Men, Women, and IQ: Setting the Record Straight

What James Flynn's data actually shows.

Posted Jul 20, 2012

A recent article in The Telegraph includes the following quote from philosopher and IQ researcher James Flynn:

"In the last 100 years the IQ scores of both men and women have risen, but women's have risen faster."

To further elucidate the matter, they consult Helena Jamison, a 33 year old consultant who studied English literature at Cambridge:

"I think women probably always knew deep down that they were the more intelligent ones - but as the gentler sex we were quiet about it and let men continue to believe they ruled the world."

Can we stop this madness please?

Today I was treated to a talk from James Flynn in Cambridge, England. Flynn is one of my intellectual heroes. I always enjoy his talks, because they are highly provocative and thoughtful. This talk was no exception. I'll give a quick recap for those of you interested in Flynn's actual data and intepretations.

Flynn looked at IQ scores from ages 14-18 and found 5 modern states where he could get standardization samples with at least 500 people of each gender. The states he looked at were Australia, New Zealand, White South Africa, Estonia, and Argentina. It was important that he used standardization samples, because that means that the IQ researchers made an effort to get as representative a sample as possible.

Analyzing those 5 datasets and throwing away all of the older studies from the prior generation (prior to 1982), he compared men and women on the Raven's Progressive Matrices test, a test of abstract, logical reasoning. Setting the male score at 100, Flynn found that women scored the lowest in Australia (99.5), but in the other 4 nations Raven's scores varied from 100.5 to 101.5. After presenting this data, he noted:

"So they certainly equaled men, and perhaps were slightly above. This has been distorted in the news of my saying that women are incredibly more intelligent than men. As you can see, this somewhat goes beyond what was claimed."

The audience chuckled. Flynn then goes on make the argument that in every country in which women have been allowed full entry into modernity in terms of educational opportunities, they are now matching men on Raven's. As for the fraction of a point advantage in IQ for women,

"I suspect that is a characterological trait. They are also more focused in the testing room just as they are more focused in the classroom. So my conclusion is the sexes on the Raven's is probably dead equal for cognitive factors and there is a very slight female advantage for characterological traits. This is mere extrapolation from what happens at secondary school. You would expect a little female advantage because of temperamental differences."

Flynn notes that in his class at the University of Otago, "2/3rd of the students are women, and 2/3rd of the late essays are men." He says this is a universal phenomenon. He also notes that "I'm not saying the genders are equal. They're equal in their ability to deal with using logic on the abstract problems of Raven's". He points out that if you try to intentionally create a gender neutral IQ test by throwing out items that favor one gender over the other, you find that you can't eliminate a female verbal advantage and a male advantage for visual spatial items. 

Then Flynn presents data on the Black-White IQ gap in the United States. He shows that since 1972, Black Americans have gained 5 points over Whites. But strikingly, the IQ gap widens systematically every few years. In other words, the rich still get richer in America, and the poor stil get poorer. Here's his data: 

Black-White difference in 1972

Age               4           8           12          16        20         24

                   -10       -12.4     -14.8     -17.2    -19.6     -22.0

Black-White difference in 2002

Age              4           8           12        16        20         24

                   -5       -7.5        -9.8     -12.2     -14.6      -17

In 1972, at the age of 4, there was a 10 point IQ difference between blacks and whites on average in the United States. In 2002, the gap had narrowed by 5 points, but there was still a 5 point difference at age 4. By the age of 24, the gap widened to a 17 point difference. This is better than the 22 point difference found in 1972 for age 24, but it's still quite alarming. Flynn doesn't believe that blacks and whites are born with differences in intelligence. As he rightly points out, it wasn't that long ago that some psychologists were arguing that Irish immigrants in the United States were genetically inferior. But when Irish Americans began to invest in education, they completely closed the gap. Instead, Flynn argues that these trends become cumulative, and problems are already evident in preschool. He proposes some environmental explanations, including differences in attitudes toward academic achievement.

He says he is fully aware of the controversial nature of his research and his ideas, but thinks these are serious issues that require rigorous investigation. He believes that IQ trends show us interesting social trends. He told the audience that he has suggested half a dozen studies that could shed light on this issue,

"But you cannot say these things. They are forbidden. Which means of course we go on in ignorance of what actually causes group differences. Which means we can't provide any solutions. When you turn your back on reality you lose the ability to manipulate reality. One would think that is self-evident...I didn't go into this to not try to find the truth."

I have immense respect for Flynn, who clearly is interested in societal progress and the reduction of inequalities around the world. After the talk, I asked Flynn if he'd like me to write a blog post setting the record straight about his data. He said he'd really appreciate that, because when he was interviewed, the interviewer kept asking him leading questions about women and multitasking, clearly wanting to get a particular answer out of him. This really bugs me. I wish we would stop with all the petty gender wars that have no actual basis in fact and address really significant issues. We still have a long way to go in terms of racial equality in the United States. Hopefully Flynn's startling data will open up a much needed discussion. Everything in Flynn's talk is also discussed in his new book Are We Getting Smarter?: Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century. I highly reccomend it if you're interested in hearing his views on these important issues rather than relying on the media.  

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