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What you need to know

Clocktower.

Jim Flynn Emeritus Professor Jim Flynn
"The only way for society to benefit is if we have good debate with clear thinking. It's my social duty as an intellectual to help clarify ideas and provide the tools for that debate."

There are a few things you need in this life, believes Emeritus Professor Jim Flynn, if you are to function usefully in the modern world.

"You need to know how a market works. You need some understanding of science and social science methodology – polls, blind trials, placebo effects – so you can recognise good research from bad. You need some understanding of philosophy and logic, and how to construct a critical argument and identify bad ones."

According to Flynn, these important ideas can be boiled down to a list of 20 "short-hand abstractions" or SHAs – and it's his latest goal to impart these rudiments as widely as possible. It's a list Flynn – who took up a chair in Political Studies at Otago in 1963, aged just 33 – has been developing and refining over the years, drawing upon decades of experience as a politically-engaged moral philosopher with a pragmatic streak a mile wide.

It was his practical desire to counter claims of the intellectual inferiority of black Americans that saw his career take a sideways leap into the field of intelligence research in the 1980s. Despite being a rank outsider to the discipline of psychology, he delved into its literature and emerged with the observation that IQ test results were rising steadily over time, a phenomenon intelligence scholars Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein labelled the "Flynn Effect" in the Otago professor's honour. The gains have not been trivial: a genius in the 1950s would be regarded as average today. An average citizen then might be bordering on being judged intellectually defective now. The findings have defied simple explanations with, curiously, the greatest gains occurring in the least educationally-loaded areas. Numeracy, literacy and mechanical processes have seen little advance, while our ability to abstract ideas from their context has skyrocketed.

Now, recent studies from Scandinavia signal a levelling off in IQ scores and Flynn believes it is likely we will follow suit.

"You get to the point where everyone is wearing scientific spectacles. We are all skilled at thinking abstractly, separating underlying logic from specific examples, applying learning in different scenarios. You would expect this to plateau eventually."

Meanwhile, the huge rises seen earlier this century in Western countries are now evident in developing nations, with striking leaps occurring in Kenya, Sudan and the Dominican Republic. Western society has a fair bit to show for its intellectual advances, Flynn believes. "If you look at Congressional debate 60 years ago, there was far more rhetoric and less logical consistency in arguments than we would see today. In professional roles, people are now more likely to use their initiative with confidence than simply follow routines and instructions.

"And popular culture gives some evidence of increasing intellectual dexterity – we seem more capable of following complicated plot lines in our movies and television series." I Love Lucy seems painfully simple today, he reckons.

So, asks Flynn, "Given our improved abilities to work our brains, why is the standard of debate in society not higher? Why do people constantly appeal to bad arguments and apply sloppy logic?" It's a concern that led Flynn to develop a test, Flynn's Index of Social Criticism.

This year, during his tenure as Visiting Fellow for the Sage Foundation in New York, he took the opportunity to pilot the index at a US university to explore students' general critical thinking ability. So far, his fears have been confirmed. "Only about a quarter of graduates are able to think critically outside of their discipline to any meaningful degree."

Economics graduates score highest on Flynn's test; language students the worst. Overall, he concludes, "We don't seem to have the key skills that would enable us to capitalise on our cognitive abilities." Which brings us back to SHAs. Since publishing What is Intelligence: Beyond the Flynn Effect in 2007 – in which he introduced readers to his short-list of essential skills – Flynn has been working his suggestions into a book, provisionally titled How to Improve your Mind: Better than a Harvard Education. Covering topics from ethics and international relations to economics and scientific process, Flynn explains, "It's not an academic text, but a broad, accessible overview of some fundamental things everyone should know."

Ultimately, he's keen for the book to provide the basis of a university paper – ideally to be taken by all graduating students – as an antidote to increasingly specialised training they receive during their tertiary education.

Flynn describes his generalist tendencies in an academic environment obsessed with specialisation as an "eccentric peculiarity".

And indeed, his desire to turn to science to address a moral question – advocating for black civil rights in America – was, and is, a path rarely taken. The concern is that by even engaging with the question, one gives tacit legitimacy to arguments of biological determinism. Should equal treatment of people of all races not be a matter of human rights, rather than an appeal to scientific proof? "I think people at universities forget what cosseted lives we lead. We may hold strong egalitarian beliefs, so that any evidence for racial differences seems to be a step backward. But there has never been a time at which what the ordinary person believes about race would not have been corrected for the better by science. If science had never studied race, it is hard to imagine how regressive popular belief would be today."

"Given our improved abilities to work our brains, why is the standard of debate in society not higher? Why do people constantly appeal to bad arguments and apply sloppy logic?"

And science still gives us our best arguments against contemporary racism, Flynn maintains, referring to "the racial profiles used to discriminate against blacks in everything from employment to who is worthy of the death penalty".

Now, he says, he is equipped with arguments, including that blacks have cut the IQ gap with whites by a third within the space of a generation. Or that the IQ of blacks and whites at the age of four are almost equal – gaps emerge as they reach adulthood.

"That's a strong argument that there's something about the environment many black children grow up in that is intellectually deadening." The fact that a quarter of black fathers are in prison is a likely contributor.

None of which takes away from the human rights argument. "Say the difference in IQ eventually declines to five points. That's about the same as the difference between twins and singletons. No one would suggest we ban twins from holding office.

"A lot of liberals were terrified of getting into this kind of research because, really, they were scared of what they might find. They were worried it might prove blacks' inferiority."

The powerful marriage of science and philosophy underpinned Flynn's 2000 book, How to Defend Humane Ideals: Substitutes for Objectivity. There, he argued that philosophers should take their arguments as far as they can, then turn to science to address any gaps.

It's an idea he returned to with his 2008 work, Where have all the Liberals Gone?: Race, Class and Ideals in America. Flynn contends that the premium placed on relativist arguments, not properly grounded in humanism or a sense of history, has catastrophically impoverished his mother-country's ethical debate and social vision.

His concerns extend, somewhat, to New Zealand, the country he embraced for its commitment to social justice in the 1960s. Reflecting on the changes he's witnessed throughout his half century here, he is impressed by the swift progress made by the women's movement, expresses some qualified optimism for racial equality (overt prejudice has diminished), but worries about the increasing gulf between rich and poor.

"We have become very tolerant of seeing people living in poverty in a way that would have made us much more uncomfortable a generation ago."

For his part, he says, "The only way for society to benefit is if we have good debate with clear thinking. It's my social duty as an intellectual to help clarify ideas and provide the tools for that debate."

That, and argue with racists whenever he gets the chance.