Are liberals smarter than conservatives? Our nitwit media strike again…

CNN reported last week on a new study showing that liberalism, atheism and sexual exclusivity in males are linked to higher IQ scores. The findings are intriguing, for all the obvious reasons.

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.

Reactions have been all over the place, but there’s been strong suspicion of the findings from both “liberal” and “conservative” corners (especially conservative, as you’d expect). Which is good. These kinds of results may tell us something important, but we’re always advised to proceed cautiously and critically, especially when the findings of science are reported in the popular media. And double-dog especially when that popular media outlet is FOX or  CNN. Understand – their criteria for reporting on research (there are thousands of studies published each month, and if you’re not an academic you hear about maybe three of them) have nothing to do with the social value of the research itself and everything to do with whether or not they think you might click on the link (and perhaps even on one of the ads on the page).

So, the critical reader should automatically pause and consider the following with respect to this story:

  • Who is the researcher? What’s his expertise? Is he a pure academic or does he receive funding from sources with an axe to grind? Has his past research been unduly driven by concerns that appear, to the informed observer, to be more ideological than scientific? And so on.
  • Is the story written by a reporter who understands science and research and statistics? (The answer here is usually no.) If not, then we need to find the actual study and see what it really says.
  • Further, has the reporter bothered to ask him or herself any of the questions in that first bullet point? (Again, the answer is almost always no.) If not, what does it mean for the story (and the reader’s understanding of it) that the reporter can’t tell the difference between a Nobel laureate and a corporate PR hack?
  • In this case, the story addresses IQ, but what does this really tell us? IQ is not a comprehensive measure of intelligence. It tells us some things (and these are important things) but it comes nowhere near telling us everything that we’d want to know when considering the “intelligence” of an individual or population.
  • The definitions used here are beyond useless. “Conservative” and “liberal” are as artificial as labels come, for starters (the Political Compass test illustrates a small part of the problem), and when you add in the fact that the study probably relied on self-identification (hardly the most objective measure in the world) there is every reason to be cautious about the very way in which the two groups were constructed. What would it mean for the results if we learned that a good number of the liberals were gun owners or that a significant portion of the conservative group had serious misgivings about the Bush administration’s pro-torture activities?

This last point is crucial, because while self-report in studies like this tends to problematic under the best of circumstances, your margin for error explodes when the researchers and the participants don’t agree on the terminology.

The study takes the American view of liberal vs. conservative. It defines “liberal” in terms of concern for genetically nonrelated people and support for private resources that help those people. It does not look at other factors that play into American political beliefs, such as abortion, gun control and gay rights.

“Liberals are more likely to be concerned about total strangers; conservatives are likely to be concerned with people they associate with,” he said.

Now, is that what you think of when someone asks you if you’re conservative or liberal? Do a less educated and a more educated subject define those terms for themselves in the same way? Even if you explain what you mean by the term, do they each process it and respond the same way (after all, regardless of whether they’re conservative, liberal, libertarian, green or fascist, a less educated respondent is less likely to have the sophistication needed to parse a definition that’s not really like any they’ve encountered before).

Not to belabor the point, but we’re talking to Americans here, and we’re trying to exclude abortion, gun control and gay rights from how these respondents evaluate whether they’re conservative or liberal? Seriously? I’d argue that for huge portions of the population, abortion, gun control and gay rights are what the words liberal and conservative mean.

Hopefully by now it’s clear that I have significant reservations about the actual study and that I don’t trust the CNN story to get the story right, regardless of the actual findings of the study or the actual objective reality that the study may or may not have accurately described. As it turns out, my hesitation may be justified.

As I snooped around some other commentary on the study, I came across further reason for skepticism (interestingly enough, from an apparently “liberal” source that was linked by another liberal source). Dr. PZ Myers, a bio professor in the Minnesota system, stomps a mudhole in Kanazawa and walks it dry.

And then look at the source: Satoshi Kanazawa, the Fenimore Cooper of Sociobiology, the professional fantasist of Psychology Today. He’s like the poster boy for the stupidity and groundlessness of freakishly fact-free evolutionary psychology. Just ignore anything with Kanazawa’s name on it.

By all means, click on the links Myers embeds in that passage at his site, because he’s just getting warmed up. I don’t know much about Myers as a source himself, but he’s an academic, he’s a self-described agnostic and he links to the Richard Dawkins network (Dawkins being the Great Liberal Evolutionist Atheist Satan from Hell), so we might at least view his assault on Kanazawa as worth exploring, being as neither is exactly coming off as a conservative apologist.

