Western IQ scores are falling. Is it computers or something else?

It’s unquestioned that IQ scores are dropping in the West, but I think there’s more to it than screen time. Educational trends and culture matter too.

Classroom by James F Clay IQ ScoresThe West is losing IQ points. Daniel Hannan points to a disturbing reality in the modern world – we’re getting more stupid. Western IQ scores are dropping (and keep in mind as you read Hannan’s words and mine that IQ tests measure a very specific type of academically-based, analytical intelligence):

The fall in IQ scores in the West is perhaps the most under-reported story of our era. For most of the twentieth century, IQ rose by around three points per decade globally, probably because of better nutrition. But that trend has recently gone into reverse in developed countries.

You hadn’t heard? I’m not surprised. Journalists and politicians won’t go near the subject and you can see why. Consider the theories offered by neuroscientists for the decline. Some argued it had to do with the rising age of motherhood, because the children of older mothers tend to have lower IQs, other things being equal. No one likes to say this, because it can come across as “older moms have dumb kids,” which is not true. (My wife and I were 44 when our youngest child was born, and my own parents were also elderly, but that didn’t make me too thick to grasp the concept of statistical distributions.)

Other theories were even more explosive. For example, that unintelligent people were having more kids, or that the fall in average scores reflected immigration from places with lower IQs.

But a new study from Norway, which examines IQ scores from 730,000 men (standardized tests are part of military service there) disproves all these ideas, because it shows IQ dropping within the same families. Men born in 1991 score, on average, five points lower than men born in 1975. There must, in other words, be an environmental explanation, and the chronology throws up a clear suspect: the rise in screen-time.

I’m sure that Hannan is correct that screen time matters. It’s not just that people spend a lot of time playing mindless games. It’s also that answers are now at everyone’s fingertips. People no longer need to engage in the hard mental work of figuring out the right question, tracking down the data, and then, if the data doesn’t spell out the answer explicitly, reasoning through to a response to the question.

I think, though, that it’s too facile just to blame screen time for the fact that Westerners are showing less academic acumen. Instead, I think there are several factors at play, from dumbed-down education, to academia’s focus on indoctrination over academic rigor, to the growth of populations that do not value traditional educations.

Dumbed-down education. Beginning in the 1960s, the Western education system implemented a vast number of pedagogical changes that downplayed intellectual muscle work such as memorization and side-stepped critical thinking skills.

Some of these changes were in service to the post-WWII idea that “the new is always better than the old.” Many, though, were intended to create ideological change in the children and to address perceived social injustices.

The first and worst change, which still floats along the periphery of American education, was to do away with utilizing the marvels of our phonetic alphabet and replacing it with “whole word” language learning. I recognize that phonics is not perfect. We have some words that defy phonics:

For the most part, though, if you master your letters and a few common phenomes, you can start to read. Dr. Seuss’s The Cat In The Hat is based almost entirely on that phonic principle.

(Also, who can forget helpful rhymes that students no longer learn: “’I’ before ‘E’, except after ‘C’, or when sounded like ‘A’, as in ‘neighbor’ or ‘weigh’.” Remember that rhyme and you’ll spell better every time.)

Starting in the 1970s, the educational establishment looked at newly opened China and said, “Wow, they have a really high literacy rate without a phonetic alphabet. Instead, their kids learn to read and write using character recognition (i.e., “whole word learning”). Let’s do that with our kids.”

What these geniuses missed was that the Chinese students were going to school six days a week and studying reading and writing several hours a day, complete with brute force memorization (which is a great form of mental exercise). Meanwhile, we were “teaching” our poor, captive children “whole language reading” for 45 minutes per day (at most), five days a week (at most). America’s literacy rate collapsed.

Thankfully, American education has returned to phonetic teaching, but that whole language mentality still lurks there. For example, a lot of schools think teaching spelling is a waste of time. If kids can just hear a word and then, using their limited reading skills, write something that someone else can sound out . . . voila! Education.

Thanks to this mindset, we’re seeing something akin to the days of Willm Shakp William Shaksper Wm Shakspe William Shakspere Willm Shakspere William Shakespeare. There are several problems with this blast from the past:

  • It doesn’t always work well with binary computers, with are the new form of communication (although I must admit that text shorthand has a quality akin to Elizabethan spelling).
  • It means that every word must be sounded out to write and then, thanks to the non-standard spelling, sounded out again to read. Not only does this make both reading and writing laborious, it runs a serious risk of creating dangerous ambiguities in written documents. (“I’m sorry I stabbed Jane’s rabbit. I thought you wrote instructions for me to ‘cut Jane’s hare,’ not to ‘cut Jane’s hair.’)
  • It’s lazy, which means kids’ (and adults’) brains are not getting the mental exercise that comes with memorizing and replicating standardized spelling.

