Sunday, March 21, 2010

On intelligence


I was reading The Anchoress’ recent flaying of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi over the latter’s invocation of St. Joseph onto the side of the pro-health care forces—and a terrific rant it is, worthy of Al Pacino—when, in the comments, I ran across a reference to a recent study presumably showing liberals to have a higher IQ than conservatives.

Even before I found a CNN.com article about the study, I knew three things automatically: 1) The study wouldn’t show anything like a dramatic difference between the two averages; 2) the study would have things to say about intelligence and liberalism/atheism that went counter to the surface appearance; and 3) people who suffer from a particular form of idiocy would only care to know that the difference exists and “favors” them.

The first two expectations were borne out handily. The study, which focused on adolescents, found an 11-point variance in intelligence (95 to 106) between conservatives and liberals; the difference between the religious and non-religious was a mere 6 points (97 to 103). While the variance is considered statistically significant, the average atheist and/or liberal teenager is … well, still pretty much average.[1] Among the speculations by the two men in the article, evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa (who performed the study) and leadership professor James Bailey, one is that liberals tend to adopt ideas and behavior which are novel but which may run counter to evolutionary expectation, such as sexual exclusivity in men.

(Quick sidebar: While the study showed that males with a higher IQ tended more towards sexual exclusivity, there was no such connection among females. Women’s supply of gametes is limited, and they have short, periodic “windows” of maximum fertility. Thus, monogamy and fidelity seem to benefit women’s genetic strategy, at least on a biological level, more than they do men’s. [Feminists, please take note.] However, I have to add, as a social-sciences student, that the problems of resource gathering and dispersal are strong incentives for the male to restrict his promiscuity so as to limit the number of mothers and children he must provide for, both while he lives and after he dies. The fewer he has to support, the better chance each individual child has to survive and thrive. Thus, while monogamy and fidelity are for women the biological ideal, for men they are concessions to economic reality. And thus is the Church’s moral teaching not only justified but vindicated by science.)

Back on topic: The problem with the way the media disperses news of such studies is that the crowd of other news limits the extent and depth the newscaster can go into such stories. Too often, the only attention a story like this, which isn’t earth-shattering in its significance and isn’t immediately relevant to Joe Schmuckatelli’s daily life, can get on the radio or the TV is a quick line or two that leaves out important qualifications. For instance, reporter Jane Doe might be able to pick out the fact that the differences are statistically significant, but may not have time to explain—if she knows this herself—that statistical significance is simply a measure of its relative explanatory weight in a mathematical model. She may also not have time to bring out Kanazawa’s contention that evolutionary novelties aren’t necessarily beneficial to survival and won’t change the trajectory of human development.

So what does Joe Schmuckatelli get out of the news bite? Simply what atheists and liberals have “known” all along: They’re smarter than theists and conservatives.

But the reality isn’t just that the variance is so modest as to be shy, or that an atheist can be just as dumb as a “Bible-thumper” (or, conversely, that an orthodox theologian can be just as much of a genius as an astrophysicist).[2] The highly intelligent person is usually able to draw more logical connections between discrete facts, and usually knows more facts between which he can draw such connections. But it also means that, while the less-educated person’s errors are often more egregious, the more-educated person’s errors are often more subtle … usually hidden under highly technical language accessible only to specialists.

It takes a certain ability to memorize and master facts, as well as the logical connections between them, to earn a doctorate in any professional field. However, mastery of one field doesn’t necessarily imply even mere competence in another, especially if the fields are unrelated to each other. Consider Richard Dawkins: While he is highly respectable and respected as a biologist, as an apologist for atheism his arguments are so crude, fallacious and uncharitable as to earn the contempt of other atheists. Indeed, he isn’t the atheists’ C. S. Lewis so much as he is their Jack Chick (albeit much more literate). If you need another example, you probably know at least one man who, because he is a highly-skilled and –experienced surgeon, also considers himself to be a financial wizard and/or a legal eagle, despite never attending a college of business or law school.

