The evolving narrative of conservative stupidity (updated)

It’s hard to avoid noticing that egalitarians think they’re better than the rest of us.  After all, there must be some difference between people that makes progressivism convincing to some but not others; that they are smarter and more compassionate they no doubt find an agreeable hypothesis.

To be fair, there is some evidence in its favor.  Some studies have found a definite trend of increasing liberalism with IQ, with the “very liberal” having as much as an 11.6 point advantage over the “very conservative”.   (See here and here for a bit of the literature.)  While this data is of some interest, most of the attention has gone to the proposed explanations, often some variation on the idea that liberalism is cognitively challenging and too difficult for the dim-witted.  Liberalism involves empathizing with strangers, or being comfortable with ambiguity, or challenging received notions–whatever it is, it’s something that smart people do better, or more often, or more easily.

Add to this the longstanding Whig historical narrative that the great men of the past–inventors, writers, artists, scientists, philosophers–have always been “ahead of their time”, i.e. different from their contemporaries in ways that make them more like us.  Of course, it will be granted that one may find in any of them this or that regressive opinion, but this is just the influence of their wicked culture.  They themselves always broke the mold in a progressive direction, and this is what constitutes their greatness.  To sum up, the host culture (if it is a Western culture) gets all of the shame that their great men retained now-disapproved beliefs of their time, but it gets none of their glory.

How important is the liberal IQ advantage?

Let us first ask how big an effect this IQ-liberalism connection is.  This question is distinct from the effect’s statistical significance; even a weak effect can be measured with high significance with enough data.  12 points is still less than a standard deviation, so the first guess would be that there is a significant amount of overlap between the IQ distributions of liberals and conservatives.  It is possible, though, that the IQ distribution for each political grouping is narrower than the distribution of their aggregate.  I did a simple check of this using the most recent GSS data, plotting the distribution of WORDSUM vocabulary scores (with a standard IQ conversion) for each of the self-reported political identifications (“polyview”:  7 point scale, 1=highly liberal, 7=highly conservative).  I could have used answers to politically salient survey questions instead, but my hunch is that political self-identification is the more stable feature.

I find that extreme liberals do indeed have a higher mean IQ than extreme conservatives.  The difference is 5.6 points, about half that of Kanazawa, who was working with a different data set and a better measure of IQ.  My study should not be considered on par with those of the social scientists, but it serves the purpose of allowing readers to view raw data.  The IQ distribution of each political class is plotted below.  (Note log scale.)


I did not normalize so that viewers can “eyeball integrate” the population of each group.  Here is the same thing with each distribution normalized to unit area on a linear scale.


As expected, there is large overlap.  In fact, each group peaks at the same IQ (100); the difference in mean comes from asymmetries in the distributions.  It would certainly be foolish to assume anything about a person’s intelligence just from his IQ.  The most liberal curve does flatten on the right, so liberals may well dominate at very high IQ.  That doesn’t help the popular theories, though.  For all of these theories, dumb liberals are a bigger problem than smart conservatives.  If liberalism is so mentally challenging that my readers and I just aren’t bright enough to figure it out, how does one explain all of these sub-90 IQ liberals?

What is the reason for the liberal IQ advantage?

Remember, the existence of an IQ-liberalism correlation does not itself establish any of the particular proposed explanations.  They are, indeed, highly questionable.  Empathizing with strangers–even those “very different than us”–is neither complicated nor taxing.  Most people do it for relaxation, consuming fiction via novels or television.  Nor can empathy settle political disputes.  In any dispute, one can sympathize with stakeholders on either side or both. (If the issue did not involve a trade-off of some peoples’ interests vs. others’, it would probably not be a matter of contention to begin with.)  But to see on which side justice lies, one must set aside empathy and seek an objective “view from nowhere”.  If we mean intellectual empathy, as in the ability to understand and reason from the other side’s moral principles, research shows that conservatives are better at this than liberals.  (This should not be taken as a sign of conservative intellectual superiority however, but rather of the prevalence of liberal discourse.  Conservatives can’t help but understand liberalism, being surrounded by it, but a liberal must actively seek out conservative arguments.)  Liberalism is certainly not the place to find ambiguity and moral nuance; as it exists today, it is a crudely Manichean creed.   Nor is there anything bold or counter-cultural in embracing it, since it is authoritative in today’s world.

