Sadly it’s now being confirmed by many media outlets that James Flynn did indeed die this month. Flynn was a New Zealand IQ researcher (a cognitive archeologist really) best known for discovering the Flynn effect (the phenomenon by which IQ scores become inflated at a rate of about 3 IQ points a decade). Some have quibbled over the effect being named for him since others had noted it in the past, but these previous discoveries were largely local or one-time events that were quickly forgotten. Flynn established it as a consistent, predictable worldwide phenomenon that was so important, IQ scores had to be adjusted for it and tests required frequent re-norming. Had he not pushed the issue, most measured IQs would probably still be many points too high, thus distorting not only individual diagnosis, but the results of massive studies, and many prison inmates would be wrongly sentenced to death because their IQs were above 70 (making them criminally responsible).

Most of Flynn’s research focused on successive standardizations of the Wechsler intelligence scales where a sample of people would be tested twice on both the newly normed version and the previous version to make sure there was a high correlation. It was consistently noted that IQs would always be a little higher on the newer version. For example scores on the 1954 WAIS (Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale) were about 3 points higher than on the 1937 Wechsler. It was later found that scores on the 1978 WAIS were about 7 points higher than on the 1954 WAIS. Scores on the 1995 WAIS were about 3 points higher than on the 1978 WAIS. Finally, scores on the 2006 WAIS were about 3 points higher than on the 1995 WAIS.

Before Flynn’s discovery in the 1980s, such gains were just dismissed as tests becoming outdated and requiring new items and were generally too small to be considered significant. But Flynn’s genius was to add the gains of successive test normings to argue that a massive increase had occurred. For example, if you add up all the Wechsler adult gains from 1937 to 2006, you get 16 points (the same as the infamous black-white IQ gap within the United States). Since no one believed the IQ gains are genetic, Flynn used them to argue we shouldn’t believe racial IQ gaps are either.

For years I suspected that Flynn’s method of adding up gains from successive test normings was overestimating the Flynn effect and in 2008 I decided to prove it. I asked for the original 1937 Wechsler for Christmas (known as the ancient WBI) and gathered random strangers to take it. Of course this was a very time consuming project and I soon got distracted. In 2019 I became obsessed with completing the project and truth be told, one of the reasons I got obsessive was that being in his mid 80s, I worried Flynn would die before I could tell him about the research (one of my biggest regrets was Arthur Jensen dying before I could ask him my biggest questions). I did not know Flynn, but he was always kind enough to reply the few times I had sent him an email. By December 2019 I had a sample size of 17 people and as usual, Flynn was kind enough to reply to my emails.

Of course 17 people was not enough and I had really hoped to share with him the results of a much larger data-set but sadly the coronavirus made it too dangerous to get data in 2020, and now Flynn is gone.

May he rest in peace.