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Jim Flynn

(1934 – 2020)

Reprinted from University of Otago


Professor Jim Flynn FRSNZ has died aged 86

Professor James Flynn FRSNZ, a University of Otago academic renowned for his intelligent approach to research and teaching, and his internationally recognised work on race and IQ, died on 11 December, aged 86.

Professor Flynn was appointed as the Foundation Professor of Political Studies at Otago in 1967 and was Head of Department until 1996.

He then became joint Emeritus Professor in the Politics programme and Psychology department until his retirement earlier this year. He remained an extremely active lecturer and researcher in both disciplines and is still New Zealand’s most quoted scholar.

From 1981, when he began investigating US Armed Forces mental records, he produced numerous publications on intelligence, race and worldwide increases in IQ scores over time.

This ground-breaking research on what became known as the ‘Flynn Effect’ gained international recognition. He returned to, and expanded on, these themes throughout his career in books such as What is Intelligence? Beyond the Flynn Effect (2007).

Professor Flynn advocated open scientific debate about controversial social science claims, particularly those relating to research into race and intelligence, and challenged the opposing views of academics such as University of California Professor of Psychology Arthur Jensen.

“By 17, I had decided this was too much like a chess grandmaster — no direct application to people — and that I would do political and moral philosophy."
So well-reasoned was Flynn’s 1980 publication Race, IQ and Jensen that several years later Jensen praised the critique of his work for its contribution to literature on the topic, saying it was “virtually in a class by itself for objectivity, thoroughness, and scholarly integrity.”

For his part, writing in American Psychologist in 1999, Flynn described the interplay of ideas with Jensen as a “delight”.

Despite his extensive work on IQ Flynn described himself as “primarily a moral philosopher, who merely [had] a holiday” in psychology.

The same critical ability he directed towards others’ work was applied to his own earlier corpus, and in a 2014 interview he described the “modern Aristotelianism” in his 1973 book Humanism and Ideology as “not inadequate”. A “recalibration” led to what he regarded as his most important book, How to Defend Humane Ideals.

In the same interview he discussed his sense of often “standing-apart” from the academic community because he found Plato, Kant and Aristotle useful in addressing the philosophical arguments he was interested in at a time when modern philosophy offered what he regarded as “pseudo-arguments.”

Beyond his work on the basic problems of philosophy and ethics, Flynn became an internationally renowned author of non-fiction books on a wide range of subjects: Beyond patriotism: From Truman to Obama (2012) provides an insightful critique of US politics and foreign policy; Fate & philosophy: A journey through life's great questions (2012) delves into religion, ethics, science, and free will; The torchlight list: Around the world in 200 books (2010) analyses works that delight and enlighten recent history and the modern world.

Interspersed with these were works dealing with broader social issues; A Book Too Risky to Publish: Free Speech and Universities (2019) concluded that few universities now meet their original goals of promoting free inquiry and unfettered critical thought. In No Place to Hide: Climate Change (2018), he argued climate engineering is necessary to buy the time until carbon-free energy is readily available. His books have been translated into Spanish, Portuguese, Polish, Korean, Arabic, Italian and Japanese.

Born in Washington DC during the Great Depression, he later described how a range of factors, including his Missouri-born, Irish-American parents’ attitudes on racial issues and his adolescent rejection of Catholicism, galvanised a nascent socialism and underscored the importance of pursuing engaged research that promoted racial and social equality.

Several years ago he told a reporter interviewing “over-achievers” that he initially wanted to be either a theoretical physicist or a pure mathematician “because they seemed to pose the most difficult problems to solve.”

“By 17, I had decided this was too much like a chess grandmaster — no direct application to people — and that I would do political and moral philosophy,” he said.

A scholarship to the University of Chicago led to a PhD in 1958. While studying he was involved with the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and its social housing initiatives.

A self-professed "atheist, a scientific realist, a social democrat", he became a member of the Socialist Party of America and an admirer of Eugene Victor Debs, who had spent years in a federal prison for opposing military conscription in World War 1.

He served as chairperson for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights organisation in the US South. Being politically active not only led to him being “roughed up” and feeling like he would not receive police protection during a CORE demonstration, but also being removed from responsibilities, including coaching running, at the University of Eastern Kentucky.

He became increasingly disturbed by Cold War America’s prevailing rhetoric, and at about the same was time “bounced” from Lake Forest College near Chicago for giving a lecture on social medicine, his work as a peace activist and his socialist party membership. In 1963, after several unsuccessful job interviews around the US, and aged 29, he, wife Emily and his young family, headed for New Zealand and a teaching position at the University of Canterbury.

