William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

On Intelligence & Religiosity

A girl with a flying spaghetti monster on her head. Wow, must she be smart!

Take a pencil and paper—do this—and write down the most intelligent people who have ever lived. Most brilliant in any field of endeavor, now. Who were the best of us? Make it at least twenty entries. Don’t peek below until you’ve finished.

Done? First thing is to count how many in your tally have died in the last, say, fifty to one-hundred years. Anything more than about ten-percent proves you are a product of a stunted educational system and that your opinions about what follows aren’t worth diddly. You folks, wounded as you are, just sit back and listen.

Those who you found yourselves counting women or non-whites, please click here and have a nice day.

Now that that’s settled, time for the test. How many of your luminaries believed in God? That’s right: most, probably all. What can we glean from this? First, that you could have multiplied this list many times and have come to the same conclusion. Second, that many, many of those far above us believed in a metaphysics shockingly disjoint from the one au courant.

Far from being humbled by these observations, modern skeptics might claim, “Culture! These fellows existed in times where it was considered acceptable and normal to be believers. Thus they believed; why, they even used their intelligence to justify their believing.”

That so? Well, today many of the bright claim to be non-believers, and if the skeptic is right about people being at least partly a reflection of their culture, then non-believers are so because of culture. It’s cool to be a non-believer, even mandatory in the sense that metaphysical talk is unwelcome at social gatherings, especially in academia. What’s more fun to join a campus group of “free thinkers” to giggle about flying spaghetti monsters and coming to agreement about how much smarter the group is than those foolish and stupid believers?

Enter the peer-reviewed paper “The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations” by Miron Zuckerman, Jordan Silberman, and Judith A. Hall in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review.

This was a “meta-analysis”, i.e. a disreputable conglomeration of other studies which hopes to prove what the individual studies could not. This meta-analysis “showed a significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity.” They mean “significant” in the wee p-value sense and not in any real consequence. And by “association” they mean linear correlation, the weakest and least generalizable of all statistical measures.

The individual studies cobbled into one were extremely heterogeneous, too, using a wide range of “intelligence” measures: GPA, syllogism tests, “Immediate free recall” exams, Peabody picture tests, and on and on. How did the authors compensate for these differences? Answer: they did not. This is proof enough the meta-analysis is of little to no worth. But academics are no easily discouraged, and onwards they plowed to measure religiosity. Which, again, was measured in a huge variety of ways and left uncorrected and uncontrolled in the meta-analysis. Thus there is no reason whatsoever to look at any of the numerical results, as they have no meaning.

It is still interesting to exmaine the explanations the authors put to these numbers, as these tell us a great deal about the culture which drives disbelief, particularly the modern trend in which non-believers boast (endlessly) of their brilliance. Many atheists, proving their tone-deafness, even call themselves “brights”.

The authors of the paper claim “intelligent people are less likely to conform and, thus, are more likely to resist religious dogma”. The first clause is false. Intelligent people are people and, as we’ve already agreed, are as likely as other people to conform to the culture about them. On campus, this culture is atheistic and anti-religious.

The second “finding”—which you’ll notice cannot be derived from the data the authors use, but must be assumed—“intelligent people tend to adopt an analytic (as opposed to intuitive) thinking style, which has been shown to undermine religious beliefs.” This implies religious people do not adopt analytic thinking “styles”, which is false; and it is also false that thinking analytically undermines religious beliefs. We proved this with the lists we all wrote.

Their last speculation: “several functions of religiosity, including compensatory control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and secure attachment, are also conferred by intelligence.” This is plain nonsense. Intelligence by itself does nothing, as should be obvious even to an academic. It’s the uses to which intelligence is put that matters.

The real finding? Academics never recognize their own biases.

Update I had thought it obvious, but…the lesson to be had in writing the names of our betters was humility. It was (I thought) not a definitive proof that the smartest, brightest, most intelligent, and most capable people of all time were believers that therefore God exists. But it should make us moderns (you would have supposed) far less cocky.