The importance of self-interest should not be dismissed.  It is well-known that in economic matters, higher IQ is associated with more laissez faire (“conservative” as they are inappropriately called) attitudes.  It is quite possible that different IQ groups cluster in different economic classes and that each has correctly ascertained its self-interest.  Something analogous but less direct may hold true for social conservatism as well.  Commenters have pointed out that the brunt of the sexual revolution’s destructive effects–on divorce and illegitimacy–have fallen on the lower classes.  One also notices that liberalism is in practice tied to technocracy, meaning status and power to high-IQ credentialed experts.

We may also be seeing an instance of a more general connection between IQ and intellectual docility.  IQ has been found to be associated with the personality trait “openness to experience”.  This “open-mindedness” is usually described in flattering terms, but I would not be surprised if it predisposes one to credulity when presented with establishment-promoted beliefs.  One must be a bit stubborn, a bit closed-minded, to be a dissenter.  It is sometimes pointed out that the IQ-liberalism correlation remains even controlling for education, but this doesn’t prove that it is not caused by indoctrination, since one can learn just as well which beliefs are high-status from television as from college.

About those great men

Oddly, the impression that all smart or creative people belong to the Left has been undermined in the last couple of years by Leftists themselves in a new phase of their unending game of moral oneupmanship.  This has taken the form of scouring the past for “disturbing” elements.

If Laura Ingalls Wilder were alive today she would be a member of the Tea Party. She would almost certainly have voted for Donald Trump…

sneers Vivian Gornick at the New Republic.  A foolish thing to write, both because it is impossible to know such a thing, and because past generations of Leftists knew better than to advertise the anti-progressivism of a widely-beloved author.  I would never have known that transistor co-inventor William Shockley, biologist James Watson, and sci-fi horror master H. P. Lovecraft dissented quite consciously from progressive racial egalitarian dogma if I hadn’t so often read Leftists lamenting it.

Such things are becoming more common.  I have only recently learned of the French painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir‘s general conservatism and un-progressive (even for their time) opinions of women and Jews.  Another recent article let me know that Louis-Ferdinand Céline was a great French novelist and a “vile anti-Semite, xenophobe, misogynist, misanthropist, and early pro-Nazi.”  Not content to poke fun at Donald Trump’s enthusiasm for Puccini’s music, Slate felt the need to inform us that the famous opera composer actually was a Fascist sympathizer.  Which would make him no different (except less vocal about it) than Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats.  Fascism had a number of undoubtedly talented sympathizers.  Most of us know, because Leftist philosophers are always going on about it, that Martin Heidegger, perhaps the greatest of 20th-century continental philosophers, was an actual, honest-to-God Nazi.  Until last year, I would have had the impression that the other, Anglo-American analytic, school of philosophy was entirely the work of cool-headed conforming Leftists.  But now, I learn from laments in Prospect magazine that founder of analytic philosophy Gottlob Frege’s unpublished papers reveal him to be, in their words “an anti-Semitic, racist right-winger” and romantic nationalist.

We all know that a common culture promotes group consciousness, a bad thing for liberals.  This would be true even if the culture were a product of impeccable universalists.  I find myself happening on articles uncovering how some aspects of our common culture were consciously designed with nationalistic aims, such as the Grimm brothers’ folklore collection and Noah Webster’s dictionary.

People argue about whether nationalism and fascism are truly right-wing, but that discussion is irrelevant here, because these men embraced them for their dissent from liberal individualism and universalism.  They were, at least in some sense, “behind their times”.  One could also list eminent traditionalist conservatives (they’re just of less interest to journalists than fascists) like English romanticists Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey or French legitimists like mathematician Augustin-Louis Cauchy and novelist Honore de Balzac.  Or, more recently, T. S. Eliot, Dostoevsky, Tolkien, etc.  If strong adherence to Christianity is itself a mark of deplorable-ness, one could draw up a longer list.

I don’t deny that one could make an equally impressive list of great atheist liberals.  Perhaps if one were to draw up two lists, the first of great men “behind their time” and the second of those “ahead of their time”, perhaps the second would even be more impressive, but it is the first list that Leftist writers are in the process of compiling.  They will also find that many past thinkers were “ahead of their time” in some ways, “behind their time” in other ways, and “with their time” in yet others.  Lastly, it will be increasingly obvious as we interrogate the past that there was a great deal more diversity of opinion among intellectuals in the centuries and decades before World War II than there has been after.  This suggests that the current consensus was not achieved by new arguments, but by military victory of the Left followed by the brutal suppression of competing views.

