I’ve written before that college graduate IQ is in freefall; within a decade it’s quite possible that the IQ of a college graduate will be below average.
But what happens if “average” a decade ago is higher than it is today?
IQ scores look to be on the decline. Is there a complicated explanation, or are we just getting stupider?
Intelligence is a difficult thing to define, much less precisely measure, but it’s been suspected that, for the last few decades, whatever intelligence is, we have less of it now.
“Every year, the students get weaker…”
–a professor explaining things to me in 1985.
Mostly I write about higher education, and anecdotes there are rife that something is going on. That said, professor complaints about the steady drop in student ability are about as old as the universities themselves. The article I cited above inadvertently points out the legitimacy of the concerns right off the bat:
In November, the European TV channel Arte aired an hourlong documentary, Demain, tous crétins?—Tomorrow, everyone’s an idiot?—on a topic that would seem to be of great importance…The same documentary has also been released in the U.S., with the less provocative title Brains in Danger?. (It’s now available for streaming on Amazon Prime.)
We should have been concerned about this years ago, when we first started pointlessly changing the language around to “less provocative” terms. Time and again I’ve seen people abandon reason in the face of “offensive” language, failing to comprehend that there’s more to an argument than whether you like the ideas or not.
Starting in the 1980s, Flynn documented “massive gains” in mean IQ, starting with Americans, whose scores had soared by 14 points since 1932. The Flynn effect has since been well established across at least 34 countries; on average, scholars say IQs have increased by several points per decade.
The Flynn effect has been a curious thing, but I’ve always felt a big reason for it is people are just more familiar with the “strange” questions you find on intelligence tests. In any event, for several decades, intelligence was heading up, and nobody argued that this was happening.
It’s heading down now. As the measurement methods are the same as before, we’re less concerned about whatever “it” is we’re measuring.
It’s happening, so the next question is “why?” The claims of poor schooling, immigration, smart people have fewer kids, and quite a few similar ones can be dismissed with a study which specifically focuses on brothers in Norway:
What they found is that for Norwegians born between 1962 and 1975, IQs increased within each family by 0.26 points per year: Younger brothers had slightly higher scores than their older siblings, relative to expectations. (The researchers had to control for the more general fact that older siblings tend to have higher IQs than younger ones.) From 1975 until 1991, this tendency reversed, with test scores dropping by 0.33 points per year within each family.
Using brothers means that the “fewer kids” argument is meaningless, Norway (at the time of this study) had minimal immigration, and the schools there are known for being quite good…and certainly not known for decaying over the handful of years between use by one brother and the next.
0.33 points per year might not seem much, but this means in less than 3 generations (60 years), the average IQ will drop down to 80—mentally disabled by today’s standards, but it could be “average” in 2080.
Despite the design of the study, it relies on the standard (and obviously wrong) reasons for the decline:
What could be endumbening Norwegians, then? The authors note several possible factors, among them worsening health and nutrition, a decline in the quality of education, detrimental changes to media exposure, and the indirect effects of immigration.
The article helpfully supplies better answers:
…the IQ decline might be caused by chemical pollutants.
That’s the theory posed by Paris-based endocrinologist Barbara Demeneix. In her 2017 book from Oxford University Press, Toxic Cocktail: How Chemical Pollution Is Poisoning Our Brains, Demeneix argued that hormone-twisting industrial poisons have so interfered with human thyroid function that the species has been thrust into “a sort of brain evolution in rather rapid reverse”—which includes among its symptoms, she says, the gradual diminishment of the human intellect, and increasing rates of autism and ADHD.
Of course, to be able to address this question we’d need to study a population which isn’t exposed to “hormone twisting industrial poisons,” extremely problematic in the modern world. I guess we could try using some of the few stone-age tribes we have left, but I can see people disputing the results of such a study.
We have a bit of a bigger problem with the claim that it’s about hormones and poisons:
According to the numbers, the Great Endumbening isn’t merely absent here in North America; our test results suggest that, by and large, Americans’ IQs are still increasing.
I’m quite confident Americans are exposed to just as much (and likely more) as Norwegians. I’m not taking much comfort in that, since whatever’s affecting humans over there can quite reasonably affect humans over here at some point.
If trends continue, in three generations a Norwegian college graduate will struggle to operate a broom with much efficiency…even if American college graduates are ahead of that, will it be by much?