Friday, July 20, 2012
Is the female of the species really more intelligent than the male?
New research into IQ levels could end the modern taboo on comparing cleverness, says Michael Hanlon
We accept that some people are taller than others, or darker- or lighter-skinned, or better at running. We also accept that these differences are due, at least in part, to genetics. Yet there is one area where we continue to insist that there cannot be any innate biological distinction between different people, or groups of people, and that is in our minds. The merest suggestion that there may be hard-wired disparities in intelligence causes the most terrible wailing and gnashing of teeth, even though such physical and mental variations – dictated by genes and environment – are exactly what you would expect in an abundant species that has adapted to just about every corner of the globe.
That taboo, however, may be breaking down. In his new book, the brilliant psychologist James Flynn, of Otago University in New Zealand, has revealed that, for the first time, women (in some developed countries) are systematically outperforming men in standardised tests of intelligence. This contradicts earlier findings which suggested that, historically, men have had IQs that were a couple of points higher – or rather, have performed marginally better on a whole slew of intelligence metrics, which measure subtly different things.
The reaction to this finding has been largely positive. Most reports have concentrated on women’s ability to “juggle” and to “multi-task”, with the conclusion: “Didn’t we know this all along?” Expect to hear the old clarion call of “men are redundant”, with the human male reduced to a shambling, knuckle-dragging brute lost in a sea of feminised modernity.
Imagine, however, that Flynn had found the opposite. Suppose that his trawl of standardised measures of intelligence in schoolchildren and young adults, in countries as disparate as Estonia, Argentina, Israel and New Zealand, had confirmed, once and for all, that men had slightly higher IQs. Would that finding be celebrated?
Of course not. Howling columnists would queue up to pour scorn on the very notion, stating that the idea of innate sex differences in IQ is utterly chauvinist. Others would take issue with the whole notion of measured intelligence: “What is IQ,” they would ask, “but a measure of the ability to do intelligence tests?”
Either way, it is important to stress that the differences we are talking about are very small, a percentage point or two at most – and whatever the truth, it’s not as though we can do much about it. The more interesting question is not whether women are cleverer than men, but why this should be so, and why this seems to be a recent trend.
First, we have to dismiss the pernicious but persistent fallacy that IQ is meaningless. The tests used today attempt to measure something called g, a measure of innate general intelligence that is divorced, as far as possible, from cultural and social bias. Thus questions tend to involve not word associations (which are influenced by your level of literacy and knowledge) but connections between patterns and shapes, order and structure.
Most psychologists now accept that while IQ (or g) may not be a measure of pure intelligence per se, it is certainly a measure of something that correlates very well with it. People with high IQs tend to end up with better qualifications, better jobs, higher earnings and longer lives. Crucially, they are also perceived as “cleverer”. Like it or not, being a successful human has a lot to do with being smart – and IQ, or g, does seem to be a fair measure of smartness.
This brings us to one of the most interesting – and scientifically counter-intuitive – findings to have emerged in the last 100 years: namely, that we are all, men and women alike, getting brighter.
The trend was discovered by, and named after, Flynn himself back in the 1980s. In industrialised countries, both adults and children are routinely subjected to various IQ measurements. And, since such testing began in the first half of the 20th century, the average IQ of both sexes has risen by between 10 and 20 per cent. Every few years, the tests had to be revised to make sure that the average score remained at 100 – and in every country, that revision meant making the tests harder.
This means that if a British child scores 100 on an IQ test set in 2012, he would score 110 or so on a test dating from the 1970s. In some countries, such as the Netherlands, where the Flynn Effect was first spotted, the increase has been even more spectacular – a full 30 IQ points between 1950 and 1980. Overall, IQ in both industrialised and developing nations is rising by about three points per decade.
For years, the cause of the Flynn Effect was a mystery. One thing it could not be was genetic: the effect is happening too fast for any form of evolution to be occurring. Better diet was a popular theory, but places like the US, Canada and Scandinavia have been well-fed for a century or more. Education may have been a factor – but again, the increases continued well into the era of compulsory universal schooling in most countries.