In the world of math and science, intellectual rigor is also collapsing. Fuzzy math, as originally constituted in 1965, allowed mathematicians to work on theories using general concepts rather than spending – or, apparently, wasting – time drilling down to particulars. I have no idea whether this was/is a good thing or a bad thing in the world of true mathematics.

The next level of uncoupling math from numbers was intuitionistic mathematics:

In the philosophy of mathematicsintuitionism, or neointuitionism (opposed to preintuitionism), is an approach where mathematics is considered to be purely the result of the constructive mental activity of humans rather than the discovery of fundamental principles claimed to exist in an objective reality. That is, logic and mathematics are not considered analytic activities wherein deep properties of objective reality are revealed and applied but are instead considered the application of internally consistent methods used to realize more complex mental constructs, regardless of their possible independent existence in an objective reality.

In other words, you can just think about numbers and their relationship without having to calculate the numbers. I recognize that, in highly theoretical matters, thinking about numbers is hugely important and allows for cognitive leaps that change paradigms. In the fifth grade, though, it means kids no longer memorize their times tables.

The absence of standards and memorization from schools doesn’t just leave children with fewer skills. It also leaves them less able to engage in rigorous, logical thought – and that kind of thought is a large part of what IQ exams test. Today’s schools never demand that children exercise those mental muscles.

Academia’s focus on indoctrination over academic rigor. The fact that the education establishment substitutes indoctrination for education, something that happens with ever greater intensity at every stage of education, and that culminates in colleges that too often substitute only propaganda in place of any learning is another reason people are dumber.

Propaganda requires no thought. You simply parrot ideology. Indeed, not only does propaganda not require thought, it is antithetical to thought.

Take just one example: Having students study Colonial-era America in depth, from the rumblings against Britain in the 1760s, through the Revolution, and into the post-Revolutionary period and the Constitution’s ratification, requires students to think deeply about the difference between rights and privileges, liberty and servitude, and, most especially, the reasons behind such core Rights as freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, the right to worship freely, etc.

Rather than doing these in-depth dives into history, it’s easier to tell students that the founding fathers were all evil, white, misogynistic, racist, toxic males, who can be safely ignored. Instead, colleges help students focus on the “important” stuff: Their feelings trump free speech, guns are bad because boys without fathers periodically shoot up white, middle-class schools, and the Judeo-Christian faiths are evil because they advance white privilege and toxic masculinity. Once the students absorb these shibboleths, they never need to think again.

It’s this lack of thinking that makes me hate my little Bookworms’ colleges. Each has gotten dumber in some ways since starting college. My younger Bookworm is in a STEM program, so the dumbing down is less obvious, but my older Bookworm’s trajectory just makes me sad. She freely admits that she makes no efforts with her term papers, simply using the cant and ideas that her teachers want and that she knows will get her good grades.

Moreover, my Bookworm has discovered that if you start thinking seriously without using only race, gender, and sexual orientation as your filter (and they’re often told explicitly that these are the filters through which they must analyze anything), you will quickly arrive at ideas and answers that offend your teacher. It’s not just that you won’t get an A. You might get an F and a referral to the Dean for hate speech.

Culture matters when it comes to education. There’s one more problem with educating American children in ways that raise IQs, and it’s a problem that, today, dare not speak its name: The West is being inundated by people who don’t value education. This is not the same as saying that the West is being inundated by “stupid races.” For the most part, I would never say that (although see below for the exception to my unwillingness to label one group of people as “not so bright,” rather than merely “not so educated”).

Regular readers of this blog know my story of the very wealthy, very elite Hispanic couple that I knew as family friends when I was growing up. About 30 years ago, I ran into them on the street and they told me they were working to help improve Hispanic children’s educational accomplishments and, especially, to keep them in school.

According to my friends, the problem was that most immigrant and first-generation American Hispanics come from agrarian societies. Those societies do not value academic learning. Instead, they are oriented to physical labor as a means of earning a living.