28 thoughts on “The evolving narrative of conservative stupidity (updated)

  1. Pingback: The evolving narrative of conservative stupidity | @the_arv

  2. I talked personally with Jordan Peterson about the IQ gaps between social conservatives and others. He says its small.

    The strongest predictor of political conservatism is low Big 5 Openness. But this kind of conservatism is mostly just aversion to change. It makes one only slightly more socially conservative and religious. Low Openness is correlated to some degree with lower IQ.

    The second strongest predictor of political conservatism is high Big 5 Conscientiousness, particularly the aspect Orderliness. This is the main predictor of Jon Haidt’s conservative moral foundations: loyalty, respect for authority and purity. It’s also the main predictor of religiousness, as well as disgust sensitivity. This is substantive social conservatism. Orderliness varies completely independently of IQ.

    The political grouping with the highest IQ are libertarians.

  3. One must be a bit stubborn, a bit closed-minded, to be a dissenter.

    This is low Agreeableness. Politically, it tends to predict libertarian economic views and support for free speech.

    • That’s what I had expected, that low agreeableness would mean willingness to disagree with everybody, but as you report this turns out not to be true. Libertarianism is still within the orbit of Enlightenment liberalism. Only the social conservatives have truly dissented from the reigning ideology. (You’ll loose friends and jobs a lot faster for opposing gay marriage than for opposing a minimum wage.) It would seem some other personality trait is at work.

      • 1. You have to distinguish between willingness to disagree and the temperamental inclination to disagree. Low Agreeableness libertarians may be willing to disagree, but that doesn’t mean they actually disagree.
        2. Low Agreeableness, in itself, doesn’t point one towards socially liberal views.
        3. Libertarian psychology seems to be predicted by high IQ, high Openness, low Orderliness and low Agreeableness. Higher IQ and lower Agreeableness are what separate them from ordinary liberals.

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  5. The graph surprises me. I would have expected the “extremes” of both political orientations to have a higher representation on the right (side of the graph), having assumed that more intelligent people were more apt to follow principles (to their logical conclusions) rather than the mood of the herd (and the social pressures of acceptable opinions). Yet, it’s not surprising that liberals, in general, have a higher IQ. It takes intelligence to question convention and to consider other possibilities. However, it has been my own experience that the awe-inspiringly bright people tend to be very conservative or at least open to that path, as it takes even more insight and understanding to see why the ways of the ancestors make sense, after all, even if convention isn’t very helpful in making inherited wisdom clear and obvious to everyone. I’m basing my personal experience on students and academics primarily in philosophy, physics, theology, and mathematics. I find that the keener minds in those disciplines tend to appreciate the wisdom of the ages, even if they remain agnostic on certain issues. Perhaps, it is different when you add law, medicine, engineering, I.T., and business folks — impressive minds that tend to be more practical. Maybe, their intent to enter the worldly world makes them fundamentally more appreciative of the Overton Window and respectful of established orthodoxy. Most of the same kind of people would be fascists in an established fascist regime or monarchists in the old regime. They know which way the wind blows — for now, at least.

    In addition, religiosity plays a large part with physics and philosophy people. The stubborn atheism of committed materialists leads otherwise intelligent folks to idiotic opinions because of political bed-sharing. I knew a few physicists who held the most obnoxious, foolish opinions about sexual “equality” and that whole agenda because, I suspect, they were atheists who hated traditional Christianity and found allies in the crazy Left. The enemy of my enemy is my friend . . . that sort of thing. Or maybe they just gave human matters so little thought, they never applied their intelligence to social questions.

    Lastly, it’s hard to pigeonhole intelligent people on a political spectrum. Your self-identifying approach seems best. I would consider myself the extreme right of right-wingers, not simply among Americans but globally and over centuries. Yet and alas, I usually place near Bill Clinton (the horror!) in the middle of the grid on those silly (but delightful) political mapping tests because my answers cancel one another other out and because my “conservatism” doesn’t align well with the mainstream American Right. So, I wonder how much of that is affecting your graph. It’s a concern even with self-identification. How many of those middle of the road folks refuse to call themselves conservative because they associate the label with Conservatism, Inc. and the Republican Party? Who wants to be part of the Stupid Party?

