Are Men Smarter Than Women?

The Question

No. That is to say, Yes. But not really. Actually, what we have here is an badly phrased question: just what do we mean when we ask “Are men smarter than women”?

We’re asking this again, because (via HotAir) The Daily Mail has asked. And, even though that paper is, as many readers have insisted, England’s equivalent of the New York Post, an article by retired professor Richard Lynn has, as they say in journalism, stirred up controversy.

Judging by the comments garnered at the paper and at HotAir, most do not understand the question, or purposely—or willfully—misunderstand it. Part of the difficulty is that the question is badly put.

Interpretation one: all men are smarter than all women. This is false, obviously. And not on any theoretical grounds: its falsity rests on a solid empirical base.

Interpretation two: some men are smarter than some women. This is clearly true; it has been amply empirically verified. But so has its inverse: some women are smarter than some men.

Interpretation three: some men are smarter than all women. This is true; but once more, so is its opposite: some women are smarter than all men. How can this be?

What’s Smarter?

Because we, like everybody else, have been playing fast and loose with the word “smarter.” We’re letting everybody interpret the word, via the question, in any way they like.

Before we go farther, we have to understand the differences in types of evidence used in answering who’s “smarter.” There are three: empirical observations, “theory”, and counterfactual arguments.

We can dismiss theoretical “evidence” immediately. There are only two theories of any importance. The first we might call political correctness. This states that the sexes are equal, no matter what, and if there are any observed differences between the sexes, it is because one sex has successfully dominated another for century upon century.

This theory falsifies itself, and obviously. For if one sex has successfully dominated another for centuries, it is clear that that sex is smarter in the art of domineering, which is to say, politics. Therefore, both sexes are not equal in all things. Any riposte based on physical differences also fails.

Further, the idea behind this theory is counterfactual. It says that if a certain situation did not hold historically, the observational evidence (discussed next) would have been different. There is no way to know whether any counterfactual like this is true. Desire is no substitute for evidence.

The second theory is that, by fiat, all women are smarter than all men at mental activity X, whatever X might be. It has to be “mental activity” because of the obvious physical differences between the sexes. This theory might be true for some as-yet rigorously classified mental activity, but it has not been observed to be true for common mental activities. Which is to say, some men have been observed to be better than some women at some activities, even though more women are better than most men at those activities. I have in mind “local” politics, though it’s not important whether I’m right about that.

Direct empirical observations tell us, in particular mental activities, who the smartest person (singular!) was. There is, of course, subjectivity in this, because of the difficulty of rigorously defining the scope of the mental activity. Take physics: here, Isaac Newton is probably tops. Therefore we can say that this man was smarter than all women—but also smarter than all other men.

The difficulty here, and a big one, is that only a certain few activities are gauged worthy of tracking. Physics and math are two of these worthies, local politics (“interpersonal relations”) is not. Therefore, whenever we say “smarter” we are including a value judgment about which mental activities are important, and in what contexts. This is why, when asking the main question, we must specify an activity.


Again, take physics. Any list—from all of history; we cannot exclude portions of our sample—of the best of the best includes a majority of men. However, what’s not tracked is the worst of the worst. That is, we cannot draw on all of history to find the stupidest. But we can look locally (in time and geography): here, we discover that the stupidest include a majority of men, too.

From this evidence, we can conclude that males exhibit more variability than do women. We also know that the averages of scores used to track these activities show men and women are roughly the same. These observations hold across a wide variety of routinely tracked mental activities. The implication of these facts gives us a working answer to the big question.

Take any equally sized group of men and women. Given the evidence we have compiled, and knowing nothing else except the sex of these individuals, the probability that more men than women in this group will be at the top on a commonly tracked (and valued) mental activity than women is greater than 50%. The “top” has to be some fraction less than half.

Switch “top” to “bottom” and the conclusion remains the same. We have no or little evidence whether this holds for non-tracked, or non-valued mental activities: it probably does not hold.

Also, the conclusion holds only for groups of sufficient size. If, say, there were only one man and one women, the probability, given the same evidence, is (approximately) 50% that the man will be smarter than the woman. This also means that the man is just as likely to be stupider.

Note that the “nothing else” includes ages, education, country of origin, and on an on. If we do know other probative information, then this naturally modifies the conclusion.


IQ is measured by taking a test or tests. From this observational evidence, it is supposed that those who score high are “smart” and that those who score low are “stupid.” The difficulty is that the IQ is said to measure “general intelligence” and not intelligence of a more specific type, like physics ability. IQ is in large measure a distraction.

Whether or not there is such a thing as general intelligence, or whether intelligence is multi- or unidimensional, is not relevant to our main conclusion. If we can narrowly and rigorously define a mental activity—like ability to do physics—than that is enough for us.

Whether or not somebody who evinces a large IQ score might be able to perform any given mental activity well is not relevant.


Are Men Smarter Than Women? — 18 Comments

  1. Poor man, I feel your pain on having to write this article.

    I will save you the trouble. The answer is Y-E-S. Feminists are just in denial over the empirical evidence.

  2. Matt,

    As you have said: define smart. Intelligence is one of those words like alive that everybody thinks they know but really don’t. Thinking is another. Try explaining how you go about doing whatever it is and then explain what it is you are actually doing when you do it.

    Back to Intelligence. Is it:
    1) Having lots of knowledge?
    Is an encyclopaedia smart?

    2) Being good at pattern finding and recognition?
    Some computer programs are good at that. Would that make them smart? It seems that an ability to find commonality/similarity (as opposed to spotting differences) can be a measure. Spotting difference is usually easy but seeing the image in a bunch of apparently random dots is computationally difficult.

