People with heterodox opinions are just confused

By Razib Khan | September 13, 2010 5:11 am

I was having a touch of insomnia a few days ago, and wasn’t alert enough to do anything intellectually challenging, so I decided to poke around the General Social Survey. I found an interesting variable, POSTLIFE, which asks people if they believed in life after death. I decided to cross-check that against those who were atheists and agnostics, and specifically look at the distribution of WORDSUM scores of those who did, and didn’t, believe in life after death. My hunch before I checked was this: those who believe in life after death despite not believing in the existence of God are going to be less intelligent than those who don’t.

My reasoning was that it was close to philosophically incoherent to reject supernatural agents, but then accept some post-material existence. I know that this is actually not necessarily philosophically incoherent. Asian religious traditions have long had a strand which accepts both immortality of consciousness as well as agnosticism or atheism in relation to supernatural agents, gods. And, there are some secular Western philosophers who make an analytic case for the afterlife despite their lack of belief in the supernatural. But most people are not deeply involved in the philosophical literature on the afterlife, or, Jains.* Rather, I think those who are atheists or agnostics, and, who accept an afterlife, are relying on intuition and not following through deductively on the inferences from their avowed axioms. In other words, I believed they’d be likely to be less intelligent, and habitually make less use of analytic modes of thinking. To double-check on the thesis that the less intelligent are more likely to hold inconsistent views I also looked at self-identified liberals, conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, on specific policy issues and their relationship to intelligence.

Before we get to the tables, some methodology. I used WORDSUM, which has a 0.7 correlation with IQ. I recoded WORDSUM so that in terms of intelligence you have the following classes:

Low (0-3) – 11% of the sample, 6% non-Hispanic whites
Below Average (4-5) – 27%, 25% non-Hispanic whites
Average (6) – 22%, 21% non-Hispanic whites
Above Average (7-8) – 27%, 34% non-Hispanic whites
High (9-10), 13%, 15% non-Hispanic whites

For the religion related questions I used the whole GSS data set. For the politics related questions I limited to non-Hispanic whites, which also constrains the data set to the 2000s (politics tends to be racially polarized more than religion, so I wanted to remove the racial variable). The rows in each column below add up to 100%, so what you’re seeing are the intelligence distributions within each class. So, if you see 22% in the Low category, that means that the class has twice as many people in that category than the general population. Please note that ~20% of the population rejects an afterlife, a higher proportion than those who are irreligious, or atheists or agnostics. A substantial number of religious people don’t believe in an afterlife, just as a substantial proportion of atheists and agnostics do.

Opinion on Afterlife
Intelligence Atheists and Agnostics Knows God Exists
Afterlife No Afterlife Afterlife No Afterlife
Low 17 5 11 22
Below Average 25 14 28 36
Average 22 17 23 20
Above Average 23 34 28 19
High 13 30 10 3
Protestant Catholic
Afterlife No Afterlife Afterlife No Afterlife
Low 11 18 10 18
Below Average 28 32 23 20
Average 24 20 20 21
Above Average 26 19 31 26
High 11 10 15 6
Jewish No Religion
Afterlife No Afterlife Afterlife No Afterlife
Low 9 3 11 11
Below Average 17 6 26 19
Average 20 14 25 16
Above Average 25 38 25 27
High 29 38 13 28
Protestants
Fundamentalist Moderate Liberal
Afterlife No Afterlife Afterlife No Afterlife Afterlife No Afterlife
Low 14 25 7 12 7 10
Below Average 32 39 26 30 21 22
Average 25 18 23 23 22 22
Above Average 22 15 31 23 31 24
High 7 3 13 12 20 20
Bible Word of God Inspired Word Book of Fables
Afterlife No Afterlife Afterlife No Afterlife Afterlife No Afterlife
Low 16 28 5 12 8 11
Below Average 34 40 23 33 28 22
Average 24 18 24 26 16 17
Above Average 22 13 32 23 28 27
High 5 2 16 6 20 23
Abortion on demand
Liberals Conservative
Yes No Yes No
Low 3 10 5 7
Below Average 9 24 34 23
Average 18 12 22 24
Above Average 34 45 27 33
High 36 9 12 14
Democrat Republican
Yes No Yes No
Low 4 15 6 5
Below Average 20 27 24 24
Average 17 21 22 23
Above Average 36 33 33 35
High 23 4 15 13
Homosexual sex is….
Liberals Conservative
Always wrong Not wrong at all Always wrong Not wrong at all
Low 24 2 8 4
Below Average 28 10 27 16
Average 17 14 24 14
Above Average 28 42 30 40
High 3 32 12 26
Democrat Republican
Always wrong Not wrong at all Always wrong Not wrong at all
Low 18 3 11 2
Below Average 34 14 29 17
Average 19 15 21 17
Above Average 23 43 29 42
High 5 25 10 22
Taxes are….
Liberals Conservative
Too high OK or too low Too high OK or too low
Low 5 7 5 10
Below Average 15 11 24 25
Average 22 9 23 24
Above Average 37 38 34 29
High 22 34 14 12
Democrat Republican
Too high OK or too low Too high OK or too low
Low 9 9 5 7
Below Average 22 24 25 21
Average 22 16 23 24
Above Average 35 33 35 34
High 12 18 13 15
Government should reduce income differences
Liberals Conservative
Yes No Yes No
Low 5 0 5 4
Below Average 14 12 35 20
Average 15 32 25 20
Above Average 43 41 24 43
High 24 15 11 13
Democrat Republican
Yes No Yes No
Low 6 9 8 5
Below Average 26 19 29 21
Average 16 18 25 22
Above Average 35 33 30 38
High 16 21 8 14

A few methodological notes.

