The Flynn Effect

At Mike’s suggestion I adapt, below, a post that has already been published at my other blog, An Examined Life. The overall substance of the post is the same, but I have made a few minor alterations to reflect the change in venue.


In 1984 James R. Flynn published a paper in the professional journal Psychological Bulletin in which he documented a year-by-year rise in performance scores on standardized IQ tests from 1932 to 1978. The results were robust across cultures and socio-economic cohorts. IQ test scores are routinely re-normalized in such a way as to keep the average IQ at 100, but psychologists and sociologists continue to debate the etiology of the so-called “Flynn Effect”.

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On Thursday of this week I finished teaching for the summer. That gives me roughly ten days off to get ready for the fall term. Not much of a summer break, I’ll grant you, but I needed the money. The good news is that the class I just finished teaching, Introduction to the Philosophy of Science, is one of the classes I will be teaching this fall, so I’m well prepared, at least for that class. I will also be teaching a graduate seminar on the philosophy of biology, and that one will take considerably more work. For one thing, that class is more likely to have some real scientists in it, and my experience has been that real scientists don’t always take philosophy all that seriously, especially when philosophers try to say something clever or interesting about some particular science. Peter Godfrey-Smith, a philosopher of science at Harvard University, defines the naturalist program as an intersection between science and philosophy in which it is recognized from the start that science and philosophy are logically distinct disciplines, but in which it is nevertheless permissible for philosophers to make use of scientific work in answering philosophical questions. There is often a fair amount of persuasion that goes into greasing the wheels of the naturalist program these days, but my own personal experience in this regard has been that scientists, on the whole, are a well-educated bunch and have extremely open minds when it comes to exploring interdisciplinary boundaries. What this means in practice is that, in general, I spend less time in philosophy of science classes trying to get people to see the interest or even robustness of certain philosophical ideas that may be very new to them and that, indeed, may be very difficult for them to imagine impinging on their real work in the lab.

The situation is markedly different when I teach courses in the history of philosophy. These classes have no prerequisites, so they tend to have a fair number of freshmen and sophomores from across the institutional curricula in them. I am more than happy to have such students in my classes, of course, but I’ve noticed something about them that is rather striking. Some of them have a tendency to challenge every argument from every philosopher they encounter. In itself it is not a bad idea to be skeptical about philosophical arguments, so it’s not the fact that they are willing to raise such challenges that I find striking. Indeed, it would be more worrisome if they said nothing at all but rather just passively absorbed whatever they happened to come across. What is striking is that the challenges tend to be vociferous, dogmatic, and unrelenting. Some students appear to think that challenging a philosophical argument really amounts to nothing more than having a different point of view of one’s own and then stating it. With conviction. When this attitude is combined with what appears to be a certain disdain for the arguments of the philosopher being challenged, one cannot help but get the feeling that intellectual laziness is on the rise in some quarters.

Now, plenty of great philosophers have committed themselves to ideas that some of the rest of us will simply reject tout court, and far be it from me to try to rescue such ideas by a mere argumentum ad auctoritatem. But still: Is it really the case that, say, Aristotle’s views about final causation, or Kant’s categorical schema, or Quine’s denial of the distinction between the analytic and the synthetic, are nothing more than the mere guesswork of complete morons? Because that’s how some of my students treat such ideas when presenting their own. Some students appear to think that refuting a philosopher like Aristotle is simply a matter of pointing out that, Hey dude, the guy’s ancient. It’s as if the 2300 years that have elapsed between Aristotle’s time and our own was merely preparatory for the present generation: nobody noticed, until now, what a dork Aristotle was, and we finally have the definitive refutation of all of his views. The only problem left worth solving is the question why we even bother to teach the ideas of these benighted bozos at all any more.

I taught an introductory-level class a few years ago in which we read Plato’s Gorgias as an introduction to certain elements of moral theory. To see how tempting it is for some students to challenge philosophical arguments with which they disagree, regardless of how well prepared they are to do so, consider the following exchange that took place in that class:

Magister: What can we say about the soundness of Socrates’ argument that a wrongdoer is bound to be unhappy?

Discipulus: I think it’s dumb.

M: You think it’s a dumb argument? What about it strikes you as dumb?