In the end, it was Flynn himself who solved the mystery. The effect, he argued, is not due to innate changes in our brains, but to how they react to the sort of problems that define the modern world. Flynn gives an example: “If I were to have asked my father, say, 'What do a dog and a rabbit have in common?’ and then ask the same question today of a bright schoolchild, I would get two answers.” His father, like most “old-fashioned” people (Flynn is in his eighties, so his father was a product of the 19th century) would look for associations. “Dogs hunt rabbits,” he might have said – which is not wrong, but nor is it the answer to the question.
Today, any schoolchild would give the “right” answer, namely: “they are both animals” or “they are both mammals”. Flynn’s point is that until recently, this categorising of the world, putting things into boxes – mammals or not-mammals, dollars or pounds, Apples or PCs – was not the way people thought. In this sense IQ, or rather differences in IQ, may not be so much a measure of intelligence as of modernity.
It is this that may give us a clue as to why women are not only catching up with men but, in some places, starting to overtake them. There may be something innate about the way women’s brains are put together (or the demands placed upon them) that allows them to cope with complexity and the need to systematise. As Prof Flynn said at the weekend: “In the last 100 years the IQ scores of both men and women have risen, but women’s have risen faster. This is a consequence of modernity. The complexity of the modern world is making our brains adapt and raising our IQ.”
Many mysteries remain about human intelligence. Will the Flynn Effect continue, so that our grandchildren look down upon us as barely sentient dullards? Or will it go into reverse, as dysgenic effects (the fact that people with lower IQs tend to have more children) take over? Will the developing world continue to catch up with the old industrialised world? Why do men continue to outperform women in intelligence tests in non-industrialised societies?
Some of this research may be controversial. After all, if talking about sex and IQ is tricky, talking about race and IQ is incendiary: as with high-IQ women, we are generally happy to talk about certain ethnic groups (such as some Jewish populations) having high IQs, but less happy with the corollary, namely that others are less well endowed.
Yet in an increasingly knowledge-driven world, where brains are more important than brawn to a degree never seen before, we need to understand these differences, if for no other reason than to help raise everyone to their potential. Being scared to talk about it is – well, just stupid.
The above article is informative and well-argued and it is pleasing to note that it appeared in a major British newspaper. On some matters of detail, however, I have to differ.
Flynn's argument that we have only recently started to categorize is absurd. Every noun in our language stands for a category of things. Categorization is a central human survival strategy. It enables us to make predictions and thus protect our futures to some extent. Even cavemen would have readily detected the difference between a dog and a rabbit, for instance (to use the example above). Their hunting trips would have had little success otherwise. Expecting a rabbit to help you bring down prey would be pretty futile.
So what alternative do I offer to Flynn's explanation? I agree with him that modernity generally is the explanation but I differ on which aspects of modernity are involved. One aspect is increasing test sophistication. As education has become more widespread and extended into the late teens, kids have developed strategies for passing tests (guessing when uncertain, for instance) and those strategies help with IQ tests too. A test of that explanation is that the rise in IQ should now be levelling off as just about everybody now is exposed to a lot of education. And that does indeed appear to be happening in some countries. The Flynn effect appears to be fading. IQ levels seem to be approaching an asymptote, in statisticians' terms.
But there are other aspects of modernity that are presumably important too -- improved peri-natal care, for instance and also childbirth itself. Babies can quite easily be brain-damaged to varying degrees during birth and the much increased use of episiotomies and Caesarians would obviate a lot of that. So more babies are born with their brains functioning to their maximum potential.
So what do I make of the current slightly higher scores of women in some countries? For a start, it is perfectly easy to design a test that will show either sex as brighter. Women have better verbal skills and men have better visuo/spatial skills so if you want to show women as brighter you put in more verbal questions and if you want to show men as brighter you put in fewer verbal questions. So it is possible that recent re-standardizations of tests have added more items in areas that women are good at.
Another possibility is the way the educational system has become anti-male, with female characteristics praised and male characteristics deplored. This has led to extensive alienation of young males and a much higher educational dropout rate among them. In such circumstances, then, males get on average less opportinity to acquire that test sophistication I referred to above. We live in a feminized environment generally, in fact, compared to (say) 100 years ago so there may be many ways in which females are subtly advantaged.