—————————————————————-

Thanks to Twitter user Intrepid Wanders ‏@intrepidwanders who told me of this study.

29 Comments

  1. I know that you are being facetious Briggs, but still, asking for a list is to commit the fallacy of forced choice. How can anyone come up with a meaningful list on a topic that it is unlikely to have been the subject of much previous analysis? Not only as to the list itself but the evidence needed to determine the intelligence and religiosity of people not known to you. Actually even knowing them might not help. Also who even has a comprehensive knowledge of all the possible candidates? This request runs into exactly the problems you mention with regards to the meta-analysis. Was this your intent?

    Quote “Intelligence by itself does nothing”. What does this mean? It is difficult to imagine intelligence not being strongly correlated with a large number of other desirable characteristics, all connected with general good health.

  2. Briggs

    February 15, 2014 at 10:48 am

    Scotian,

    Okay, skip the forced choice and take a year or two to compile a good list. You’ll come to the same conclusion.

    Intelligence is like a car sitting in the driveway. It might be pretty to look at, but unless you’re using it to drive somewhere, it doesn’t do much for you. And to claim, as many moderns imply or directly claim, that you can only drive to atheism is stupid and ridiculously false.

  3. My only problem is with title: we must distinguish between “religiosity” and “religion”. In modern language former is attached to rituals more than to real understanding and acceptance of religion. As many of poorly educated in religion – authors of article in question freely put both types in one bucket and assign only the former label and related behavior to all.
    That out of the way one analytical choice remains to distinguish between intelligent people with and without religious beliefs: does one allow for transcendental in his/her worldview. That is choice one must respect. And it is intelligent, analytical choice in both possible worldviews.
    For me science itself in the current state provides a strong hint that we must accept transcendental. Question “what was before BigBang?” or “what is outside of this Universe?” are by current science either transcendental by nature or nonsense. No middle ground. If you are non-transcendental person, you must give up any curiosity about those – rational science can’t by definition give answers to those or measure or… That does not make some non-transcendental scientists speculate, not realizing in the process that their “answers” are on the absolutely equal footing as saying that there are pink unicorns outside of our Universe or before BigBang.

  4. So the consensus among smart people is that God exists. This proves what exactly?

  5. Ye Olde Statisician

    February 15, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    It proves that the paper under discussion is nonsense.

  6. My university teachers would have rejected their conclusions since they do not define their terms, judging by the title. If they had no Thesaurus or Dictionary on hand they could have gone to a library.

  7. You may be correct Briggs but “It is a capital mistake to theorize before you have all the evidence. It biases the judgment.” Is it possible to not use your intelligence? How does that work? Invariably what is meant by such a claim is that the intelligence that is imagined to exist is not being used to accomplish some task that another person has judged of prime importance.

  8. “exmaine the explanations”? It doe snot appear Profess her Briggs Wilbur a candy date for a Pullet Surprise with his currant spell cheque cur.

    As an aging engineer who’s been around the block, I’ve had the good fortune to work with a (very) few near-genius level engineers. Most were religious, one particularly so. I’ve also worked with some extremely sharp atheists.

    My conclusion? People are strongly motivated to believe what it contents them to believe. It seems to be an inherent part of the human makeup. I imagine we all know at least one ‘fervent atheist’, despite the seeming contradiction in terms.

    Perhaps the concept of “Pee” value might be useful in analyzing studies such as the one under consideration here. Uppercase “P”, to distinguish it from the more well-known “p value”.

    The Pee-value, simply put, is the percentage of the content of a particular study that reflects the author’s bias. The percentage content that reflects reality is therefore 1-Pee. The particular study under question does indeed appear, superficially at least, to have a high Pee value.

    Engineers are damned with the irresistible inclination, when presented with a problem, to immediately start thinking about ways to solve it. (Which drives our spouses nuts, of course.) If I were assigned the task of performing a low Pee-value study of the relationship between religiosity and intelligence, what would I do?

    First, I think I’d form a small committee to create the questions to be asked or data to be collected, both to determine intelligence and, separately, to determine religiosity. On this committee I’d include people with a variety of preconceived notions about what the results of the study will be. The members of the committee would have stronger veto powers than advocacy powers.

