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The Psychologist, 1988, 1 (12), 498.

IQ gain as an outcome of improved obstetric practice



J.J. Ray

It is a commonplace observation that inter-disciplinary communication is often less than ideal. People working in one discipline could be greatly helped by knowledge of what is going on in other disciplines.

Perhaps one of the most striking of such communication breakdowns in recent times is the recent work of Flynn (eg. Flynn, 1988) on the phenomenon of great IQ gains throughout the Western world in recent generations. Flynn explains this phenomenon as indicating faulty IQ testing procedures. He claims that it shows that no IQ test is anywhere near "culture-fair".

The crucial datum that renders this inference absurd is from the field of obstetrics. Yet one does not need to be a member of the medical profession to know it. In fact almost every woman in the Western world would now know it. It is the fact that surgical intervention now forms a routine part of childbirth in the Western world. If there is any indication of a difficult delivery, an episiotomy is performed. If there are serious problems a caesarian section is performed.

It was not always so. Before the Second World War both procedures were much rarer - partly because many births were still supervised by midwives only. The technique then relied upon to enlarge the birth canal (in place of the modern-day episiotomy) was "holding back". In other words, the baby's head (at that age not protected by a solid bony skull) was used to force the enlargement. A common result was that babies were born a nice shade of blue due to oxygen deficiency. The trauma to the infant brain can only be imagined.

It is our gradual release from such primitive practices that has led to increases in average IQ. Reducing trauma to the infant in general and to the infant brain in particular is the whole goal of modern obstetric practice. Most advanced societies have spent a fortune (in the form of the high cost of surgery) in achieving exactly what Flynn dismisses as testing error!

Flynn's results are thus welcome proof that modern-day obstetric practice has achieved its aims. They show that there really is less brain damage around now. In no way, however, do they impugn IQ tests. They do the opposite, in fact. The tests have accurately picked up an effect that the medical profession has long been striving for. In other words, Flynn's results confirm the validity of IQ tests.

Reference

Flynn, J.R. (1988). Japanese IQ simply fades away. The Psychologist: Bulletin of the British Psychological Society, 9, 348-350




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