Friday, February 26, 2010

Are Conservatives Stupid?

I have good news and bad news: The good news is that the article you are now reading is the 200th ever posted on RiskingHemlock, a milestone for this website. The bad news involves the subject that this article must discuss.

Excerpted from an article on

Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa at the the London School of Economics and Political Science correlated data on these behaviors with IQ from a large national U.S. sample and found that, on average, people who identified as liberal and atheist had higher IQs. This applied also to sexual exclusivity in men, but not in women. The findings will be published in the March 2010 issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.

The IQ differences, while statistically significant, are not stunning -- on the order of 6 to 11 points -- and the data should not be used to stereotype or make assumptions about people, experts say. But they show how certain patterns of identifying with particular ideologies develop, and how some people's behaviors come to be.

The reasoning is that sexual exclusivity in men, liberalism and atheism all go against what would be expected given humans' evolutionary past. In other words, none of these traits would have benefited our early human ancestors, but higher intelligence may be associated with them.

As a monogomous liberal who, though not atheistic, is certainly independent-minded enough in his spiritual convictions that he cannot be rightly lumped in with any single religious group, this article should make me happy. Instead it infuriates me.

For one thing, it operates on the assumption that IQ scores are a meaningful measurement of human intelligence. Rather than attempt to explain the inherent flaw in this point-of-view on my own, I shall instead refer to a far superior scientific mind, that of Alfred Binet:

"The scale, properly speaking, does not permit the measure of intelligence, because intellectual qualities are not superposable, and therefore cannot be measured as linear surfaces are measured."

Suffice to say that countless studies - psychiatric, biological, genetic, and sociological - have reinforced the unassailable wisdom of Benet's observation in the 105 years since he made it. Considering that disproving a definite connection between IQ and intelligence deals a fatal blow to Dr. Kanazawa's case, one might assume that it'd be unnecessary for me to further analyze the errors in that scientist's survey. Unfortunately, there are problems here that transcend even the unwarranted confidence placed in the veracity of standardized tests.

Kanazawa asserts that "liberalism" is a sign of intelligence - but how exactly does he define "liberalism"? Is he using the extreme views of Noam Chomsky and Dennis Kucinich as his benchmark, or the more moderate perspectives of Paul Krugman and Barack Obama? Considering that most people are not "liberal" on every single issue, which specific set of beliefs are most important when getting one's self lumped in that all-important "liberal" category - economic liberalism, social liberalism, foreign policy liberalism, or some complex formula consisting of all three in just the right proportions?

The same logical dissection can be applied to Kanazawa's other two categorical constructs. As a secular Jew who believes in G_d, an afterlife, and a higher moral law, but doesn't subscribe to the specific tenets of any theological dogma, do I qualify as close enough to "atheist" to be counted by Kanazawa's study, or should I bow my head in shame because I only meet two of his three criteria? There are thinkers like Bill Maher, who despite being an outspoken critic of organized religion, has stated "I'm not an atheist, though, because the belief that there is no God only mirrors the certitude of religion. No, I'm saying that doubt is the only appropriate response for human beings." How does that nuanced cynicism factor into Kanazawa's formula? And as for sexual exclusivity... well, since my girlfriend reads this blog, it's a given that I'm going to declare myself sexually exclusive, but does my IQ drop a few points every time I stop to stare at a picture of the lovely Fergie in all of her deliciously zaftig glory? If so, I may want to stop writing this blog and prepare for a stint on Jersey Shore.

Of course, there is an easier way to invalidate the categories used by this survey as criteria. One need not search too long through history or the present to find countless examples of intelligent conservatives (Alexander Hamilton, William Buckley, Antonin Scalia), religious individuals (Michelangelo, Galileo, Francis Collins), and sexually wayward males (Albert Einstein, Diego Rivera, Bill Clinton). However, considering how quickly proponents of this theory will brandish their most obnoxious have-my-cake-and-eat-it-too qualifier - the "I'm saying my finding is a rule of thumb, not an absolute rule" caveat - I thought it best to avoid mentioning this particular detail until after I had dispensed with the more inherent flaws in Kanazawa's thinking.

Just as important as identifying the glaring logical fallacies behind Kanazawa's whole survey, though, is trying to understand WHY it would propound these absurdities in the first place. For an answer to that question, I turn to another great scientist, Stephen Jay Gould:

"…the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status."

While I wouldn't classify conservatives, religious individuals, and adulterous men "oppressed" and "disadvantaged", the principle illustrated by Gould in that quote applies just as well here. It cannot be denied that one of the quickest ways to delegitimize a given point-of-view or lifestyle is to call into question the intelligence of those who adhere to it. What's more, though I can't say with certainty that Kanazawa and his fellow scientists are sexually exclusive atheistic liberals, it is safe to assume that those belief systems are very popular within the academic community (well, at least two of the three, since monogomy isn't really popular anywhere). As such, it doesn't seem like too much of a stretch to suspect that Kanazawa's underlying motives for publishing this study - as well as CNN's incentive for reporting on its findings, thereby lending them de facto credibility - could be to spread the gospel that the religious, adulterous, and politically conservative are just not as smart as their counterparts.

So if Kanazawa's study can't tell us which among these different groups possesses superior intelligence, then how CAN we find out?