    I’d form a second group to administer the study and collect the data, minimizing personal interactions with the participants, probably with a heavy reliance on computerized interactions.

    To analyze the results, I’d blind the data by assigning non-descriptive labels before giving it to the statisticians for analysis.

    The above assumes someone is dumb enough to hire an engineer to do a study like this. I would never do it on my own – the subject matter is boring, and, just like you, I already know the answer anyway.

  9. I was a bit harsh in my remarks about Thesaurus and Dictionary lack in the relevant department. It came to me that these people were using English as a Second Language, what we used to call Basic English. and were not fluent in written English. However one basic mistake I think in their whole investigation is treating Christianity as a philosophy which some people study and then give their grudging assent to until something better comes along, instead of God’s Revelation to recalcitrant individual people which the “clever” people will always refute because it was not made to them personally!

  10. Einstein, Ramanujan, Noether, Gauss, Hume, Newton, Galileo, daVinci, Lucretia Borgia, Genghis Khan, alKhwarizmi, Jesus, Lucretius, Augustus, Plato, Gautama Buddah, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Hammurabi, and the guy (or gal) who invented the wheel. I suspect that not a one of them believed in the same god as you do, and I am sure that intelligence is negatively correlated with bravery so regardless of “conventionality” any professions of faith between AD 300 and 1800 can be taken with a grain of salt (unless they actually contradicted the locally enforced brand of goddism).

  11. “…any professions of faith between AD 300 and 1800 can be taken with a grain of salt”

    Agree, although I’d put the date up somewhere around the 1970’s. I don’t know about everyone, but the acceptance of us atheists is not so wide spread as Briggs perhaps believes. Unless he’s only lived and worked in academia.

  12. Ye Olde Statisician

    February 15, 2014 at 9:53 pm

    I suspect that not a one of them believed in the same god as you do

    Don’t be too sure. That several blind men describe the elephant differently does not mean that they don’t believe in the same elephant. The Muslim and Catholics on your list believed in the same God. Hume, of course, did not even believe in causality.

    It’s not safe to assume that smart people were overtly religious only because they were disingenuous and cowardly. That’s a conceit of the Late Modern, who assumes all people are pretty much like him and really believes that people believe only because they are cowed.

  13. Nullius in Verba

    February 16, 2014 at 8:12 am

    “That’s a conceit of the Late Modern, who assumes all people are pretty much like him and really believes that people believe only because they are cowed.”

    That would be a more believable argument if there hadn’t been reason for people to feel cowed.

    The test, of course, is to stop cowing them and see what happens.

    Not that I think the old-timers necessarily *were* insincere. Newton, for example, wrote far more on the subject than would be strictly necessary merely to keep in with the Church, and indeed was somewhat unorthodox in his beliefs. Religiosity, so far as it is correlated with anything, seems to be primarily a matter of upbringing. It’s more like a taste for hakarl, escamoles, marmite, scampi, or peanut butter and jelly – it’s not a matter of intelligence or otherwise, more a matter of what you’re used to. The intelligent are just as likely to use their intelligence to find ways to justify their religion as to be sceptical of it.

  14. Right, this appeal to authority then proves that the jews are right as they have the highest per capita nobel prize winners.
    So Jesus is not the Messiah.

  15. Briggs

    February 16, 2014 at 2:06 pm

    All,

    Reminds me I have to do an article on what the appeal to authority fallacy is and, more importantly for us, what it isn’t. Not everything is as obvious as I sometimes assume.

    Raise your hands whoever has flown and trusted the pilot to land in the proper city? And who, who has no pilot license, would try to fly the plane yourself?

  16. Nullius in Verba

    February 16, 2014 at 2:44 pm

    “Raise your hands whoever has flown and trusted the pilot to land in the proper city?”

    Because they’re an ‘expert’ pilot with a pilot license?

    Or because you have lots of data on the many other people who have flown with them and landed safely?

