Friday, August 22, 2014

Are We Becoming Less Intelligent?

The Daily Mail reports:
An IQ test used to determine whether Danish men are fit to serve in the military has revealed scores have fallen by 1.5 points since 1998.  
And standard tests issued in the UK and Australia echo the results, according to journalist Bob Holmes, writing in New Scientist. 
The most pessimistic explanation as to why humans seem to be becoming less intelligent is that we have effectively reached our intellectual peak. 
 Between the 1930s and 1980s, the average IQ score in the US rose by three points and in post-war Japan and Denmark, test scores also increased significantly - a trend known as the ‘Flynn effect’. 
This increase in intelligence was due to improved nutrition and living conditions - as well as better education - says James Flynn of the University of Otago, after whom the effect is named.  
Now some experts believe we are starting to see the end of the Flynn effect in developed countries – and that IQ scores are not just levelling out, but declining.  
Scientists including Dr Flynn think better education can reverse the trend and point out  the perceived decline could just be a blip. However, other scientists are not so optimistic.
It would be interesting to see if immigration played a part in the claimed decline. But, putting that aside, there is the more basic issue of the dumbing down of education. Jerry Pournelle recently republished a California Sixth Grade Reader to emphasize how debased our current curriculum has become. Not that this is a new phenomena, as this 1988 editorial to the LA Times illustrates. Glenn Reynolds noticed this as to his text books in the 1970s being written at a lower level than those in the 50s. Of course it is not just limited to reading. This article from the American Conservative discusses the dumbing down of history. I would be remiss if I did not add my own anecdote--taking a high school physics class that had smiley faces on the atoms in its illustrations of molecules! Bill Whittle describes the problem well in the following video:

The dumbing down of textbooks is only part of the problem. The other problem is that instead of being taught how to think or engage in analysis, our children's minds are being filled with "feel good", politically correct dogma. Children are not only illiterate in the sense that they no longer are required to read great thoughts, but they are brainwashed into not having great thoughts.

Some may believe that the basic vocabulary and wording of today's books is better because it more easily exposes children to great ideas. Not so. Part of understanding great ideas is having to struggle to obtain the insight or understanding of an idea. Moreover, it takes a vocabulary to think and comprehend those great ideas. Our thinking is formed and channeled by our vocabulary. A reduced vocabulary--or a bland one--rob us of the ability to think great thoughts.

Consider the parallel to mathematics. The equivalent of basic vocabulary would be arithmetic. Arithmetic is useful, just as a 7th grade reading comprehension is useful. Many of us will be able to get through our lives with only using arithmetic, just has many will get by in our lives using only a 7th grade vocabulary or reading comprehension. But arithmetic, by itself, cannot reveal the laws of physics, the calculus, relativity, or even how to navigate the globe. Similarly, a 7th grade reading level may be sufficient for a grocery list or instructions on how to use a lamp, but it will not convey the sublime beauty of a sonnet, the great thoughts of a Voltaire or John Locke, or the nuances of a Shakespearean play.

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