  6. A few points. All higher education nowadays is liberal in colouring so those who go further in education will increasingly be indoctrinated in this ideology. Then, intellectuals often prefer abstract ideas to practical realities which suits the liberal position rather than the conservative one. Then again, liberalism is seen as progressive, of the future, even ‘cool’, and who wants to be seen as old-fashioned and uncool especially if you are ambitious and want to climb the greasy pole?
    But the real difference is surely between those who acknowledge a Creator and those who don’t. Higher IQ people are often more likely to reject God due to self-satisfaction with their own intellectual acumen. Their atheism leads them naturally to liberalism. The more intelligent find it harder to be like the little children of whom the kingdom of heaven is made. They are too focused in reason to take sufficient account of faith, on the one hand, and imagination, on the other. Of course, a more rounded intelligent person does not have this problem but many high IQ people are correspondingly limited in other areas.
    The ignorant and the wise often have common ground which the merely clever, lacking humility, fail to see. Conservatism isn’t the same as religion but it goes with a religious world view better than secular liberalism which is a thing completely of this world.

    • “Higher IQ people are often more likely to reject God due to self-satisfaction with their own intellectual acumen.” I want to ask: Does the phrase “higher IQ people” really designate a group remarkable for its intelligence? “Self-satisfaction” is not, in my view, a correlate of intelligence; it is a type of moral stupidity. Maybe stupidity is not exactly the opposite of intelligence. Maybe it is something that often exists alongside intelligence. Maybe a person can be intelligent and stupid at the same time. By the same token, intelligence might be so narrowly exercised that it leaves around it a penumbra of ignorance, so that ignorance, which can only lead to error, might like stupidity be something that can coexist with intelligence.

      Augustina’s comment below — to the effect that although liberals call themselves open-minded they are in fact about as closed-minded as one can get — links itself, I believe, to mine. Liberals are smarter than conservatives to the degree that their definition of being smart is valid. Liberals are smart, then, in their own conviction, because they are liberals.

      • I suppose you have to distinguish between intellectual ability which is measured by IQ and wider intelligence which perhaps is not so much. Or fall back on the difference between wisdom and knowledge. Just as good looking people are more likely to be vain, so merely clever people are more likely to be proud though not necessarily so, of course. After all, the devil is the cleverest and proudest of the lot.

        But I think you’re right and that a person can be intelligent or clever and stupid or lacking insight at the same time. We have plenty of examples, don’t we?

  7. I doubt Whig history influences the hop palloi, but it works wonders among the middle-brows of this world. Middle-brows recognize and admire big names, but have limited knowledge of what those big names actually wrote and did. So they are influenced by the assertion that Socrates somehow anticipated #metoo, or that Shakespeare would have been down with BLM. But Whig history gets harder as the left gets weirder. Even middle-brows doubt that John Adams would have approved same-sex marriage if he had only thought about it. So, as you have often reported, the Left is now forced to throw more and more big names overboard.

    You make a point here that needs to be made more often. The average intelligence of persons professing a belief is less important than the highest intelligence among persons professing a belief. Christian apologetics should recognize this. If Christians are relatively unintelligent, that is because it is the legacy belief system, and so the default for people who are not intellectual. But the fact that there are highly intelligent Christians shows that intelligent men can assent to the Christian system. Unless these men can be dismissed as freaks on some other grounds, they refute the claim that Christianity is odious to reason.

  8. It’s a mystery to me how anyone can take the liberals self proclaimed “openness to new ideas” seriously. Liberals are the most closed minded people I have met. They shout down and lock out anyone who disagrees with them, and that has been going on for decades.
    I take with a grain of salt any social science construct, and these personality traits are just that, a construct of liberal imagination.
    IQ = good at book learning. Libs have been book learned real well. That pretty much explains the IQ gap.

    • I don’t pretend to know how much correlation, if any, there is between physical strength and intellectual strength, but it is an interesting thought experiment to ponder why it is that often the smaller, weaker-looking guy is actually stronger than his more muscular and “toned” counterpart, when it counts.

