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Dr. James Flynn: Emeritus Professor, Political Studies and Psychology, University of Otago, New Zealand (Part One)


Author(s): Scott Douglas Jacobsen

Publication (Outlet/Website): In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal

Publication Date (yyyy/mm/dd): 2014/08/01


First part of a two-part comprehensive interview with Emeritus Professor of Political Studies and Psychology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand on the main subjects of his research: intelligence and subsequent controversies; graduate students continuing the debate; Eysenck and Richard Lynn; incoming work for the year; environmental influence on intelligence; considerations on climate change; moral imperatives outsides of survival for solving climate change; family background and influence on development; influence of Catholicism; duties and responsibilities of being Emeritus Professor of Political Studies and Psychology at University of Otago, New Zealand; differences between intelligence and IQ; definitions of intelligence and IQ; the late Dr. Arthur Jensen and the 1969 journal article entitled How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?; Dr. Charles Murray and The Bell Curve.

Keywords: Catholicism, climate change, Dr. Arthur Jensen, Dr. Charles Murray, Dr. James Flynn, Emeritus Professor, environmental influence, Eysenck, Intelligence, IQ, moral imperatives, New Zealand, Political Studies, Psychology, Richard Lynn, University of Otago.

1. Your most famous research area is intelligence. Of those studying intelligence, you are among those on the top of the list. Many researchers worked in this area and caused many, many controversies, but more importantly sparked debate.

Of the old timers, I guess there’s just Richard Lynn and me around.  I mean among those people who really duelled over race and IQ.

Jensen died of a very bad case of Parkinson’s or something like that.  Very sad really, I wrote an obituary for him that was published in Intelligence.  Rushton died of something different, I’m not sure what his complaint was. Eysenck is dead.

2. You must have some ex-graduate students around that continue the debate.

Yes, there are people who will, though remember, it is a very politically sensitive topic.  Jensen’s fingers were burned, though he always showed great courage.  Rushton, I think, sort of enjoyed controversy, so I do not know how much his fingers were burned over the outrage his views caused.  Eysenck was such a great man and had so many interests, that the race issue was not really too much associated with him.  Richard Lynn, though he has made his views on race known, has been more interested in global matters.

3. Did he not attempt to make intelligence a unifying concept in psychology in a recent book?

He may have.  Was this on using the ‘g’ factor?  I have a piece on the ‘g’ factor coming out with a Dutch psychologist, who is a whiz at statistics, an article in Intelligence, which may be on the web now, that puts ‘g’ in perspective.  It shows that the exaggerated claims made for it have to be trimmed back very radically.

For example, I have been reading the Wechsler manuals, and I have noticed something interesting.  The g-men say IQ gains are significant only if they are on the ‘g’ factor because they identify that with general intelligence.  I am not saying ‘g’ does not have any significance.  I think it has significance in a number of areas, but you cannot really dismiss IQ differences because they are not ‘g’.  They take the Wechsler subtests and rank them for the degree of ‘g’ loading, and then they rank them for something else.  In this case, IQ gains over time.  You find the largest IQ gains do not match the ‘g’ loadings.  They say, “You see.  IQ gains are not real intelligence gains.  They are specific factors that make you good at various subtests.”

But the data show that when you do subtests ranking of normal subjects against people who have had brain trauma, fetal alcohol syndrome, and so on, and when you compare these people with normal subjects, you find that the differences that separate them are not on the ‘g’ factor.  You would have to be pretty peculiar to say that a person with brain trauma or fetal alcohol syndrome does not have a lower intelligence from a normal person.  As I have said, I have been a sceptic about ‘g’ for years, but only when I came across this data could put an end to all this business.  IQ gains are very significant whether they correlate with ‘g’ or not.  To say they are not significant, you would have to say, “Well, there is no significant intelligence difference between you and someone who has suffered brain trauma.”