The important point, however, is to recognize that people do differ in many ways and that, like it or not, IQ is one difference that affects a lot of things that we value. High IQ, for instance, is associated with greater wealth and better health while low IQ is associated with higher levels of crime and greater poverty. -- JR
Posted by jonjayray at 9:32 PM
Friday, July 13, 2012
The article by Fred Reed below gets a lot of things right but gets a simple thing wrong so I thought it might be useful to put it up for both reasons. His comments about the characteristics of Mexican and US culture seem spot-on to me and the differences between the two cultures do play a part in explaining why Mexico is in an apparently permanent mess.
In his comments about IQ, however, Fred seems to forget what an average is. The Mexican IQ average includes the large, semi-literate rural population and that drags the average down. So showing that the Mexican middle class performs better than what that average would lead one to expect proves nothing and is essentially irrelevant
And in any case, smart fraction theory says that it is the IQ of the top 5% that matters, not the average IQ. The most vivid example of that is Israel, which has overall only an average IQ (Due to the large fraction of the population that came from Arab lands). But Israel also has a very bright sub-population of Ashkenazi origin and it is that sub-population that mostly accounts for Israel's frankly brilliant achievements.
What the average IQ of Mexico's top 5% is I have no idea but Fred is right in saying that cultural factors would hold them back even if they were very bright
The higher up the Mexican social hierarchy you go, the whiter people seem to get so Mexico is, like Israel, still a mixture (not a blend) of two broad sub-populations of different racial origins (Spanish and native). So that could well be integral to explaining why the Mexican middle class performs well above what one would expect from the national average. They have a larger Spanish genetic component
The Mexican authorities are of course aware of the demographic differences in their population and appear rather nervous about its potential for social combustion. So they have promulgated the amusing doctrine of "La Raza" -- the pretence that there is such a thing as a Mexican "race". I doubt that it fools many Mexicans, though. Its main use seems to be among Hispanics living in the USA
I belong to a list-serve of exceedingly bright people (I am not one of them) to include Ivy profs, who believe that IQ largely determines human destiny. This is in part I suspect because IQ is something they have, but it is possible that I am being snide in this. They regard as canonical the book IQ and the Wealth of Nations, which purports to show a correlation and by extension a causal relationship between mean national IQ and prosperity. They assert that the mean IQ of Mexico, where I live, is about 86, well below the mean of roughly 100 of white Americans. This, they further assert, accounts for the comparative backwardness of Mexico. Does it?
Now, some brush-clearing. Intelligence obviously exists, in the street sense that we all recognize. Some people obviously have more of it than others. There is obviously a genetic element. No biological reason exists to believe that genetically distinct groups cannot vary in intelligence. IQ, within cultures anyway, provides at least a rough measure of intelligence: It is easy to distinguish people with IQs of 180 from those with IQs of 80. So, in principle, Mexicans could be innately stupid. Are they?
I would like to think not, but what I want to think doesn’t seem to determine reality. (I regard this as a major design flaw of the universe.) How could I tell whether Mexicans were dull? It seemed to me that the alleged deficit, almost fifteen points, ought to be obvious. In fact I wondered whether a nation with a mean IQ of 86 could run airlines, hospitals, and telephone and internet companies. Which Mexico does.
While I could not test the entire population, I thought a reasonable approach might be to compare the apparent intelligence of Americans and Mexicans in professions of which I knew something. This I did.
A few days ago, I saw a retinologist in Guadalajara. Ophthalmological specialties are not for the fumble-minded, yet he was as intelligent and competent as any I have seen in the US. He also spoke near-perfect English. I tend to ask questions, which gives doctors a chance not to know the answers, or half know them. Not this guy. He was sharp. He sent me to a local retina clinic for optical-coherence tomography and a fluorescein angiogram. I have had these things done in the US, and saw no difference in the competence of those administering them.
Now, the IQist response, reasonable enough as a question, is to argue that even in a country with a mean IQ of 86 there will be a few who can perform at a high levels. True. This is the argument of The Only Fifty Smart Mexicans. The question is how many hundreds of thousands of the Only Fifty you can have before the numbers become embarrassing. After nine years in Mexico, I have seen a lot of dentists and doctors, using all manner of, for example, ultrasound-Doppler gear, and seen no difference in apparent intelligence.
A small difference would not be detectible by this method. But fifteen points?
Take another field, one that I know well: journalism. I have read lots of Mexican newspapers (they are on the web). They are as well-written as American. The Spanish in editorial columns is syntactically more complex than American journalistic English. Such journalists as I have met have been very smart. Television journalism is like the American, except that in talking-head shows there is civility and people don’t talk over each other. (And, overall, the content is less controlled, but this is another matter.)
