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Controversy Grows over Study Claiming Liberals and Atheists Are Smarter

The author of a study claiming liberals and atheists are smarter than conservatives and believers is called 'great idiot of social science' by prominent evolutionary biologist.

There's a lot of buzz over a controversial study released in the journal Social Psychology Quarterly, titled "Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent," that compares IQ levels among liberals and conservatives, atheists and religious believers.

The widely circulated study (pdf) claims that "more intelligent individuals may be more likely to acquire and espouse evolutionarily novel values and preferences (such as liberalism and atheism...) than less intelligent individuals."

The study was written by Satoshi Kanazawa, a social scientist at the London School of Economics, who employs evolutionary psychology to analyze the social sciences, such as economics and politics, and who has a history of attracting ire over his studies and opinions.

But before drawing any conclusions about Kanazawa's latest study, it's worth expanding on the data he bases his claims on. First of all, quantifying intelligence on a societal level -- and even from person to person -- is incredibly tricky, if not impossible. As an evolutionary psychologist, Kanazawa likely recognizes this and that may be why he decided to limit his intelligence measures to IQ points, a convenient and notoriously narrow way of assessing cognitive abilities.

The first problem in the study comes with Kanazawa's use of IQ as an accurate measure of intelligence. PZ Myers, a leader in the field of evolutionary developmental biology (and an avowed atheist and progressive), is not surprised. He calls Kanazawa the "great idiot of social science" and points to a 2006 paper in which Kanazawa took the mean IQ of various countries and used those to draw conclusions on their dedication to health care.

For example: Ethiopia has a mean IQ of 63. This low IQ explains why Ethiopia's health care system is awful, according to Kanazawa.

Talk about simplistic. Not only does this ignore the fact that IQ might better measure cognitive capabilities in the developed world, where it was designed, but it completely tunes out the fact that Ethiopia has been embroiled in wars for many years, which would appear to be a better explanation for why the health care system there hasn't developed to western levels yet.

"Intelligence is such a complex phenomenon -- there are multiple parameters," Myers says. "And IQ is extremely sensitive to social conditions. Kanazawa wants to reverse it and say that IQ is causing problematic social conditions."

In this more recent study, not only does Kanazawa wax over structural inequalities that may lead to varying IQ levels in American society, even the disparities he finds in this imperfect measure of intelligence are relatively miniscule. For the most part, he is not speaking of a difference of more than six IQ points between liberals and conservatives, atheists and believers -- a negligible difference one would never notice in real person-to-person interactions.

Kanazawa isn't the first to study the intelligence-religiosity nexus. Other studies have also found a three- to six-point IQ difference between atheists and religious believers, in the atheists' favor. But those studies didn't claim that atheists were more evolved, as Kanazawa presumes, and merely conclude that they are more skeptical due to a certain kind of schooling and cultural exposure (which might also account for why some people perform well on IQ tests), leaving room to account for why so many people -- say, like William F. Buckley, Jr., the late conservative public intellectual -- can be so religious and conservative and yet quite intelligent.

Then there's the issue of Kanazawa's definition of liberalism, which he writes is the "contemporary American" denotation: "the genuine concern for the welfare of genetically unrelated others and the willingness to contribute larger proportions of private resources for the welfare of such others." Practically speaking, this means Kanazawa's "liberalism" is defined as a willingness to pay a higher tax rate and donate money to charity.

This definition of liberalism, says Ilya Somin, a legal scholar whose expertise includes popular political participation, does not actually distinguish it from, say, conservatism or libertarianism.

Somin writes, "a libertarian who believes that free market policies best promote the welfare of 'genetically unrelated others' and contributes a great deal of his money to charities promoting libertarian causes counts as a liberal under this definition. The same goes for a Religious Right conservative who believes that everyone will be better off under socially conservative policies and contributes lots of money to church charities."

On this last point, it should be noted that recent research shows American political conservatives actually give more money to charity (and donate more blood) than their political liberal counterparts.

The problem inherent in Kanazawa's vague definition of liberalism is further compounded by the fact that he gleans his data on intelligence and attitudes toward topics of religion, politics and charity from two massive national surveys -- the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and the General Social Survey.

These huge studies are greatly compromised by self-reporting. Most Americans don't even really know where they fall on the left-right political continuum. Polling shows, for example, that more African Americans self-identify as conservative than liberal, but when it comes to actual votes, data indicates that blacks overwhelmingly vote for traditionally defined liberal causes and candidates.

And libertarians -- estimated to be about 15 percent of the U.S. population -- don't neatly identify as liberals or conservatives, or even centrists, depending on whether they more closely identify as economic conservatives or social liberals. Even progressives shy away from identifying as liberals, a term that carries a negative connotation for many of them.

A particularly problematic idea presented by the study is how Kanazawa defines certain values and preferences as "evolutionarily novel." While he does not come out and say being atheist is a sign of having evolved more than those who are religious, he does infer this, not only by referring to the slightly higher mean IQ levels of American atheists, but also by pointing out that atheism goes against the grain of general human history. (Kanazawa doesn't even touch upon the idea that beliefs are more likely colored by one's cultural background than one's genetics.)

In the end, Kanazawa's study reinforces long-standing prejudices against conservatives and religious believers. To think that conservatives or religious people "are dumber than you and me," says Myers, "fosters this tribalism that we're out to replace people rather than to educate and inform them." And that's not very smart.

Daniela Perdomo is a staff writer and editor at AlterNet. Follow Daniela on Twitter. Write her at danielaalternet [at] gmail [dot] com.
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