So, to the question: are liberals smarter than conservatives (or vice versa)? Somewhere out there is an answer, and I for one would love to know what it is. I have my suspicions, based on my own experiences, but those suspicions are hardly science. If I’m right, I’d welcome the support of hard research, and if I’m wrong I’d like to know so I can reevaluate and get my opinions more in line with the facts. Hopefully you feel the same way.

In order to find that answer, though, we’re going to need a better study than Kanazawa’s (which seems horribly flawed, although I won’t know for sure just how much so until I see the actual study). Here’s what I think a more conclusive study would look like.

  • For starters, it would need a more comprehensive measure of intelligence. IQ is a piece of the puzzle, but we’d also want to factor in creativity, associative thinking, critical thinking and problem solving. We’d like to be clear about the importance of memory vs. processing power in the equation, and before we get started we’ll want to decide whether to integrate newer concerns like “social intelligence” or whether social skills are better classified as something other than intelligence.
  • We’ll want a much better handle on that whole conservative vs. liberal quagmire. Doing the study so as to render a verdict on those two categories is useless. We’d be better served by evaluating intelligence according to which political party people identify with, and even this would be problematic (what do you do with all those independents who are independent for wildly divergent reasons, for instance). I don’t have a satisfying frame in mind right now, but unless we can get to some meaningful definitions about political beliefs (definitions that make sense to the participants as well as the researchers) we’re wasting our time and money.
  • It needs to be longitudinal and will ideally have mechanisms for evaluating how perspectives shift over time. More to the point, it would be important to know what factors shift those positions. Does education make you more X? If so, are there certain kinds of education that do so?
  • It would be nice to know how these factors vary according to demographic variables. Are you more prone to the liberalizing effects of education if you’re working class from the South than if you’re middle class from the Upper Midwest?
  • This study needs to be funded by a non-partisan entity of some sort and should be conducted by researchers with no particular ideological master. Under no circumstances should it receive funds from corporate sources. Whether there’s any actual biasing effect or not (and by the way, there is – research most often serves the interests of those writing the check), the value of such a study would be badly kneecapped by the appearance that its results were bought. It goes without saying that the study should be headed by a person or team with a track record that makes clear their commitment to academic rigor and uncompromising ethics.
  • Methodologically, the study should employ both quantitative and qualitative instruments. You’ll obviously need the quant to generate a broad statistical basis, but this should be augmented by interview and observation phases to add depth and texture to the findings.
  • For fun, it would be nice if there were an intercultural component. Is what we see happening in the US like what happens in other countries? If not, how are we different and what factors seem to account for the variance?

There are probably more issues we’d want to see addressed, but these represent at least a decent foundation for discussion. If we conduct such a study, and if it produces results similar to those reported by Kanazawa, then we’ll have something interesting to factor into our policy making.

One note, though. Let me call your attention to this passage from the CNN story:

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.

This is among the most ludicrous statements I’ve heard in some time. Assume we were to find that intelligence between two political groups varied by as much as 10 points, and assume that these findings were significant at the .95 level (and assume for the heck of it that the qualitative segments of the study supported the findings and provided richer insights into them) – you’re going to suggest that an overall intelligence difference of 10%, considered across a population of 300 million, isn’t stunning? I beg to differ. A variance of that magnitude would be positively staggering.

A difference of 10% between individuals is the difference between an A and a B, a B and a C. It’s the difference, in many cases, between the guy you want operating on your child and a guy you wouldn’t let anywhere near your child. In a financial advisor it could be the difference between comfort and borderline insolvency. If you’d like your teenager to go to the best school possible, it’s the difference between a highly ranked national university and a good, but not spectacular state system school.

What if half the population suddenly became 10% smarter? When you think about highly competitive business deals, for instance, deals where one company gets the contract by a hair’s breadth, would you take a 10% boost?

Make no mistake, the degree of difference we’re talking about here, even if it’s at the low end of the variance instead of the high end, is massively significant when we’re talking about the collective intelligence of a society the size of the United States.

In the end, I don’t know what, if anything, we really learn from Kanazawa’s study. But it’s an interesting question, and knowing the actual answer could do us a lot of good. It’s just a shame that we can’t count on our intrepid press to get the damned story right, if and when it ever happens.

17 replies »

  1. Well, if it’s a standard IQ test, a standard deviation is usually either 15 or 20 points. That’s a huge difference among individuals, and a HUGE difference between large groups. Good job in figuring that out. And a nice summary of what’s wrong with most “studies” the media report on these days.

  2. Thanks. Whether the difference is stunning, staggering, ridonculous or merely significant, over a population of 300 million I’ll take it. Bet the farm on that.

