Sunday, 10 November 2013

Cognitive dissonance in the intelligence research and HBD community concerning the large 'dysgenic' decline of general intelligence over recent generations


The evidence from simple reaction time measurements that general intelligence (g) has declined substantially over the past century or two; and the idea that modern Western Man is significantly less intelligent than his ancestors of a few generations earlier...

has provoked some responses that surprised both Michael A Woodley and myself.

Since we have further independent confirmatory scientific evidence in the pipeline, it seems reasonable to consider the non-scientific aspects of this matter in advance of further expected controversy. 


On the whole the mass media was more interested in this finding than we expected - mostly because they interpreted the 'story' as a swipe at modern education or the silliness of modern pastimes; but the evolutionary psychology community (including the on-line HBD - Human Behavioural Diversity - community) was much more hostile than we expected: indeed the response took us very much by surprise.

The nature of the response - the vehement ridicule and rejection of what was a surprising but perfectly-plausible idea (of approximately one standard deviation decline in average intelligence over a span of about 150 years) made it obvious that something-else was going-on.


It was not so much that the idea of such a large decline in g over such a short number of generations was wrong - because nobody has shown any evidence that it cannot be right; nor even that the size of the intelligence decline we found might be right but implied some additional but neglected causal mechanisms - specifically an accumulation of deleterious new mutations acting to reduce intelligence in addition to differential reproductive success among people of different IQ (that being what Michael and I believe is probably happening); but that this idea of rapidly reducing intelligence was outrageous, ridiculous, grossly-incompetent - something that could not be allowed to be right.


What I think this incident reveals is some implicit but covert assumptions in the HBD community; and that these assumptions are very important to the participants - such that a challenge to them provokes the same kind of aggressive defence as would be expected from a challenge to someone's existential basis - such as a 'religion' (bearing in mind that almost all the HBD community are agnostic/ atheist and those few [just a handful, it seems] who are not atheist/agnostics, are very reticent about their religious beliefs).


I have not got to the bottom of this matter as yet, but I think there are a couple of things I can say:

1. High IQ as a virtue

High intelligence is regarded as a virtue in the HBD community - therefore to suggest that intelligence is declining is equivalent to saying that people are getting morally worse.

2. Salvation through technology

The HBD community seeks salvation through technological breakthroughs, and declining intelligence suggests that this salvation will not come.

(This belief is most obvious among explicit transhumanists; but cryto-transhumanism is very common among scientists, and pretty much the background religion of atheist modernity: the major alternative to traditional religion.)

3. Belief in progress

Belief in progress is so powerful in this group, that it seems not so much false as an outrage for modern people to be forced to acknowledge that earlier generations were (on the whole) considerably superior in some attribute which modern people deeply value - such as intelligence. 


So I think the viscerally-hostile response to the discovery of slowing reaction times, and its implication of  declining intelligence; is an important insight into several unexamined, but probably false, assumptions widely-held among the community of intelligence researchers and commentators.



Ben said...

I'd like to say that none of those who reacted with irrational hostility represent how I see HBD. I see it as a reaction against the leftist and atheistic use of foreigners to destroy the good of Western society.

Also, anyone who thinks IQ is Good in and of itself, that it is salvation, is a leftist and is a part of the political HBD group for evil reasons--irrational reasons if they claim to be against leftists (as they are, as you've said, just another sort of leftist.)

dearieme said...

Ambiguity alert: what exactly is "which is what Michael and I believe"?

Ed in Kanata said...

WW1 decimated the best and the brightest of the Western World - could this be a contributor to the decline in intelligence.

Nicholas Fulford said...

Belief in salvation through technology and the progress paradigm is not something born out in practice.


Because of the law of unintended effect. Each technological change introduces new problems, not because of the technology but because humans are still the drivers and users of technology. This points to the real problem, and it is a much more difficult one to deal with. The problem is a human one. We cannot stand outside of ourselves to see and "fix" the problem of human behaviour, and so the same problem expresses its destructive propensity over and over again.

Games theory and worse still such things as the Stanford Prison Experiment show just how pernicious the problem is.

Technology, intelligence, and the progress paradigm simply amplify the human problem.

Thursday said...


Mike said...

"The strength of the RT-IQ association is a subject of research. Several studies have reported association between simple reaction time and intelligence of around (r=−.31), with a tendency for larger associations between choice reaction time and intelligence (r=−.49)"

This strikes me as a very modest correlation to base a conclusion of a difference of an entire standard deviation, but logically just because we observe a correlation today does not mean we can project it into the past without knowing what the correlation is based on. For instance, today, some kind of formal education degree is probably very highly correlated with IQ - probably even higher than reaction times - but we would obviously be wrong in projecting this correlation into, say, ancient Rome or ancient Babylon, where formal education was not widely available.

That's the problem with correlations - they can easily depend on third factors that are highly context-sensitive. They have some utility for the time frame during which they are observed, but need to be constantly reconfirmed. They can disappear if the context changes.

"The cause of the relationship is unclear. It may reflect more efficient information processing, better attentional control, or the integrity of neuronal processes."

The particular cognitive ability reflected in reaction times - perhaps attention - may have only limited application in general and modern populations may score much better on other measures of intelligence. Indeed, scores on the Raven Matrices have been rising steadily for a century. So clearly on some cognitive tasks, modern populations do much better.

The picture might be far more complex than use of a single term - intelligence - might suggest.

g itself is a statistical abstraction - it is merely the tendency of all cognitive tasks to correlate, but this tendency is not very strong, and clearly many individuals, and many populations, do much better on some cognitive tasks than others, with the differences often being huge and life-determining.

