Doing the rounds recently has been a study published last month in Psychological Science called “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact” about the link between low intelligence and certain political stances, amusingly first pointed out by the Daily Mail, which lead to them thereby offending all of their readership who can actually read.
Next up was George Monbiot, wondering why, now that the ‘left wing’ finally had the holy grail of scientific evidence at their fingertips, more people other than him weren’t getting all up in people’s faces about it and being insufferable dickheads. Well, I don’t know George, maybe because they are using their mighty superior intellects to actually, y’know, read the damn study?
Let’s take a little peek at it ourselves, shall we?
It’s fairly hard to come to a definitive conclusion about the methodology used in the study since it is a little bit vague in describing it, but for the sake of argument let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and assume that the actual results that it gives us are all entirely correct and beyond reproach. It’s the way that those results are presented which I’m more interested in discussing. Specifically, the definition of what it refers to as “Right-Wing Ideology”, or rather, the lack of a definition for what it refers to as “Right-Wing Ideology”. “Right-wing” is rather a broad canvas, who’s only real accepted definition is “Not The Left Wing”. Because it’s so vague and because it is ever so slightly politically loaded, it’s not really the sort of language I’d normally expect to find in a scientific paper.
So let’s see what they actually mean. The study talks mainly about three ideological areas, so let’s look at these in turn. First up, prejudice – specifically towards other races and homosexuals.
OK, so far so good; definitely stupid and prejudice of this kind is often associated with a particular sub-set of ‘right-wing’ politics, although it would obviously be absurd to say that it is universal or even predominant in the ‘right-wing’ and certainly it has no clear link to any particular economic ideology. The study makes no note of whether other forms of prejudice and group-hate (such as, for example, towards Bankers) were studied (so we will have to assume that they weren’t), but anyway I think we can count this as a point for the ‘left’.
Current score: Left: 1, Right:0
Next is authoritarianism. Well, since I self-identify as a libertarian, it should come as no surprise that I absolutely agree that authoritarianism and those people who preach it are dumber than a box full of rubber mallets.
But hold on a minute – authoritarianism is certainly not limited to the ‘right wing’ – there are large portions of ‘left wing’ ideology that absolutely depend on the invocation of authority. Indeed, we libertarians usually get clumped in with the ‘right wing’ simply because our whole anti-violence thing rather gets in the way of most breeds of socialism.
Given that there is authoritarianism on both ‘sides’ but that the chief objectors to authoritarianism on principle (as opposed to objecting to all-kinds-of-authority-except-the-one-we-want-to-impose) generally get dumped on the ‘right’, I’m actually going to award this one to the ‘right-wing’.
Current score: Left: 1, Right: 1
Any rich bourgeois fascists who wish to show their appreciation to libertarianism for this unexpected save are more than welcome to send me a cheque to say thankyou.
Finally, we have conservatism. Also stupid, I agree. But again this is a rather vague, heavily loaded and rather unscientific term that the paper’s authors completely fail to define. From their reference to the ‘status quo’ we can take it that they are using the historical sense of the word to mean something like ‘resistance to change’.
Historically, this is certainly something that is associated with the ‘right’. But that’s just because the values that were being protected were, historically, ‘right-wing’ ones. In more modern times, I’m not so sure that’s true anymore. In Britain at least, we’ve had the welfare state knocking around since the 1940s and in the current economic situation it is more traditionally ‘left wing’ values that are coming under threat. The current voice for the status quo is no longer trying to hang on to The Empire or foxhunting but public sector pensions and uncapped benefits.
The ‘left wing’ is now the one opposing change and the Labour party are, confusingly, now conservatives. (What this makes the Conservative party is anybody’s guess, but if they want to consider a name change I can probably come up with a few suggestions.) Given this, I don’t think I can really award points to either side. Which means…
Final score: Left: 1, Right: 1
Something of a shock result, there. The left played a blinding first round but the right hung in there tenaciously and at the end of the day it’s a game of three halves, Brian.
So what does this show us? Well, it might suggest that when Mr. Monbiot says:
It feels crude, illiberal to point out that the other side is, on average, more stupid than our own. But this, the study suggests, is not unfounded generalisation but empirical fact.
It could be because it is crude and illiberal, and far from being an ‘empirical fact’. Why is that?
If, while you were reading my scoring above you thought to yourself something along the lines of “Hey, this guy is just arbitrarily shifting the dividing line between right- and left-wings in order to engineer a result that will support his argument”, then, yes. Good work. Give that man an honorary degree from the university of being correct, because that was exactly what I was doing. It’s also exactly what the authors of the study in question seem to have been doing and it’s exactly what Monbiot is doing in the quotation above.
The most blatant form of stupidity on display here is really the “right-wing” and “left-wing”, “our side” and “the other side”, “us” and “them” splitting. The idea that the entire possibility-space of human political thought can be compressed down into a simple binary system is beyond absurd. Forget ‘crude’ or ‘illiberal’; extrapolating from the fact that racists appear to be of low average intelligence that everybody who disagrees with you for any reason must also be king of the dumb-dumbs is a logical fallacy of such staggering proportions that it becomes pretty much a photo-finish with racism itself in the thicko olympics.
That a lot of journalists think and express themselves in these terms is bad enough. That supposedly reputable scientists have taken to doing it as well is bit more concerning. But it all pales into insignificance in comparison to the fact that this is also the way most of our political systems are arranged. The dominance of dualistic political systems; ‘Labour’ vs ‘Tories’, ‘Democrats’ vs ‘Republicans’ makes a mockery of democracy and is driven by this kind of false dichotomy (as well as the grievous flaws in the voting system which disincentivise the formation of smaller groups). When this reaches the extremes that it has today, with somebody like Ron Paul running for nomination in the same party as Rick Santorum and Michele Bachmann, something is going a bit wrong somewhere.
The idea that you can express the many variations and nuances of a political opinion on a single axis (or even on a pair of axes) is a drastic oversimplification, the usefulness of which has long since passed and now serves only to stifle any kind of intelligent debate of the actual issues. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of stupid ideas around and I agree absolutely that we should be speaking out against them – but it’s the ideas we should be targeting, not just the people who hold them and the people who happen to be sitting next to them on the seating plan. I say it is time we kick the level of debate up a notch and dispense with both the ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’. Ornithologically speaking, neither of them contain any brains anyway.