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.


The politics of IQ

  1. The reference to IQs is so close to an appeal to authority fallacy, it's not worth even bringing up, as Gillis says.

    If you're right on an issue, you should be able to explain, somewhat conclusively, why your stance is right, using available evidence and valid logic. It doesn't matter how smart you are, according to any test, because smart people get things wrong all the time.

    • Thank you Mr. O, I have been telling anyone who will listen that being wrong does not make you stupid, conversely, being right doesn't make you brilliant. Leftist mocked the “idiot Bush” because they thought he was wrong on everything from tax cuts to the Iraq war—funny he didn't get smarter when he sided with them on “Immigration Reform.” And people on the right deride Obama as a moron because of his ideologically driven crusade for “Healthcare Reform” when jobs are what Americans want. Not that academic achievement equals IQ , but Bush apparently out-performed both his electoral opponents Gore and Kerry, but that didn't do him a bit of good with the so-called intellectual elites. Then there was Ronald Reagan, graduate of Eureka College, who was more successful than all of the above and therefore, in my book, more intelligent than everyone mentioned above. Maybe Forrest Gump's mother was right “stupid is as stupid does.”

  2. This type of study presents a number of issues. But one thing to consider is that an AVERAGE was measured – who's sitting at the upper crust is potentially of more interest, and more difficult to establish.

  3. Lefties have been telling my what an idiot I am for years. It comes up in most arguments, actually, so this study just seemed like old news.

    • Yes, but your political affiliation has nothing to do with it. :)

      • Ah, that's why I get it from both lefties and righties.

        • All else aside, full marks for your sense of humour. ;-)

    • Ah, well. I would only worry if you also couldn't balance your chequebook.

  4. Trying to equate IQ with political affiliation is just another example of junk science. None of the mainstream parties has a monopoly on intelligence. Now maybe it can be argued that some of the fringe parties have their fair share of crazies!? Whatever happened to the Natural Law Party??

  5. Personally, I think a far interesting number to look at would be university level education (which has nothing to do with IQ) amongLibs vs. Cons. I imagine that the left is far better educated which, in theory, would make them more fit for political leadership (not necessarily better people). Unfortunately education in this country has become such a joke that a conservative leaning God-fearing mechanic might just be better qualified for political office than someone with a poli-sci degree.

    • "I imagine that the left is far better educated"

      I doubt it. I don't know why you'd say that. Many lefties are the types that are always looking for a hand-out.

    • Here is some info, FWIW…about half way down.

  6. It's been obvious for a long time to the non-patriarchs of this country, that IQ wise it's the NDP and the Green Party who have it hands down and without any effort needed. As for the other paternalistic parties that people seem to single mindlessly concentrate on and ramble on at nausiam about the economy religion, these parties all suffer from advanced stages of brain rot from all the inertia that stems from single minded thinking.

    • Only a complete moron would declare one group to have a higher IQ without even providing any evidence to support this.  I think you might be suffering from that “brian rot” as well.

  7. Great one Charlie. I was also wondering about the talented musicians on how they do think of an idea so unique. Is that also related to IQ?

  8. Democracy is not a good system because it puts the smartest people in charge – clearly it doesn't. Democracy is a good system because it allows the interests of the masses to be translated (at least compared to a democracy) into public policy. I may be a fool, but I am a genius with regards to my own personal values, wants and needs. Political scientists once lamented the fact that voters were so uninformed. However they found that voters – using relatively simple heuristics – actually vote in essentially the same way that they would if they were well-informed.

    Politics is not about a set of right and wrong ideas at its core. It is about different tradeoffs between equality, security, prosperity, freedom and so on. No particular configuration can be proven to be "right", even by a thinly veiled appeal to authority like this study.

  9. EKOS polls regularly show that people with only a high school education, and people 65+ who are likely less politically informed, tend to vote Conservative. People with higher levels of education and younger voters tend to split their votes relatively equally among the other three main federal parties. This comes as no surprise given the horrific track record of our neo-conservative leader, a record that couldn't possibly be supported by any intelligent and/or politically engaged citizen. It is also apparent that nobody who is truly politically informed could possibly go vote for Harper thinking he is the equivalent of the former Progressive Conservatives. Yet, this must be happening to give him more than 30% in the polls. In Canada, it really does seem like there are at least mild correlations between intelligence, political engagement and party of choice.

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