    • @Augustina. Having lived* most of my adult life in academia, I might make this observation in support of your thesis: The “scholarly” intelligence (and maybe the word intelligence rather than the word scholarly should inhabit the quotation marks), which in the Venn Diagram is a circle inside that of liberal intelligence, consists in knowing everything that there is to know about this or that radically, ever-shrinkingly demarcated topic. It is not only, as intelligence, quite restricted, but as knowledge, too, quite restricted. It leaves a lot of room, a big penumbra, for ignorance and stupidity. I have mentioned before a peculiarity of my department. All the young professors hang the same sign outside their office doors that preaches the “welcoming” of everybody; but every single one of those young professors, on arriving in the departmental space, enters his office, closes the door, and blocks the window from the inside. Voila! L’acuité mentale du scolaire!

      *Not so much lived, as existed.

      • I used to work in medical research at a large research university. I found that academics closed mindedness goes beyond just the political. They cling to pet ideas and theories and are incapable of moving an inch off of them. Unless, of course, a big name does so first. It is very difficult to dissuade any of them that their pet ideas might just be a teeny bit wrong. Once they learn something, they’ve learnt it good and strong, and feel no need to budge. They are closed minded all around.

        In short, smart people do not, and cannot, have all the answers to highly complex social problems. Any attempt to parse social and political problems, and even psychological and medical ones, results in oversimplification and the leaving out of very important details. It doesn’t matter how smart a person is, the likelihood that they are biased and wrong and cherry picking what to leave out, is certain.

        Libs and progs are the gatekeepers of academia, closed minded, and keep out anyone who might disagree. Most smart people see this, and unconsciously submit to the liberal framework. Otherwise, they have no chance.

        Indeed it is the very close mindedness of the libs that make them so dominant.

  9. Chesterton described the mad not as those who have lost their reason, but everything else. In the same vein, if one lacks a proper formation, I’d think that intelligence is more of a disadvantage than an advantage because it’s more likely to lead one astray, and further astray.

    No matter how intelligent individuals, or groups of them, are, they cannot compete with the combined intelligences of the many generations of individuals, formed by Revelation, who created the tradition, not to mention the lessons learned by century upon century of trial and error.

  10. I subscribe to intelligence based on political labels. Maybe it’s based on the many journeys and contacts I have made with people through my brief 40 years on this planet. I might trace such resistance to the idea of IQ, in general, to my previous career in the social work field. Maybe replacing IQ with the word ignorance would be more suitable.

    • I have to amend my statement so it doesn’t appear contradictory. I meant to say I fail to subscribe to intelligence based on political labels. The wonders of auto correct and a smart phone still impede one’s own writing.

  11. Pingback: at the Orthosphere | Throne and Altar

  12. I have a theory regarding the high IQ of liberals/progressives.
    First a few premises:
    1. One’s choice of ideology is affected in part by IQ, or alternatively, that the persuasiveness of an ideology is a function of the observer’s IQ.
    2. Progressivism/liberalism is the ideology of our society’s elites.
    3. The population of elites in the west has an average IQ in the 125-130 range, and drops of rapidly in both directions.
    And the postulates of the theory:
    1. Liberalism/progressivism is an ideology adapted to be maximally persuasive to an IQ of around 128.
    2. The IQ-differential fraction of the population that is liberal/progressive is greatest at an IQ of around 128, and decreases as IQ diverges from this in either direction.
    E.g., at an IQ of 130 progressives will make up a large fraction of the population, but they will make up a small fraction at IQ 100 or IQ 160.

  13. According to the first chart, only 5% identify with the extreme left or extreme right–which means their IQ distributions do not matter much and that neither is representative of the typical Leftist or Rightist. If you consider the 95% in the middle, it appears that there is little difference in the IQ distributions. It tilts only slightly in favor of the left. The reason it seems more imbalanced than it is follows from the different interests of the talented members of each side. Journalism obviously suits a typical Leftist temperament better, for example. For perception, though, much more important is the inescapable confirmation bias trap, into which we all must fall when we wander outside of our expertise.

    It is useful in debate, I’ve found, to have ready to mind the names of eminent Rightists in a range of intellectual domains. There is no shortage of figures, and, as Bonald notes, our Orwellian moles continue to dig up more examples for us, updating their moral scorecards to ensure all of history is judged by their transcendent standards.

  14. Pingback: We are not battling craziness, we are battling evil vs. Evolving narrative of conservative stupidity? | Talk Wisdom


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