Average is dumb

Of course average isn’t dumb, it’s average.  But I smiled when I heard that line in a film a few years back. As far as most intellectuals are concerned, people with an IQ of 100 are dumb.  And for this reason they are often completely clueless about the country they live in.  They simply don’t know what average people are like. Exhibit A:

It turns out that there is about as strong a correlation between scores on the science comprehension scale and identifying with the Tea Party as there is between scores on the science comprehension scale and Conservrepub.

Except that it has the opposite sign: that is, identifying with the Tea Party correlates positively (r = 0.05, p = 0.05) with scores on the science comprehension measure:

Again, the relationship is trivially small, and can’t possibly be contributing in any way to the ferocious conflicts over decision-relevant science that we are experiencing.

I’ve got to confess, though, I found this result surprising. As I pushed the button to run the analysis on my computer, I fully expected I’d be shown a modest negative correlation between identifying with the Tea Party and science comprehension.

But then again, I don’t know a single person who identifies with the Tea Party.  All my impressions come from watching cable tv — & I don’t watch Fox News very often — and reading the “paper” (New York Times daily, plus a variety of politics-focused internet sites like Huffington Post & Politico).

I’m a little embarrassed, but mainly I’m just glad that I no longer hold this particular mistaken view.

I apologize for picking on Dan Kahan, because he seems like a good guy.  And he’s no worse than the typical Yale academic.  But he really should be embarrassed. How could an academic expect people who identify with the Tea Party to be below average in any sort of intelligence/education metric? It boggles the mind.

Average people pay little attention to public affairs.  Following public policy is not normal behavior; it’s what smart people do.  People like to talk about how popular Fox News is, but compare its ratings to professional wrestling, or some other non-intellectual show.  You will be surprised by how few people watch Fox.  The only reason the Tea Party didn’t do better is that the group included those who merely sympathize–if you took actual members the score would have been far higher.

Elsewhere he talks about issues like global warming.  Now I happen to accept the global warming hypothesis, and favor carbon taxes.  But my blog is full of really smart commenters who disagree with me, and it’s not because they are uninformed.  They often know more than I do.  As an analogy, you can do 100 academic studies showing there are innate differences between the thinking of boys and girls, virtually from birth, and you will still never convince a smart feminist of that fact.  You can do 100 scientific studies showing that food additives are not dangerous, and you will never convince a smart natural foods nut of that fact.  The problem is not that these people are dumb, it’s that they don’t see the facts the same way as you might.  In any very complex and hard to measure area, people will gravitate toward the hypothesis that they would rather believe.  In my view the scientific evidence suggests a roughly 95% confidence that global warming is real and man-made, gender differences in thinking are innate, and food additives are pretty safe.  But that’s still not 100%.

PS.  Raise your hand if you thought of Pauline Kael when he said this:

But then again, I don’t know a single person who identifies with the Tea Party.

I can’t even imagine living such a sheltered life.  I know dozens of people on each sides of the spectrum, maybe hundreds.  I had lunch with a socialist today.

PPS.  Notice that the Tea Party does better by having lots more slightly above average people and lots fewer dumb people. That’s my point—uneducated people tend not to follow public issues.  There are no Tea Party supporters in the 20/21 categories, where Kahan hangs out.

HT:  Steve



38 Responses to “Average is dumb”

  1. Gravatar of Doug M Doug M
    25. October 2013 at 17:08

    Well done.

  2. Gravatar of Mark A. Sadowski Mark A. Sadowski
    25. October 2013 at 17:11

    “How could Nixon have won? Nobody I know voted for him.”
    Often attributed to Pauline Kael

    “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken. But sometimes when I’m in a theater I can feel them.”
    What Pauline Kael actually said.

  3. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    25. October 2013 at 17:19

    Thanks Doug.

    Mark. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

    (From “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.”)

  4. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    25. October 2013 at 17:24

    “Now I happen to accept the global warming hypothesis, and favor carbon taxes. But my blog is full of really smart commenters who disagree with me, and it’s not because they are uninformed.”

    Most of the smart conservatives I know (especially engineers and physicists) agree the CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but question the IPCC’s models. It’s an important distinction, especially since modelers tend to publish the results of their models, but not the underlying computer code or detailed physical assumptions.

