One of the funniest movies ever made, “This is Spinal Tap”, is a mockumentary about a failing heavy metal band. At one point in the film, guitarist Nigel is explaining his amplifier to a filmmaker who is doing a piece on the band.
“It's very special, because, as you can see--the numbers all go to 11 . . . you see, most blokes are going to be playing at 10--you're on 10 on your guitar, where can you go from there? . . . Nowhere! Exactly! What we do, if we need that extra push over the cliff, you know what we do? You put it up to 11.”
Film reviewer Roger Ebert suggests this is a moment not of heavy metal logic, but of theology. The existential truth is that wherever there is a maximum, it is human nature to look for more.
This yearning for the next level is certainly manifest in academia. For most of my school experience, the top grade of “A” was worth 4 points, and a Grade Point Average of 4.0 was the standard of perfection. A select few individuals had such a GPA, and then there was the rest of us.
It doesn’t take a 4.0 GPA to grasp that an “A” in Cosmetology differs from one in Cosmology, and it’s not surprising that weighted scales have been developed to capture the distinction. Although the most common of these systems tops out at 5.0, the highest GPA ever recorded actually reached 10.03. You’ll need to find someone with a higher GPA than me to explain how that’s possible.
Recognizing that the degree of difficulty varies between scholarly subjects seems like a smart idea, but there are lingering questions. Are GPA’s rising because students are better at working the system? Is the oft-discussed grade inflation due to some underlying cultural shift? Would we be arrogant in thinking that human intellect is on the rise?
Understanding the answers to those questions begins with the search for a better measure of human intelligence. Academic institutions are well aware that GPA is only part of the picture, which is why we have tests like ACT, SAT, LSAT, MCAT and so on. To provide a broader and more standardized indicator, the IQ test was developed more than 100 years ago. Most experts consider it to be the best all-purpose measure of just how intelligent we are.
Intelligence researcher Dr. James Flynn looked at over a century’s worth of IQ data and noticed that the scores have increased steadily from the very beginning. The average person today would have been considered a genius in 1919. The Flynn effect, as it’s called, has understandably kicked off numerous studies attempting to either explain or discredit this phenomenon.
A couple of years ago, a group of intelligent researchers concluded that the four major causes of the Flynn effect are better health, better nutrition, better and more widespread education, and rising standards of living. Thanks to the Flynn effect, and ultimately to the cultural and societal shifts that have improved our quality of life, we are in a golden age of intelligence.
Human nature being what it is, we can’t help but wonder where we go from here. The most recent evidence is not encouraging; it shows that the trend is probably starting to slow, and might even be reversing. It goes without saying that the reverse Flynn effect is also drawing considerable scientific attention.
Changes such as this inevitably invoke a discussion of evolution. The brains of Australopithecus were about a third the size of modern humans, whose gray matter consumes around 20% of the body’s total energy. Clearly, there must be some real evolutionary benefits to compensate for those extra calories. Unfortunately, this factoid is of little help, since there are no recorded IQ scores for these early humans, and the 100-year time scale of interest is much too short for evolutionary influence.
Pessimists will argue that, much like with Spinal Tap, playing at 11 hasn’t gained us much anyway, citing widespread poverty, climate change, rising income disparity, violence, pollution and the opioid crisis. Optimists counter with reductions in infant mortality, global reductions in extreme poverty, and a long list of technological advances that sprung forth from an intelligent workforce. True scientists like James Flynn himself have begun to question the validity of the IQ test itself for assessing human brainpower in our rapidly changing world.
Exercising specific muscles doesn’t bring about overall fitness. Similarly, the demands of modern society favor different cognitive skills than the society of a century ago. Some measures of individual creativity and rationality hint that these are not as closely related to IQ scores as we have been assuming. The types of decision making that help us fend off confirmation bias or sunk cost bias, for example, do not seem at all connected with IQ. Misleading messages influence a lot of smart people.
While the drop in the Flynn effect can’t be ignored, we must seek ways to improve on the reasoning skills that IQ doesn’t measure. Playing at 11 doesn’t get you very far if all you’re making is noise.
Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40
years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.