Monday, November 22, 2010

IQ Score Variations by Nation

This is a weekly post by Nidhal Guessoum (see his earlier posts here). Nidhal is an astrophysicist and Professor of Physics at American University of Sharjah 
The question of whether IQ (Intelligence Quotient) scores vary (significantly) from country to country may sound terribly racist and unapproachable. But first, no question, if honestly asked and investigated, should be taboo; and second, the question sounds racist only if one believes that any such differences (if found) will be attributed to racial characteristics, rather than developmental factors.
Now, one of the main scientific problems that pose themselves whenever this issue is studied (seriously, objectively) is the fact that IQ tests are quite invariably fraught with cultural effects. In a previous post, I had reported on how easily we can mistake some common traits that we are used to around us for “human universals”. So one can imagine that measuring intelligence “universally” is a very complicated matter. (I remember once I took a French IQ test – for fun – and many of the verbal questions had some “well-known” cultural assumptions that were alien to me, and I’m totally fluent in French…)
Many countries, however, do have huge databases of IQ test results for their people, by age, education level, economic status, year, etc. Now, again, comparing results from different countries is a very risky exercise, but looking at scores within each country, and studying their variations through time can be recommended. And that’s what James Robert Flynn (born 1934), Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, did some years ago, at which point he noticed what has become known as the Flynn Effect: IQ scores have been steadily increasing every decade now for over sixty years, in all countries that keep such data. Why is that? There are various hypotheses for this, ranging from cognitive abilities improving with more stimuli coming to our minds from more sophisticated educational, social, and economic environments to improved nutrition allowing the brain to perform its tasks better and faster…
Controversially, some researchers have postulated a reverse correlation between IQ and development level; that is, countries with higher average IQ’s will reach greater economic levels, not the other way around. Indeed, in two very controversial books (“IQ and the Wealth of Nations”, 2002, and “IQ and Global Inequality”, 2006), Richard Lynn, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Ulster, Northern Ireland, and Tatu Vanhanen, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Tampere, Tampere, Finland, argue that current differences in economic development are due at least in part to differences in average national IQ scores…
But a recent study found an interesting correlation between average IQ scores and rates of infectious diseases in various countries. More clearly, the more widespread is malaria, for instance, the lower the average IQ will be in that country… That’s what Christopher Eppig (a Ph.D. candidate in biology at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque) and his colleagues reported in a paper they published in July in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (see the diagram below, from New Scientist).

How could those two factors (IQ and infectious diseases) be correlated? The interpretation that has been offered holds that parasitic infections rob the body – and thus the brain – of infants of much energy and divert body resources to fighting the disease and pumping up the immune system, hence reducing the capacity of the brain to perform at higher rates and levels.
The researchers insist that they did control for other factors that could affect IQ scores, including education opportunities, income levels, and even climate (as colder lands have been theorized to help improve IQ scores… from an evolutionary perspective…).
If such an effect and its proposed explanation are confirmed (by other studies), this could constitute an important phenomenon for national and international institutions (e.g. the World Bank) to address, in an attempt to hit several birds with one stone…


Ali said...

"Controversially, some researchers have postulated a reverse correlation between IQ and development level; that is, countries with higher average IQ’s will reach greater economic levels, not the other way around."

I would argue that the co-relation is true both ways. If a country has more intelligent people, they will develop faster.
Similarly, if a country develops, they will have more intelligent people.
My reason being, intelligence is something inherent (may be it can developed too to an extent). But unless intelligence is exercised, no one will know how intelligent someone is. There is no intelligence detection device as such.

Exrecising the intelligence of its people will make a country develop. Similarly, when a country develops, there will be more opportunities for its people to exercise their (otherwise unused) intelligence.

The reason why I wanted to comment on this post is slightly different. Its this question that came to my mind. :)

If aliens from another rock visited the Earth, will that mean they are more intelligent than us, human beings?

Nidhal Guessoum said...


Thanks for your pertinent comments.

Intuitively, one would tend to agree with you that the correlation works both ways: countries with higher economic levels and greater development would probably produce more intelligent people, if at least, as you point out, because there will be better educational and child development methods, not to mention better food and medicine, to help tune up the brain...

However, one must be careful with apparent, intuitively true statements; any claim should be borne out by studies, statistics, and analyses. So I am not sure if that holds true upon closer examination.

Now, regarding extra-terrestrials and higher intelligence, well just be a little patient, I am readying a review of Paul Davies' latest book on ET searches and expectations (The Eerie Silence).

Salman Hameed said...

"If aliens from another rock visited the Earth, will that mean they are more intelligent than us, human beings?"

Well, they will certainly be more technologically advanced (if they get here). The question of intelligence is difficult to answer. That will have to be addressed independently - since the two biological systems are expected to be completely different!

One interesting question can be: If we encounter humans from a thousand years ago - we will be leaps ahead in technology and our understanding of the natural world. But what about intelligence (probably not that much) - and how long will it take them to catch-up in IQ?

Nidhal - Yes, this is also on my reading list. I have to read it before the start of the spring semester when I teach Aliens...
Looking forward to your review.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Nidhal.

Yes my comment was based on intuition. I haven't got any research to support what I said. May be the research there. But, I would like to think it is also common sense. Was it you who once said that common sense is not always correct -- like we see the sun going around the Earth. :) Still, I would stick to what I said, until proven wrong. :)

I too have Paul Davis' book on my reading list. I like the title. I got The Grand Design last week and I was like a child who got a new toy. Almost euphoric. But the more I read, the more my euphoria faded.



"But what about intelligence (probably not that much) - and how long will it take them to catch-up in IQ?"

If intelligence is the same, what is there to catch up?

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