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This will not seem like breaking news to many people, but apparently humans are getting dumber.

That’s not a value judgment. It turns out that a key assumption in the field of intelligence research – that humanity’s collective smarts have measurably increased in each decade since the 1930s – could well be wrong.

That assumption is known in some quarters as the Flynn effect, named after James Flynn, a New Zealand political studies professor who described it in the 1980s.

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Norwegian economists Bernt Bratsberg and Ole Rogeberg have poked at the concept for a number of years, most recently using administrative data on 730,000 Norwegian men that go back to the 1960s. They have found that intelligence as measured by I.Q. (itself a fraught concept) has declined since 1975.

Perhaps more interestingly, they concluded that environmental factors are the likeliest explanation. Though the data don’t support a causal link, the two researchers point to “changes in educational exposure or quality, changing media exposure, worsening nutrition or health, and social spillovers from increased immigration.”

Inevitably, that list is the subject of heated debate. But the Norwegian duo are far from the first to question the assumption that we are getting smarter, or to raise, indirectly, the possibility that the very way we think is changing.

The elephant in the room is, of course, technology. The internet has profoundly affected how we accumulate, process and act upon information, which has in turn stirred a debate about whether or not the digital age is making us smarter or dumber.

A research paper published last December – and co-authored by Mr. Flynn – seems to support the latter position.

So are we experiencing a great global dumbing-down? Or are traditional notions of what constitutes intelligence no longer operative?

While we are still able, we should spend more time thinking about it. Whatever that means nowadays.

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Editor’s note: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly said James Flynn was born in New Zealand. This version has been corrected.


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