Saturday, February 27, 2010

Conservative Fundamentalists Are Stupid

"Evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa at the London School of Economics and Political Science correlated data on [political, religious and sexual behaviors] with IQ from a large national U.S. sample and found that, on average, people who identified as liberal and atheist had higher IQs. This applied also to sexual exclusivity in men, but not in women." ~CNN, February 26, 2010


Don't you just love when scientific research proves that everything you always thought to be true is, in fact, true? Liberals, atheists and gay men ARE super smart. Oh wait, 'sexual exclusivity in men' doesn't mean men who have sex with men, like I imagined at first glance. It means men who are monogamous. Guess that counts out the gays because everyone knows all gay men live their lives in sexual overdrive. So, let me rephrase: Liberals, atheists and the three men in America who never have and never will sleep around are super smart.

Now, seeing as I am both liberal AND atheist (and, therefore, if CNN is to be believed, super, super smart by definition), I was tempted to just post the CNN news blurb and leave it at that. However, being super, super smart, I know when it comes to reporting research results, mainstream media gets the story half wrong half of the time. (The other half of the time mainstream media gets the story completely wrong.)

So I pulled the actual research manuscript behind CNN's story -- a paper entitled 'Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent' from the scholarly journal Social Psychology Quarterly. (Or at least the
'online first' version [subscription required for full text] of the paper that will appear in print in the March 2010 issue.) And then I read all 20+ pages of it. Twice. (No, I am not kidding. I actually did this. Which means that I AM super, super smart. Or that I have no life. Or both.)

And here's what you should know about CNN's news story. It's half wrong. (Ah-ha. I believe I predicted that would be the case. My super, super smartness pays off again.)

Of course my unbiased (liberal, atheist) opinion is that the conclusion suggested by the work's title -- that liberals and atheists are super smart -- is true. And if all that were required were a highfalutin hypothesis and some sophisticated statistical manipulation, the study mentioned by CNN could, indeed, be cited as proof. Using multivariate analysis the study found that, though the absolute difference in intelligence between, for example,
fundies and the non-religious was minimal, it was enough to be statistically significant. Thus, the suggestion in CNN's report that atheists are smart.

As an aside, that conclusion is a stretch since this type of analysis can't prove any particular group IS smart; it can only identify an association between the group and intelligence. Plus, the study was designed to see if being liberal and atheist is dependent on intelligence, not if intelligence is dependent on being liberal or atheist. I.e., it didn't directly assess how intelligent liberals and atheists are, but rather looked at how likely intelligent people are to be liberal and atheist. But because this is a blog and not a statistics class, I won't get hung up on these points.

What I would like to bring to light instead, is that a study's merits depend not only on how the data were manipulated, but also on the underlying data itself. And the data used in the study don't accurately measure IQ or liberalism (at least not as described by the study's author) or atheism. The overall study involved secondary analyses of two different data sets but, since the CNN story focuses on results from only one, let me review that one in more detail than CNN bothered with, and show you exactly what I mean.

The data come from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, a.k.a.
Add Health, which interviewed a bunch of high school and junior high school students, then re-interviewed them later when they were young adults. The students were selected from a representative sample of US schools so, though I could quibble over the representativeness of survey respondents themselves, especially after 25% were lost to follow up, and harp on the fact the sample included only a single age cohort, for the sake of moving on to more important things, I'll just concede the generalizability of the data to every man, woman and child in the entire US of A.

Add Health assessed the smarts of participating adolescents not with a battery of
IQ tests, but with a verbal acuity test, primarily utilized with pre-schoolers. CNN doesn't bother to mention this, but the study's author (Kanazawa) does, noting the test used was "properly a measure of verbal intelligence, not general intelligence." He then wrote half a page on the association between verbal and general intelligence, blah, blah, blah, making me think he was trying too hard to convince readers that the two concepts, while not the same, are similar enough for use when lying with statistics. But, rather than nitpick this point, I'm willing to grant that the study measures something close enough to IQ for government work.

Given the study's conclusion, you might assume Add Health asked about liberalism. It did. But Kanazawa has a rather narrow definition of liberalism, saying it's "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." In other words, by liberal, he does NOT mean supporting things like the right to choose and gay rights. (CNN, in a rare moment of reporting research accurately, actually pointed this out.)

When Add Health asked, "In terms of politics, do you consider yourself conservative, liberal, or middle-of-the-road?" and respondents said 'very liberal,' however, they likely had a
more all-encompassing definition of liberalism than Kanazawa's in mind, something conveniently ignored in the research report. I am tempted to belabor this point, but am getting really tired of writing this post and figure if anyone is still even reading this they probably are tired of it as well, so nuff said.

Going by the CNN report, or even by the research report's title, you might also assume Add Health asked about religion. It did. However, the data used by Kanazawa do not - let me repeat that - do not measure atheism. I know, I know. My smart, smart self finds that hard to believe, too. I mean, how preposterous is it to draw a conclusion about atheism if you do not even measure atheism? So, you might be wondering, what exactly was measured, if it wasn't atheism. Well, here's the Add Health question used in the current analysis:

"To what extent are you a religious person?’"
- Not religious at all
- Slightly religious
- Moderately religious
- Very religious

A response of 'not religious at all' was apparently taken to be synonymous with atheism. Which means all those folks who say they're
spiritual but not religious were tagged as atheists. Not to mention all those folks who are on the fence -- unsure that there is a god but not wanting to say definitively that there's no evidence of him, just in case he exists and they end up in hell for eternity -- also got pegged as atheists. Call me crazy, but I just don't buy that self-classifying as 'not religious at all' is equivalent to being an atheist.

But, come to think of it, if the study found so-called atheists to be of superior intelligence compared to Jesus-freaks, but the atheist group was actually tainted by a bunch of folks
not quite smart enough to reason out the fact there is no evidence of god, removing them from the mix could only make the true atheist group even smarter. Which just goes to show, you can't believe everything you read in the news. But you can believe that atheists are smart. Or something like that.

"Humans are evolutionarily designed to be paranoid, and they believe in God because they are paranoid." Satoshi Kanazawa, quoted in Science Daily
Given that most awesome quote, I almost feel bad for saying anything negative about the dude's study. As reparation I'll toss out a link to his blog.

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