My friends explained that, even if the kids hadn’t succumbed to anti-education gang pressure when it came to schooling, the parents were pressuring the kids to get out and get a job. My friends told me that they were trying to explain to Hispanic parents that this was short-term thinking and that the way to get ahead in America is to get, at minimum, a high school degree.

What these family friends told me made sense, because I had met three people during my time in schools who experienced this parental pressure. All three kids were extremely bright. Their teachers were urging them to stay in school and, more importantly, to go to college. In all three cases, though, the students faced enormous pressure to drop out of school and get a job in factory or field. I’m happy to report that my friends did go to college, but it takes a lot of inner strength to stand up to that parental pressure.

Nor have things changed much in the intervening 30 years. Both anecdote and data indicate that the immigrant and first-generation Hispanic culture is not orientated to academic education but is, instead, more practically oriented towards manual labor. Given that the children whose culture pushes them away from academic rigor are part of the IQ cohort, they are going to drag the scores down. This is not because Hispanic kids are stupid. They’re not. It’s just because their culture doesn’t encourage the narrow range of academic skills that IQ tests measure.

There’s a similar problem in the black community. Once upon a time, before the modern era, blacks understood that education was the key to raising themselves out of poverty. They knew that there was a reason that slave laws prohibited their getting educated. Once they were educated, they were manifestly as good as, if not better than, the whites in their community.

Leaders such as Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr., advocated for and were role models of education. Then, as John McWhorter ably exposes in Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, young blacks turned on education because it was, they said, “being white” and therefore a rejection of their essential blackness. Michelle Obama reflected the new hostility to education when she wrote her tortured, semi-literate bachelor’s thesis about being black at Princeton.

Although I don’t remember if McWhorter talks about the origin of this horrible idea, I suspect it came from the hard Left, possibly the communist party. After all, thoughtful, informed, analytical people are not malleable. They will not instantly parrot propaganda and cannot be bought with welfare or, as used to be the case in old-time elections, beer. Having blacks turn against education made them slaves, once again, of the Democrat party.

And then there are the Muslims who are immigrating in ever greater numbers throughout the Western world. Another unspeakable fact in the modern era is that Muslims have low IQs. This is where I take a dive, not into race, because Islam is a religion, not a race, but into the lifestyle habits that many Muslims practice. These habits do affect intelligence. Change the habits, change the intelligence.

Before I get to the habits, though, it’s true that part of the problem with Muslim IQs is hostility to the traditional education that IQ measures. A wide fund of knowledge and analytical rigor might cause people to question the perfection of the Koran. We can’t have that.

However, there are two other factors that are tightly tied to Islamic lifestyle choices. One factor, which probably has a small, but still real, effect on IQ is that, under certain circumstances, including hot weather, fasting can damage a fetus.

Thus, it’s possible that pregnant women’s daytime fasting during the month of Ramadan may affect fetal development. We know that the fasting can cause children to have low birth weights and to be smaller than they should be. It’s not unreasonable to believe it can also have an effect, even if only a small one, on the children’s developing brains.

Finally, and here’s where we get to a big problem no one wants to speak about, is that Muslim culture all over the world encourages first-cousin marriages. On average 50% of Muslims engage in first-cousin marriage with that number going up to 70% in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. (It’s a tribal thing because the people you can trust most are family.) It’s long been known that this kind of second-degree incest dramatically increases genetic defects, many of which affect intelligence.

Based upon the above three considerations about practitioners of Islam (disdain for Western education, Ramadan fasting, and incest), it’s reasonable to believe that an influx of Muslims into the West will lower the overall IQ.

Conclusion. All in all, I agree with Hannan that our children’s fixation with screens is a problem. They’re missing out on important life lessons, such as the common sense that comes from unimpeded play, especially outdoor, competitive play with other children. But let’s be honest: our nanny-state fascist Democrats have already made that kind of play out-of-bounds.

Hiding behind statements such as “kids can get hurt,” or “competition encourages toxic masculinity,” our educators paved the way for screens to become the dominant form of play because they’d already mandated that kids sit around talking about their feelings. Girls might like doing that, but it is mental death for boys.

Still, I’m loath to blame screens entirely. The Western world has lost the academic skills that are correlated with IQ measurements and it’s done so because education is either dumbed down, turned into indoctrination, or is out of sync with certain cultures flooding the West. Swirl those three factors into schools and you’re going to see lower IQs, including a drop in IQs between educated Western parents and their sadly less educated Western children.

Photo credit: Classroom, by James F Clay. Creative Commons.