When that is the case, g is seen as a simplification of a complex reality. It has some statistical utility, but it can mask a more complex reality.

So the evidence we have is highly ambiguous - it appears that Victorians might have been better than us on some cognitive tasks (assuming, and it is a big assumption for which there is no evidence, that reaction time correlations are a direct reflection of that cognitive task and not a reflection of an underlying third factor), but are clearly worse than us moderns on other cognitive tasks, such as those reflected on the RM.

Even though I find myself arguing against you I am highly sympathetic to the way you painted the HBD community - they are a fully religious community with a set of beliefs that are held for emotional not rational reasons, and challenges are seen through a moralistic/eschatological lense.

But then, when people abandon religion, it is the rare few who do not take up some kind of new religion - most often they simply take up some new religion, whether evangelical atheism (not merely skepticism, but the moralistic/eschatological belief that the widespread adoption of atheism will usher in the millenium. Ironically a belief adapted from Christianity), or Dark Enlightenment nonsense where the thrill is to reduce everything to gloom and doom, or Communism, Nazism, etc.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mike - Yes, but science is about making simplifying assumptions. The idea that reaction times are an imprecise but highly objective measure of whatever is the reality behind general intelligence is a very old one, held by several of the best researchers in this field; - and there is a lot of biological plausibility to it - it isn't *just* a correlation.

You seem to argue based on an assumption that we would expect modern and Victorian intelligence to be identical - but that assumption has no plausible basis.

The correct biological assumption would be that all groups separated by space or time or multi-generational selection pressure will have different intelligence - it is a question of the direction and magnitude of this difference that needs to be measured, not the mere existence of 'difference'.

Further than that: we would biologically expect intelligence to be declining on the basis that intelligence is highly heritable and there is an inverse correlation between intelligence and fertility.

And further than *that* as WD Hamilton argued 50 years ago, the virtual cessation of selection by high child mortality will almost certainly be leading to a generation upon generation accumulation of deleterious genetic mutations (that would previously have been removed from the gene pool)- and these *may* have some kind of rapidly amplifying ('exponential') intelligence-reducing effect as they accumulate across successive generations.

In sum, when the most objective source of evidence points to a significant intelligence difference - then the way ahead is to seek independent evidence on whether this is plausible.

I find it very striking that - so far - I have seen no counter-evidence: for example, is there any strong evidence that people 200 years ago were significantly *less* intelligent than now?

(Obviously conventional pen and paper IQ tests are not admissible evidence here, because it is the longitudinal validity of these which we are questioning.)

SMERSH said...

Maybe I this was discussed earlier, but does the decline in IQ have to be caused by dysgenic breeding?

That's a pretty rapid decline to be purely caused by dysgenic breeding. It's possible, but it seems extreme.

Couldn't the decline be caused by environmental factors? For example, there is some suggestion that fluoride in the water might lower IQs. Just one possibility, not one I necessarily buy.

dearieme said...

"That's a pretty rapid decline to be purely caused by dysgenic breeding."

My father was an intelligent chap. It's more than a hundred years since his birth, and he has one grandchild, and no great-grandchildren. Some people born in his birth year will have been great-, or great great-, grandparents to 1000 or more people. I dare say that dysgenic effects can advance quite quickly in there circumstances.

J said...

There is no resistance to idea that there is a decline in intelligence in modern populations, certainly not among HBD aficionados who are constantly predicting the coming Idiocracy. The idea of human progress toward perfection is foreign to HDB and belongs to Marxist and Christian thinkers. Galton himself believed that the Athenians of Pericles age has IQs a SD higher than the Victorians he was measuring, so do I.

The accumulation of deleterious mutations could be verified by comparing modern populations with |wild" populations that just came into contact with civilization. Their birth defects should be significantly lower than ours, yet that is not the case.

Bruce Charlton said...

@J - I think there is a resistance to the idea that 'idiocracy' has already happened - and therefore we are a part of it!

Also many or most people don't believe the speed and magnitude of change.

Over this time span they would concede *half* a standard deviation decline, which can be explained purely in terms of differential fertility between those of varying IQ; but not a whole SD...

Syahidah and Valentine said...

I don't know how any thinking person can deny that intelligence is in decline. Such decline is perceptible in my own lifetime - and I am only 45. If I compare the children (and students) of my youth, with the children (and students) of today, it is difficult to do other than conclude that they are not as bright, as I remember my own cohort being. There is a palpable inadequacy of their mental processes which simply cannot be ignored - and yet, I make this comparison from the vantage of a mind that is middle-aged, and thus, presumably not as sharp as it once was. Any intelligent person, who is equipped with a solid memory of what people were like in their youth and childhood should be able to see the same phenomenon. I will be blunt: people are getting dumber by the generation and, if anything, this tendency is gathering momentum, which is to be expected with dysgenic fertility, of course.

hbd chick said...

@bruce (and michael) - "The nature of the response - the vehement ridicule and rejection of what was a surprising but perfectly-plausible idea.... the viscerally-hostile response to the discovery of slowing reaction times, and its implication of declining intelligence...."

i hope you don't include me anywhere here. and, for the record, in case you missed this in any of my posts on the declining iq paper, i have not rejected the idea. never did.

Mar said...

The deliberate 'dumbing down' that has occured in the last 50 years or so in anglophone countries - and probably in others that have a high consumerism and hedonism co-efficient - has also played a very significant role in the decline of intelligence.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Mar - I don't think that is likely or possible - since intelligence is almost wholly inherited (unless there is some kind of brain damage or functional impairment).