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Are Natural Scientists Smarter?
Social science professors at elite institutions are more likely to be religious and politically extreme than their counterparts in the natural sciences, argues a new paper in the Interdisciplinary Journal on Research and Religion. The reason? Natural scientists are just smarter, it says.
“There is sound evidence of a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity and between intelligence and political extremism,” reads the paper, which examines existing data on academic scientists’ IQs by field, and on religious beliefs and political extremism among science professors in the U.S. and Britain. (An abstract of the paper is available here.) “Therefore the most probable reason behind elite social scientists being more religious than are elite physical scientists is that social scientists are less intelligent.”
The paper, written by Edward Dutton, adjunct professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Oulu, in Finland, and Richard Lynn, a retired professor of psychology from the University of Ulster, in Northern Ireland, who is known for his work on race and IQ, continues: “Intelligence is also a factor in interdisciplinary differences in political extremism, [with] physicists, who have high IQs, being among the least extreme and lower-IQ scholars being among the most extreme.”
In an interview, Dutton said social scientists aren’t stupid, or necessarily extreme in their politics or possessing a belief in God. But, statistically speaking, they have lower IQs than their colleagues in biological and physical sciences and are likelier at elite U.S. and British institutions to be extremely conservative or liberal or religious, or both. Dutton said that there are many similarities between political extremism and religious fundamentalism; in other research, he uses the term “replacement religions” to describe the phenomenon.
“[Physical] scientists are overwhelmingly atheist,” Dutton said. “This is predicted by their high IQ, which allows you to rise above emotion and see through the fallacious, emotional arguments.” Arguments about God are all emotional arguments, he added.
The paper is a meta-analysis of existing data showing several things: that natural scientists have higher IQs than social scientists; that low intelligence “predicts” political extremism and religiosity; and that physical scientists at elite institutions are less likely to believe in God or be politically extreme than their counterparts in the social sciences.
The connection between all three research areas has never been made until now, Dutton said. But – in just one example of potentially problematic methodology – the logic can’t be extended to academe in general. Several studies cited in the paper drawing from a wider mix of colleges and universities than simply the most elite show that life sciences professors are more likely to attend church than their peers in the social sciences, not less. The paper assumes this is because professors at elite institutions are smarter than their peers elsewhere.
The researchers also use IQ as the sole measure of intelligence (they mention Howard Gardner’s multiple forms of intelligence, but argue that they could also be considered personality traits).
The researchers acknowledge some of their limitations, including that some older data in the analysis involve a very small sample size. Dutton and Lynn say that that future research involving larger academic samples would be “extremely useful” in exploring these areas in greater depth.
Still, Dutton said the data is intrinsically valuable and has certain real-world applications. For example, he said, it could explain the backlash against notorious anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon upon the publication of his book, Noble Savages, last year. Fellow anthropologists criticized Chagnon’s methodology and conclusions in his research on the Yanomamö tribe in Brazil and Venezuela, and one prominent anthropologist resigned his post at the National Academy of Sciences after Chagnon was elected as a member.
Dutton said that Chagnon’s controversial findings regarding the tribe likely would not have incited such an “emotional” response from medical doctors, for example.
But Edward Liebow, executive director of the American Anthropological Association, took issue with the idea that anthropologists’ qualms with Chagnon’s research were emotional in nature, and with Dutton’s research in general.
“I found this article to be so riddled with specious reasoning that, upon a quick read-through, I thought it was a spoof,” Liebow said via email. “I am surprised that this piece ever made it past a scrupulous peer review.”
He continued: “Agreed; it is accurate to say that anthropologists cluster at the progressive end of the political spectrum. But it is also accurate to say that at the very core of our discipline is a commitment to the best of science, as well as a commitment to try to protect and better the lives of the individuals we work with, in particular those who are without access to power.”
It’s not a sign of inferior intelligence to “seek alternative explanations for the observational record at hand,” Liebow added. “It is the very essence of scientific inquiry.”
Elaine Howard Ecklund, a professor of sociology at Rice University who co-wrote the 2007 study on religion and science professors at 21 elite U.S. research institutions that is key to Dutton’s argument, said via email that she also was “pretty unimpressed by the methods used in this work to access intelligence. It seems sensationalist rather than scholarly.”
Drawing lines between the data to make conclusions about intelligence and religious and political life is “not so simple,” she said.
William H. Swatos, managing editor the Interdisciplinary Journal on Research and Religion, an independent, peer-reviewed online publication affiliated with Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, said Dutton’s and Lynn’s paper was not typical, either in subject matter or rigor, for the journal. “That was a hard one,” he said, noting that earlier drafts of the paper had even more inflammatory language. But, as both authors have “real” academic credentials, he accepted the article in the interest of scholarly debate and “openness,” he said.
Dutton said he knew his paper would upset some readers, but that he invited feedback from fellow scholars. The point of research, even when controversial, is to “get closer to the truth of human life,” he said.