4. What other work will you bring out in the coming year?

I am doing some work on the effects of family on IQ as people age.  The twin studies, of course, show that eventually genes take over.  But they do this through elaborate kinship studies.  However, I have managed to find printed data in the manuals that allows me to actually chart how much family influences a person for ages going through school until adulthood.  I can do this subtest by subtest.

For example, I found that family effects for vocabulary are much more persistent than, for instance, arithmetic.  At the beginning, your family almost totally dominates, before you go to school they either teach you to count or they do not.  Of course, you are surrounded by their vocabulary.  With arithmetic, very quickly, the school swamps family.  It matches kids for their genetic promise fairly quickly.  Apparently, by being continually exposed to your parent’s vocabulary – after all, chatting with them, listening to them – vocabulary becomes a more persistent influence even up to the college boards at age 17.

This allows me for the first time to say, “Yes, genes do dominate in terms of IQ variance, but there are significant handicaps having to do with certain subtests like vocabulary that effect your ability to do well on the SAT verbal.”  I have written this up, preliminary study, not a final study, in a book I published with Elsevier.  It is called Intelligence and Human Progress: The Story of What Was Hidden in Our Genes.  It really is fundamentally a book on how we have made cognitive progress, stressing the theme that there is a spinoff of this for moral progress.  That one of the reasons for us having a more elevated sense of morality is because of our cognitive advance.  Moral reasoning has improved.

There is also a chapter, which shows how family affects vocabulary and it points out the way this handicaps young people.  The lingering effect of vocabulary at the time they are trying to match themselves for the university.  So it is not true that the genetic dominance of IQ variance means that your family background is a null factor.  It weakens, but it has sufficient kick that it can give you some disadvantages in later life.

5. This sets more nuance to the ways family history burdens or benefits you.

Yes, if you come from a family where the vocabulary is less than adequate, your vocabulary will be less than adequate.  Now, going to school and encountering the wider world will slowly replace that family effect with your current environment, but the vocabulary handicap can still be quite significant by the age of 17, when you graduate from high school.

I am also doing some other work with climate change.

6. Why don’t we veer into that a bit?

I have finished a book on climate change, but I have not placed it for publication at this time.  I am primarily a moral philosopher.  Psychology is a sideline for me.  I thought, “My heavens, I might at least confront probably the chief moral issue of our time.”  So I have written a little book looking into the science of climate change. Our climate will change.  What we are doing is no going to stop it.  There was a book called Gaia written by James Lovelock.  It describes the Earth being like a total system.  He has now become very pessimistic.  He figures we are going to go past the point of no return.

I wanted to see if there were alternatives that we could imagine.  There is another way.  If we were rational enough, we could probably limit climate change over the next generation until alternative, clean sources of energy come online.  I wanted to investigate the science and at least propose something a little less gloomy than the climate scientists.  They are all about ready to throw in the towel.   James Hansen, in Britain, he’s one of the heroes in the environmentalist movement, is pessimistic.  Of course, the environmentalists have all turned against him.

That’s what I am doing currently.  I am trying to publish my book on climate change, exploring whether you can identify intelligence with ‘g’, looking into the influence of cognitive ability on morality, and I am interested in finding a new way of partitioning IQ variance.  Those are the main things.  I hope by another month or two to have that cleaned up. After that point, I hope to begin an important book, which is on teaching political philosophy.  It would be how to teach it without boring students.  As I said, my main work is moral and political philosophy, but morals in particular.

7. Besides survival, what moral imperative do we have to protect the environment?

I think that comes down to a fundamental question, “Is there any objectivity to our moral ideals?”  The answer to that is, “No.  Either you empathize with humanity or you do not.  If you empathize with humanity, you feel an imperative.”  Now, that does not mean you cannot use reason against your opponents. Most of them are, or would at least claim, that they share this bond with humanity and would try and make a case that what we are doing makes no difference.