Atheists & agnostics = GOD(1-2), while those who “Know God Exists” = GOD(6) (there are intermediate categories of certitude excluded from the analysis).

For ideology and party identification I exclude leaners and those who were slightly liberal or conservative. So:

Liberal = POLVIEWS(r:1-2)

Conservative = POLVIEWS(r-6-7)

Democrat = PARTYID(r:0-1)

Republican = PARTYID(r:5-6)

Very few people wanted higher taxes, so I combined those who wanted that, or thought taxes were about right, TAX(r:2-3). For homosexuality I selected the most extreme values, and excluded the leaners. The sample sizes were large. But for government and income inequality, I included leaners to bolster sample size, EQWLTH(r:1-3;5-7).

To the results. By visual inspection here are my assessments:

Cases where those who believe in the afterlife are more intelligent than those who do not – Know God Exists, Protestants, Catholics, Fundamentalists, Moderates, Bible Word of God, Inspired Word

Cases where those who believe in the afterlife are less intelligent than those who do not – Atheists and agnostics, Jews, those with no religion

Ambiguous – Liberal Protestants and those who believe that the Bible is a Book of Fables

I think I am going to go with my idea that the less intelligent just have inconsistent and/or incoherent beliefs. A less loaded way to couch it is that those who are less systematic in their thinking tend to exhibit these confusions, and, they don’t do as well academically in keeping with their lack of systematic thinking proficiency. Not only are  atheists and agnostics who believe in the afterlife not as bright, but self-identified Fundamentalists and Biblical Literalists who do not believe in an afterlife are also not too bright. One argue that those theists who reject an afterlife are accepting the interpretation of Christianity whereby one does not go to heaven after death, but rather, must wait until the bodily resurrection. So technically there is no afterlife. I doubt that this is the real issue here though. As for those who reject the supernatural origin of the Bible, why the ambiguity? Note that the set who fall into this class is larger than those who are irreligious, and much larger than atheists and agnostics. So it includes a wide array of people.

Second, what about politics? My interest in this topic was piqued years ago by the large raft of stories on how stupid and uniformed true independent voters are. Going through the GSS it is clear that political moderates and independents are less intelligent than ideologues or those with clear views. I tried to select some social and fiscal issues where I thought that the ideologies and parties differed pretty starkly. But the results weren’t as cut and dried as with religion. I think there are a few dynamics at work producing the difference. First, social liberalism has a very strong correlation with intelligence. Those conservatives and Republicans with socially liberal views on homosexuality are clearly the most intelligent. Abortion is a more ambiguous issue, as the arc of history is not moving in a clear direction. On the fiscal issues, for liberals and Democrats it seems that not being “on the right page” is correlated with stupidity. For the Right the issue is clearer on income differences, but less so on taxes. But the main problem with taxes is that so few people really want higher taxes that the sample sizes are smaller.

One could look deeper, but why might it be that the political issues are a bit more confused than the religious ones? I think that it’s partly a product of the fact that political affiliations are coalitional, and that one’s opinions tend to come in suites or clusters, and that one aligns oneself with one’s “camp” on a host of issues without further thought. In contrast, specific religious beliefs are evaluated more in isolation and personally. In politics one has a few broad values and loyalties, and details emerge from that. In religion orthodoxy in the United States in most situations the dynamic is more personal, and you are quite often revealing more your own attitudes than group consensus (though obviously if you are a Christian who belongs to a church with a creed there is putatively a consensus, but in practice this is not so important in our nation for most congregations).

* I should admit that I’m actually skeptical of the coherency of most religious and analytic philosophy in a deep substantive sense. But, I grant that within these domains there are ideas which are said to be consistent or not, and that is what I am alluding to.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Data Analysis, GSS
MORE ABOUT: Data Analysis, GSS
  • http://demonstratum.com sconzey

    Hey,

    Long-time reader, first time poster. Fascinating stuff, although I’m a little dubious that you can say anything meaningful based on five categories of intelligence. Eyeballing your figures, the trends you suggest don’t seem terribly clear-cut, what’s the statistical significance of your results?

    With that said, I’d be interested to see this re-run with Socio-economic Class in place of Intelligence.

    As an aside: your insomnia is more productive than mine… >_>

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Regarding the fact that Jews are one of the groups where lack of belief in an afterlife is correlated with higher intelligence, I suspect this is for two reasons: 1) There are classically religious strains of Judaism that are either agnostic about an afterlife or strongly don’t believe in one. 2) Many people self-identify as religiously Jewish even when they are more generally culturally Jewish. Thus, this correlation may be a result in part of the general trend that belief in an afterlife is correlated with less intelligence.