  5. Gravatar of Dustin Dustin
    25. October 2013 at 17:24

    Isn’t this an apparent contradiction from another finding of the same study that showed religiosity negatively correlated with scores on the science comprehension scale?

    I mean, assuming of course that my generalization of Tea Partiers as more religious is indeed accurate.

  6. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    25. October 2013 at 17:25

    And, frankly, I could have omitted the word “conservative” from the previous comment.

  7. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    25. October 2013 at 17:39


    It means the residual Tea Partiers who are motivated by economics rather than religion are really really smart 😉

  8. Gravatar of Rajat Rajat
    25. October 2013 at 17:47

    Fantastic post, Scott. I believe I know many people across the spectrum, but many professional people do not.

  9. Gravatar of Geoff Geoff
    25. October 2013 at 17:50

    Yale, a bastian of “progressive” ideology, has a professor who thinks Tea Partyers are your stereotypical toothless country hicks?

    Color me shocked.

  10. Gravatar of Gordon Gordon
    25. October 2013 at 17:52

    I think you hit the nail on the head with your statement “people will gravitate toward the hypothesis that they would rather believe.” Even if everyone agrees that a set of data and axioms are valid, different people will formulate different hypotheses. And, unfortunately, people have a strong tendency to engage in confirmation bias rather than question their hypotheses. Then the opposing camps in a debate will focus on the area of disagreement and forget that they agree upon the fundamentals that led to their different hypotheses. What’s more, I’m not certain many people these days remember that a hypothesis must be rigorously tested before it becomes a theory. Too often, hypotheses are given the same status of credibility that only theories should have.

  11. Gravatar of John Hall John Hall
    25. October 2013 at 18:34

    A socialist friend of mine makes fun of virtually anything I post on facebook…sometimes I want to yell at him for being a troll, but I also like to post stuff that I think he’ll appreciate.

  12. Gravatar of Rajat Rajat
    25. October 2013 at 19:41

    I should have said, I know many people across the political spectrum, but not many people across the intelligence spectrum. I think if you are a reasonably intelligent person who is a classical liberal, you have an advantage over reasonably intelligent people who are social democrats/American-style liberals, because there are many more of the latter than of the former. It makes it much easier to maintain a diverse circle. We classical liberals should be sought-after dinner party guests, like the lesbian couples Miranda was pretending to be part of on Sex and the City!

  13. Gravatar of Benjamin Cole Benjamin Cole
    25. October 2013 at 19:52

    I went to a big public high school in Pasadena, 2000 students or so. Lots of smart kids.

    The smartest guy in the school back then, a Jay B., is a now born-again Christian. Though a JPL administrator, he very much believes in nearly literal interpretations of the Bible.

    I admired Jay B. much back then, and still so. Nice guy. We went to Berkeley together, but by then mostly went our own ways. Still friends.

    I probably am an atheist.

    So what has IQ to do with anything?

  14. Gravatar of Jon Jon
    25. October 2013 at 21:21

    I haven’t joined the Tea Party but, I might. They seem to be my kind of people based on characteristics of other organizations I’ve joined. When you compare Experimental Aircraft Association, National Rifle Association, Mensa, and the Tea Party you see that their venues are left clean. Lefty scum on the other hand are pigs, everywhere leaving their garbage for others to clean up.

  15. Gravatar of Ricardo Ricardo
    25. October 2013 at 21:34

    “Just think of how stupid the average person is, and then realize half of them are even stupider!” –George Carlin

    (yeah, if he had been accurate and said “median”, only one quintile would have thought it funny.)

  16. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    25. October 2013 at 22:02

    ” You can do 100 scientific studies showing that food additives are not dangerous, and you will never convince a smart natural foods nut of that fact. ”

    !!!!??????? 🙂 🙂 🙂

    Please, Please, Please, Scott, point me to those studies! My mom and Dad are BOTH natural food and whole food fans, and constantly telling me how those additives are poison. I try to exasperately point out that each thing is good for you on a case by case basis, eat too much “natural” red meat, and you’ll be in trouble, but they are adamant and always on my case! (I’m a grown man for chrissake!)