The new émigré continued to campaign for left-wing causes, and in addition to advising Prime Minister Norman Kirk on foreign policy, was a member of the anti-war Committee on Vietnam. He later gave lectures opposing nuclear proliferation.

Commentary was balanced with more direct action in the 1990s, and he became a founding member of both the New Labour Party and the Alliance. He stood as a parliamentary candidate in the Dunedin North electorate at the 1993 and 1996 general elections on the Alliance list, and most recently in 2005 again as an Alliance list candidate. In 2008 he acted as the Alliance spokesperson for finance and taxation.

In his tribute to Professor Flynn this week, political commentator Chris Trotter noted his political argument, however hard to sell, was a simple one; that “left-wing political leaders … have a moral obligation to demonstrate, by drawing up a mathematically coherent Alternative Budget, how all the good things they are promising will be paid for.”

While political success may have proved elusive, Flynn’s academic work was widely lauded; he was an Honorary Fellow for life of the New Zealand Psychological Society, receiving the Society’s Special Award in 1998.

In 2002 the University of Otago awarded him its Distinguished Research Medal and, in 2010, an honorary Doctorate of Science. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and in 2011 was a recipient of its Aronui Medal for research of outstanding merit in the Humanities. 

In 2007, the International Society for Intelligence Research made him a Distinguished Contributor, and he was also made a Cambridge University Distinguished Associate of The Psychometrics Centre. He also made significant contributions on the editorial board of Intelligence and on the Honorary International Advisory Editorial Board of the Mens Sana Monographs. He was profiled in Scientific American.

His profound knowledge on a range of issues and skills as a communicator also translated well to new media; his 2013 TED talk, entitled Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents’ has been viewed more than 2.8 million times.

Professor Flynn was a keen recreational and competitive runner. At this year’s Otago Interclub Track and Field Meeting in February he finished second in the men’s over-50 grade 200m, posting his best time of the season of 57.95 seconds, and was first in the men’s over-50 400m sprint.

Professor Flynn is survived by his wife Emily, his son Victor (a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford) and daughter Natalie, who is a clinical psychologist in Auckland.

Tributes for Professor Flynn:

University of Otago Vice-Chancellor Professor Harlene Hayne
We feel the loss of Professor Flynn very keenly. He was a legendary teacher and a giant amongst scholars. His work was highly cited across a number of disciplines, his research made a real difference in the world, and his ideas had an immense reach, from high school classrooms to the frontiers of social science research. He was an iconic figure around our campus and there will never be another like him.

Richard Nisbett, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, University of Michigan
Jim was one of the most important psychologists of his generation -- particularly impressive since he was trained as a political scientist. With Bill Dickens, Jim showed that environments have a far greater impact on intelligence than is suggested by the high correlation that exists between the IQs of identical twins. This demonstration in turn was important in showing that much of the evidence purporting to show that differences in IQ between blacks and whites owe a good deal to environmental differences between the races and little if anything to genetic differences.

Jim's own intelligence was positively radiant when he discussed any topic. He was the most graceful scientific writer I ever knew. We collaborated on a paper and I had the sad duty of flattening his prose so that it would be taken seriously by psychologists! The world has lost one of the broadest and deepest thinkers of the age.

Charles Murray, Emeritus Scholar, American Enterprise Institute
By America’s current standards of academic discourse, Jim Flynn and I should have been at each other’s throats. We were on opposite sides—or so it was portrayed—on one of the most inflammatory of all academic topics, IQ and race. We did in fact have different perspectives, though more nuanced than most people thought. But those differences hadn’t the slightest effect on Jim’s collegiality toward me or any of the other people with whom he disagreed. He saw people like us as resources for testing out his ideas. How else are you going to learn, Jim thought, except by engaging with people who see things differently?

My guess is that every scholar with whom Jim ever interacted, of whatever ideological or intellectual persuasion, is mourning his death as I am—partly because of the simple affection we felt for him, and more profoundly because Jim represented what a scholar is supposed to be—open, curious, passionate about his beliefs but without either self-righteousness or rancor, determined above all else to get it right. We have lost an exemplar. I will remember him and miss him for the rest of my days.

Professor Ian Deary, University of Edinburgh
James Flynn’s contributions to the study of human intelligences differences are huge. I clearly recall his deservedly famous ‘Flynn Effect’ papers appearing in 1984 and 1987; they shook the field, and still do to this day. With massive amounts of careful work, he showed that IQ-type scores increased over the middle part of the 20th century. He then set about trying to explain why, and to point out the important implications of his findings. Along the way, he wrote clever, engaging, humane and important books about human intelligence. My recent wee, popular book on human intelligence has a whole chapter on the Flynn Effect.