  3. Studies at Yale, Harvard, and Columbia have all shown similar results: Most plots of IQ vs. Income, IQ vs. Net worth, IQ vs Business savvy tend towards following the Gaussian function with few fat tails. A better study would be liberal hubris vs. Conservative hubris, liberal self righteousness vs Conservative self righteousness, liberal acceptance of new ideas vs conservative acceptance of new ideas(I think the collectives would get their panties in a bunch if they found out that conservatives are more open to new ideas than libs), and the real kicker, liberal racism vs Conservative racism(another shocker here).

  4. I’m real fuzzy on terms like “liberal” and “conservative”. Does he mean “votes Democratic” and “votes Republican” or some other metric…i assume self-definition, which is dangerous. If he’s using self-definition then we can simply throw the whole study into the waste basket, as it seems the majority of Americans are incapable of defining either term that Kanazawa chooses to use.

    Moreover, does it matter who’s smarter if both are idiots? We can take a nice long look at the representation that “liberals” in America have elected since at least 1992 and make a good case that they’re dumb suckers. Maybe not quite as dumb or as big suckers as “conservatives” based on their electoral record, but again…the smarter idiot is still an idiot.

    • This is why you’d need a pretty sophisticated study design and a very good team of researchers to get anything like meaningful answers out of this question. If you gave me the grant I know who I’d put in charge, but it seems unlikely that anyone would entrust me with a budget, given my known proclivities for craft brew and expensive single malt….

  5. I don’t get it….so when Liberals tell a lie it actually means they are smarter….right? No, that can’t be because then they’d be freaking geniuses of a geometric order. I’m still trying to figure out how believing that ripping babies out of their mother’s wombs is ok, makes liberals….what was the term…..”evolutionarily evolved”? No matter how I look at it, I can’t figure out how a big, fat piece of junk like Michael Moore is evolved in any way except maybe compared to the mindless vacuum of space. Or maybe Al Gore is more evolved because he was able to plant his advanced genetic man-seed inside the womb of a Wide Area Network and sire the internet for us? Nah, probably not, he just got all excited and told a little fibber when he finally understood what cybersex was all about.
    All joking aside, we need to ask ourselves a more serious question. Why do Liberals feel the need to push out fake study after fake study trying to convince everyone that they are smarter? Why do they feel the need to do this? My take on it is this….the only time I would try to convince someone else that I was smarter than them is if I felt intimidated because I wasn’t.

  6. As a self-described liberal, and one that seems to fit the definition immediately following your points on critical thinking and I am for abortion, some gun control, and for gay rights, I would like to complement you on an excellent article about critical thinking. As a college biology instructor, I consider the ability to think critically is the most important idea that I can pass on to students. Whether science majors or otherwise, they are the future leaders of our country, and I want critical thinkers holding the reigns. So, even if intelligence is a natural talent where some may have more talent than others, the talent is wasted if the information that feeds it is flawed. Critical thinking, in my eyes, and you might or might not agree, is a social responsibility. I would rather bed led by a person with average intelligence who could think critically using the tools that you outlined, than a gullible genius. Thanks for a great read.

    • Your students are lucky to have a prof who gets this. Of course, my experience is that they resist with every fiber of their being….

  7. I can independently confirm the results of this study. I have been a Mensa member in cities and towns all over the nation, from N. Y. C. to Abilene, Texas, from San Francisco to North County, San Diego. Although Mensa does not allow surveys of the political opinions of their members, I can confirm , through meeting several 100 Mensans in six or seven parts of the country, that there are, (roughly,) at least three liberal members of Mensa for every conservative, (and I’m using a comprehensive rather than partial def. of liberal vs. conservative.) This matches the expectations of the high end, (above 132,) of a bell curve between two populations with an average 11 point gap.. I would also expect, (but don’t know,) that there would be a mirror image 3:1 ratio of conservatives to liberals among people with I Q’s below 68. However, it might be difficult to apply liberal and conservative to most of this very low I Q population. I don’t mean to imply that I Q is the only measure of intelligence. However, an 11 pt. gap is too large to ignore or to be considered insignificant.

  8. This is absolutely moronic. I find it funny how someone looking for statistics to support a view always finds the statistics they need. I also find it foolish to believe that the statistically difference between two views is as simple as polling right wing or left wing IQ’s. There are far more factors involved. What if a view was split into two different understandings? What if the right wing was split into two separate classifications or three, or four, or five…or 99. What if 90 percent fell in the lower range.. 10 percent might fall at the higher range. It’s the root of why people believe what they believe.. Not the belief itself. Putting a check box next to a question tells you next to nothing.