Are blue states smarter than red states?

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Dear Cecil: Is there a difference between red (Republican heartland conservative) states and blue (Democratic coastal liberal) states in terms of IQ? The Republicans certainly seem dumber than a bag of doorknobs — for example, any of the current batch running for president. The Democrats seem smarter, if just as crooked. For the record, I’m a registered independent. Arthur Weissman


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

We need to talk about this.

Your columnist lives in a reliably blue state, Illinois, widely acknowledged as the closest approximation yet to paradise on earth. He happily subscribes to the notion that blue-state illuminati are superior to red-state Neanderthals in almost every way. Urban theorist Richard Florida nicely summarized this attitude last year in the Atlantic. I quote: “Conservatism, more and more, is the ideology of the economically left behind …. Liberalism … is stronger in richer, better-educated, more-diverse, and, especially, more prosperous places.”

I’m confident it could also be shown that blue-staters are funnier, better looking, and have more frequent and satisfying sex.

However — and here I must be frank — I’m compelled to say that when we stray into questions of intelligence, the more enthusiastic proponents of blue-state supremacy are taking the argument over a cliff.

Let me make it clear I’m not talking about Internet punditry or what passes for it — for example, widely circulated claims that virtually every state that voted Democratic in the 2000 presidential election had above-average IQ, whereas most of the Republican states were below. Published among other places in the seemingly respectable Economist magazine, this congenial tale was later shown to be a hoax.

No, I mean the ongoing efforts in the scholarly journals to show not just that red-state denizens are stupider than blue-state folk, but that they and conservatives in general suffer from debilitating psychological impairments, whereas liberals with their nimble intellects are advancing the evolution of the human race.

For example, in a 2009 article in the journal Intelligence, psychologist Lazar Stankov argues that “conservatism and cognitive ability are negatively correlated …. At the individual level of analysis, conservatism scores correlate negatively with SAT, vocabulary, and analogy test scores.” Stankov speaks of “Conservative syndrome,” which I suppose is something like Down syndrome. Conservatives are characterized by dogmatism, intolerance of ambiguity, low openness to experience, anxiety, and fear. In other words, if you’re conservative, you shouldn’t be voting, you need to see a shrink.

Perhaps the most energetic exponent of the conservatives-are-stupid school of social research is evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa. In articles with titles like “Why Liberals and Atheists Are More Intelligent,” Kanazawa argues that outside-the-box liberal thinking is what enabled humanity to overcome new threats in a hostile environment, whereas those on the not-so-bright end of the spectrum are disposed to conservatism, poor health, and crime.

Kanazawa has been at the forefront of attempts to demonstrate that red states are awash in ignorance. One groundbreaking effort was a 2006 article entitled “IQ and the Wealth of States,” in which he tried to link intelligence with economic performance. A difficulty was the lack of a reliable measure of statewide IQ. (I’ll ignore the side issue of what IQ tests measure.) Kanazawa got around this by using SAT scores, making the simplifying assumption that if you didn’t take the SAT, you were stupid.

You can see where that approach might get you into trouble. Sure enough, Kanazawa calculated that the average IQ in Mississippi was 63. In other words, the average resident of the Magnolia State was mentally retarded.

A conservative individual seeing this result might have reflected: You know, there may be a flaw in my methodology. Maybe I should hold off publishing. Kanazawa, presumably a bold liberal thinker, didn’t do that. Instead, it was left to fellow social scientist Michael McDaniel to point out that not taking the SAT didn’t necessarily mean you were stupid; often it just meant you’d taken the ACT instead.

McDaniel thereupon produced his own more plausible set of average state IQs, ranging from a low of 94 for Mississippi to a high of 104 for Massachusetts. At first glance numbers like that might seem to support the red-states-are-dopes hypothesis. On closer examination, however, we see that blue state Illinois scores a mediocre 100. This may may be explained by the fact that while I live here, so does Rod Blagojevich. But what are we to make of blue state California, which scores a pathetic 96?

To get to the bottom of things, I had my assistant Una dump McDaniel’s state IQ numbers into a spreadsheet, weight them by population, and then divide them into three groups: red for states consistently choosing Republicans in the last three presidential elections; blue for always voting Democratic; and purple for swing states.

Result: average IQ for red states vs. blue states was essentially the same (red 99, blue 99.5). Conclusions: Are liberals smarter than conservatives? Some social scientists sure think so. Are blue states smarter than red states? Sadly for us cyanophiles, no.

But here’s the most significant data point, I think: in the purple states — the ones that swung back and forth — the average IQ according to Una’s spreadsheet was 100.9, appreciably above that for either the blue states or red states. In other words — and this has the shock of truth — the people in the purple states weren’t rigidly liberal or conservative, but rather had enough on the ball to consider the choices before them and occasionally change their minds.

Cecil Adams

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