Tag Archives: Jim Flynn

Does no one in public life have a grasp of science ???

15 Oct


The UK press this week has seen a lot of reporting of the views of a Dominic Cummings, a ‘special advisor’ to Michael Gove the Education Secretary. Amongst Cummings views was that 70% of a child’s intelligence is inherited, and thus teaching was not the big influence people think it is. If, for the moment, you ignore the smell of eugenics hanging around this statement it just demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the basic science.

I’m no genetics expert, but the first thing that occurred to me when I read this story was the concept of a ‘environmental multiplier’. This is an idea I first came across in Jim Flynn’s work, and simply says that environmental factors can have a multiplying effect of relatively small genetic advantages. Imagine an eight year old male child who is 20% taller than other children his age in his class. This is undoubtedly a genetic advantage. Now put that child in a suburb of either London or Chicago, and ask yourself which is more likely to result in a world-class basketball player. Clearly the child in Chicago is more likely to grow up to be a world-class basketball player, but no because of his genetic advantage alone but because of the multiplying influence of his environment. THe Harvard Psychologist Steven Pinker precisely summed up this idea when he said than money and recipes run in families, but that doesn’t mean they are genetic !

Now, this alone isn’t that interesting a story, in that we have a ‘special advisor’ to government who either doesn’t understand, or is deliberately misinterpreting science for political ends. But, a follow-up to this story today is particularly illuminating.


In Polly Toynbee’s column in todays Guardian she does the right thing about Dominic Cummings ‘70%’ idea, and asks a geneticist if it makes any sense. However, the story runs under the headline ‘…wealth is considerably more heritable than genes’. I understand the Polly Toynbee will not have had any input into the headline of her column, but it is unbelievably depressing that a Guardian sub-editor could write such a clearly ridiculous headline, and that headline could work its way right through the system and get published. Just for a moment try to imaging how anything could be more heritable than genes !!!

All of this adds to my conviction that it is vital that the general public are educated about the basics of science. On a more cheerful note I’m also quite proud of the fact that by the end of my rational thinking course my students will clearly know more about science than the average Guardian sub-editor.

Reflections on the brilliance of Jim Flynn and my own teaching this week.

27 Sep

I’ve just finished watching an excellent new TED talk (above) from one of my intellectual heroes, Jim Flynn, and it’s made me reflect both on the brilliance of Flynn and on my our teaching experience this week. (For anyone interested in rational thinking Flynn’s work show be required reading).

In the video Flynn presents his work on the phenomena of IQ increases across the 20th century and it’s consequences in his usual thorough and engaging style, and without the aid of any of the technology that we ‘modern’ teachers have come to rely on. This made me really think about my own teaching experience this week. I taught the first session of my rational thinking course this week and had one of those disaster-ridden days when the IT provision decided not to work. Whilst I hope it didn’t effect the students experience too much I found the whole session fairly stressful. On reflection , it wasn’t the teaching that stressed me, but rather the absence of my technological ‘crutch’.

It’s intriguing that ‘chalk and talk’ has become something of an insult in modern higher education pedagogy and yet Jim Flynn demonstrates that you don’t even need the ‘chalk’ for perfect teaching. I’m not sure that any of this will completely ween me off my technology addiction, but at the very least then next time a teaching a session that involves just me talking and the students listening I wont be ashamed of it.

My rational thinking books of the year (Part 2)

3 Jan

I’ve been thinking for some time about trying to codify my thoughts on teaching rational thinking into a coherent curriculum, and in researching the idea I came across a new book by one of my academic heroes, Jim Flynn.


‘How to improve your mind’ is let down by a cover that makes it look like a dreadful self-help manual, when it actually contains Flynn’s views on the concepts for intelligence growth that first appeared in his 2007 work ‘What is Intelligence ?’. The twenty key concepts that Flynn identifies provide a powerful basis for teaching rational thinking.

For those who might have only read Flynn’s works on Intelligence ‘What is Intelligence’ and ‘Are we getting smarter ?’ might be surprised by the tone of the book. Those two books draw very heavily on the available data with pages of tables and references, whereas ‘How to Improve Your Mind’ reads much more like a conversation with Jim Flynn in that it written in a precise but occasionally acerbic style.

I’d recommend the book for anyone considering teaching rational thinking although I’m not sure about using as a textbook for a rational thinking course. Flynn himself suggests that his key concepts ought to be taught to final year undergraduates, and I can see that the book might appeal to students at that level. However, for the 1st year undergraduates that I teach the book might be pitched slightly to high.

One final word of warning, Jim Flynn has a particular liberal world-view that comes across vigorously in this book. If you object to liberal politics you might want to avoid his work. (That said, if you’ve read this far you probably won’t have any problem with his views !!)

A rational thinking curriculum / syllabus

4 Dec
I presented my work at a recent university conference, and it led me to think about how what I do could be developed. I’m a psychologist, and teach psychology students but the more I think about it the more it seems that what I do has a broader relevance. There is a long tradition in British higher education of the generic nature of graduate skills. One of my favourite quotations about the nature of graduates comes from one of John Henry Newman’s lectures in 1852, where he suggested ‘to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant’ were the key characteristics of graduates. One hundred and forty years later Newman’s quotation crops up in another attempt to define ‘graduateness’ in the HEQC’s 1985 paper ’Clarifying The Attributes Of ‘Graduateness

I’ve written elsewhere about my dislike of the traditional critical thinking literature, and thus I’m not convinced that it has much to contribute trying to contruct a rational thinking curriculum. However, psychology’s own empirical literature does offer a number of areas that can offer a start. At the end of his book ‘What is Intelligence ?’, that offers an explanation of the strange phenomena of ever-increasing IQ scores, the brilliant Jim Flynn proposes a list of ten concepts that might result in continuation of IQ growth:

1) Market forces

2) Percentages

3) Natural Selection

4) Control Groups

5) Random Samples

6) Naturalistic fallacy

7) Charisma effect

8) Placebo

9) Falsifiability

10) Tolerance school fallacy

I would add to additional concepts of my own to Jim Flynn’s list :

11) The importance of historical context

12) Heuristics and biases

I’d suggest that you can group these items into three broad areas:

1) The scientific method (4,5,8 & 9)

2) Useful concepts (1,2,3,11 & 12)

3) The structure of logical arguments (6 & 10)

As my rational thinking course has evolved over the last five years I’ve covered many of these concepts, but given that I’ve always taught psychology students I’ve tailored the examples I’ve used towards psychology. However, I’m now thinking that it wouldn’t be particularly difficult to recast those examples to appeal to a generic student audience and the address the basic curriculum I’ve outlined above. Over the next few months I’m going to try to put together generic examples that fit into the framework I’ve detailed above. I’ll post the examples here as I progress.

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