The Age of Trump has made some of us wonder if people are simply getting dumber. There's this inescapable, nagging feeling that people have become less intelligent. Sure, part of the answer has to be conditioning. More and more we're getting fed "dumbed-down" information from our electronic devices - televisions, tablets, cellphones and such. We get news on the fly often reduced to little more than a lead sentence or even just a headline. Maybe most of us think we're too busy to pursue events to any depth or to read several accounts of the same news item for perspective and accuracy.
I found myself asking the question again after delving into the plight of Tangier Island on Chesapeake Bay in the previous post. What remains of the little island is being hammered by subsidence coupled with sea level rise and coastal erosion. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers estimates the island could become uninhabitable within 20 to 25 years.
The Trump-loving people of Tangier Island are looking for help and none other than Donald Trump himself placed a call to the mayor, James "Ooker" Eskridge. Trump told Mayor "Ooker" not to worry about sea level rise. The island had been there for hundreds of years and Trump was sure it would be fine for hundreds of years to come. That was good enough for the mayor who believes his island's problem isn't sea level rise. It's erosion. That sea level rise is causing the erosion problem is a reach too far for mayor Eskridge. I wondered just how dumb you have to be not to grasp that obvious connection. Tea Party dumb, I suppose.
So I Googled "is average intelligence in decline?" The responses to that Google search were unanimous - yes, we're getting dumber by the decade.
Let's begin with Stanford geneticist, Dr.Gerald Crabtree.
According to his research, ...Dr. Crabtree thinks unavoidable changes in the genetic make-up coupled with modern technological advances has left humans, well, kind of stupid. He has recently published his follow-up analysis, and in it explains that of the roughly 5,000 genes he considered the basis for human intelligence, a number of mutations over the years has forced modern man to be only a portion as bright as his ancestors.
“New developments in genetics, anthropology and neurobiology predict that a very large number of genes underlie our intellectual and emotional abilities, making these abilities genetically surprisingly fragile,” he writes in part one of his research. “Analysis of human mutation rates and the number of genes required for human intellectual and emotional fitness indicates that we are almost certainly losing these abilities,” he adds in his latest report.
From there, the doctor goes on to explain that general mutations over the last few thousand years have left mankind increasingly unable to cope with certain situations that perhaps our ancestors would be more adapted to.
“I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues. Furthermore, I would guess that he or she would be among the most emotionally stable of our friends and colleagues. I would also make this wager for the ancient inhabitants of Africa, Asia, India or the Americas, of perhaps 2000–6000 years ago. The basis for my wager comes from new developments in genetics, anthropology, and neurobiology that make a clear prediction that our intellectual and emotional abilities are genetically surprisingly fragile.”
Another study suggests we've taken quite a hit in I.Q. just since Victorian times.
What exactly explains this decline? Study co-author Dr. Jan te Nijenhuis, professor of work and organizational psychology at the University of Amsterdam, points to the fact that women of high intelligence tend to have fewer children than do women of lower intelligence. This negative association between I.Q. and fertility has been demonstrated time and again in research over the last century.
Meanwhile a study by the Brookings Institute and Tufts University tracked a sharp intellectual decline among U.S. Marine Corps officers since 1980.
In new research, Brookings’ Michael Klein and Tufts University’s Matthew Cancian—a former Marine officer who served in Afghanistan—take a closer look at this question and uncover a troubling pattern.
After analyzing test scores of 46,000 officers who took the Marine Corps’ required General Classification Test (GCT), Klein and Cancian find that the quality of officers in the Marines, as measured by those test scores, has steadily and significantly declined over the last 34 years.
Eighty-five percent of those taking the test in 1980 exceeded a score of 120, which was the cut-off score for officers in World War II. In 2014, only 59 percent exceeded that score.
At the upper end of the distribution, 4.9 percent of those taking the test scored above 150 in 1980 compared to 0.7 percent in 2014.
Over 34 years, the average score decreased by 6.6 percent, from 130.9 to 122.1.
Taken together, the 8.2-point drop in average score represents 80 percent of an entire standard deviation’s decline (from 10.5 in 1980 to 9.6 in 2014). In other words, today’s Marine officers scored nearly an entire standard deviation worse, on average, than their predecessors 34 years ago.
Semper Fi, guys.
At New Scientist the argument is made that, rather than worry about idiocracy, the focus should be on restoring intellect by improving social conditions.
Many people will find that idea unpalatable. They can, for the moment, take solace in the knowledge that the evidence for such a genetic decline is as yet weak. The apparent reversal of the Flynn effect in a handful of countries could well be a blip rather than the start of a global trend (see “Brain drain: Are we evolving stupidity?“).
But we should keep an open mind. It could turn out that the decline is real but has nothing to do with genetic changes. It could be a warning sign that junk food is beginning to affect children’s development, or that educational reforms are having the wrong effects. So we should keep an eye on trends in intelligence. In fact, it would be stupid not to.
But there remains the question of what we are measuring. IQ is one measure of intelligence, but it is not the only one. And people with high IQ scores can still believe and do things that are irrational and illogical – in a word, stupid (New Scientist, 30 March 2013, page 30). Nor are people with high IQs necessarily the most successful or socially productive. Other qualities, including “grit”, self-control and mindset, are vital too (8 March 2014, page 30).
Given the grim precedents for judging people by poorly formed ideas about intelligence and heredity, we need to be sure about what’s going on before jumping to take action. What is clear already is that success in life is due as much to privilege as to intellect, despite what some rich people might prefer to believe. So for now, at least, we would do better to focus on helping poor people to overcome their disadvantages than to worry about the prospect of idiocracy.