Are Atheists and Liberals Smarter?

I am an atheist, and I am also a liberal in the true and classical sense, meaning that I advocate human liberty and individual rights, including in the economic sphere. (By this understanding, most people who today call themselves “liberals” are in fact anti-liberal.) One might predict, then, that I would feel some smug satisfaction when reading comments like the following:

“Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent”

“Liberalism, atheism, male sexual exclusivity linked to IQ”

“Liberals and atheists are further along the evolutionary scale than conservatives and religious believers.”

And yet, because such comments reflect the abuse of science, I instead find them irritating.

While one study indeed correlates higher intelligence with self-identification as a liberal or atheist, the study certainly does not demonstrate that people tend to become atheists or liberals because they are more intelligent.

The study in question, “Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent,” by Satoshi Kanazawa of the London School of Economics and Political Science, comes from the March, 2010, Social Psychology Quarterly. Here’s what the abstract says:

The Savanna-IQ Interaction Hypothesis, derived from the Savanna Principle and a theory of the evolution of general intelligence, suggests that more intelligent individuals may be more likely to acquire and espouse evolutionarily novel values and preferences (such as liberalism and atheism and, for men, sexual exclusivity) than less intelligent individuals, but that general intelligence may have no effect on the acquisition and espousal of evolutionarily familiar values (for children, marriage, family, and friends). The analyses of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Study 1) and the General Social Surveys (Study 2) show that adolescent and adult intelligence significantly increases adult liberalism, atheism, and men’s (but not women’s) value on sexual exclusivity.

The basic theory, then, is that smarter people are more likely to believe novel things. This is plausible. Smarter people tend to engage in more theoretical reasoning, and they may feel less at home among their social peers, so they tend to adopt new ideas and practices.

The abstract’s claim, then, that “adult intelligence significantly increases adult liberalism” etc. is clearly bogus. The term “increases” implies a causal connection where only correlation is evident.

Thankfully, a CNN science report Elizabeth Landau actually does a pretty good job of explaining the implications of the study. She points out the following details regarding the study:

* The study involves people in the U.S. who self-identify as liberal or atheist.

* The IQ differences are statistically significant but small.

* “George Washington University leadership professor James Bailey… said that these preferences may stem from a desire to show superiority or elitism, which also has to do with IQ.”

* The study takes an absurd (my term) view of “liberalism,” defining it as “concern for genetically nonrelated people and support for private resources that help those people.”

* “Vegetarianism, while not strongly associated with IQ in this study, has been shown to be related to intelligence in previous research, Kanazawa said.”

Following are merely some examples of what’s wrong with the study:

* Many “conservatives” advocate “liberalism” as defined by the study. Certainly many Christians do.

* Many Christians are also (self-identified) liberals. So if you’re a liberal Christian, does the study predict you’ll be smart or dumb?

* Many smart people move to the city to work at high-paid jobs. Of course metropolitan attitudes tend to run more “liberal.” I suppose that what the survey is really showing is that “smart people tend to move to big cities.”

* Smarter parents tend to have smarter kids, so that may be expanding the bias noted above.

* Smarter people might be better at gaming surveys, and they might be more intensely aware of the presumed biases of the surveyors.

* Some variants of religion are quite new and complex, while some variants of atheism are pretty silly. Likewise, some strains of conservative thought are highly abstract and novel, while some variants of “liberalism” are bone-headed and ancient. So, presumably, some of the very smartest people are turning to the most novel forms or interpretations of conservatism and religion.

* In many cases the adoption of atheism and liberalism probably has a lot more to do with cliquishness than intelligence. As Bailey indicated, the attitude may be something like, “I think I’m pretty smart, and I want to fit in with all my smart friends, so I will parrot their views.” (Obviously cliquishness would also apply to conservatism and theism.)

So does the study show that higher intelligence drives people to turn to atheism or liberalism? No, it certainly does not. It shows a slight correlation that could mean any number of things.

Here’s what the study does prove beyond any doubt: More intelligent people are more likely to publicly articulate novel and pseudo-scientific nonsense.