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Interview: James Flynn

The Torchlight List author Jim Flynn is out to fill another hole in our knowledge.

Did I arrive here because of a choice made freely by my present self or at the prompting of my formed character, driven by forces over which I have no control? Actually, I took a cab. But free will is a question to puzzle over as I wait at the office door of James Flynn, emeritus professor of politics at the University of Otago. Even after reading his useful new book, Fate & Philosophy: A Journey Through Life’s Great Questions, a sort of user’s manual for those more esoteric bits of us that make us fully human, I’m not sure.

The chapter of the book titled “Does Sense Experience Tell Us What Exists?” may have you questioning whether the office door on which you are fruitlessly knocking has any existence apart from your experience of it. Either way, the professor isn’t in. I’m a bit early. At 77, Flynn seems to have the energy and productivity of three ordinary people. He has four books out this year, runs 5km on the weekend. When he arrives, there’s the matter of where to talk. His office is a bit messy, he says. No worries, I say. Until he opens the door. Every visible inch of the floor is covered with paper – a new book plus his tax return, apparently.

We repair to a common room where Flynn sits in a patch of Dunedin sunshine, looking like a benign, fighting fit Old Testament prophet. One with an Irish-American gift of the gab. My transcript is largely composed of Flynn in full flight, set to a soundtrack of me piping “But …” We’re here to talk about, well, fate and philosophy, but the conversation careers from God to abortion to climate change. “We’ll make the medieval warm period look like small potatoes before we’re finished,” he says. He’s writing a book on it. There are the iniquities of post-structuralism.
Flynn: Oh, Derrida’s an idiot.
Me: But …

Flynn is not a man easily contained, in conversation or by any one academic discipline. He was head of Otago’s department of politics; made a couple of unsuccessful runs for Parliament for the Alliance Party. In a steady march across the humanities, he has written poetry and last year ventured into celebrating great literature with The Torchlight List. That book is why he’s late. Some secondary school students are using it as a guide to their reading. “They all buy a copy. I signed 13 today,” beams Flynn. It’s about equipping people for life. “Getting them to read literature so they are no longer ahistorical and therefore infinitely gullible,” he says, of his sometimes infuriating (where the heck is Jane Austen?), idiosyncratic, ultimately captivating bucket list of books. the flynn effect

But it’s in the field of intelligence that Flynn has acquired an international reputation. He documented the rise in IQ levels worldwide, a phenomenon known as the Flynn Effect. The implications can be a matter of life and death. In America, where a person with an IQ of 70 or lower can’t be executed, Flynn has been called as an expert witness in capital cases. “Oh, yeah, I was flown out to testify at a case about a year-and-a-half ago, a guy on death row in Texas.” In a way, even this comes down to questions of free will. The prosecution argued the man was of normal intelligence.

There were photographs of him playing chess. He wrote literate letters. “I said, ‘How do you know that isn’t just a chequerboard?’ and, of course, that’s what it turned out to be.” The letters were penned by another inmate. “Like all of these guys on death row, this guy had groupies, women who had fallen in love with him. I take it you’re not writing someone on death row? You haven’t developed some impassioned affection?” he enquires brightly. No. It seems a poor choice of pash. “Well, I guess it’s a safe choice,” he says. “You aren’t actually likely to marry them, are you?” Well, no. Joking aside – I think he was joking – his work has had real impact. “Now virtually every big firm knows how to argue this sort of stuff. I used to be pretty much alone, so that’s been a success.” When we speak, he’s still waiting to hear how science and philosophy have played out for the condemned man in Texas.

“I am the master of my fate; / I am the captain of my soul.” These ringing rebellious lines from William Ernest Henley’s Invictus are quoted at the beginning of Fate & Philosophy. The quest for this enviable command over one’s destiny is a common thread in Flynn’s diverse body of work and informs his dedication to defending and finding evidence to justify humane ideals. The Torchlight List was the first of what will be a trilogy designed to help us get a grip on our destiny. Fate & Philosophy is the second. The third will be How to Improve Your Mind: 20 Keys to Unlock the Modern World. “It’s an introduction to elementary market analysis, what a good piece of social science should look like, what science is all about, flaws of moral argument… The idea is the three books collectively will give people the university education that universities don’t.”

You can see why education is such a touchstone for Flynn. His father had four brothers. The boys in the family were sent to work in a factory when barely into their teens. They also formed a troupe of travelling performers in southern Missouri. “They were Irish,” shrugs Flynn. His father later became a journalist, but there was a sense of waste. “My father was a drunk,” Flynn declares with scientific precision in Torchlight, “but not an alcoholic.” The brothers were great pub raconteurs. There’s a touch of the blarney, too, in Flynn’s writing style. “An air,” as one reviewer put it, of “considered extemporaneity.” The asides that infuriate the odd critic are part of the charm.

In The Torchlight List, Flynn praises the movie version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, with Jane Darwell as Ma Joad. “She had other great roles but once was reduced to playing a supporting role to Fabian in Hound Dog Man,” he muses. “Such is Hollywood.” This is classic Flynn: slightly curmudgeonly, yet philosophical. He’s impatient with intellectual laziness. ”Why just have a philosophy that’s a garbage pail full of what’s been poured into you by your parents or your peers?” he demands of the common room. “Why not use reason to ask yourself whether what you think about good and evil makes any sense or is irrational?”

Fate & Philosophy has all manner of ill-considered silliness in its sights: “Understanding ethics will cure you of wanting some authority to tell you what is right and wrong. Understanding science will inoculate you against a whole legion of nonsense, from astrology to the Bermuda Triangle to whether people can use psychic powers to bend spoons. Understanding religious experience will inoculate you against childish concepts of god,” he writes. He’s an academic happy to give academia a serve.