The same happens in daily life. I have no sense that the civilized population is dim-witted. Here things are tricky: A large part of the country has barely risen above peasantry, and seems stupid, as much so as America’s Scotch-Irish louts of the 1800s or inhabitants of Chinese villages today. Among the approximately middle class—more a psychological than an economic designation—people seem as bright as Americans. I see them in banks, travel agencies, pharmacies. And I encounter way too many kids who have learned fair to good English, many in high school. I mean English English, not Frito bandido dialect. With a mean IQ of 86?
An IQist asked me a bit challengingly how many kids I knew who could qualify for Harvard. Two. One is my stepdaughter. The other is a guy whose mother owns a local bar. Natalia is in university, he by choice in some nothing job. (The women in Mexico are regularly more impressive than the men.) Obviously kids whom Natalia chooses as friends are not average, but two Ivy intelligences out of the perhaps ten kids I know squares poorly with the IQist theory.
In saying all of this, I am not suggesting that Mexico has achievement the intellectual development of Finland. While it is generally literate, much of it is barely so. Very large chunks of the population live in ignorance and do not produce retinologists. What I do suggest is that far too many people here do technically and otherwise demanding things for the IQ-86 theory to hold water.
When do exceptions cease to be exceptions? Maintaining modern cars with their linguini wiring and computers is not for the stupid. They do it. Ditto, building highways through mountains. They do it. Ditto, walking internet customers through the internals of modems. The Telmex techs regularly do it. Ditto, pirating software with tight security, such as Adobe, or Windows 7 so that it updates. Young techs do it.
So, the IQists ask reasonably, if Mexicans are not stupid, why is the country backward? Where are the Nobelists in physics, the Intels, the Apollo programs? Why no Bill Gates?
There are several becauses. Because the society is profoundly corrupt, with (it sometimes seems) everything and everybody being for sale. Because of a lack of entrepreneurial spirit, a tendency to be content with enough. Because Mexicans tend to live entirely in the present, instead of having one foot in the future as Americans do. Because of a resentful envy of the smart and ambitious (cf. “acting white”) instead of following their example; this is serious. Because envy and distrust of one another make it hard for them to work together. Because of a lack of interest in study. Because so very many of the young marry at sixteen, have a baby, and do nothing thereafter.
If these were just Fred’s opinions, they would be ignorable. It is also the view of Violeta and Natalia. Should anyone want a truly insightful exposition of why Mexico is as it is, read Mañana Forever, by Carlos Casttañeda, a former foreign minister of Mexico. His view, with which I entirely agree, is that Mexico is mostly a modern country creeping into the First World, but crippled by the culture of a century ago. See above.
Am I (and Castañeda) right about this? IQists tend to dismiss the invocation of culture as an evasion—real men believe in IQ—or to argue that defects of culture are the results of low intelligence. This is highly debatable. Consider the following list of founders of major companies in the information technologies (largely from memory, so I hope right):
Google (Sergei Bryn, Larry Page), Intel (Gordon Moore, Robert Noyce), Apple (Steve Jobs, Steve Wozniak), Microsoft (Bill Gates), Dell Computer (Michael Dell), Facebook (Mark Zuckerberg), YouTube (Chad Hurley, Steve Chen, Jawed Karim), Netscape (Mark Andreesen), Yahoo (Jerry Yang, David Filo), AMD (long list of guys from Fairchild Semiconductor), Twitter (Jack Dorsey), Wikipedia (Jimmy Wales, Larry Sanger), Unz.org (Ron Unz), PayPal (Peter Thiel), Ebay (Pierre Omidyar).
Note that they are overwhelmingly either American or working in America. Why America? Gringos are no smarter than Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, or Koreans. The countries of all of the foregoing countries run huge high-tech companies, but their college kids don’t think, “Geez, I’m bored. I guess I’ll start Dell Computer, or Facebook, or maybe Microsoft. Beats doing a doob.” Certain thoughts seem embedded in American culture: “Why not?” “Who says I can’t?” “Bet me.” “Let’s wing it and see what happens.” It is not Mexico. Or much of anywhere else.
Posted by jonjayray at 9:41 PM