    3) Being good at problem solving — a more specific form of pattern recognition? Dogs, cats and mice can solve problems. I suspect that insects can too. Walking around an object is solving a problem. How does one go about measuring problem solving capacity?

    4) Maybe it’s the type of problem to be solved? Should allowances be made for prior experience as some problems seem to require a grounding in a field before they can be solved?

    5) Language skills? Good at puns maybe? Can assimilate difficult sentences? A lot of children are very good at understanding complex grammar but generally don’t use it in their own speech.

    Probably could go on. IQ tests attempt to measure all of the above but experience is a confounding factor. I think they are on the right path though. A combination of the above list (general intelligence) seems to be the right way to define intelligence unless you want to assign intelligence to even encyclopaedias and/or want to be able to say that an idiot-savant is smarter than most humans.

  3. I’m much better then my Mrs’s at ‘single tasking’.

    If the job criteria requires focusing on a ‘single task’, then with the exception of child bearing I beat her every time.

    If the job criteria calls for doing multiple tasks simultaneously then I don’t stand a chance.

  4. Patricia Hausman has written extensively on this subject and some of her papers are available on her website. She has of course drawn lots of flack from the feminists. Professor Linda Gotfredson (spelling?) also has nunerous papers on the subject.

  5. re Gottfredson Homo sapiens sapiens: What makes us “human”? (Educ 391, a Freshman Honors Colloquium): “evolutionary psychology … to explain how humans evolved such big brains, and at what cost; why the sexes differ in size, … “?

    Humans evolved big brains because of how they think and not the other way around?
    Evolutionary psychology can explain why the sexes differ in size?

    Am I somehow misreading this course description?

  6. “IQ is in large measure a distraction.”

    And with a bound Jack, er, William was free! You, sir, are vertebraically challenged. I would have thought you’d have chosen to construct a more comfortable fence if all you intended to do was sit on it meditating upon the meaning of meaning. If you fear a LarrySummersing best keep a dignified silence than torturing the good mind God blessed you with to produce this pretzel of a post.

  7. liamascorcaigh,

    Amen, brother; more or less.

    I had also run past my 800-word limit.

  8. Harrywr2 says: I’m much better then my Mrs’s at ’single tasking’. If the job criteria requires focusing on a ’single task’, then with the exception of child bearing I beat her every time.

    This is a perfect example of the inferior intelligence of the average male. A smarter man would claim to be stupider than his mate, and less capable, in order to avoid menial tasks. This is my strategy: I readily admit to being dumber than my better half in all matters. Which is proof that I am smarter. Except she does not fall for it, and claims I am smarter than I let on. Which proves she is smarter, and I rest my case. Which proves I am smarter. The main rule is: don’t do any task, not even once, because then you will own that task for the rest of your marriage.

  9. It’s like trying to compare sentient apples with sentient oranges. Sort of.

  10. Are men smarter than women? HELL NO.


    Uhm, I am wondering what makes men smarter? Must be something that women don’t have. Yep, there must be extra brain power in men’s testicles. You know what they say! Men think with their…, which is scientifically proven, I believe.

    Please pardon my foul mood.

  11. The only thing I’m better than my better half at is video games and speaking Japanese. And even the former is increasingly up in the air as she catches up to me.

    I also mix a better martini, but that’s largely thanks to the superior gin. She still can’t understand that vodka martinis are inferior.

  12. Gosh, why are the majority of the commenters male?

    I would postulate that the reason is similar to the reason that Coke does not badmouth Pepsi when Pepsi always claims to be better than Coke. Coke is the big fish in the pond and does not need to reaffirm its status in any way. :)

  13. “ANON!!” If you’re in pain I’d like to help.

    Bless JH the truthful one.
    Much ‘A do About Nothing
    ”the fraud of men was ever so, since summer first was leafy.”

    “You’re the most intelligent person I know!” “zat vas a very intelligent sought”, “ You’re far more clever than me…(phd MA, MCS, PhD squared, Ma bBS Frcs, jppfQQ) ..Cam/Oxf).
    Perhaps you ought to let me show you how good Iam at making pasta? (that well known ccomplex dish, wow that really takes a physics brain). As a lesser female mortal, one has to know when intellect counts.

    “Shut up and kiss me” is honest, at least.

    No matter what’s going on upstairs, it’s what’s going on downstairs a girl’s got to remember.
    It’s all about sex. I wouldn’t have it any other way really. We were built differently. We can’t help it, It’s fun arguing about it.

    The timeless truth:

  14. When my daughter said she was depressed after reading that high school males have IQs about 4 points higher than females, I pointed out that it might not be a representative sample of male/female differences. Males are much more likely to die young by getting hit by cars while running across busy freeways, getting smashed up in drunk driving accidents, etc. Those males who get killed in accidents are on average stupider than those that don’t. Stupid females, on the other hand, are not as great risk takers as males, and are more likely to survive.
    As you get older, you get a smaller and smaller ratio of males to females, and the average intelligence of the remaining males tends to go up.

  15. Joy, you win!!!!!!!

    However, from the rooster’s point of view we must consider:

    But, Oh! ye lords of ladies intellectual,
    Inform us truly, have they not henpeck’d you all?

    – Lord Byron, Don Juan. Canto i. Stanza 22.

  16. Champagne is flowing, the tories are back.. I wanted Bernie for PM but we can’t have everything we want.
    Mike D,
    Hey nonny nonny!

    If a job needs doing, do it yourself,
    Talking about local politics, watch this space!

  17. Joy,

    I’m a-watchin’.


    I hope everybody paid attention to the crucial finding: that, given the evidence we have, the probability one man is smarter than one woman on the commonly tracked and valued dimensions was 50%. Distinctions of any significance do not show up until you have very large groups of men and women.