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February 7th, 2012

Science says the left is smarter guess whos got common sense

What rejoicing there must have been last week, up and down the land, in left-wing and bien-pensant circles. For it is now official: rightwingers really are more stupid than leftwingers, just as leftwingers have always thought and often said. That, at any rate, is the finding of a large study at Brock University in Canada, published in Psychological Science. Bring out the pink champagne, all you Bollinger bolsheviks!

The Canadian paper analysed UK studies of more than 15,000 people in 1958 and in 1970, which (among other things) compared childhood intelligence with adult political views.

As a result of their number-crunching, the authors believe that a person’s political stance is related to his or her IQ — in particular that there is a strong correlation between low intelligence and right-wing politics.

“Cognitive abilities are critical in forming impressions of other people and in being open-minded,” they say. “Individuals with lower cognitive abilities may gravitate towards more socially conservative right-wing ideologies that maintain the status quo. It provides a sense of order.”

Not only that: the authors argue that lower IQ is associated with greater prejudice, such as racism, and that “conservative ideology represents a critical pathway through which childhood intelligence predicts racism in adulthood”. So dim people will be attracted to conservatism, and conservatism will lead them to racism and homophobia.

This must be manna from heaven to all those on the left in this country who are feeling rather discredited and left out of things. Now it has been shown, they will claim, that anyone who doesn’t agree with the left must be stupid, and probably racist too. Repulsive, in fact.

And while that is not precisely what this study says, it is what it will be taken to mean by those who want to hate and despise anyone who thinks differently from themselves. That was exactly the thinking of my youth in the 1970s, when my student days were made miserable by censorious socialist bullying and triumphalism.

I hope that political debate in this country is no longer so deeply unintelligent as to take any of this stuff seriously. With any luck a respectable amount of survey fatigue has set in: most people must have learnt to be wary of such studies, with all the usual cognitive bias and necessary imperfections, and wary of the notion of IQ itself.

In any case, I do not think that the left will be able to make much political capital out of this. For even if rightwingers were less intelligent than leftwingers — which I don’t for a moment accept — that would not necessarily make their politics wrong. Nor would it make leftists right, just because they were brainier.

Countless numbers of people, past and present, have been both very intelligent and somewhat right-wing Politics is a matter of judgment — the art of the possible, with the judgment to recognise the possible. But intelligence is not the same as judgment. In fact the cleverest people can quite often be rather silly politically, like the brilliant James I, who was called the wisest fool in Christendom. Judgment and common sense are no respecters of intelligence — indeed I suspect they follow rather different neural pathways from those through which IQ-test aptitudes travel, and may exist only by chance alongside high intelligence. “All brains and no intelligence” was a phrase I often heard in my childhood from country people, and highly though I respected brains and IQ myself, I recognised that by intelligence they meant judgment and that IQ and judgment are not necessarily to be found in the same person.

One has only to think of Gordon Brown, whose abysmal judgment did so much damage.

Besides, if these Canadian findings were right, and if rightwingers were thicker than leftwingers, because right-wing ideas appeal to lesser, narrower minds, you would expect the Conservative front bench to be less intelligent than the bench opposite. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Labour front bench, with a few exceptions, is cognitively rather undistinguished. Many Conservative frontbenchers, by contrast, have formidable IQ credibility, for what it’s worth.

Staring cleverly at the cameras are David “Two Brains” Willetts, William Hague, Michael Gove, Oliver Letwin, Dominic Grieve and Alan Duncan, all positively overburdened with little grey cells, not to mention the prime minister, who got a first in PPE at Oxford, which (if nothing more) unquestionably requires a high IQ.

George Osborne may have got only an upper second, but the school he went to, St Paul’s in London, sent a standard letter to me when I was thinking about my son’s future, warning parents that it wasn’t worth a boy applying unless his IQ were 120 or above. Such an IQ puts a person in the top 6.7% of the population, intelligence-wise, and suggests that if the chancellor is right-wing, that has nothing to do with his IQ.

Plenty of conservatives are bright. As the crossbencher Lord Rees-Mogg, for example, has frequently pointed out in his column in The Times, both he and his Tory MP son Jacob have quite exceptionally high IQs. The Canadians’ suggestion that conservatives must be dimmer than lefties leaves me speechless with incredulity, given my own experience of many years as a journalist. The obvious point is that countless numbers of people, past and present, private and public, have been both very intelligent and somewhat right-wing.

But there’s the rub. What is right-wing? Leftists tend to use it as a term of abuse, as if it were a monolithic state of original sin and wilful stupidity. In fact, even more perhaps than the term left-wing, the term right-wing covers a multitude of attitudes and dispositions, more defined by what it isn’t than what it is. Perhaps in Canada, as in the United States, there is a simpler, coherent view of what is right-wing — the sort of horrifying orthodoxy of the right on display in the American election campaigns.

But in the gentler, more nuanced political atmosphere of this country, many people’s political attitudes are a mixture of views both left and right and anything in between. I am constantly disappointing TV and radio researchers, who assume they’ve found a right-wing commentator, with views that don’t fit any right-wing mould.

It is obvious that no supposedly scientific survey could come up with a usable, quantifiable definition of right-wing and left-wing: the subject is much too contentious for bean-counting. I am afraid that for left-wing triumphalists the day of glory has not arrived after all. Keep the Bollinger on ice.