“It’s hard to tell whether the obscurantist churches or the university’s anthropology and feminist studies departments are worse,” he rails, of irritating dogma. He’s an IQ expert who writes, “People often ask me how to raise the IQ of their children. I tell them to not aim for anything so trivial.”

He’s a staunch social democrat who debates social issues with a sometimes unnerving, possibly slightly mischievous, scientific detachment. In 2007, Flynn was asked to comment about research revealing that New Zealand women with tertiary education were having fewer babies than those without. In a Sunday Star-Times story Flynn said, “The trend isn’t drastic, the trend may reverse, but a persistent trend would be disturbing.” He imagined a time when contraceptives might more easily be available; in the water supply, possibly. Cue such headlines as “Expert calls for the pill to be put in tap water” and talk of eugenics. Of course he was just hypothesising in the alarming way professional thinkers will do. “That was a red herring,” he says, of the small fracas that landed him on Close Up.

“I said this is not a real problem for hundreds of years. I’m not exercised about this.” But he’s soon off again, invoking a future where the lowering age of puberty might see people choosing to, well, put something in the water. “I said I would be in favour of it not because I think it’s bad for lower-class women to have children but I want to give them control over their own fertility.” When you say “water supply”, I quaver… “Bottled water. Or you could choose to have your house reticulated for it and then you would take an antidote.” But… mightn’t that be unhealthy? “Well, I was saying again we would have to be sure there were no ill-effects,” he explains. But… “What I was really saying is that science may solve the problem,” he says, making a slightly bumpy landing back on planet Earth. Meanwhile, there are better solutions. “I said the way to attack this is to eliminate classes.” It can be done, he maintains. “In some places, like Finland, yes, despite our imbecile guy,” he says, with what I take as a swipe at the blurtings of a certain Government minister on matters Finnish.

“Women have a higher status in Finland, inconceivably higher than in New Zealand.” He refuses to back away from sensitive issues. “It’s so disturbing when you run into a Maori colleague who feels that Pakeha can’t possibly understand Maori society,” he says. “The insider knows what the culture offers. The outsider knows what it misses.” But… do we pay enough attention to Maori critiques of Pakeha society? “We may not. But if I’m going to preach the message that they should pay attention to us, I’m also going to preach the message that we should pay attention to them. And I’m going to preach the message that they should pay attention to us about sexism on the marae.”

No one has a right to have their culture valued uncritically, he says. “It did the Irish no harm at all that the clergy told us that many of our problems were due to our alcoholism and violence in the home. Without facing the fact, you’re not going to do anything about it.”

Possibly he thrives on a bit of a stoush. As Flynn writes, “Living the examined life is not a piece of cake.” Flynn met his wife, Emily, on an anti-racism picket line in Washington, DC, in the 60s. “No, I’m not a pacifist, but we had to have pacifist discipline… If any photograph showed a black raising his fist to the white, we were done. So it had to be absolutely clear who was doing the violence if we were to have any chance at all.” He was fired from early academic jobs for such leanings. “Yes, I was bounced in the South for being too friendly to blacks and then bounced in the north for being what would at that time have been just a left-leaning member of the Labour Party. My wife’s family had been persecuted a lot because they were communists.”

In Fate & Philosophy, his predicament illustrates the problems of free will. “I was free to do anything within my power: stay and keep getting fired; abandon academia; commit suicide; go overseas.” Given the options, the decision to come to New Zealand doesn’t read as a ringing endorsement. But we had our strengths. “I’d heard of the White Australia policy. And as an Irishman I wasn’t exactly prone to going to England. New Zealand was the only country that had solved its postwar housing shortage. I thought, ‘That sounds rational. I know they have a Labour Party whose politics would be close enough to mine that I doubt I’d be persecuted.’”

And we were far from Cold War America. “When they make the lion house at the Brookfield Zoo a fallout shelter, you have to wonder about the sanity of the country.” So, have we lived up to his hopes for a humane society? “Ha. Much more 30 years ago than today. We’ve set records for becoming unequal in New Zealand. No modern society has ever gone from relative equality to inequality at the pace we have.”

On the University of Otago website, listed among Flynn’s interests is: “argue with racists whenever he gets the chance”. How do we rate there? “I’ll tell you my barometer of racism,” he says, sticking to the data, “and that is how much intermarriage is tolerated. Intermarriage here is quite frequent.” If the debate about important issues isn’t sophisticated here, it could be worse. “You’re not in America, where 45% of the people think the solar system is less than 10,000 years old. It means someone like [Mitt] Romney has to get up and equivocate about whether he believes in the theory of evolution. How humiliating that must be for him. Of course he believes it.”

In the end, Flynn is optimistic. “There’s still a sense of private charity and public spiritedness among New Zealanders …At least some of the most absurd edges have been worn off the Roger Douglas message.” We may yet, he says, recover our egalitarian spirit. As Fate & Philosophy points out, you can never rule out utterly unpredictable occurrences. Fate & Philosophy is, in the end, a bit like Flynn’s office: every inch packed with ideas in a valiant attempt to take control of the inherent chaos of the human condition. It also reads like a personal manifesto, as Flynn argues along the way the beliefs that underlie his stance as an atheist, a scientific realist, a social democrat. “Man is what he believes,” reads a Chekhov quote in the book. To Flynn, these things are a matter of life, if not quite of death.

“I’m not sure Socrates was right when he said the unexamined life was not worth living. That’s harsh,” he says. “But if you are carried through life by popular opinion and by what society tells you you’re really only half alive.”

FATE & PHILOSOPHY, by James Flynn (Awa Press, $33).