I met Jim several times, and I always enjoyed the experience. His manner was at the same time casual and intense; he was affable and also scholarly and firm. He didn’t have much small talk (unless one counts running), but that didn’t matter, because everything he said was interesting. I recall a lovely experience when I was teaching undergraduates in my University of Edinburgh Psychology class about intelligence. One week, they were to present papers on the ‘Flynn effect’ in a two-hour session. As they were about to begin, the classroom door opened and in walked the famous Jim Flynn. He was in Edinburgh to give a class and loved my idea of his popping in to teach some psychology youngsters. The students were tickled pink—though at first overawed—and it was a memory they will never forget.

Jim’s scholarship is famously and creditably unbiased. His work respects that of others for the qualities of their ideas. He saw past others’ prejudice; he could strongly disagree with a researcher and at the same time respect them, and get on well with them. We need more of that.

The word humane keeps coming up in my mind. I read most of his books and I retain the impression that he was always trying both to diagnose and correct unfairness among people. He was a strong ally to the underdog. But he wasn’t wishy-washy; his humane ideas were backed with evidence, and his prescriptions had some strong medicines. Remember those recommended reading lists of his? They would definitely improve the mind, but they required a lot of effort.

Jim’s a big, and highly humane man in the psychology of individual differences – which is not even his main field! – and he will be so for ages to come.

Diane Halpern, Professor of Psychology, Emerita, Claremont McKenna College, and Past-president, American Psychological Association
He was a character with no in-between. People either loved him (including me) or didn’t. I can’t recall anyone feeling neutral about Jim. We all forgot that he was not a psychologist by training, and we counted him as one of our own. I worked with Jim on Nisbett’s intelligence task force and at a contentious meeting at Cold Springs with James Watson (yup, the DNA one), whose theories of intelligence were dangerously wrong. He was always out-spoken, generally kind, and careful about his conclusions. All of this from someone who looked like Santa Claus.

I can’t think of anyone else in the field of intelligence who has an effect named for them (not counting the various tests of intelligence). His research took a novel approach – maybe because he was educated to be a political philosopher. For many, the Flynn Effect changed everything they believed to be true about intelligence. Flynn repeatedly laid out the evidence for the intellectual inferiority of Blacks and then systematically, demolished it. For those who believed that IQs were largely due to genetic factors, he was a big pain in the ass (a term I would normally never use, but we are talking about Jim Flynn here). Because of the incredible influence he had on the field of intelligence, his legacy will live on for future generations.

Richard Haier, Emeritus Professor, School of Medicine, University of California - Irvine
Jim Flynn became famous for showing a global secular rise in IQ scores, but he was admired even more for engaging with critics as a gentleman. In a field raked with controversy and not without personal attacks, Jim sought out contrary opinions and engaged intellectually. He opened his last publication in Intelligence with a nod to Arthur Jensen with whom he disagreed about the fundamental meaning of secular IQ increases. Referring to Jensen, Jim wrote:

"He was irreplaceable in the sense that you often learn more from a thinker who challenges opinions you tend to take for granted. They shake you out of your dogmatic slumbers – force you to defend assumptions made unreflectively that cry out for clarification."

Researchers around the world say the same about Jim.

Robert Sternberg, Professor of Human Development, Cornell University
I have known Jim for a long time – I forget how many years – as a colleague at a distance!

It is very easy to write about Jim because he has been--I think without question--the most important intelligence theorist since Charles Spearman, whose 1904 paper and then 1923 and 1927 books essentially established the field as it is today.

Jim's work on what is now called the "Flynn effect" revolutionized thinking about intelligence. I realize the word "revolutionize" is sometimes thrown around, but not in this case. Most scholars (and laypeople) had assumed that intelligence is fairly stable, both within and between cohorts. Jim showed this assumption – which no one actually had bothered to test between cohorts – to be not only false but dramatically false. This meant that the presupposition of the stability of intelligence and its lack of susceptibility to environmental influence could not be correct.

A large body of literature grew that tried to explain the Flynn effect of two standard deviations of gain in mean IQ around the world in the 20th century. It would have been amazing enough for Flynn just to recognize the problem. Working with Bill Dickens, he also solved it. He showed how genes and environment normally work together within the span of a lifetime, hiding environmental effects; but these effects are separated across lifetimes, with the Flynn effect (and sometimes, a negative Flynn effect) resulting. In particular, during a lifetime, people, on average, create or select environments that match their genetic predispositions. They cannot do this across lifetimes, of course! Jim also wrote about many other topics, such as family effects and academic-freedom issues.

