfect, it tells us something. I doubt the average person like me could reliably distinguish, on the basis of impressions, between persons with IQs of, say, 115 and 125. But I'll bet diamonds to donuts that virtually anyone can distinguish between persons with IQs of 85 and 115.

More than any other single factor, if IQs are going down, that means verbal skills are diminishing. Yes, tests like the Wechsler and Binet have performance, memory, etc subscales, but verbal skills (meanings, analogies, etc) are the most important components. For example, math skills won't emerge if a student can't read a math book.

Verbal skills are taught in school, but the most important verbal skills are absorbed at home. When TV and digital media, both of which are notoriously low - by design to entertain the widest possible audience - in verbal comprehension level, are used as babysitters and time occupiers, it seems inevitable that verbal skills will follow.

UbuMaccabee said...

I have a first edition of "The Bell Curve." I make sure it is visible if someone looks at my library. I place it next to Arthur Jensen, who is an even bigger heretic. Don't get caught on campus with one of his books. Good thing they already burned them all in 2008.

JPL17 said...

"In truth, IQ had been moving up ... until around the turn of the twenty-first century."

Hmmm ... Whatever could have happened in the year 2000 that could account for the reversal of IQ trends at that same time? It couldn't have anything to do with the fact that the year 2000 was when U.S. married couples with children in which both spouses work became the majority of all U.S. married couples, could it? Nah, I'm sure that's just crazy talk ... See

Sam L. said...

"And yet, our nation, to take a conspicuous example, seems hellbent on promoting diversity over academic achievement, even if it means dumbing down some of New York City’s finest public high schools." Not "our nation" but Lefty "education" is hellbent on dumbing our children down. (They're insidious.)

dfordoom said...

Besides, isn’t it fairly obvious that America is getting dumber. We might imagine that American young people have been indoctrinated in the most absurd radical ideologies

Is believing in crazy ideologies evidence of low IQ? Then how come loony ideologies have always been so popular with college-educated people? Does this mean that college-educated people have lower IQs than people without college educations?

Or maybe it just means that the entire university system is a failure. Indeed. That the whole education system is a failure?

It's also possible that college-educated people actually like these crazy ideologies because these ideologies tend to increase the power of college-educated people. Rich people certainly like these ideologies because they benefit the rich. Maybe the problem is cynicism (and selfishness) rather than intelligence?

It's also possible that these ideologies are popular with women because they offer an emotional buzz combined with endless opportunities for virtue-signalling.

There are quite a few possible explanations, apart from falling IQs, for the popularity of lunatic ideologies.

trigger warning said...

DfD, I have a theory to explain the "popularity of lunatic ideologies."

The advent of two major paradigm shifts, quantum mechanics and general relativity, emerged in the early 20th Century. Both were deeply, almost impossibly, counterintuitive. Bizarre, in fact, to people of the time.

Yet, both work.

And no one doubts the genius of Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, etc.

Hence, a mark of distinction was accorded to thinkers who were able to create bizarre, counterintuitive theories. Weirdulosity began to be viewed as a marker of true genius. And Einstein's notorious hair sealed the deal.

To date no other field has generated as many of those bizarre theories as the social "sciences" (although Law is giving it a run for its money; Red Flag laws purportedly identify psychotics via hearsay and arrest the guns). BF Skinner proposed using pigeons for onboard ballistic missile targeting systems. The human brain is "like" a computer (aside: funny how theories of mind always use the most advanced physical models as analogies, e.g., Freud and thermodynamics). So we've seen an academic arms race in bizarre theory manufacturing. Homeownership will reduce crime rates. Men can have menstrual periods. The latest: cauliflower is "colonialism". Genius, obviously.