D: I think the whole thing is dumb.

M: The whole argument?

D: This whole thing [flips book on desk].

M: You think the whole dialogue is dumb?

D: I guess so.

M: How do you think it fails?

D: I dunno. I just think it’s dumb. I guess. Never mind.

One of the greatest works of philosophical literature in the Western Canon, but this guy, an undergraduate at Ohio University, had decided that it failed to amount to anything at all worth reading. I should have asked him for a list of works that he thought would be better candidates for taking up his time in study, but I was a little worried that he might not be that much of a reader to begin with. We moved on.

I was reminded of this little exchange yesterday as I read, with considerable morbid fascination, the exchange at a blog called Parchment and Pen between an author of one of the essays there and our own Dr. Michael Liccione and Fr. Alvin Kimel, formerly of Pontifications. Mike and Fr. Al got drawn into the conversation because the topic of the essay was whether “Catholics deny Chalcedon in their view of the Mass.” The author of the essay, C. Michael Patton, admits early on that “it may be that I am misunderstanding things (this would not be a first).” He goes on to document what he takes to be the impossibility of reconciling the notion of transubstantiation with the teachings of Chalcedon. It is a very interesting essay, and I certainly recommend reading it. What fascinates me about the exchange, however, is not so much the argument of the essay (which, in the end, fails for precisely the reason its own author had, with such admirable modesty, anticipated), but rather the exchanges in the combox between the author and Mike and Fr. Al. Mike, in particular, completed the Herculean task of making some sense out of the issues involved, and Fr. Al did an admirable job of clarifying what the Church actually has to say about these issues and noted, not unfairly, I think, that the Council of Chalcedon itself accepted the basic metaphysics of transubstantiation. Needless to say, none of this had any effect on those readers of the essay who, for various reasons, appeared to be predisposed to accept the Calvinist, rather than the Catholic, interpretation of things.

Now, just possibly it is the case that a 35 year old blogger from Norman, Oklahoma, has stumbled upon something that generations of philosophers and theologians have missed. Things like that may be very rare, but of course they are not literally impossible. But I couldn’t help agreeing with Mike, when he closed his first comment with these words:

As a regular Catholic blogger, I often find myself confronted with arguments that the body of Catholic dogma is inconsistent with itself in this-or-that respect. Since I don’t want to invite more such arguments, I shall not now cite any examples other than yours. I mention my experience only so as to cite the lesson I’ve learned from it: invariably, I find that the critic has simply misunderstood at least one of the doctrines in question. In isolated cases, that would not be at all strange. What I do find strange is the apparent frequency of the belief that the Catholic Church, despite her nearly two thousand years of teaching, dogmatizing, and theological reflection, somehow keeps missing the rather elementary points of logic that would expose her doctrinal inconsistency. I would gently urge you to be very careful before you adopt a stance which entails something so unlikely.

You would think that this kind of advice, coming as it does from a professional theologian with advanced degrees and considerable academic experience, would have some effect. The effect it had, however, was not unlike the effect that Plato’s Gorgias had on my student of yesteryear. C. Michael Patton was much more polite, and exhibited admirable Christian charity, but what he said was ultimately the same in substance as my former student’s assessment of Plato’s argument.

There’s not much that can be done about that kind of thing, in my opinion. Mike is a Catholic, and C. Michael Patton is a Protestant, who literally claims that John Calvin is the greatest theologian in the last 2000 years: the guys are like antiparticles of each other, and it’s probably best if we just keep them apart so they don’t annihilate one another. We may contrast the performances in the combox at Parchment and Pen, however, with the discussion going on right now in the combox to Mike’s recent post on Transubstantiation in this venue. In that discussion you will find a number of writers who disagree strongly with Mike, but they do not appear to suppose that the etiology of Mike’s position (and that of the Roman Catholic Church) amounts to nothing more than ignorance of a simple and straightforward logical error. The charity and intellectual curiosity on display are bracing.


In the years since James Flynn published his first paper on increasing IQ scores a number of explanations for the trend have been offered. Some, such as Flynn himself, have suggested that people really are getting smarter (or at least more adept at manipulating and reasoning about abstract concepts) as the environment in which we live becomes ever more complex and demanding and general educational levels increase. Others have suggested that we’re just getting better at taking multiple-choice tests since such test structures are becoming ever more common in educational curricula. These explanations don’t appear to take into account the robustness of the results across cultures and soci-economic strata, but they are highly suggestive.