He sometimes received harsh reactions to his work. As is true of truly creative scholars, he was undaunted.

One would expect the most brilliant scholar in a field of a century to be conceited. In all my interactions with him, Jim was modest, never condescending, and always open to new ideas. Yet he knew the importance of his work: People were being executed on the basis of whether their IQ reached 70 (or whatever was considered minimal mental competence to understand what they had done) and Jim showed how arbitrary it all was. IQ of 70 for when? For when they committed the crime? For when they were being tried? For people of what cohort? And of course, all those cross-sectional studies of the development of IQ were shown to be extremely flawed because the people compared usually had been born in different cohorts.

Jim was just a great guy; every single time I interacted with him, often in connection with books I edited. I am so sorry about his very sad and prolonged ending. And I know how hard it has been as well on Emily, who has been something of a saint in caring for Jim.

I feel so badly thinking of his passing. The field of intelligence has been one that has been singularly lacking in innovative thinkers. It is sad that the most important innovator of us all now is gone. His body is gone but his work will live on and on and on.

Eric Turkheimer, Hugh Scott Hamilton Professor, Department of Psychology, University of Virginia
As a scholar, Jim Flynn had a quality that is in short supply these days: he always told you exactly what he thought. His goal was not to argue, negotiate, mollify or self-aggrandize, but simply to express his vision of the world as plainly and accurately as possible.

His charming and eccentric personality was the same. He wasn’t trying to make any kind of impression on anyone, he was just being himself. Jim’s human presence, his exterior self-transparent and true to his inner life, made him a joy to be around.

Bill Dickens, University Distinguished Professor of Economics and Social Policy at Northeastern University.

Both Jim and I were cross country runners in college and both of us continued running into our late adulthood. During a 20-plus year friendship, which saw us together on several occasions, we never ran together. There was a simple reason for this; despite him being nearly 20 years my senior I knew I could never keep up with him.

And who among us could keep up with Jim in any way? He had boundless focused energy. I was happy to finish an article in the time it took him to write a book. While I consider myself to be a broad scholar, Jim left me in the dust.

He wrote prolifically in the area of our shared interest – cognitive ability and particularly group differences. But he also wrote about moral philosophy, and climate change. His Torchlight List showed him to be a literary connoisseur. In Defense of Free Speech expressed his view that no topic should be off limits for academic discussion – a view he defended vigorously throughout his life. He even wrote on economics (I consulted with him on his views on what had propelled the crash of 2008).

Much of his writing was in areas where he had mastered large difficult literatures in record time, largely on his own. He was remarkable in his ability to walk into as technical an area as Psychometrics, digest it with minimal background in mathematics, and then turn around and make compelling contributions worthy of an expert in the field. His book Race IQ and Jensen is perhaps the best example of it. A contribution that was lauded by Jensen himself as “…virtually in a class by itself for objectivity, thoroughness, and scholarly integrity.”
Integrity is another virtue of which Jim was a particular exemplar. This was appreciated by his colleagues and adversaries alike. Jensen wasn’t the only one who held Jim in high regard. It was Charles Murray who coined the term “The Flynn Effect” out of respect for Jim’s careful and honest contributions to our understanding of intelligence.

Again, I would be a better person to the degree I could mirror Jim’s integrity. In this, as in so many areas, I will be running for the rest of my life to catch up with Jim who has now finished his race. May he rest easy now.

Robert Patman, Inaugural Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair, University of Otago
Jim’s passing is an enormous loss. He was an academic colleague and close friend for nearly 30 years. He was a truly remarkable scholar, a brilliant teacher, and a thoroughly humane person that has significantly enhanced the lives of students and colleagues, nationally and internationally. Jim will be hugely missed, but we can all continue to draw strength and inspiration from the memories of the way he lived his life.

Jamin Halberstadt, Head of Department, Psychology Department, University of Otago
Jim Flynn was a singular, outsized personality, consummate academic, brilliant and uncompromising communicator, and role model in the Department of Psychology. He showed what was possible with the right combination of scholarship, integrity, and genius. There was nobody like him.


TED Talk, Emeritus Professor Jim Flynn, Why our IQ levels are higher than our grandparents'

In Conversation with Jim Flynn - Emeritus Professor Jim Flynn talks with Associate Professor Charles Pigden about the challenges of growing up in the 1940s/1950s and the influences of religion and racism during his upbringing. He goes on to talk about his academic career, beginning with a scholarship at the University of Chicago to study Politics and Philosophy.