    (I hope those studies are not funded by food comapnies, like Cargill, Mosanto, etc)

  17. Gravatar of Lorenzo from Oz Lorenzo from Oz
    25. October 2013 at 22:08

    I suspect part of the global warming issue is simple political tribalism. The progressives took it up so enthusiastically, and as a hook to hang a whole lot of progressive tropes on, that conservatives were always likely to be negatively impressed. I know the sight of people who had been spectacularly wrong on issues that I cared about (economic reform, the Cold War, aspects of indigenous policy) being yet again abusively self-righteous about an issue was, let us say, not persuasive.

    Not helped by the fact that “the latest science shows …” has some very nasty previous incarnations. One thinks of the “laws of supply and demand” blocking doing anything about the Irish potato famine or the experience of eugenics — the notion that genetic disaster loomed was very, very fashionable among the great and the good in the late C19th and early C20th.

  18. Gravatar of Callum McPherson Callum McPherson
    25. October 2013 at 23:33

    I’m a Scottish student and it’s embarrassing how unbalanced my friend group is. I genuinely know one conservative, one libertarian and about 30 Marxists. This makes political conversation very dull

  19. Gravatar of Martin Martin
    26. October 2013 at 00:01

    Callum, are you a Marxist too then? I am surrounded by lefties most of the time. Discussion can be great fun.

  20. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    26. October 2013 at 00:57

    Well first, most professors aren’t smart. Most teachers aren’t smart. Most public employees aren’t smart. Most lawyers aren’t smart,

    Not if smart folks have IQs in the top 5%, but mostly top 1%.

    Meanwhile most every guy I know doing an Internet start-up? Smart.

    More than 70% of the college debaters and 90% national level high school debaters. Smart.

    Same kind of numbers on hackers.

    More than half the coders I know, smart.

    About half of the guys I know running successful SMBs, are smart.

    About half of the Wall Street guys I know too.


    This isn’t to say smart people don’t have differing opinions, it’s just to point out if you really want to hang out with smart people, you don’t do it in colleges and you don’t do it with people who have jobs that let them sleep a lot.

    My other point is you can easily find the folks with IQ’s in the top 1%. And you can poll them, well you can watch them. You can see what they do when they are growing up. And you can discover their politics. But “politics” just means “self interest,” so part of Scott’s point is well taken.

    But I suspect sooner than later, bc of data darwinism, we’ll get views into the lives of smart people, that show us past their politics, their personalities, their habits, and how they problem solve.

    72% of people with IQs in the top 1% think…
    69% of people with IQs in the top 5% concur…

    Is to me just as powerful as polling likely voters.

    Of course I also suspect the smart people I know above are getting ready to topple govt. as we know it and replace it with a software platform which renders most of our political discussions today moot.

    And that’s just nuts, right?

  21. Gravatar of J.V. Dubois J.V. Dubois
    26. October 2013 at 02:35

    It is good that you talked about these analogies. Because there is another level of these: how they are used.

    For instance difference between man and women. Of course there are differences. But stop for a while and try to recall when are these differences used – and most importantly – when they are not used. For instance if women have better verbal skills and are more expressive, why are they not dominating political arena?

    I think it is a testament of a very politically loaded questions, when people do not hear past the first word in a sentence. You may agree that global warming is caused by people but may not think that carbon tax is feasible on a global scale or that there is some other solution.

    You may think that food additives are “pretty safe” without waging full scale war against them, but maybe you want to wait for mass live trials of billions of volunteers consuming diet cokes and whatnot to run for few more decades before drinking it yourself.

    Maybe you cheer scientific breaktroughs in genetically engineering new agricultural products, but you may still not be happy about how patents and other things shaped the landscape of the research.

  22. Gravatar of Steve Steve
    26. October 2013 at 04:09

    “I suspect part of the global warming issue is simple political tribalism. ”

    Lorenzo is right.

    Q: Which US Senators sponsored the (dead) carbon tax bill?
    A: Boxer and Sanders

    Q: Which states do Boxer and Sanders represent?
    A: California and Vermont

    Q: Which states are most aggressively shutting down their nuclear power plants?
    A: California and Vermont

  23. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    26. October 2013 at 04:27

    But Dubois,

    The fastest way to convince rational people of your beliefs are not just self-dealing, is to let them try to solve it their way first.

