Monday, March 1, 2010

CNN: Like The Onion, Only Subtler

This article at, reporting on a study which purports to show that American atheists and liberals have higher IQs than the religious and conservative, was noticed both by Roy Edroso and Avedon Carol. Edroso disliked it, appealing to the authority of PZ Myers to support him, while Avedon apparently liked it, at least "the part where religion is a feature of paranoia."

Myers dissects the study easily:
Show me the error bars on those measurements. Show me the reliability of IQ as a measure of actual, you know, intelligence. Show me that a 6 point IQ difference matters at all in your interactions with other people, even if it were real. And then to claim that these differences are not only heritable, but evolutionarily significant…jebus, people, you can just glance at it and see that it is complete crap.
At least the study is going to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, for what little that is worth. Myers might also have pointed out how easily average differences are absolutized, so that "atheists have higher IQs than believers" becomes "atheists are smart and believers are stupid." Edroso falls afoul of that mistake himself, brandishing "my experience of actual human beings, whom I have found fascinatingly varied in their abilities whatever their respective races, ideologies, etc." One of Avedon's commenters (sorry, no permalink) says the same thing: "In my church, there are many people with advanced degrees, including in the physical sciences. Everyone accepts the validity of evolution, seeing it as the tool by which God shapes things. Scripture is treated as sacred, but not literally inerrant." Well, duh! The trouble with statistics generally seems to lie with people who don't know how to read them. To say, for example, that men are on average taller than women does not mean either that all men are taller than all women, or that all men are the same height and all women are the same height. So a higher average IQ for atheists does not imply that there aren't believers with high IQs and advanced degrees -- or that there aren't plenty of unintelligent atheists out there. Statistics is a collection of methods for trying to find patterns in all that lovely variety; it doesn't eliminate the variation.

If not for the ScienceDaily story Myers linked to, though, I'd find it hard to believe that the CNN story isn't satire. Consider the "highlights" sidebar: "Behaviors may stem from desire to show superiority or elitism, which also has to do with IQ ... None of this means that humans are evolving toward a future where such traits are the default". Or the caption under the included photo: "The IQ differences are statistically significant, but experts say the data shouldn't be used to stereotype or make assumptions." Of course that's exactly how a lot of people are using the data, just as I would expect.

Who are those "experts," I hear you ask? Here's one:

"The adoption of some evolutionarily novel ideas makes some sense in terms of moving the species forward," said George Washington University leadership professor James Bailey, who was not involved in the study. "It also makes perfect sense that more intelligent people -- people with, sort of, more intellectual firepower -- are likely to be the ones to do that."

Bailey also said that these preferences may stem from a desire to show superiority or elitism, which also has to do with IQ. In fact, aligning oneself with "unconventional" philosophies such as liberalism or atheism may be "ways to communicate to everyone that you're pretty smart," he said.

Why CNN asked a "leadership professor" to comment on the study is hard to say, unless they were deliberately looking for uninformed, trivial, even irrelevant soundbytes. If so, Professor Bailey gave them what they were looking for. Species don't 'move forward' in Darwinian evolution, and as Myers pointed out, there's no reason to believe that either atheism or liberalism has any evolutionary significance. And that "neener neener neener, you atheists think you're so smart!" jeer is not just irrelevant but hilarious.

At least CNN talked to Satoshi Kanazawa, the author of the study.

Religion, the current theory goes, did not help people survive or reproduce necessarily, but goes along the lines of helping people to be paranoid, Kanazawa said. Assuming that, for example, a noise in the distance is a signal of a threat helped early humans to prepare in case of danger.

"It helps life to be paranoid, and because humans are paranoid, they become more religious, and they see the hands of God everywhere," Kanazawa said.

Wait a minute. According to Kanazawa, atheists aren't "paranoid" enough, apparently because of our higher IQs, and therefore not sufficiently wary of danger. (Avedon, you'll remember, liked the link to paranoia, but paranoia is not the right word for alertness to danger, especially when the environment really is out to get you.) To add to the weirdness, PZ Myers has some links that indicate that Kanazawa is quite a wack job himself; try this one, which quotes Kanazawa to the effect that "we" (the US) "are losing this war" (World War III, as Thomas Friedman calls it) because "we don’t hate our enemies nearly as much as they hate us ... And [in past wars] we didn’t think twice about dropping bombs on them, to kill them and their wives and children. (As many commentators have pointed out, the distinction between combatants and civilians does not make sense in World War III, and the Geneva Convention -- an agreement among nations -- is no longer applicable, because our enemies are not nation states.)" And that's why Kanazawa thinks that "this war" is taking longer to win than World Wars One and Two (though he evidently forgets that the War in Vietnam lasted longer than those two put together, and we didn't win it either).

Oh, not to worry, Tosh, "we" are still killing "their wives and children" with gay abandon. The strangest thing in this very strange rant is Kanazawa's claim that "terrorist" is a "euphemism," though it's not far ahead of his notion that Americans don't refer to their current enemies with racial slurs, as they did in the good wars of the past.

No, no, the CNN article must be satirical, like The Onion but not as far over the top, and the study should have appeared in the April Fools issue of Social Psychology Quarterly.