Truth Smarts

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Cecil Adams recently fielded a reader's query about whether it is true -- as the news media would have us believe -- that people from the so-called "blue states" are more intelligent than those from the conservative "red states". In the process, Adams not only debunks that myth, he raises some methodological questions along the way besides just the question of what IQ might actually measure.

[Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi] Kanazawa has been at the forefront of attempts to demonstrate that red states are awash in ignorance. One groundbreaking effort was a 2006 article entitled "IQ and the Wealth of States," in which he tried to link intelligence with economic performance. A difficulty was the lack of a reliable measure of statewide IQ. (I'll ignore the side issue of what IQ tests measure.) Kanazawa got around this by using SAT scores, making the simplifying assumption that if you didn't take the SAT, you were stupid.
Kanazawa came up with an IQ score of 63 -- well below the cutoff for mental retardation -- for Mississippi, a result that screamed for, and got, a second look.
Michael McDaniel ... point[ed] out that not taking the SAT didn't necessarily mean you were stupid; often it just meant you'd taken the ACT instead.

McDaniel thereupon produced his own more plausible set of average state IQs, ranging from a low of 94 for Mississippi to a high of 104 for Massachusetts. At first glance numbers like that might seem to support the red-states-are-dopes hypothesis.
Some further research by one of Adams's staff members came up with something a little different, however:
Result: average IQ for red states vs. blue states was essentially the same (red 99, blue 99.5). Conclusions: Are liberals smarter than conservatives? Some social scientists sure think so. Are blue states smarter than red states? Sadly for us cyanophiles, no.

But here's the most significant data point, I think: in the purple states -- the ones that swung back and forth -- the average IQ according to Una's spreadsheet was 100.9, appreciably above that for either the blue states or red states. In other words -- and this has the shock of truth -- the people in the purple states weren't rigidly liberal or conservative, but rather had enough on the ball to consider the choices before them and occasionally change their minds.
Whatever IQ actually measures, Adams comes to within a hair's breadth of making a very good point about how one ought to use one's mind in an election, assuming the choices actually matter: If one can't be bothered to think before casting a vote, all the potential in the world won't make a damned bit of difference. The fact that "purple" states scored higher for IQ than red or blue states, whatever it might mean, seems like a distraction to me.

As someone who finds the self-congratulatory use of words like smart annoying, often because it short-changes rationality, it is satisfying to see this silly "scientific" belief so easily unraveled.

-- CAV


Jim May said...

My analogy: "intelligence" is like raw computer power; rationality equates to the quality of the software it's running. If your software is buggy and error-ridden, all that an "intelligence" upgrade does for you is help you crash faster.

The emphasis on intelligence over rationality is an expression of a very common, egregious error: of seeking physical (deterministic, "hardware") explanations for what are in fact philosophical (chosen, "software") errors. The motivation there is this: "physical" errors are unfixable, do not imply free will, and therefore carry no moral responsibility. Philosophical errors, like software bugs, are a consequence of bad choices; they imply free will, fixability, and therefore a moral responsibility for one's ideas, including maintaining them.

Gus Van Horn said...

Good point, and it's related to why I find "smart" so annoying from people who make this error: They're getting pseudo-self-esteem from it, as if an accident of birth has any moral import whatsoever.