    If the global warming is a real problem, then to be their most convincing, the self-dealers only have to say, “Let’s try geo-engineering.”

    But they don’t.

    It’s cheap. $100M to try. The trial is temporary. No worse than a volcano. And we find out actually if humans have far more dominion over earth.

    If we find out we can cool the earth, we have a new data point, a new factor for calculus about what we can do if there is a global warming crisis.

    And what do the smartest guys say? Let”s try geo-engineering. And they don’t even have to BELIEVE in GW. Might be true, let’s try cooling the earth!

    It’s pretty easy to test for self-dealing. It’s pretty easy to pull out the sword and threaten to cut the baby in half.

    If it is such a crisis, who amongst the screamers is so desperate they want to try the solution that doesn’t serve their political agenda?

  24. Gravatar of Mike sax Mike sax
    26. October 2013 at 04:58

    Scott I have great news for you. I see that they’re now writing a book about you. It’s called ‘Mike Sax and His Enemies.”

    Rest assured that place your charitable and classy comments about my blog prominently on the top of the page over at Diary.

    Sumner and Glasner on the fiscal multiplier http://diaryofarepublicanhater.blogspot.com/2013/10/scott-sumner-vs-david-glasner-on-fiscal.html

  25. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    26. October 2013 at 05:16


    have you sampled some of Dan Kahan’s other stuff on culuturalcognition.net? I like his take on how culture influences cognition. He’s being unusually honest about being surprised, that should go to his credit. Unlike most people he tries to honestly find out why people believe different things.

    You said “The problem is not that these people are dumb, it’s that they don’t see the facts the same way as you might.”

    Kahan’s take is a bit subtler than that. His answer: people believe different things not because they are benighted, by IQ or misinformation, but because people believe things only if they come from people they trust as a group. If they don’t trust the group that source is associated with they will try to find faults. (this is actually good, Bayesian reasoning if you ask me – use as many priors as you can find. But it does create problems). If people are particularly smart, they’re particularly good at finding faults with data that disturb their worldview or their cultural affiliation. Kahan has a paper on that on his site.

    Translated for your backyard: “loose” money was traditionally associated with Keynes and liberals policies, “hard” money with libertarians. It will be hard to convince conservatives of the merits of something (monetary expansion) previously associated with the left.

    Elswhere, Kahan makes an interesting prediction. He notes that the budding anti-vaccination crowd is currently not yet politically polarized. But liberals are starting to associate anti-vaccine opinions with anti-science opinions and start lumping them together with climate change skeptics and anti-evolution people. Kahan predicts that from the dynamics of how belief works, many currently in the conservative / climate skeptic / evolution skeptic camp will soon become vaccine skeptics. It’s automatic. Basically, an anti-vaccine movement is in the making because liberals start associating vaccines with being a left wing person.

  26. Gravatar of Geoff Geoff
    26. October 2013 at 05:29

    Mike, quit being a drama queen. You’re creepy as h$ll

  27. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    26. October 2013 at 05:30

    Corollary I: if you want to implement a right wing reform, the easiest way is to get a left wing government to do it. And vice versa. Clinton had comparatively little problems pushing NAFTA and other trade liberalisations, and radically reforming welfare. A right wing government would have face a lot more flak. In Germany, it was Schroder who liberalised the labor market. etc. In fact in Europe this is somewhat better understood: the hard choices have to be made by governments that the immediate targets of any reform do trust as a group. Not by the political adversary. Unless you want burning tires on the streets.

    Corollary II: if you want education reform, or social security reform, or income tax reform, Democrats have to do it. If you want immigration reform, or downsize the military, or NGDP targeting, Republicans have to do it.

  28. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    26. October 2013 at 05:47

    Everyone, Lots of good points, I mostly agree.

    Dustin, Why would you associate the Tea Party with religion, it’s a bunch of economic conservatives? In any case, even if they were more religious than average it wouldn’t suggest they were less well informed than average. After all, they are interested in public policy.

    Edward, That’s what Google is for.

    JV, Good point.

    mbka, As I said, Kahan seems like a good guy.

