The politics of IQ

Squabbling persists over who’s smarter, liberals or conservatives. Maybe a better question is: who cares?

Grubby as it can be, politics remains at bottom a contest of ideas. One side claims the superiority of its program and values. The other responds in kind, and voters decide which they like best.

Or, in Canada’s case, which they dislike least.

What happens, though, when someone suggests members of one political group are themselves smarter than the folks on the other side?

A recent study out of the London School of Economics did just that, purporting to show among other things that atheistic liberals boast higher IQs, on average, than their religious and conservative counterparts.

Author Satoshi Kanazawa, an “evolutionary psychologist,” then went on to draw some incendiary and fanciful conclusions from his findings: conservatism, he explained, is a very human predisposition based on self-interest—a bred-in-the-bone inclination to care about family and friends rather than the wider world that is genetically unrelated to us. Liberalism, meanwhile, reflects a more evolved willingness to embrace novel ideas and to care about those we don’t see or know, he said; it springs from greater intelligence and awareness, and takes brains to pull off comfortably.

As such, he said, liberals are less likely to need such psychological crutches like God to get through life. “More intelligent children are more likely to grow up to go against their natural evolutionary tendency to believe in God, and they become atheists,” Kanazawa wrote in the study, which was published in the journal Social Psychology Quarterly.

At first glance, the findings looked like a gift to the non-religious left, which in the U.S. at least has a history of claiming intellectual superiority. It is a peculiar form of identity politics, grounded in the notion that brainy sorts are most likely to join a club that would have themselves as members (apologies to Groucho Marx).

Consider the reaction six years ago, when the launch of Air America moved progressive commentators to predict that this liberal answer to right-wing, open-mouth radio would fall flat. Liberals, they theorized, are too smart and open-minded to be Ditto-heads, of course. If that meant sitting still for a daily pasting at the hands of Rush Limbaugh, well, that’s the price you pay for being progressive (they were right: Air America shut for good in January, though its demise probably had more to do with poor management and in-fighting than the IQs of its listeners).

Why then, are liberals running so hard from Kanazawa’s study?

Possibly because the armchair statisticians who lurk the digi-sphere have done such a great job rubbishing both its design and logic. Shockingly, some of these clever people are conservatives, like the Canadian libertarian Neil Reynolds. Others are what Margaret Thatcher might have called squishy, and proud to be so.

These critics are quick to point out that the purported spread between the IQs of progressives and reactionaries is only six points—within the margin of error of many IQ tests. How, they ask, can one draw conclusions about human development over a few millennia based on a sample of 15,000 Americans surveyed in the late 1990s—and adolescent Americans at that?

Liberals may also be troubled by the checkered history of this sort of inquiry. Quite apart from its eugenic overtones, past claims that liberals were brainier than conservatives generally have been proven unfounded or been exposed as hoaxes. Five years ago, the Economist printed a graphic indicating people from U.S. states that voted for George W. Bush in the 2000 presidential election were on average dimmer than those from states that went Democrat. Alas, the venerable British magazine was forced to print a correction, admitting it had been sucked in by an internet hoax.

Other studies based on the findings of the U.S. General Social Survey have found virtually no statistical difference between the IQs of people who vote Democrat and those who vote Republican (this blog suggests the “advantage” has been see-sawing back and forth, with the Dems inching ahead by a half-point in ’04).

But most of the suspicion boils down fear over how the theory plays into more deeply cast political identities. That old eastern-intellectual label remains an enduring problem for Democrats in the U.S.—and to a lesser degree large-L Liberals in Canada. The perception isn’t so much that they are smarter than everyone else as that they think they are—and thus feel entitled to tell others how to run their lives.

Small wonder then, that a sworn enemy of the religious right like P.Z. Myers, a University of Minnesota biologist who has waged war against proponents of intelligent design, is warning his blog readers to “stop patting yourselves on the back over this study,” and advising them to “ignore anything with Kanazawa’s name on it.”

Liberals may not be all that much brighter than conservatives, on average. But they’re smart enough, evidently, to know trouble when they see it.

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