The Flynn Effect is the steady improvement in IQ scores over the last 50 years or so in many places. It was documented by James Flynn, a professor of moral and political philosophy at the University of Otago. Flynn gave a talk at Berkeley recently. I asked him how the Flynn Effect came to be.

Flynn finished college at the University of Chicago in one year (lots of advanced placement) and went on to get a Ph.D. at the same school. His first job was at Eastern Kentucky University. It was during the Korean War; better schools were afraid he’d be drafted. He lost that job because of his CORE (Congress for Racial Equality) membership. He got another assistant-professor job at Lake Forest. He lost that job because of his socialist views, although “sins” such as assigning readings beyond the set test were also given. He and his wife decided to go to New Zealand, where his politics would be more acceptable. He got a job at the University of Otago, where he has been ever since.

In the 1980s, he started to write a book defending humane ideals. One > question he wanted to answer was how to combat racism. He came across Arthur Jensen’s work. Jensen’s work was not easily dismissed. It was based on data. To properly answer Jensen, he believed, you needed data — a radical view for a philosophy professor. This was outside his area of training. He asked a professor of psychology for advice. The psychology professor was dismissive; his attitude was “what could you possibly contribute?” But Flynn did not see that psychology professors were substantially smarter than everyone else; the necessary skills should be within his reach, he thought.

He studied the math behind IQ tests for two years. He started looking at data. He looked at IQ test manuals and discovered that the raw scores kept increasing over time. He found six examples. He wrote a paper based on these examples and sent it to the Harvard Educational Review. The editors (who, unknown to Flynn, were graduate students) rejected it. Everyone knows intelligence is going down, one reviewer wrote. This made him mad. He went out and found 14 more examples. With 20 examples, he wrote a paper that was accepted by Psychological Bulletin. The reviewers were stunned, he said, but couldn’t find any holes in his case. It appeared in 1984.

Arthur Jensen pointed out that the tests concerned were heavily influenced by education and predicted that a test like Raven’s would show no gains. Flynn collected data from around the world (14 nations) and found that the largest gains were on Raven’s. The resulting article appeared in Psychological Bulletin in 1987.

Flynn said that only now (in his new book What is Intelligence?) can he give a coherent explanation of the gains.