The Dickens-Flynn model explains why my mom can’t figure out her iPad.

(In which I consider more implications of the model discussed in previous posts.  Also, the epistemological status of this post is extremely speculative.)

James Flynn points out quite a few reasons to doubt that generational increases in IQ test scores really mean people are getting that much smarter. If IQ truly measures intelligence across generations and cultures, that would make our average parents notably dull and our average grandparents bordeline retarded – or, if you want to look at it the other way, most college graduates from my generation could have easily joined Mensa when it started in 1946. And – to put it bluntly – someone would have noticed if old people were that dumb.

So it’s very unlikely that IQ truly measures “general intelligence.” But it probably does measure at least something about intelligence, because it correlates highly with academic success, income, and every measure of mental ability anyone’s ever come up with. Flynn points that the test with the biggest increase is “Raven’s Progressive Matrices”, which is considered a highly refined test of pure “fluid reasoning” – the ability to notice abstract patterns in new information, isolated from existing, real-world knowledge.
Flynn thinks that, over time, our economy and schools have come to value fluid reasoning more and more, so younger generations have honed that ability to higher and higher levels – and likewise, subgroups that are partially isolated from our economy and schools tend to fall behind. Now, you wouldn’t normally notice that in everyday life, because everyday life involves a lot of real-world knowledge and not too much abstract recognition of novel patterns. But so long as IQ means at least something, you’d expect to see signs of it here and there.
And my guess is that fluid reasoning is heavily involved in a few, narrow tasks:

  • Learning how to play German-style strategy board games.
  • Learning how to use the e-mail client on my mom’s iPad.
  • Learning the build process and design patterns for the latest hot new front-end development framework for JavaScript.

And frankly, my mom learned to use the e-mail client just fine; she simply needed more time and more help than I would have.  The Dickens-Flynn model tells me I was a bit of an asshole about it; when she told me it’s easier for the younger generation to learn computer stuff, she was right and I was wrong.  …sigh…mea culpa.

On a darker note, those front-end frameworks…does this mean tech companies have a good reason to discriminate against older workers?  Well…it’s illegal, which is a pretty good reason not to do it.  But let’s turn the problem around a bit: I think it’s quite likely that young web developers were brought up in a culture that values rapid, abstract learning, and in theory that fact could place older developers at a disadvantage.  But the Dickens-Flynn model also says that a person’s current environment is a strong influence on their cognitive ability, so an older developer who stays active on StackOverflow and GitHub, does online tutorials, and goes to the occasional conference should have no trouble keeping up with the youngsters.

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