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Average IQ by Country

Is it useful to measure intelligence and report the results by geographical area? Do we need to know what the average IQ scores are by country of residence? Will this kind of scientific exploration lead to biases or outright bigotry against people who happen to be from particular areas of the world?

The research has been done, and it is interesting. Some readers might recall previous studies that suggested IQ scores were higher in northern areas. In that case we may wonder about the possibility of bias given the fact that virtually all the tests of intelligence have been developed in countries north of the tropics. But recently there has been more research that's focused on why intelligence levels vary from place to place.

For example, a recent article by Christopher Eppig in Scientific American suggests that the differences could be due to the higher disease rates in some countries or areas of the world. He says;

Before our work, several scientists had offered explanations for the global pattern of IQ. Nigel Barber argued that variation in IQ is due primarily to differences in education. Donald Templer and Hiroko Arikawa argued that colder climates are difficult to live in, such that evolution favors higher IQ in those areas. Satoshi Kanazawa suggested that evolution favors higher IQ in areas that are farther from the evolutionary origin of humans: sub-Saharan Africa. Evolution, the hypothesis goes, equipped us to survive in our ancestral home without thinking about it too hard. As we migrated away, though, the environment became more challenging, requiring the evolution of higher intelligence to survive.

We tested all these ideas. In our 2010 study, we not only found a very strong relationship between levels of infectious disease and IQ, but controlling for the effects of education, national wealth, temperature, and distance from sub-Saharan Africa, infectious disease emerged as the best predictor of the bunch. A recent study by Christopher Hassall and Thomas Sherratt repeated our analysis using more sophisticated statistical methods, and concluded that infectious disease may be the only really important predictor of average national IQ.

Many critics have pointed out that intelligence is not an easy thing to measure, and the tests which hope to measure it are often biased in subtle ways.

My own feelings about this are mixed. It seems that some of the criticism comes from our discomfort with labeling groups of people as more or less intelligent. But while it is true that intelligence is difficult to measure, this does not suggest that the concept itself is invalid, and if we can say without discomfort that people in this or that area are taller or heavier statistically, it seems that we might ascribe a statistical difference to intelligence based on region as well. A statistical difference does not, after all, mean that every person in a given area is above average or below average, nor is a lower score in any human capacity (physical or mental) necessarily indicative of a lower value as a human being.

Yes, there is a danger in the fact that people do not understand statistics, and so when attributes are measured statistically for a group, it is common for some to apply those statistical measures to every member of that group (and this can be conscious or exhibited as an unconscious bias). This recent research points to intelligence being environmentally influenced rather than a consequence of genetics, perhaps making it less offensive. But there is a danger in engaging in "politically correct" science in any case. What we are afraid to investigate we inevitably must know less about.

It seems to me that it's best to discover what is true even when that truth is uncomfortable. In this case, for example, Eppig suggests that "reducing exposure to disease should increase IQ." That's something worth knowing, isn't it?

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