Liberal intelligence not so great

Adlai E. Stevenson, exemplar of flawed liberal intelligence
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Several social scientists have published studies in the last two years pretending to show that liberal intelligence is somehow superior. That is, that liberals are smarter than conservatives. But the studies use bad methods and worse premises. If anything, they show that liberals can be fairly dim sometimes, even as they try to prove that they’re bright.

The myth of superior liberal intelligence

Liberals might think they’re smarter than conservatives by pointing out who goes to college, and how many liberals (and conservatives) graduate from college. True enough, many of the specialized professions have more liberals than conservatives in them, especially among their younger members. But only recently has any scientist dared suggest a direct connection between intelligence and ideology.

In March of 2010, Satoshi Kanazawa said, in Psychology Today, that the common Intelligence Quotient (IQ) predicted liberal ideology. He “found” that “very liberal” have, on average, a 13.6-point higher IQ than “very conservative” people. In another article, Kanazawa tried to suggest that smart people have evolved more, and can better handle problems that their ancestors did not have. Kanazawa said that this was a variation on the Savannah Principle. That principle says that when people confront problems that our hunter-gatherer ancestors did not have, they have a problem. Smart people can handle it; dim people cannot. Therefore, smart people are smart enough to be liberals!

After that, Kanazawa sought to check this out. In this paper (full PDF text here), he said that those who scored higher on a simple vocabulary test (the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test) were more likely to say that they were very liberal as young adults. They were also more likely to be “not religious at all.” Kanazawa defined a liberal as one more willing to take care of people not related to himself. (Kanazawa did find and report one thing that most commentators missed: those same “more intelligent” people were not more likely to ask the government to give things to people. But he buried this finding in his Results section and never brought it up again.)

In February of this year, Gordon Hodson and Michael Busseri published this paper (see also here, and news and commentary here), titled “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes.” They said that low intelligence was a predictor, not only of conservative ideology, but of prejudice. They even suggested that people of lower intelligence were more likely to be conservatives, and that conservatives were more likely to be prejudiced. They explained this by saying that smarter people have more open minds. Of course, that assumes that the minds of liberals are open, and those of conservatives are closed.

Problems with the studies

Shawn Smith, on his IronShrink site, severely criticized Kanazawa’s methods. First, says Smith, Kanazawa “never measured IQ.” A simple vocabulary test measures only one measure of verbal intelligence. It does not measure performance intelligence, or the ability to solve practical problems. Kanazawa should have used the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. That test measures both kinds of intelligence, and sometimes find that a subject might be significantly better with words than with performance (or the other way around). Therefore, Kanazawa’s measure of intelligence was incomplete.

Smith went further: that Kanazawa intentionally selected a variable that would predict liberal ideology later on. The reason: persons with lesser verbal ability, but greater performance ability, are more likely to drop out of school. They will never make it to college. Instead they will go to Vo-Tech schools, and become plumbers (Joe the Plumber, anyone?), mechanics, machinists, etc. Such men deal with the real world all the time, not with economic planning or how to design a more “enlightened” political authority.

Kanazawa’s dependent variable has its own problems, says Smith: he asked them their ideology as young adults. Furthermore, these are likely to be graduate students or medical students. Your editor can directly attest to this: when you’re in medical school, if you are not a liberal, you have no heart. But when you become an interne (or “first-year resident”), if you do not at the same time become a conservative, you have no brain. Form 1040, the United States Individual Income Tax Return, lands in your mailbox as the ultimate reality check. So Kanazawa should have gone on to ask for people’s ideologies as they got older. That’s the equivalent of asking the internes, then the senior residents, and then the attendings. To be totally fair, he would have to distinguish between the attendings at a teaching hospital from those at a non-teaching hospital.

Kanazawa shows some signs that he knows perfectly well that what he calls “liberal intelligence” is really the thinking of those who do not operate in the real world. He says that “liberals control all institutions,” except for business. Businessmen also operate in the real world. And a non-intelligent boss does not stay a boss for long, and certainly no one promotes him.

Hodson and Busseri at least tried to use more comprehensive intelligence tests. But they equate conservative ideology with prejudice, to show that “liberal intelligence” is an antidote to prejudice. The problem: liberals can be prejudiced, too. The authorities of the old Soviet Union were notorious in their prejudices, against Jews, non-whites, and especially Muslims. Moreover, businessmen cannot afford to be prejudiced, either. People, of whatever color and of both sexes, have money to spend. One does not need to be a rocket scientist to know that. (But a university professor often forgets that.)

Liberal intelligence v. common sense

Adlai E. Stevenson, exemplar of flawed liberal intelligence

Adlai E. Stevenson (1900-65), whose brand of liberal intelligence lost him two elections to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Photo: Warren K. Leffler, US News and World Report; donated to the Library of Congress

Jeffrey Folks, in The American Thinker, sees other basic problems with the “liberal intelligence” theory. Being “smart” should have a practical result, should it not? Even members of Mensa often have trouble with this question:

If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?

Folks asks, more to the point: if liberals are so smart, why don’t they live so long, why do they have trouble running their own lives, and why aren’t they as happy as conservatives seem to be? And he has an answer: liberals have no common sense. Furthermore, schools and colleges almost never test for common sense. They test for abstract reasoning instead. With the result that a student, seemingly very “bright,” will skate through college and never learn to balance a checkbook, though he might learn a great deal about input-output analysis, dialectical materialism, and “the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Folks also suggests that conservatives have a better moral sense. Conservatives know that actions have consequences, and hold themselves and others accountable for their actions.

Lastly, Folks faces directly the problem that Kanazawa dismissed: businessmen might be smarter than the liberal intellectuals who “control…the institutions.” Businessmen make things, do practical things for people, or run organizations that do these things. Bureaucrats, schoolteachers, university professors, and “community organizers” do not. (Likewise, doctors who take care of patients are smarter about the real world than are their academic counterparts who edit medical journals and write high-minded editorials that call for socialized medicine.)

So the myth of liberal intelligence is just that: a myth. The scientists who think they have discovered it, made several invalidating technical mistakes. But worst of all, they never tested for the kind of intelligence that truly serves a human being best of all.


Entitlement is not freedom