Why are IQ scores rising? Industrialization rewired our minds.

300 years of industrialization have boosted our IQ scores in one very specific way.

DAVID EPSTEIN: The Flynn effect is this startling finding that IQ scores, scores on IQ tests around the world, in the 20th century have been rising at a pretty steady rate of about three points per decade. And not only have they been rising at three points per decade, but the scores are rising on the most abstract tests and the most abstract parts of tests.

So, for example, the test that has the fastest rising score Is called Raven's Progressive Matrices. This has nothing to do with anything you've learned in school. It's just patterns, abstract patterns, in a sequence and one is missing, and you have to figure out how to fill in the missing patterns -- pure abstraction. This test was created so that you wouldn't have to bring anything to it that you've learned in life. If Martians landed on Earth, this was supposed to be the test that could determine how clever they were. And yet, it's the place where we've seen the fastest rise in scores, in this abstract thinking skills that aren't really specifically taught anywhere.

When James Flynn, the professor who first noticed this trend, for whom the Flynn effect is named, started wondering what was going on, he went back to some famous studies by a Soviet psychologist named Alexander Luria. And Luria found an incredible natural experiment. In the 1930s when the Soviet Union was nationalizing, essentially, some of the remote territories -- villages that had not been developed for agriculture and they wanted to develop industry in those places -- Luria wondered if taking people who were living in what he called a pre-modern environment where they were subsistence farmers and quickly moving them into modern work, where they had to work together and coordinate schedules and coordinate tasks for agriculture, even have some schooling in some cases, how would that change the way that they think? And so he saw this natural experiment where he came in the middle of this revolution, where dome of these pre-modern villagers -- again using his terminology -- were still in their original environment as subsistence farmers and others were getting connected to the modern world, getting a little bit of schooling; some were being trained to be teachers, others were being appointed to head collective farms and had to start managing people and thinking ahead and setting long-term complicated goals. And what he found was that this actually had a profound effect on the very way that they think. When the pre-modern villagers were given skeins of wool or silk of different colors and hues and asked to organize them into groups, they basically said, 'It can't be done. None of them are similar.' Whereas when some of the villagers who had been touched by modernity were given the same task, they pretty easily grouped them into colors, even if they didn't really have names for those colors, they started to recognize the abstraction of a color for use in grouping.

And the same thing was true with shapes. So for example, a 26-year-old remote villager named Alieva was asked to group certain shapes together. But to her, a square with a solid line was obviously a map and the same square with a dotted line was obviously a watch. She could only see them as these concrete objects, whereas the villagers who had started to interact with the modern world were used to abstract classifications. And even if they didn't know the names of the shapes, they recognized that the concept was the same and they could group them together. And so that's just one example. But in all of these tests what Luria noticed was that the pre-modern villagers were grounded in the concrete, in their own direct experience. They could only answer questions based on concrete objects that they had directly experienced. Where the greater the dose of modernity the villagers had had, the more they had to engage in complex interconnected work, the more they were able to group things with abstract concepts, to use classification schemes, or what James Flynn came to call scientific spectacles. He'd say they see the world through scientific spectacles.

Some of the ways that modern work changed the very thinking of pre-modern villagers are sort of miraculous. On the screen is a famous example called the Ebbinghaus illusion. And if you're watching this, then you're clearly engaged in modern work and in the modern world, and I want you to tell me which one of the central circles looks larger? And again, since you're engaged in modern work, the circle on the right probably looks larger -- the big one surrounded by smaller circles. But pre-modern villagers actually saw correctly that both central circles are actually the same exact size. And scientists who study this think that this has to do with how we differently perceive these circles in relation to one another. So for the pre-modern villagers, they see each individual circle; they're not as drawn to the holistic context. And so they can accurately see the size of the central circles. Whereas people who are more used to abstraction and thinking of things and classification in relation to one another are more drawn to the holistic context. So the contrast between the circles affects your perception.

Now, we in our modern work world have to use abstraction constantly. We have to apply our knowledge to situations that we've never actually seen before. And we get by on that. It's called transfer. We have to take knowledge from one place and use the concepts and apply them to something we've never seen before. And there's evidence that the act of doing that has continued to make us better and better at this abstract thinking that shows up on the Raven's Progressive Matrices. So modernity has essentially changed the way we think, to make us better at using broad abstract concepts and applying them to situations that are unfamiliar to us. And it's not to say that one type of thinking is better than the other. That's certainly not the case. They're just adapted to different conditions. So, whereas the pre-modern villagers would, to use familiar terms, often miss the forest for the trees, they don't see the holistic concept of these groupings, whereas we in the industrialized world will often miss the trees for the forest. We see these broader concepts but sometimes not the individual concrete details that they do.