The answer is not one that most people like to hear - judge each human being you encounter based on solely on who he or she is, on a case-by-case, individual-by-individual basis. Don't blindly follow the guidelines established for you by a political pundit, religious leader, or institutionally revered scientific mind, and don't try to find neat little tricks for ranking the different categories of people. Heck, don't even waste your time CREATING categories for people, as homo sapiens have an irritating habit of defying classifications just as soon as you think you've got them pegged. Instead, take each seperate person as he or she is - with his political and religious views exactly as they are, as a whole - and come to your own independent conclusion as to whether he/she is intelligent, and thus whether he/she is worthy of your respect. The chances are that you'll find that liberals have Keith Olbermann AND Rosie O'Donnell, that conservatives have Charles Krauthammer AND Glenn Beck, that the religious have Reinhold Niebuhr AND Jerry Falwell, that atheists have Stephen Hawking AND Richard Dawkins, and that our sex lives - monogomous or otherwise - are almost always dumb as hell.

I won't deny that the process I just described - of thinking deeply, carefully, and above all for yourself - is a burdensome one, because it's so complicated; then again, it allows you to possess the most accurate reflection of real life, which is also complicated, so it makes sense that the price for understanding it lies in the chore of unraveling it. Besides, you never know - by following through on my system of separating the intelligent from the lacking, you may just find that the mind whose intelligence you wind up saving is your own.


rachina85 said...

My sex life IS dumb as hell. Thanks, Matt!

Seriously, though--can we talk a bit about how many different kinds of intelligence exist? I can't fix my oven if it breaks, and chances are the guy who comes to fix it doesn't know Jane Austin from Stone Cold Steve Austin, but which of us--Fixit Guy or Brainy Writer--do you want to have on your side when the zombies come?

And therein lies my major beef with the claim that "liberals are smarter." People hearing that are going to be LESS likely to identify as liberals because most people have a modicum of humility and will think, "I'm not smarter than anyone else I know; I must not be one of those smarty-pants liberals." It's the same problem that we feminists have with the media portraying feminists as angry, shrill, and unpleasant. Women then shy away from the label and don't call themselves "feminists," even if they really are; they even avoid causes and activities branded as "feminist," even if said causes are for their benefit.

In other words, is any other liberal besides me afraid that the phrase "liberal elite" just got scientific backing?

Jake said...

So will any conservatives you asked to comment here be able to read those squiggly letters in the "word verification" task? No, seriously, I think this study and the CNN article describing it are so dumb that it wasn't worth your time to craft this eloquent reply. I agree with everything you say about the validity of IQ as a measure of anything more meaningful than IQ-test-taking skill. But the study really has even bigger problems, in that it's not clear whether beliefs like "liberal" and "atheist" are already correlated. And the attempt to ground the results in evolutionary pseudo-theory is the most ridiculous part of all. Toward the bottom of the CNN article they clarify that "liberal" is being defined strictly in terms of altruistic attitudes toward non-relatives. There are a lot of very interesting studies trying to understand the evolutionary development of altruism in animals and people. But this certainly isn't one of them, because even if you buy into the IQ proponents' notion that their metric correlates with some independent outcome like college grades or future earnings, there's just no basis for arguing that these modern societal achievements have any bearing on whatever allowed Homo sapiens to out-compete Neanderthals way back when. Anyway, that's more than a short comment, but I'm really kind of shocked that this sort of study got published at all (though, alas, not very shocked that CNN opted to cover it, and uncritically).

Julia said...

I love this commentary, because it speaks to an issue that I, as a future school psychologist have to contend with. I keep trying to tell people that these tests are not meant to assess raw intelligence per say, they were meant to help people diagnose the mentally retarded and learning disabilities, that was the original intent of them, the original intent of Alfred Binet, but they have become these measures of intelligence.
Moreover, its not our beliefs that make us dumb necessary, i think its our actions and lifestyle that really speak to our intelligence, those who are really intelligent can hold beliefs and consider the value of other beliefs and make an informed decision about those that fit best with them, there's no one belief system that works for everyone, its unfair to assume that one political affiliation determines intelligence, when for some, this belief system does not work well with their culture and lifestyle.

Max said...

Matt, as usual, fantastic piece!

To elaborate on Rachel's last point, this study could deal an inadvertent blow to the Democratic Party and liberalism in general. According to author Thomas Frank, the most prominent scapegoat the neoconservatives use in their fiery rhetoric is a small, intellectual, atheistic, liberal elite that supposedly controls every aspect of our society -- from Supreme Court decisions to morally questionable content in movies to what defines being 'politically incorrect.'

These conservatives thrive on the assumption that they, the humble righteous Americans are constantly under attack from a snobbish, all-powerful minority. If anything, this IQ study will give right-wingers the go ahead to say, "Look! Now those liberal know-it-alls are trying to codify their superiority to us! Vote Republican!" Thomas Frank beautifully summarizes the conservative, or "backlash" modus operandi in the following passage:

"The key element of this repackaging of class is the notion of a "liberal elite." The idea has taken many forms over the years -- Spiro Agnew called them "nattering nabobs of negativism," the neocons dubbed them "the new class," while other simply refer to them as "intellectuals" -- but in its basic outlines the grievance has remained the same. Our culture and our schools and our government, backlashers insist, are controlled by an overeducated ruling class that is contemptuous of the beliefs and practices of the masses of ordinary people. Those who run America, the theory holds, are despicable, self-important show-offs. They are effete, to use a favorite backlash term. They are arrogant. They are snobs. They are liberals."

- From "What's the Matter With Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America." New York: Metropolitan Books, Henry Holt and Company, 2004. Pages 114-115.

Congratulations conservatives! You now have scientific proof that liberals are evil, self-important, intellectual tyrants!