Nor is greater intelligence necessarily bullet-proof protection against that human phenomenon which accepts as “facts” comfortable illusions and urban legends. A semiliterate janitor may never be able to prove string theory, but he’s also the least likely person to create a philosophy that denies his own existence. There are any number of truly brilliant, really well-educated people who continue to cling to the badly-outdated mixture of mid-Sixties pop psychology and quasi-Marxist dialectics that still informs our sexual culture—nay, they continue to base policy initiatives on it, as well as to celebrate it in our culture factories. Geniuses aren’t necessarily any more dedicated to truth than is the man on the street.

Bailey, the leadership professor, theorizes that the unconventional aspects of liberalism and atheism appeal to more intelligent people, and become means of showing superiority. I could accept such a theory if—and only if—we understand that the “superiority” of unconventionality is merely a matter of perceived value and not one of intrinsic value. While there are many atheists who have nothing against religion or religious people, and who are quite willing to give intellectual credit where credit is due to their opponents, it’s also true that atheism has some intellectual “snob appeal”. This “snob appeal” is also apparent in modern liberalism, its credo of “tolerance above all” held to be superior because it’s so “broad-minded”.

But Kanazawa also associates conservativism with a preference for stability and safety that fits more with group survival than does unconventionality. The bigger the potential for damage, the less appeal the unconventional has. A liberal program is “progressive” only so far as it gets society as a whole closer to a broadly-accepted social goal, and only so long as it doesn’t damage social cohesion. When the goal is either vague or contestable, or society starts to fall apart under the stress, then the word “progressive” becomes empty and even misleading. While many vile things have been done in the name of religion and traditional morality, the worst horrors of the 20th century were devised by men who cut themselves off from religion and traditional morality.

Yes, sometimes liberalism can actually lead to social progress by pushing the boundaries of common values, attitudes and beliefs. But sometimes those boundaries are there because the land beyond them is marked, “Here there be dragons”. The thing about common sense it that it’s common precisely because it is sense … good sense, daily wisdom available to all people and not just the intelligentsia. The philosophy of Aristotle, still respected and learned today, is firmly grounded in common sense: not just in philosophic realism[3] but in the reality of human experience. For that reason, it remains attractive when more baroque systems and ideals, such as those articulated by Nietzsche or Baruch Spinoza, have lost their novelty. The most remarkable fact about truisms is that they are true. To reject their truth merely because they belong to the masses is not merely snobbish but actually dangerous.

The final point I wish to bring forth is the fact that Kanazawa found a higher variance between liberalism and conservativism than between theism and atheism. This isn’t surprising; an orthodox Christian view of social justice will be either conservative or liberal depending on the issue one is looking at, and there are many people who are against certain liberal shibboleths (e.g., abortion and gay marriage) who nevertheless consider themselves political liberals.[4] The difference between the two averages, though, tells us that a person of higher intelligence is more likely to be a liberal believer than a secular liberal.

Atheism doesn’t have that much “snob appeal”.


[1] Since intelligence test scales are predicated on a bell curve, the mean is 100, with a standard deviation of 15 or 16. For instance, the Wechsler Scale places 68.5% of the population between 85 and 115, the Stanford-Binet Scale between 84 and 116; 95.4% fall between 70 and 130 (Wechsler) or 68 and 132 (Stanford-Binet).
[2] Full disclosure: For what it’s worth, I took two IQ tests in 1974, at the age of ten, scoring 126 and 129; in 1982, I scored a composite 27 on my ACT and 74 on my ASVAB (not accepted by MENSA). In other words, just shy of the top 2.3%. I haven’t done any aptitude tests since, though if I were qualified, a MENSA membership might look good on a résumé.
[3] Realism is the philosophic principle that ideas which express categories or classes, such as “chair” or “cat” or “shoe”, are real things, albeit not materially sensible things (preter-real). The opposing principle is “nominalism”, which holds that such words are only naming conventions.
[4] The study didn’t examine views on particular issues.