  • Human intelligence is increasing by approximately 3 IQ points per decade, a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect.
  • The increases come from one area of intelligence in particular: abstract thinking, which can be tested using puzzles like Raven's Progressive Matrices. Watch this video to see two kinds of puzzles: One your modern mind is perfectly geared for, and another that might just fool you.
  • In this video, David Epstein recounts a natural experiment in the Soviet Union in the 1930s that tested the intelligence of isolated subsistence farmers compared to people who had been exposed to industrialization. The experiment revealed fascinating information about abstract thinking, intelligence transfer, and how modern life has changed the way we perceive the world.

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Is NASA ignoring proof of Martian life from the 1970s?

One of the scientists with the Viking missions says yes.

Image source: David Williams/NASA
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  • A former NASA consultant believe his experiments on the Viking 1 and 2 landers proved the existence of living microorganisms on Mars
  • Because of other conflicting data, his experiments' results have been largely discarded.
  • Though other subsequent evidence supports their findings, he says NASA has been frustratingly disinterested in following up.

Gilbert V. Levin is clearly aggravated with NASA, frustrated by the agency's apparent unwillingness to acknowledge what he considers a fact: That NASA has had dispositive proof of living microorganisms on Mars since 1976, and a great deal of additional evidence since then. Levin is no conspiracy theorist, either. He's an engineer, a respected inventor, founder of scientific-research company Spherix, and a participant in that 1976 NASA mission. He's written an opinion piece in Scientific American that asks why NASA won't follow up on what he believes they should already know.

In 1976

Image source: NASA/JPL

Sunset at the Viking 1 site

As the developer of methods for rapidly detecting and identifying microorganisms, Levin took part in the Labeled Release (LR) experiment landed on Mars by NASA's Viking 1 and 2.

At both landing sites, the Vikings picked up samples of Mars soil, treating each with a drop of a dilute nutrient solution. This solution was tagged with radioactive carbon-14, and so if there were any microorganisms in the samples, they would metabolize it. This would lead to the production of radioactive carbon or radioactive methane. Sensors were positioned above the soil samples to detect the presence of either as signifiers of life.

At both landing sites, four positive indications of life were recorded, backed up by five controls. As a guarantee, the samples were then heated to 160°, hot enough to kill any living organisms in the soil, and then tested again. No further indicators of life were detected.

According to many, including Levin, had this test been performed on Earth, there would have been no doubt that life had been found. In fact, parallel control tests were performed on Earth on two samples known to be lifeless, one from the Moon and one from Iceland's volcanic Surtsey island, and no life was indicated.

However, on Mars, another experiment, a search for organic molecules, had been performed prior to the LR test and found nothing, leaving NASA in doubt regarding the results of the LR experiment, and concluding, according to Levin, that they'd found something imitating life, but not life itself. From there, notes Levin, "Inexplicably, over the 43 years since Viking, none of NASA's subsequent Mars landers has carried a life detection instrument to follow up on these exciting results."

Subsequent evidence

Image source: NASA

A thin coating of water ice on the rocks and soil photographed by Viking 2

Levin presents in his opinion piece 17 discoveries by subsequent Mars landers that support the results of the LR experiment. Among these:

  • Surface water sufficient to sustain microorganisms has been found on the red planet by Viking, Pathfinder, Phoenix and Curiosity.
  • The excess of carbon-13 over carbon-12 in the Martian atmosphere indicates biological activity since organisms prefer ingesting carbon-12.
  • Mars' CO2should long ago have been converted to CO by the sun's UV light, but CO2 is being regenerated, possibly by microorganisms as happens on Earth.
  • Ghost-like moving lights, resembling Earth's will-O'-the-wisps produced by spontaneous ignition of methane, have been seen and recorded on the Martian surface.
  • "No factor inimical to life has been found on Mars." This is a direct rebuttal of NASA's claim cited above.

Frustration

Image source: NASA

A technician checks the soil sampler of a Viking lander.

By 1997, Levin was convinced that NASA was wrong and set out to publish followup research supporting his conclusion. It took nearly 20 years to find a venue, he believes due to his controversial certainty that the LR experiment did indeed find life on Mars.

Levin tells phys.org, "Since I first concluded that the LR had detected life (in 1997), major juried journals had refused our publications. I and my co-Experimenter, Dr. Patricia Ann Straat, then published mainly in the astrobiology section of the SPIE Proceedings, after presenting the papers at the annual SPIE conventions. Though these were invited papers, they were largely ignored by the bulk of astrobiologists in their publications." (Staat is the author of To Mars with Love, about her experience as co-experimenter with Levin for the LR experiments.)

Finally, he and Straat decided to craft a paper that answers every objection anyone ever had to their earlier versions, finally publishing it in Astrobiology's October 2016 issue. "You may not agree with the conclusion," he says, "but you cannot disparage the steps leading there. You can say only that the steps are insufficient. But, to us, that seems a tenuous defense, since no one would refute these results had they been obtained on Earth."

Nonetheless, NASA's seeming reluctance to address the LR experiment's finding remains an issue for Levin. He and Straat have petitioned NASA to send a new LR test to the red planets, but, alas, Levin reports that "NASA has already announced that its 2020 Mars lander will not contain a life-detection test."

Physicists solve a 140-year-old mystery

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Credit: IBM
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