    I did at first get the impression of an appeal to authority myself. But then I realised it was in answer to the paper reporting low intelligence being related to religiosity, and was therefore a valid counter-example.

    It would be an appeal to authority if it was being used to support the plausibility of God. (“All these clever people believe, therefore you should.”)

    But it’s valid data when being used to contradict the intelligence-religiosity anti-correlation. I might question the sampling method, and in particular the dismissal of anyone who picks a majority of modern thinkers. (Given the paucity of written historical records increasing with age, it’s highly unlikely anyone has even heard of “the most intelligent people who have ever lived”. And of course confessing to atheism was not a good survival strategy for much of that period. Selection effects galore…) But it’s not unreasonable for a blog post. 🙂

  17. Ye Olde Statisician

    February 16, 2014 at 3:49 pm

    That would be a more believable argument if there hadn’t been reason for people to feel cowed.

    It’s not an argument. It’s an observation. Just because you would feel cowed does not mean that folks born and raised in that milieu would have felt cowed. I mean the Totonacs may have felt cowed by the Aztec religion, but the Aztecs themselves did not. When Cortez forbade human sacrifice (there were things even a conquistador could not stomach), the people of Mexico city rose up en masse and stoned Moctezuma when he tried to calm them down.

  18. hi:

    Yes, the paper you cite is nonsensical, but so, I think, is your core argument here.

    The problem is that people whose views are quietly opposed to the tenor of their times aren’t published, and those who aren’t published aren’t long remembered.

    Consider “ZZvaries wrote hummanity’s greatest philosophical treatise (on the role of mathematics in the describing the relationships between the parts of a deterministic universe) – but unhappily did so in 1491 and was burnt to death clutching his manuscript”

    The brainiacs we know supported the cultural aegis of their period – and because we know nothing about the others we can praise both diophantus and Pope Damascus I, but not conclude that their beliefs represent those of all the smarter people of their, or any other, ages.

  19. Ye Olde Statisician

    February 16, 2014 at 4:21 pm

    Consider “ZZvaries wrote hummanity’s greatest philosophical treatise (on the role of mathematics in the describing the relationships between the parts of a deterministic universe) – but unhappily did so in 1491 and was burnt to death clutching his manuscript”

    Pick a different hypothetical. The role of mathematics in describing the universe was put forward by Grosseteste, Bradwardine, Oresme, and others in the 14th century — and guess how many were bishops.

  20. Nullius in Verba

    February 16, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    “Just because you would feel cowed does not mean that folks born and raised in that milieu would have felt cowed.”

    If you were born and raised in that milieu, but was an atheist, and knew that they routinely persecuted and killed atheists, would you tell people what you were? Or would you pretend to be religious?

    Many people born in that milieu would be religious and would obviously not feel cowed. But the question is about the people who *don’t* follow the dominant religion.

    A lot of people *did* bravely stand up for what they believed in, and got persecuted as a result – both people of the wrong religion and of no religion. But we don’t know how many would have done so if the penalties had not been so severe. So we can’t say for sure how many of those wise ancients genuinely *were* religious, and how many were just saying it.

    That’s the problem with outlawing dissent – it destroys any justifications of the ad populam sort.

    “I mean the Totonacs may have felt cowed by the Aztec religion, but the Aztecs themselves did not.”

    Including Aztec atheists?

  21. YOS, are you assuming that the bishops were religious?

  22. Ye Olde Statisician

    February 16, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    If you were born and raised in that milieu, but was an atheist, and knew that they routinely persecuted and killed atheists, would you tell people what you were? Or would you pretend to be religious?

    This seems to be quite the matter of faith, although I’ve not seen any specific incidents referenced as examples.

    Given that you were far more likely to be prosecuted for heresy and yet we have frequent and voluminous data on heretics throughout the medieval period, some of whom on conviction were executed by the secular princes, the utter silence on atheists is baffling. Medieval writers went to great pains to explain the beliefs of heretics and to rebut them, but they took no notice of atheism aside from noting it as a logical possibility. The notion that the atheists were all hiding and dissembling while the Cathars were skipping about in public for three generations before it hit the fan, is not likely.

