Rude research

Bryan Caplan says intelligence research is very unpopular because it looks so bad to call half of people stupider than average, let alone stupid outright. Calling people stupid is rude.

But if this is the main thing going on, many other kinds of research should be similarly hated. It’s rude to call people lazy, ugly bastards whose mothers wouldn’t love them. Yet there is little hostility regarding research into conscientiousness, physical attractiveness, parental marriage status, or personal relationships. At least as far as I can tell. Is there? Or what else is going on with intelligence?


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  • KPres


  • sark

    Well intelligence has widespread status-consequences. Far wider than conscientiousness, physical attractiveness, parental marriage status, or personal relationships, etc.
    You are supposed to win your status battles singly. We care about intelligence but we need to see it ratified in your wit, grades, street smarts, etc. You do not get to claim your IQ as your intelligence. Our minds do not intuitively grasp the degree to which IQ measures that underlying fitness indicator. We are adaptation executors not fitness maximizers, as the saying goes.

    What would be hated even more than IQ itself? Miller’s f-factor. Your reproductive fitness distilled into one number.

  • Andreas Moser

    Maybe because we feel that we cannot change intelligence. It comes across as such a final assessment.
    If we are not highly attractive, we can work out, get a haircut or hide behind a beard. If we are lazy, we can force ourselves to get up early by agreeing with a friend to go jogging every morning.

    But if I am dumb, what can I do about it?

    • John Thacker

       Hmm. But isn’t there research about height, and people feel free to comment about it? It is pretty difficult to change.

  • tralalala

    i think there is much more research treating intelligence as a constant than there is towards research treating intelligence as variable. For example research noting that certain types of studying can increase IQ etc. is well received. I think the problem with research regarding intelligence as a constant variable is that all of us implicitly have a system of justice and ethics that really depends on the idea of merit, and sees merit as something achievable for everyone. Cracks in that system of viewing thing are not comfortable.

  • tralala

    sorry i meant: “i think there is much more hostility towards research treating  intelligence…”

  • Martin

    People are more used to their own face than to their intelligence. Plus we can all evaluate someone’s and our beauty (symmetry), but we can only evaluate our own intelligence when compared to that of someone else (see also 

    Intelligence research has the potential to contradict our own evaluation whilst beauty research not so much. 

  • Viliam Búr

    I think people fear possible CONSEQUENCES of intelligence research.

    What are the consequences of studying physical attractiveness? You can find that some people are more attractive than others. Yeah, everybody knows that. You can find that attractive people on average make more money. Yeah… but it’s not like there were thousands of highly attractive people who didn’t know they could ask for a higher salary, and now you told them the secret, and now they are all going to get rich. There will be no significant change.

    With intelligence it is more complicated. Intelligence correlates with success, but still many intelligent people fail. Sometimes they don’t realize they are intelligent; sometimes they do not know how to use their intelligence; sometimes their less intelligent environment instinctively conspires against them to balance the perceived danger.

    Now imagine a research which could: detect highly intelligent people, help them stick together, and teach them to better use their intelligence. — Mensa has this as an explicit goal; it just fails in using the intelligence of their members for real-world success. The first intelligence tests were aimed at children, with the goal of bringing the more intelligent children together and giving them better education. — It is obvious why our egalitarian instincts are against giving more power to people who already have an advantage.

    To make an analogy, imagine a world where people with a genetic potential to become beautiful would be scientifically detected at early childhood. They would be brought to separate elite schools, given extra lessons on make-up / body language / dancing / conversation, provided cheap access to otherwise inaccessible plastic surgery. They would be taught to think highly about themselves, and to always ask for a higher salary than average people. Any objection against this treatment would get a “yeah, ugly people are jealous again” derisive response. How would you feel about a scientific research aimed at making yet better beauty predictions?

    • Ben

      If all those things were already being done, I’m not sure how improving the beauty predictions would make the situation worse.

  • manwhoisthursday

    There are clear differences in intelligence among racial groups and there has been difficulty finding a non-genetic cause for this.

  • arch1

    To Viliam’s last paragraph I would add:
      -Attempts are made to track intelligence quantitatively, and much is then made of them (%iles, bell curves, etc)
      -Intelligence is widely believed to be the quintessentially human characteristic & thus of paramount importance
      -Many aspects of the typical school and career trajectory (tracking, grades, rewards, advancement) appear to reinforce this
      -Intelligence is widely believed to be largely nature not nurture (less mutable than e.g. one’s appearance)

  • Sieben

     Physical attractiveness studies typically say things like…

    “Our results found that 68% of adult females found male mesomorphic physiques the most attractive”

    Which doesn’t implicate the researchers. The bad karma is directed at the test-subjects, who are presumably shallow and nasty for preferring lean muscular men.

