Science is telling us that we’re getting dumber

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  • Sunday, 22 Jan 2017

With a study saying there has been a decline over the past 65 years in ‘education genes’ – genes that predispose us to become more educated – will the world ever see another certified genius like Albert Einstein again? Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Because 2016 was the year of fake news, a trend which seems to be continuing into 2017, I have to ask the question that, basically, we’re all thinking: Are people getting dumber?

That seems a bit harsh to conclude but how else can you explain people hearing the fake news of Hillary Clinton running a paedophile ring out of a pizza shop – a “story” that sounds more like a bad sketch on Saturday Night Live than actual news – and sharing this false news on the Internet until eventually one poor sad-sack believer of this fakeness got worked into such a frenzy that he went into said pizza shop and shot the place up because he wanted to save the children. Yes, this happened. (Thankfully, no one was injured.)

My immediate reaction is that people must be getting dumber. That’s the only explanation I can come up with. I’m citing only one person who acted out, but keep in mind millions of people shared and liked similar fake news that helped incite this lone-gunman-saviour-of-fake-children-that-never-existed. This is a problem.

Are we getting dumber?

Some researchers think so.

An Icelandic study reported in The Guardian newspaper earlier this week says we might be headed on a “downwards spiral into imbecility” (props to science editor Ian Sample for that phrasing). Researchers at deCODE, a genetics firm in Reykjavik, identified “education genes”, genes that predispose humans to becoming more educated, and noted that there has been a decline over the past 65 years – meaning that the genes that make us want to get educated are becoming rarer.

The study went on to hypothesise that the reason this education gene is becoming less prevalent is that educated people have fewer children. This phenomenon, which has been noted numerous times and is the basis for the 2006 film Idiocracy (which becomes more relevant now as a possible window into a future fake news could create) is known as dysgenic fertility. Dysgenic fertility, of course, being a fancy term for “smarter people have fewer kids”.

The reasoning goes that smarter people expend more energy on creative and industrious pursuits and thus have less energy for having children. If this is true, what would happen is that the brightest people over time would be passing on their genes at a lower rate than the less intelligent, resulting in a dumbing down of the population over time.

Is there any proof of this?

Possibly. One study states that IQs have declined by over 13 points between 1889 to 2004. The study does note that the late 1880s, or the Victorian era, was marked by innovation and genius so maybe we shouldn’t feel bad being dumber than that bunch. Ever seen a Victorian period piece? Those folks sound uber intelligent.

But if we’re going to talk about declining IQs it’s worth discussing the range of IQs.

Basically, an IQ of around 70 would be on the low end of intelligence and an IQ of 160 is Einstein. Literally. Einstein’s IQ was 160. An average IQ is between 90 and 110. If you’re over 120 you’re considered bright, over 130 gifted, and over 145 – congratulations, you’re a genius.

(In an aside, I did numerous IQ tests and didn’t score over 145. My stupidity ensues. So I did more and more online IQ tests and found my score rising as I got used to the sort of questions asked in the tests. Does that mean I was getting smarter? Nope. Just means I was getting better at answering those kinds of questions.)

But the legitimacy of IQ as an accurate measure of intelligence aside, it certainly could be perceived that humans are getting dumber in the long run.

Does this mean we’re headed for a world where the new news is simply a collection of reports that people want to hear?

I hope not.

One explanation for the proliferation of fake news is a human blind spot known as the “knowledge illusion”, meaning “people are ignorant of their own ignorance”. to look something up means you need to realise that you don’t already know the answer.

In addition, fake news is more likely to be accepted if it fits an individual’s world view. That is, if you want to believe Hillary Clinton is abusing children in a pizza parlour, you’ll believe it; or, by contrast, if you want to believe Donald Trump is paying prostitutes to soil a bed because that’s how he rolls, you’ll believe that too.

I guess it all comes back to Socrates and his search for the smartest person on the planet, a search that ended with himself, which seems a little narcissistic but ultimately isn’t as bad as it sounds: After talking with leaders and scholars of his day who all claimed to know everything, he concluded he was the wisest because “I know one thing, and that is, I know nothing”.

Wise words, especially in this era of post truth.

Catch Jason Godfrey on Inspiring Homes on Life Inspired (Astro CH 728).

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