That leads directly from ethics to science. If what we are doing makes no difference, then there is no moral choice, is there? However, if science shows there are important choices that could be made, then you have to take a stand.  Either you possess humane ideals and think all human beings are worthy of moral concern.  Or you think this will not happen for 20 years.  I am 80 now, so I do not think I will live to see the consequences, and assume I have no grandchildren – so to hell with everyone.  Moral imperatives arise out of moral commitments.  If you have no commitment that gives you a bond with humanity, I cannot open your mouth and thrust one down your throat.

I wrote about this in a book called Fate and Philosophy that came out about three years ago.  It is on three problems: ‘what is good?’, ‘what is possible?’, and ‘what exists?’  To me, that book is the most important book that I have ever written: Fate and Philosophy. It is my stand on fundamental philosophical problems, but it is written for the general public.  I published a more specialized book, but more for a philosophical audience.  It is entitled How to Defend Humane Ideals.  It came out with Nebraska Press.  It is a specialized look at this question of objectivity and ethics.  However, Fate and Philosophy describes everything in more popular language.

I published a book in 2010 called the Torchlight List, and it is to encourage students to read widely, which most of them do not.  Compared to my generation, even our best graduates do not read widely in literature and history.  In the first chapter, I give some personal background.

8. In terms of geography, culture, and language, where does your family background reside? How do you find this influencing your development?

I was raised as an American-Irish Catholic.  For my father like so many Irish Catholicism was a badge of patriotism.  In terms of his beliefs, he only believed in the fundamentals, which means whatever he found convenient. (Laughs)  He was a good man, but he did not care much about the infallibility of the pope.  As I studied, I, lost my faith.  I began to realize I only believed in God because everyone around me believed in God.

But my background was in Washington, D.C., I was born there.  My father settled there as a newspaper man about the time of World War I.  My mother came from upstate New York.  She had been a school teacher.  I was raised there with my brother and first cousins.  At that time, the Irish extended family was still important, and my first cousins were really like brothers and sisters.

It influenced me in the sense that having been deeply committed to Catholicism’s version of humane ideals, once I lost my faith, I began to wonder what sort of rational justification I could give for my ideals.  That became a large part of my scholarly life.  Note my book:  How to defend humane ideals: substitutes for objectivity?

As for Psychology, I got onto that through moral philosophy.  I was writing what later became How to Defend Humane Ideals.  I worked on it for many years.  When I was writing a chapter on how to argue with racists, I stumbled on Arthur Jensen – who obviously was not a racist, but thought he had scientific evidence that blacks, on average, were genetically inferior.  And then, of course, I thought, “Well, I have certainly got to look into that.” I wrote a book called Race, IQ, and Jensen, which came out in 1980, in which I put the contrary view.

In researching that book, I was looking at publishers’ manuals and stumbled upon IQ gains over time.  That, of course, became an avocation for me (laughs), for the next 30 years.  You had to do more than acknowledge that the gains were there.  You had to alter the theory of intelligence to accommodate them.  I did that in my book What is Intelligence?, which came out in 2007 with Cambridge.  And I have published other books on this topic.  It was all an accident. I had no idea I would be interested in the theory of intelligence. I came to it through moral philosophy.

9. Even with that background, and the deep influence of Catholicism, what do you consider a pivotal moment?

It was a pivotal moment for me leaving Catholicism. I won an essay contest at the age of 11.  As an award, they gave me the World  Book Encyclopedia.  In reading it, I found there was a more scientific explanation of the world.  The other thing was going to the University of Chicago, which gave me the ‘Great Books’ curriculum.  It encouraged you to believe that if you are interested in fundamental problems, they were usually cross-disciplinary, and that if you were incisive enough, you could read across disciplines and get a good amateur competence.  Of course, I needed that when I went into psychology because I had never taught a psychology course or read a psychology text.  However, I was good at math.  I saw no reason why I could not chart IQ gains over time, and make the changes in the theory of intelligence that were necessary.

I would say three things: strong moral commitments, the break with Catholicism, and the University of Chicago.

10. At present, you hold the position of Emeritus Professor at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. What responsibilities and duties does this imply to you?

Yes, although I will be 80 in April, I will teach two courses this coming semester.  Of course, I will have the rest of the year to do my writing.

