Common Sense and IQ
January 08, 2010, 02:03 PM
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Audacious Epigone has an important post looking at who has more common sense: people with high IQs or the masses. He uses the venerable General Social Survey, which since 1972 has been asking Americans questions like, "Is it ever okay for a policeman to strike a citizen?" He identifies 33 questions where he thinks that common sense suggests a pretty clear right answer. You'll probably disagree with him on a few items, but he's a very sensible person, so it's a good list.

Crucially, the GSS includes a 10 word vocabulary quiz, so Audacious can compare two groups (looking only at white people to take out the influence of race): the 5% who got all ten vocabulary questions right and the other 95%. A vocabulary quiz is by no means a perfect test of IQ, but it may well be the single best quick test (for native English speakers).

For example, 77% of the masses answered Yes to "Is it ever okay for a policeman to strike a citizen?" In contrast, 90% of those who got a perfect score on the vocabulary quiz said Yes.

My guess is that smarter people are, in general, able to rapidly think of more examples, and thus are more likely to think of a situation in which it would be okay for a policeman to strike somebody. We've all seen TV shows where somebody tries to grab one cop's gun and they grapple for it until the cop's partner smacks the bad guy with his night stick, preventing somebody from winding up dead. There's a positive correlation between scoring well on a vocabulary test and how rapidly and comprehensively you can access or invent examples to test rules.

Another factor is that people without excellent vocabularies tend to be hazier about the meaning of words. For example, lots of people might tend to conflate the word "citizen" with the common phrase "law-abiding citizen," and then reason: Why should a policeman strike a law-abiding citizen?

Whereas people with first-rate vocabularies have probably noticed that the phrase "law-abiding citizen" implies the existence of non-law-abiding citizens. (That's a big reason why vocabulary is often used in IQ tests, such as the Wechsler — vocabulary tests draw upon not just memory, but also the logical power to draw distinctions between terms, as well as the ability to puzzle out meanings from context.)

Also, lower IQ people are more likely to have been struck by a policeman, so they are more likely to take the question personally.

Not all of these GSS questions are ideal tests of common sense. For example, whether you should agree or disagree with "Astrology is not scientific" (85% of smarties agree v. 71% off the masses) is not something most people can figure out for themselves. St. Augustine used the first recorded example of Twin Studies to debunk astrology by pointing out that, say, Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament were born under the same stars but had very different fates. But most people aren't St. Augustine.

For example, consider this possible question: "Is the belief that the tides are controlled from outer space scientific?" Well, obviously, common sense says that's just crazy talk. That's like astrology. The ocean is ruled from outer space? That's ridiculous. That's ... oh, wait ... never mind. (Galileo got it wrong, by the way, so don't feel bad.)

In that vein, here's another question: "Is the ancient belief that the human menstrual cycle of about 29 days is related to moon's cycle of 29 days scientific?" The theory is scientific in the sense that scientists have been arguing about it for as long as I can remember. Looking it up today on Wikipedia, it appears that the weight of evidence has lately been moving against the moon having a causal relationship and toward it being mere coincidence, but it doesn't appear to be settled by any means. So, common sense can't help much here.

Getting back on track, Audacious finds that out of 33 questions, high IQ people were more likely than the masses to be right (as he defines right) on 16 items, virtually equal on four, and more likely to be wrong on 13.

iSteve readers will not be surprised to learn that 12 of the 13 questions on which people with excellent vocabularies are more likely to be wrong than the average person involve our society's race and gender taboos:

Items for which the masses display more common sense than the smarties do Smarties Masses
Average difference between the intelligence of whites and of blacks, measured in standard deviations. 0.20 0.53
Genes play a major role in determining personality. 20.7% 24.8%
Things for blacks in the US have improved over time. 51.1% 64.5%
It is better for a man to work and a woman to take care of home. 24.0% 36.9%
Blacks do worse in life because of their innate inability to learn as much as whites. 4.2% 12.9%
There should be more women in the US military than there currently are. 56.2% 33.6%
Women should be assigned to military roles where hand-to-hand combat is likely. 39.3% 34.8%
Poor schools are an important reason why there are poor people in the US. 81.8% 72.5%
Whites are hurt by affirmative action policies that favor blacks. 52.7% 71.6%
It is a shame that traditional American literature is ignored while other literature is promoted because it is written by women or minorities. 57.4% 70.7%
Increased immigration makes it more difficult to keep the US united. 45.6% 74.4%
Biological differences between men and women are important in explaining why women are more likely to take care of children than men are. 42.4% 57.4%
Because of science and technology, there will be more opportunities for future generations. 86.5% 92.0%
So, the overall lesson is that a good vocabulary correlates with more common sense answers on random questions that aren't part of your society's status striving taboos.

The implications for public policy of this kind of educated stupidity, however, are dire.