    But I predict he will be wrong about the vaccines. The conservative elite won’t push the issue, so it won’t get much traction from the rank and file.

    Good point about the other party needing to do the reforms. Note that ObamaCare was an exception, and remains very controversial.

  29. Gravatar of Morgan Warstler Morgan Warstler
    26. October 2013 at 07:36

    mbka finally gets Scott to say his only chance in convincing the conservatives.

    Lots of progress this week.

  30. Gravatar of Patrick R. Sullivan Patrick R. Sullivan
    26. October 2013 at 07:39

    ‘ For instance if women have better verbal skills and are more expressive, why are they not dominating political arena?’

    Why can’t they even be 50% of Jeopardy champions.

  31. Gravatar of Mike sax Mike sax
    26. October 2013 at 11:29

    “Why can’t they even be 50% of Jeopardy champions.”

    What percentage of the champions are they? And are they roughly 50% of the contestants?

  32. Gravatar of Dustin Dustin
    26. October 2013 at 13:05


    Really I was just riffing on social generalizations, no intention other than a little humor.

    Though if I had to bet $50 blindly that a Tea Party identifier is more or less religious than another given political party, I would probably bet ‘more’. Maybe some very forgiving inductive reasoning:

    – If conservatives are more religious than non-conservatives
    – And Tea Party members are particularly conservative, then
    – Tea Party members are particularly conservative

    Afterall, it isn’t the answer… it is the process!

  33. Gravatar of Floccina Floccina
    26. October 2013 at 13:51

    Great post!

    Now I happen to accept the global warming hypothesis, and favor carbon taxes.

    Me too but I will accept only, nothing or a carbon tax everything else leaves too much room for politicians to scam the voters/taxpayers.

    I and other scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology estimate that the new standards will cost the economy on the whole “” for the same reduction in gas use “” at least six times more than a federal gas tax of roughly 45 cents per dollar of gasoline. That is because a gas tax provides immediate, direct incentives for drivers to reduce gasoline use, while the efficiency standards must squeeze the reduction out of new vehicles only. The new standards also encourage more driving, not less.


    Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study.

    “There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel,” says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. “These strategies are not sustainable.”

    I am some what of a greenie at heart but the willingness of other greenies to be scammed just frustrates me.

    I feel similarly about matching FICA, the employer mandates in the PPACA and many other progressive policies.

  34. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    27. October 2013 at 07:01

    Floccina, Good points.

  35. Gravatar of John John
    27. October 2013 at 12:56

    My impression from talking to lots of people is that those of average or lower intelligence generally hold very centrist or mainstream views and haven’t given the issues much thought.

    What I would expect of people with very heterodox views is a larger standard deviation of intelligence. I know some very dumb people that believe every conspiracy theory put out there and some very smart people that only believe a few nutty things.

    Generally people who hold non-traditional political or economic views have given the issues some thought and done some research. Average or below average people usually aren’t that curious.

  36. Gravatar of John John
    27. October 2013 at 12:59

    In response to some of the comments, I think IQ might be an overrated measure of intelligence. Richard Feynman was very critical of IQ testing. He seems to be one of the smartest people I’ve heard of and supposedly his IQ of around 126 (if my memory serves me correctly) wouldn’t put him in the top 5% or 1%. There are different types of intelligence and no test can capture things like innate curiosity.

  37. Gravatar of Sebastian Sebastian
    28. October 2013 at 04:56

    In a democracy, the intelligence of any single voter is largely irrelevant. It’s aggregate intelligence that counts.

    Present a complex (but generally intelligible) political problem to a person with IQ>130, and to a group of 100 with IQ=100. The average answer from the latter group is likely to be closer to the ‘correct’ or workable solution than the individual answer from the brainiac.

    That’s because, when views are skewed by personal beliefs, assumptions and prejucides (as most political beliefs are), the aggregate view tends to cancel these out. But even – or especially – highly intelligent individuals have their intellectual idiosyncrasies interfere with rationality.

    The wisdom of crowds works well when it comes to policy. Which democracy works, and most democratic political parties become centrist over time. It’s also why elitism and technocracy doesn’t work.

  38. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    28. October 2013 at 05:39

    All good points.

Leave a Reply