    In intelligence research, I think the problem is that “average” doesn’t really mean “average”. In common parlance, “average” is some base-line standard. C is “average”, even if 80% of the class gets A’s and B’s.

    There’s a similar problem in statistics where people use “correlation” in both technical and non-technical senses. It is very difficult to correct people on this mistake, even if you point out that y=x^2 ∈ [-1,1] shows a “correlation” of 0.

  • Doug

    “Yet there is little hostility regarding research into conscientiousness,
    physical attractiveness, parental marriage status, or personal

    Conscientiousness – No objection. But it’s generally perceived that lazy is a choice whereas intelligence is a god-given quality. It’s like the difference between drawing attention to a male being short and a male looking unkempt. The former is much less police.

    Physical attractiveness – This is certainly more innate. But studies along the line saying that “physically attractive people earn X% more” are almost universally considered to be a condemnation of the discrimination of the employers, not the ugly people themselves. Whereas saying “high IQ people earn X% more” is almost universally assumed to mean that low IQ people are worse at their job.

    Parental marriage status/personal
    relationships – Generally considered pretty impolite topics. There was a research paper that found that step parents abuse their step-children at higher rates than biological parents. I don’t know about you but I probably wouldn’t bring this up around general company. (Then again most of my friends come from homes with divorced/remarried parents)

    • gwern

      > But it’s generally perceived that lazy is a choice whereas intelligence is a god-given quality.

      Indeed, to the point where people seem to be quite surprised when I tell them that Conscientiousness turns up as being about as heritable as IQ in the twin studies, stable over a lifetime (only increasing somewhat with age), and there are no established interventions increasing it I have been able to find. These points have not been widely advertised, to say the least, and active researchers in the area like Duckworth are definitely towards the environmental end of the spectrum.

      Of course, part of the problem here is simply that some of these traits simply don’t have as much available research. For example, OCEAN/Big Five was only really nailed down in the ’80s, while IQ dates back more than half a century before that, and it’s difficult to infer any Big Five factors reliably from existing large-scale datasets (either cross-sectional or longitudinal) – because a lot of psychology tasks and academic-style tests are g-loaded you can piggyback on all sorts of datasets like military enlistments going back many decades, but you can’t do anything comparable for Big Five. (How has a population’s Conscientiousness changed over the 20th century? No idea. Do hispanics have different Big Five profiles on average? No idea. etc)

  • Eric Hammer

    Another possibility is that intelligence is the last hiding spot for many people’s self esteem. You can be pretty clearly fat, short, ugly and unsuccessful, but if people say you are dumb you can always console yourself that they are too stupid to understand your brilliance. Perhaps that is why most non-researchers dislike it.

    There is also the question of how difficult it is to pinpoint just what intelligence is, as it seems to have many dimensions. I think that is secondary though to people preferring to have an out when it comes to their self perception being higher than perhaps it should.

  • Stephen R. Diamond

    Caplan’s argument is just a variant of the social-envy hypothesis that conservatives trot out to explain all societal resentment. It fails to explain public hostility to IQ research unless it were the case that the opponents are especially polite.

    It’s tempting to chime in and offer an alternative reason for the hostility to IQ research. But it’s unnecessary to refute Caplan’s explanation. What does require alternate explanation is the evidence that interviewers greatly overestimated the relative intelligence of interviewees, but the relative nature of the evaluation suggests that people underestimate the intellect of the hypothetical average person.

    • Douglas Scheinberg

      Thought: median intelligence is probably significantly above mean intelligence, because people with poorly functioning brains (because of things like Down’s Syndrome, brain injuries, or being three years old) can be much stupider than smart people can be smart.

  • Michael Vassar

    I actually think that such research would be taboo, if people cared enough about it for it to become taboo.  Imagine how taboo the scientific equivalent of Roissy would be!

    • Douglas Scheinberg

      As it turns out, it isn’t.

  • Drewfus

    “Bryan Caplan says intelligence research is very unpopular because it looks so bad to call half of people stupider than average, let alone stupid outright.”

    Consider that the opposite might be closer to the truth. I don’t anyone who has difficulty calling half of humanity stupid (and enjoying it), including people i personally would place in that half.

    There there are the extremely bright. These are the ones whose creative output is dismally low relative to their IQs. Very high Intelligence does not predict for creativity. What is wrong with these people? Are they just with us to defend and replicate the status quo, without improving on it or advancing it very much? Are they evolutions own specialists (as opposed to societies)? Why does very high IQ seem to impede the ability to produce novell ideas and methods, rather than simply being a tool to aid this?

    Perhaps the real stigma of intelligence research comes from people being labelled very high IQ, in that it leaves the rest of wondering why these people cannot contribute original ideas as well as people with (often much) more modest cognitive means.

