A tribute to Professor James R. Flynn

A tribute to Professor James R. Flynn (28 April 1934 – 11 December 2020), whose passing is greatly lamented.

On Friday, December 11, 2020, the intelligence research community received devastating news when it was announced that James Flynn passed away. In the forty years he spent researching, thinking about, and writing about intelligence, he single-handedly changed the course of the field.

Flynn was the recipient of the International Society for Intelligence Research’s 2017 lifetime achievement award, one of many awards he received for his scholarly work. It is hard to think of anyone who would have been more deserving of accolades. In all of his work, Flynn was a meticulous scholar who embodied many of the ideals that make science a truth-seeking endeavor. He respected data and had little patience for poor arguments and logic, regardless of whether they supported his views. He was willing to change his mind when the data were strong enough to convince him he was wrong; if they were to meet, the James Flynn of the 1980s would probably have lively disagreements with the James Flynn of the 2010s.

Flynn was most famous for documenting the eponymous Flynn effect, which was the gradual increase in average IQ during the 20th century. Flynn did not discover the phenomenon, nor did he name it after himself. However, he showed that it applied to every intelligence test in the United States (Flynn, 1984) and later over a dozen other countries (Flynn, 1987). Flynn’s status as a non-psychologist made him willing to consider interpretations that were literally unthinkable to those in the field, such as the suggestion that “psychologists should stop saying that IQ tests measure intelligence” (Flynn, 1987, p. 188). Ouch!

Perhaps it was Flynn’s outsider status that made him such a valuable member of the intelligence research community. Trained as a moral philosopher, Flynn’s first publication about intelligence was the underappreciated 1980 book Race, IQ, and Jensen, which appeared 22 years after he earned his doctorate. With the book, Flynn proved that anybody could make a contribution to a scientific field, as long as they have a firm understanding of the underlying facts and follow the methods of extracting knowledge from data. Flynn’s (1980) book showed a comprehensive understanding of the then-existent research on the question of the origin of average differences in IQ across demographic groups. It remains one of the best arguments for a purely environmental cause of these score gaps. Not bad for a first-time foray into a distant scholarly field.

The book sparked a correspondence between Flynn and Arthur Jensen that lasted until the latter’s death in 2012. The two were scientific adversaries but valued one another as colleagues, often sending each other drafts of their manuscripts for criticism. As a symbol of his respect towards Jensen, Flynn dedicated his insightful book Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century (Flynn, 2012), “To Arthur Jensen – Whose integrity never failed”. While intended as a sign of respect for Jensen, the gesture also showed Flynn’s magnanimity and generosity in giving credit to others who educated him or inspired his ideas (e.g., Flynn, 2018, p. 83). He was charitable towards other scholars, assuming that they were arguing in good faith (until proven otherwise) and evaluating their arguments fairly.

This is not to say that Flynn was dispassionate. In the most heated topic he wrote about—the causes of average differences in IQ between African Americans and White Americans—he argued unceasingly that the causes of average were entirely non-genetic. Undoubtedly, this position was influenced by his strong, unwavering sense of justice (an unsurprising trait in a moral philosopher) and his experience fighting for civil rights for African Americans during the 1950s and 1960s. But Flynn was honest to himself and to his audience. He knew how easy it was for scholars to engage in self-deception when their passions ran high, and he was eager to find and engage with the best arguments against his position in order to strengthen it. Ironically, some of the best summaries of the evidence in support of a genetic influence on race differences in IQ are written by James Flynn as preparation to criticize that evidence (e.g., Dickens & Flynn, 2001; Flynn, 1980).

This is one of many ironies in James Flynn’s work on intelligence. In the 1980s, he thought his work put a nail in the coffin of intelligence tests, but it actually encouraged decades of research (including his own) that led to a better understanding of how the tests function. His stance against a genetic influence on interracial mean differences in IQ made him a darling of politically correct social science, but his hypothesis that African American culture has harmful components that lower IQ has been met with stony silence. He dismissed the idea that humans were getting smarter while also conceding that they had improved in their problem-solving skills and reasoning—the skills most central to what intelligence tests measure (Flynn, 2006).

James Flynn has bequeathed to the field of intelligence research more than the books and articles containing his ideas. He leaves a legacy of respect from his colleagues and an example for every seeker of truth to emulate. Nobody can ever replace James Flynn, but scientists and scholars can emulate his example.

By Russell T. Warne PhD


Dickens, W. T., & Flynn, J. R. (2001). Heritability estimates versus large environmental effects: The IQ paradox resolved. Psychological Review, 108(2), 346-369. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-295X.108.2.346

Flynn, J. R. (1980). Race, IQ, and Jensen. Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Flynn, J. R. (1984). The mean IQ of Americans: Massive gains 1932 to 1978. Psychological Bulletin, 95(1), 29-51. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.95.1.29

Flynn, J. R. (1987). Massive IQ gains in 14 nations: What IQ tests really measure. Psychological Bulletin, 101(3), 171-191. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0090408

Flynn, J. (2006, December 15). Beyond the Flynn effect, a lecture by Professor James Flynn. https://www.psychometrics.cam.ac.uk/about-us/directory/beyond-the-flynn-effect

Flynn, J. R. (2018). Reflections about intelligence over 40 years. Intelligence, 70, 73-83. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2018.06.007