    The notion that the there was some sort of theological Inspector Javert hunting down a copious supply of Jeans Valjean, like the secret police of the Modern Secular State, does not seem tenable.

  23. Ye Olde Statisician

    February 16, 2014 at 6:19 pm

    YOS, are you assuming that the bishops were religious?

    It’s not an assumption.

  24. Wouldn’t it be nice if intelligence was something that would be easy to measure? “Intelligence” needs to be qualified with “as measured by X”… How does one measure the intelligence of a dead person anyway? If we can’t give them a test, then we need a different way to compare them.

    If one uses their life’s writings, what about the possible incredibly intelligent people whose writings are lost? Aristarchus apparently figured out that the sun was the center of the solar system.. but that’s basically all we know of him.

    And then if you use their life’s writings, then what if they died old/young? What if people get smarter as they get older? Or dumber?

    And that’s just one small variable…

  25. Ye Olde Statisician

    February 17, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Aristarchus apparently figured out that the sun was the center of the solar system

    No. The Pythagoreans believed that fire was a nobler element than earth and that the center was a nobler position that the edge. Thus, the fire had to be in the center. This is not advanced intelligence.

  26. Nullius in Verba

    February 17, 2014 at 2:37 pm

    “Given that you were far more likely to be prosecuted for heresy and yet we have frequent and voluminous data on heretics throughout the medieval period, some of whom on conviction were executed by the secular princes, the utter silence on atheists is baffling.”

    I agree, it is an interesting question. There are atheists reported both before and after. Before we have Diagoras, Theodorus of Cyrene, and Epicurus. Accusations were made against Socrates which he denied – atheism being a capital crime then, since the right of the state to rule was founded on the will of the Gods. Afterwards, there were accusations against Dolet (executed), Vanini (executed), de la Barre (tortured then executed), Thomas Hobbes (denied it, claiming God was material), and Christopher Marlowe (murdered before he could be cleared of the charge). But as you say, nothing much in between.

    Possibly, heretics feared that to worship wrongly would see them in hell, so were willing to speak out and be martyred. But what incentive would an atheist have for speaking out? But that’s only a guess.

    Nevertheless, I think the point still stands for times other than the medieval.

  27. “No. The Pythagoreans believed that fire was a nobler element than earth and that the center was a nobler position that the edge. Thus, the fire had to be in the center. This is not advanced intelligence.”

    No, that was certainly the origin of the idea, but Aristarchus obsoleted it with a pure heliocentric model that had nothing to do with such concepts.

  28. Why keep picking on obviously flawed studies from the lunatic fringe that few read & fewer give any credence anyway? Continuously selecting such ‘low hanging [if not dragging] fruit’ suggests the skills of the critic are on par with the criticized — one is, after all, judged by the company they keep…

    A surprising number are clergy as a Tufts Univ. study has found (and have many many others who’ve confided in their local churches: http://www.epjournal.net/wp-content/uploads/EP08122150.pdf

    Chances are, if you’re a church-going type, from any vantage point in the congregation you are observing at least one atheist in any direction you look (in addition to the one that very possibly is conducting the service itself) who’s attending out of camaraderie and a sense of self-preservation in the larger community. Better for oneself to go along & get along than rock the boat.

    This silent subgroup very likely dwarfs the outspoken elitist & egotistical outspoken sub-population by a whopping margin. Very few studies are accounting for this surprisingly large sub-population.

  29. Ye Olde Statisician

    February 18, 2014 at 5:43 pm

    No, that was certainly the origin of the idea, but Aristarchus obsoleted it with a pure heliocentric model that had nothing to do with such concepts.

    How would we know? Aristarchus left no writings regarding a “model,” and we only know from passing mention in sources like Archimedes that he thought the Sun was in the center:
    http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/archim/sand/sandreck.htm
    If Aristarchus ever worked out an actual mathematical model, we have no evidence of it.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

*

© 2016 William M. Briggs

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