  • KabirGandhiKhan

    An idea starts to be interesting when you get
    scared of taking it to its logical conclusion – Taleb
    It is the logical conclusion that people are most afraid of here. What they are afraid of is that intelligence matters the most for success in today’s world and it depends mostly on your genes. But this is exactly like the idea of the Sun going around the Earth which was considered a heretical statement to make 500 years ago. Today we wonder how stupid could those people be then.

    500 years from now It is quite possible people then will wonder how could these people never realize that intelligence matters most and it is all dependent on genes?

    Hinduism took this knowledge for granted a long time ago and reached 25% of World GDP till a few hundred years when the caste system started breaking down.

  • BenSix

    It has considerable implications for different peoples’ ideologies. Should intelligence turn out to be particularly variable philosophies of egalitarianism would be hard to sustain. Philosophies premised on meritocratic notions would be on shakier grounds, as well, because it would be even harder to support the view that success is associated with individual virtue.

    If this were true it would also have significant negative consequences on peoples’ actual lives. Yet I tend to suspect that intellectual people are swayed more by the fear of being wrong than of actual harms – that might be too cynical.

  • BenSix

    Also: Hitler. The intellectual classes had been very fond on (often bad) intelligence research before the Second World War and after the Nazis had shown where it might lead one they reacted violently against it. Had a regime premised brutal policies on physical attractiveness it would be far more taboo than it is today.

    • TGGP

      The Nazis actually banned IQ tests. Jews scoring higher than any other ethnic group and all. Anti-semites sometimes claim the reason some Jewish intellectuals like Gould argue against the merits of IQ tests (rather than being a nonsensical reaction against non-existent Nazi policy) is that they don’t want to publicize their ethnic group’s unusually high scores.

      • MRDA

        TGGP, do you have any sources for the Nazi IQ ban?

      • TGGP

        Wikipedia cites The structure & measurement of intelligence, Hans Jürgen Eysenck and David W. Fulker, Transaction Publishers, 1979, page 16.

  • Paul Tiffany

    Intelligence, I suspect, is more closely held in personal identity than either physical appearance or social interaction. Its modification, especially in new ways beyond basic nootropics, may be costing too much. We know AGIs won’t want to change their utility function… why either wouldn’t humans? This is why, as a transhumanist, I have always been more excited about human network augmentation. Bandwidth and processing power aren’t the same, and both have great potential, but I suspect interface development is more popular than old school IA.

  • Christian Kleineidam

    Nobody takes physical attractiveness research as an authority for what it means to be attractive.

    If I find Alice more attractive than Cindy I make that assumption based on my own standards. If some academic model tells me that Cindy is more attractive than Alice than I ignore the model.

    If I however want to judge their intelligence it’s different. If I think that Alice is more attractive than Cindy and then get told that Alice has an IQ of 90 while Cindy has an IQ of 120 I might change my assessment. 

  • AmagicalFishy

    … You know, I don’t actually think a lot of the aversion towards intelligence research is due to people’s view of intelligence itself.

    We know one can’t really change whether or not they’re attractive, whether or not they’re male or female (to an extent), and other such things. Intelligence seems like the most malleable factor in a person. It seems like the thing that makes life “fair” (life’s not fair). 

    I think that the general dislike towards intelligence research is due to a kind of prediction… one answering the questions “What would happen if we figure out the greatest thing which affects intelligence is a person’s genes? What would happen if we figure out who has the best intelligence genes and who doesn’t?”

    I’m going to be 100% honest—but I would genuinely be afraid of my society if the “intelligence” gene-set was found, and one race has it over another. Better put, if one easily definable group has it over another. Perhaps I’m a cynic, I know I’m a huge pessimist, but I don’t trust people enough to have that information and not use it worsen people’s lives, whether it be directly or indirectly.

    It’s not the information I have an uneasy feeling towards. If I got the information that my genes didn’t maximize for a trait I put value in, sure, I’d be pretty bummed out. I’d probably wish I was in a position where they did; but not-desirable things that I have to accept happen all the time, and I enjoy altering my beliefs towards that which reflects reality.

    My trepidation comes more from thinking of the question “How is this society going to use that information?”

  • Jorge Emilio Emrys Landivar

    The people being called stupid are associated with a specific interest group that is political powerful?

  • Anthony_A

    Satoshi Kanazawa would disagree that there is little hostility regarding research into physical attractiveness.

    As your first commenter noted, it’s all about race. If you say that conscientiousness is relatively fixed in people before they reach adulthood, and that higher  conscientiousness has positive social results, without mentioning race, very few people will attack you. If you explicitly state that conscientiousness varies by racial group, and therefore (even if this you only imply, rather than conclude) racial economic equality is not likely to be achievable, you’ll attract a firestorm of opprobrium. 

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