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  • Nemesis

    It seems the beliefs of people of lowly intelligence always contradict those of the more intelligent members of their demographic group. It’s strange how they can identify with a group, yet completely misunderstand the agenda of the group they associate with. I guess their opinions don’t really mean much.

    I advocate an intelligence test for potential voters. I know this wouldn’t work, but you should, at the very least, understand what you’re voting for… or “who” you’re voting for.

    I also wonder how often age, or lack of life experience affects these studies.

  • Katharine

    I advocate an intelligence test for potential voters.

    Except you just know someone’s going to get their pants in a twist about it ’cause they looooove the dummies.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    Long-time reader, first time poster. Fascinating stuff, although I’m a little dubious that you can say anything meaningful based on five categories of intelligence. Eyeballing your figures, the trends you suggest don’t seem terribly clear-cut, what’s the statistical significance of your results?

    i gave you the vars so you could rerun. putting out the intervals clutters the page, and ppl never comment on them, so i omit. but i will tell you that for the first two results in the tables the diff. between stupid vs. smart for those who believe and don’t in an afterlife amongst atheists & agnostics and those who know god exists are outside of each other’s 95% intervals. POSTLIFE had a large sample size.

    With that said, I’d be interested to see this re-run with Socio-economic Class in place of Intelligence.

    try DEGREE and SEI. same pattern.

    I also wonder how often age, or lack of life experience affects these studies.

    quick & dirty egression suggests it doesn’t impact probability.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    how often have expansions of the franchise been revoked? south africa rolled black non-white voting. the USA rolled back black and to some extent women voting in states in the 19th cent. but you need the consent of the majority for that (in american states the rollback of black voting was concurrent with universal white male suffrage), and the majority are stupid. the only difference though is that the majority believe they are smart, so perhaps they’d be willing to disenfranchise themselves because they’d be in denial ;-)

    anyway, i think there are lower hanging fruit than intelligence tests for voting.

  • Marnie

    “Going through the GSS it is clear that political moderates and independents are less intelligent than ideologues or those with clear views.”

    “One could look deeper, but why might it be that the political issues are a bit more confused than the religious ones?I think that it’s partly a product of the fact that political affiliations are coalitional, and that one’s opinions tend to come in suites or clusters, and that one aligns oneself with one’s “camp” on a host of issues without further thought.”

    So are you saying that herd behavior correlates with intelligence and that moderates (herd stragglers) are less intelligent?

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    So are you saying that herd behavior correlates with intelligence and that moderates (herd stragglers) are less intelligent?

    a lot of opinion-forming emerges from group consensus. intelligent people are just better at opinion-forming, and know what they should believe.

  • rork

    This doesn’t make any sense…. how can you be high in intelligence AND be conservative? They’re mutually exclusive….

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  • dave chamberlin

    No real comment on this thread except that it amazes me how you can up with quantitative answers to just about any question. Just an idea for another thread that is bound to come up with amusing results and responses. See if you can find out the 10 people stupid people most admire. All in the name of scientific research, of course.

  • Katharine

    the only difference though is that the majority believe they are smart, so perhaps they’d be willing to disenfranchise themselves because they’d be in denial

    Oh, the Dunning-Kruger effect, how it is great.

  • Katharine

    This doesn’t make any sense…. how can you be high in intelligence AND be conservative? They’re mutually exclusive….

    Economic conservatism I dunno about (I side with more economic moderate-to-liberal ideas, and at the same time can have fairly productive conversations with economic conservatives as long as they aren’t wackily extreme – really, it’s both extremes I can’t stand), but social conservatives are definitely pretty dumb.

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  • Katharine

    I would say intelligence correlates to a certain degree with consistency of views and to a slightly lesser, but definitely not inverse, degree with accuracy of views and their reflection of reality – certainly there’ll be more of an internal consistency, but one has to seek out the information.

  • Katharine

    And I must admit to considerable anger at the masses these days for their idiocy.

    Mostly expressed by the bumper stickers on the back of my car, which is about all I can really do as an undergrad.

    Impotent rage sucks.

  • omar

    Katharine, About the idiocy of the masses, arent most people supposed to be in the middle of the bell curve? What you are saying is that average intelligence people are dumb by the standards of higher intelligence people. But thats pretty much true by definition, isnt it? What is interesting is not the idiocy of the masses, its the idiocy of the classes (believe me, that is actually a term that was used in cinema ads in pakistan and india: “a movie for the masses AND the classes”, where classes meant “upper class” or elites). Lets take it as given that more intelligent people will find ways to manipulate the less intelligent. But the more intelligent are competing with each other. If you managed to restrict voting to the highly intelligent, they might not need certain policies they use to manipulate the masses, but does that mean they will plan things better for everyone? probably not. Individual short term benefit will still tempt many into corruption and into choices that hurt the many to benefit the few. The unhappy masses will take revenge with little acts of sabotage. The end result may be worse than the idiocy of the masses that preceded it….

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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