Emeritus professor here means that you are still active.  So even though I am retired, I am employed by the University of Otago.   You can employed at many levels.  Two courses is about a 4/5ths load.  They like my research.  So I am Emeritus Professor jointly with political studies and psychology.  I was head of the Political Studies Department for 30 years.  We emphasized moral and political philosophy among other things.  I teach one course in political studies entitled The Good Society and the Market.  I teach another in psychology entitled Justice, Race, and Class.

11. With regards to your main area of research in psychology, intelligence and IQ mean different things. Intelligence stands for a general attribute. IQ stands for scores given based on tests designed to penetrate this attribute through inference of performance. 

Yes, it may be either a better or worse measurement, of course.  I mean, there is no measure that cannot be abused, and Arthur Jensen was well aware of that.

12. With that, how would you define intelligence? How would you differentiate it from IQ?

You have that more formally in my book What is Intelligence?  I do not think it needs too careful a definition.  It is essentially a matter that one person is more intelligent than another in a certain cultural setting.  In the sense that when they confront important problems in that culture, they either learn to solve quicker or better.  Arthur Jensen wrote a good article on this using Robinson Crusoe, who was on his island.  Unless he had another person, he could not estimate his own intelligence.  He could make statements about memory.  For example, he either forgot things or he did not; he could learn things like manual dexterity.  But only when Friday arrived did he say, “My heavens, Friday is learning everything I learned faster than I did, and he is better at it.” (Laughs)  That is a first step to saying who is more intelligent.

When cognitive problems are terribly important, if you can learn what you need to learn to solve those problems quicker, or in the same amount of time you solve them better, that, I think, is a good working definition of intelligence.  Now, that still leaves it culturally relative.  If you were in the Australian outback, the problem that would interest you is finding water when it is scarce.  That would mean, your mapping ability is terribly important.  Today, if you are not a London cab driver, you do not much care about mapping ability.

13. You have mentioned the late Dr. Arthur Jensen a few times. He published a well-cited and famous, or – by many individual’s account – infamous, paper published in 1969 by the late entitled How Much Can We Boost IQ and Scholastic Achievement?, which sparked a controversy around the topic of race and IQ.

It created a storm of controversy.  Rather than assembling evidence to attack the position, they attacked the man.  That’s why I wrote my book Race, IQ, and Jensen, which you will find saying, “This is ridiculous.  There is no reason to think Arthur Jensen is a racist.  Let’s look at the evidence.  We can either show he is wrong evidentially or he is not.”  I feel the evidence shows that it is more probable that blacks have genes roughly equivalent to whites for what we call ‘intelligence’.  If you want to see my most recent updating of that thesis, you would want to read, not only the old book Race, IQ, and Jensen, but also Where Have All the Liberals Gone?.  It came out with Cambridge in 2008, and it has four chapters on black Americans.

14. In addition, and following that controversy, those arguing for heredity more than environment provided further momentum for the opposing side with works by Dr. Charles Murray…

Yes, I know Charles Murray.  Murray has never stated any definite position on the genetic comparisons of the two racial groups.  He has been much more cautious than Jensen.  What he wrote, in the minds of many, influenced them to believe that he agreed with Jensen, but he has never stated that.  He did bring forward many of Jensen’s arguments saying, “We have to acknowledge there is a powerful case here.”

The Bell Curve was not fundamentally about race, genes, and IQ.  It was saying, “Let’s look at the present situation and see how IQ effects your life prospects.”  There’s no doubt that even if black and whites have the same genes for IQ, blacks are doing worse academically.  And he was exploring the consequences of an IQ test in predicting academic performance.

I had two debates with Murray.  You can find them on the internet.  One was in New York.  Another was in Washington, D.C.  Washington, D.C. hosted by the American Enterprise Institute.  The one in New York was Cognos I think, but you can find them on the internet – if you type in ‘Flynn, Murray, race, and IQ’.  The second debate was better because we had rehearsed our arguments better.


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