Saturday, January 28, 2012

Conservatives, Racists, and Journalists Are Idiots

Sensationalist titles are a journalistic standby, and my years as an editor on my high school paper taught me that they can be used liberally, provided the sensationalism goes no further than the title. So, when I saw an article in a news feed entitled "Low IQ & Conservative Beliefs Linked to Prejudice," I expected to find the impression given in the admittedly engaging title quickly qualified. It's obvious, of course, what the catchy headline is trying to insinuate: conservatives are racists and idiots. After all, the actual phrasing--which indicates that racists are idiots and conservatives--is not nearly as interesting. Clearly the purpose is to draw in conservatives who are indignant at the idea that they could be branded idiots and racists and draw in liberals who are hoping that their deepest held beliefs about conservatives will be vindicated. The truth, of course, which we should all know from the outset is that conservatives and liberals are both idiots (a fact reenforced in the very act of buying into the title and clicking on the article).

To my disappointment (and, I admit, shock) the article gives every appearance of holding to the sensational idea, however, that there is a substantial and meaningful correlation between having a low IQ and being a conservative, being a racist and being a conservative. The writers hit you with gems like "Low-intelligence adults tend to gravitate toward socially conservative ideologies, the study found" and "Polling data and social and political science research do show that prejudice is more common in those who hold right-wing ideals that those of other political persuasions." The article is more than halfway finished before the writers throw poor, dumb conservatives a bone:

Hodson was quick to note that the despite the link found between low intelligence and social conservatism, the researchers aren't implying that all liberals are brilliant and all conservatives stupid. The research is a study of averages over large groups, he said.

"There are multiple examples of very bright conservatives and not-so-bright liberals, and many examples of very principled conservatives and very intolerant liberals," Hodson said.

Even here, however, it is clear that the intelligent conservative is like a tall woman (an example the article actually uses), the exception not the rule. And so the writers plug euphemistically on, insisting, "Nonetheless, there is reason to believe that strict right-wing ideology might appeal to those who have trouble grasping the complexity of the world." Only in their final thoughts, do the writers think to mention that the study results show a correlative rather than causative connection between the three variables. A professor at the University of Virginia, who was in no way involved in the study, is brought in to play devil's advocate and present a more reasoned analysis of the data:

The researchers controlled for factors such as education and socioeconomic status, making their case stronger, Nosek said. But there are other possible explanations that fit the data. For example, Nosek said, a study of left-wing liberals with stereotypically naïve views like "every kid is a genius in his or her own way," might find that people who hold these attitudes are also less bright. In other words, it might not be a particular ideology that is linked to stupidity, but extremist views in general.

"My speculation is that it's not as simple as their model presents it," Nosek said. "I think that lower cognitive capacity can lead to multiple simple ways to represent the world, and one of those can be embodied in a right-wing ideology where 'People I don't know are threats' and 'The world is a dangerous place'. ... Another simple way would be to just assume everybody is wonderful."

Go figure. There may be a chance, however slight, that in actuality extreme political ideologies of all forms attract their own special kinds of idiots. Why not lead with that wonderful tidbit, or even just a token teaser that there are some who interpret the findings differently? It is just the tried-and-true liberal media bias, famed in song and story and Republican debate rant? Is it just bad journalism, an unfortunate ignorance on the part of the writer about how the article will be perceived? I don't pretend to know. I also don't know whether or not the average reader of either political persuasion will be clever enough to see from the start how slanted the presentation of the study is, though I would hope so. What I do know, or at least suspect, is that is a correlation between low IQ and believing that dumb people are primarily the residents of one political faction.

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