James Flynn approached one of social science’s most controversial topics with logic and empiricism.
This cruelest of years has claimed the life of another consequential scholar whose passing warrants some reflection.
James Flynn, who died last week at 86, was an American social scientist born in Washington and educated at the University of Chicago. He spent most of his academic career on the other side of the planet, at the University of Otago in southern New Zealand. Flynn specialized in the study of mental tests and human intelligence, and he distinguished himself by bringing far more light than heat to this fraught debate.
Many earlier researchers of group differences in mental performance were convinced that intelligence was mostly inherited. In 1969 the psychologist Arthur Jensen published an academic article in the Harvard Educational Review that said blacks had lower IQs than whites due mainly to genetics and that compensatory education programs intended to close the learning gap among children—Head Start, for example—would have little success.
The article caused an uproar that never entirely died down. Jensen, who died in 2012, was roundly denounced as a racist by those who said that environmental factors rather than genes explained racial disparities in test scores. For a time, he received death threats and needed bodyguards when he appeared in public forums. Calls for ending the use of IQ tests became commonplace. More than 50 years later, racial differences in SAT results are still cited as a reason to stop using the exam in college admissions. In May the University of California system announced it was scrapping its SAT requirement.
Flynn was skeptical of Jensen’s findings, and rightly so. If racial differences in average IQs were innate, why were there white groups in the U.S. and elsewhere with test scores similar to those of blacks? Why were there black schools with test scores that exceeded the national average? Why were black women significantly overrepresented among people with high IQs? Why did studies show that black orphans raised by white families had average IQs of 106 at a time when the average score of blacks nationally was 85 and the average score of whites was 100?
Theories of genetic determinism couldn’t explain these findings. Nor could they explain Flynn’s voluminous documentation that IQ scores among racial and ethnic groups world-wide have risen considerably from one generation to the next. In the 20th century, he discovered, the scores of entire countries rose by more than the black-white disparity in the U.S. In a study released in 2006, Flynn and a co-author, William Dickens, concluded that blacks had gained as many as seven IQ points on whites since the early 1970s, which is hard to explain if intelligence is genetically fixed.
Many of Jensen’s detractors wanted to shame or silence him. Charles Murray received similar treatment following the publication in 1994 of “The Bell Curve,” which cites Jensen’s theories favorably. Flynn thought it more important to push back with logic and empiricism, and he was careful not to overstate his case. That genetics weren’t the sole determining factor in a person’s intelligence didn’t mean they played no role at all. And that tests of mental ability were imperfect didn’t mean they were useless and should be discarded. Flynn felt such issues were worth debating—openly and honestly.
“I am happy to discuss the race and IQ debate with colleagues who hold contrary views,” he wrote in a 2017 paper. “Telling someone that what they believe is morally remiss or telling them that if they persist in disagreeing, I will expose them is not my style.” These days, unfortunately, it’s precisely the style of many liberal elites when it comes to discussing racial inequality. Question racial preferences, Black Lives Matter activism or critical race theory, and you are considered not merely in error but in sin. For Flynn, dodging difficult topics was intellectual cowardice. “To advise scholars that they should not systemically investigate race and IQ seems to me to raise the question of what we are afraid of.”
Earlier this year we lost Abigail Thernstrom and Walter Williams, two of the country’s leading race scholars. Flynn didn’t share their conservative politics. He was a committed leftist who named his son after the socialist Eugene Debs and left for New Zealand in the early 1960s because he was disgusted by McCarthyism and Jim Crow. What Flynn did share with his fellow controversialists was courage and a commitment to prioritizing facts and evidence over faddish thinking. He taught us how to discuss intelligence intelligently.
This piece originally appeared The Wall Street Journal (paywall)
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