Statistical studies of intelligence are extremely problematic. Arthur Jensen, a retired psychologist at Berkeley, commented about attempts to extrapolate from the Flynn Effect that, if carried to an extreme such studies would force us to conclude that Aristotle had an IQ of -1000. That would come as no surprise to some of my students. I don’t know whether people are really getting smarter or not, but I know for a fact that they think they are.

5 Responses

  1. Scott:

    I don’t know whether the Flynn Effect obtains or not, but my experience defending the Faith in the blogosphere certainly leads me to affirm the Dopeler Effect!


  2. Prof. Carson,

    Your conversation with the undergrad philosophy student–priceless. In my experience there are two things that the average American undergrad of today is loath to do: 1). Think. 2). Risk even the possibility of embracing any argument that would compel him to do something he didn’t want to do, or to take up a position that he is committed to opposing. It sometimes takes a bit of digging to find out which of these two issues is the operative in a given case. In the case of your undergrad documented here, I’d lean towards #1.

    After reading through the exchange with C. Michael Patton linked above, it seems clear that Patton was not at all prepared for a serious level of engagement, as he himself obliquely admitted when he said he had never encountered a Catholic who had really understood the issues in depth and detail (“I have asked many Catholics before and it normally does not register as something they have thought about”). Well, that situation changed in his combox. After stating his own position, Patton never once engaged with Fr. Kimel and ML’s counter-arguments–arguments that, btw, were generously and patiently put forward–but was content to merely restate his position. This makes the experience of reading that thread rather frustrating. Once you state a problematic position and then are made to realize that your opponents are not at all committed to that position, you’ve got to re-evaluate and re-formulate your argument, don’t you? It’s just a basic rule of honest argumentation that you’ve got to correctly understand your opponent’s position, or at least make every effort to do so. It’s stunning to me that Patton would have even published a piece like the one he did without also anticipating the counter argument. If you are ignorant of the argument for a position, how do you realistically hope to assail it? But perhaps he’ll keep thinking it through and come back with a substantive response at a later date. One can only hope.

  3. It’s stunning to me that Patton would have even published a piece like the one he did without also anticipating the counter argument. If you are ignorant of the argument for a position, how do you realistically hope to assail it?


    Nancy Pelosi did the same thing about the abortion issue on “Meet the Press.” The more ignorant one is, the less one knows one doesn’t know.


  4. Of course I could write Pelosi off as being a political operator who has a vested interest in misunderstanding the Church’s teaching. Mr. Patton, I charitably assume, is an honest interlocutor who is inviting a real debate for the sake of getting to the bottom of an issue, learning, etc. He initially presents himself as a humble seeker of truth who has an honest problem with an element of Catholic teaching. Trouble is, under fire he’s conducting himself more or less like Pelosi. I understand what a challenge it can be to the ego to suddenly have a long cherished view threatened, and I sympathize with the man who isn’t immediately ready to reconsider a view at the very moment he finds himself stumped–it’s the “obstinacy of belief,” which is like a reflex action: sometimes it serves us well and sometimes it doesn’t. So perhaps Mr. Patton just needs a little time to let your rejoinder sink in. Otherwise, his modus operandi in that particular thread calls in to question the mission statement of his entire blog. Elsewhere on the site he has said:

    “I don’t really mind labels like some. I just mind people having the wrong idea about what the labels mean and therefore making faulty assumptions based upon misinformation.”

    I suppose you know how he feels. But perhaps this is all better directed at Mr. Patton himself, instead of you. Anyway, I appreciated the recent discussion on transubstantiation. Best wishes on your endeavors here at the new blog, a really strong starting line-up, I might add.

  5. Scott:

    Mike is a Catholic, and C. Michael Patton is a Protestant, who literally claims that John Calvin is the greatest theologian in the last 2000 years: the guys are like antiparticles of each other, and it’s probably best if we just keep them apart so they don’t annihilate one another.

    Come to think of it, I don’t believe your analogy is quite apt. Patton and I would annihilate each other only if we were of equal mass.


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