Intelligence, IQ and the Midwit Effect: An Answer to Some Objections
My post on Vaccines and the Midwit Effect has now attracted a great deal of commentary, and no few objections. I want to address some of these here, and expand on a few points.
Most of the critique relates to intelligence and IQ. No few valued commenters doubt that intelligence is a coherent or measurable concept, or that it is explanatory in this case, or that it is more explanatory than other social or personality factors.
The Swedish paper went to considerable lengths to isolate the influence of intelligence on vaccine-seeking behaviour. They looked specifically at 3,375 twin-pairs in their sample, finding that variations in intelligence between twins who were raised in the same environment and share the same social background nevertheless predicted differences in vaccine uptake. They also controlled for factors like education, income, marital status and parenthood. Even doing all of that, they found that intelligence still had some role to play with respect to vaccination. Of course, this shouldn’t be overemphasised – almost all of the study participants, smart or stupid, chose to get vaccinated. We’re not talking about a huge effect here, but the study does find a discernible relationship between intelligence and jab-readiness, however small.
Some object that intelligence is a false construct of psychological research and is in some sense not real. If that were the case, we wouldn’t expect a clean stratification like this:
The lines would all be overlapping or randomly entangled with each other. Imagine a different study that analysed vaccine-seeking behaviour as a function of birth date, and how useless that chart would be.
Psychometric intelligence research has its origins in the later nineteenth century. Simplifying ruthlessly, it was noticed that students who did well on certain intellectual tasks – specifically, tests – tended to do well on all of them. Conversely, students who were very bad at one test tended to do poorly on all of them. This was not expected; in the athletic sphere, for example, we do not generally assume that good boxers will also be good marathoners. More specific research showed that the results of certain kinds of tests were more closely correlated with each other than the results of other kinds of tests. Tests which require their takers to memorise a span of digits and manipulate shapes in their mind will generate similar results for the same students, while other tests which (for example) ask them to recall sports trivia will yield more varied results. Statistically, there seems to be a general intelligence factor which explains the cross-test variation; conceptually, there is within the human brain a corresponding general cognitive capacity, which drives these correlated results. People who do well on cognitive tests tend to have other interesting traits as well, most markedly faster reaction times and much broader vocabulary, than people who do poorly on them. They also tend to accumulate in different professions, have different lifestyles, and other things. Measuring intelligence via testing is not, in other words, a mere circular exercise in identifying people who test well. Loosely speaking, intelligence is something like the processing capacity of the human brain, and it varies substantially across individuals.
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A lot of objections to intelligence research are rooted in liberal concerns about human equality, and I have little patience with these. Others, I think, stem from a general scepticism that truly intelligent people are actually a thing, because it is hard to conceive of what is going on in the heads of people who are much, much smarter than we are. Here, it helps to consider the other end of the spectrum. There are people – many of them – whom we recognise as just not being very smart. In modern society, this segment of the population is most visible because of their problems with literacy. The limited intellectual capacity of these people is expressed in many ways, including their employment prospects, their life choices and their social status. The much greater intellectual capacity of people on the other end of the spectrum is the opposite phenomenon, though the options of such people are much less constrained. The IQ 160 person can choose to be a day labourer or a university professor, whereas for the IQ 75 person, university professor isn’t really an option. Higher IQ is thus rather weakly predictive of professional status at the individual level, but the professions themselves have a fairly clear IQ stratification. The average IQ of lawyers will be about the same as the average IQ of doctors, and both will be significantly higher than the average IQ of plumbers. This doesn’t mean doctors and lawyers matter more than plumbers, it just means that some professions are more cognitively demanding than others. If you were to test the upper body strength of lawyers and doctors, you’d find it to be lacking with respect to the upper body strength of movers and builders, for similar reasons.
To a point, higher intelligence correlates very well with better overall health. Our brains are simply part of our bodies, and those with healthy, well-functioning brains are more likely to have healthy, well-functioning bodies. This is why I suggested that you can read the Swedish results as an expression of the healthy vaccinee effect. More healthy people are more likely to get vaccinated, and more healthy people are also likely to be smarter. Intelligence, like general health, is also substantially heritable; smart people tend to have smart children. The mechanisms, however, appear to be very complicated. Some extremely intelligent people have parents of merely middling intelligence. In these cases, high IQ results from fortuitous gene combinations; its correlation with overall health will be much lower, and the children of these people are unlikely to be nearly as intelligent as them.
Because IQ is relatively easy to measure and has been studied for a long time with well-replicated results, it’s a very useful metric, but it is also often overemphasised. We are speaking here of one psychological trait among many. The so-called “big five” personality traits also matter for human behaviour and achievement. These are openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and agreeableness. And of course, a wide range of non-psychological factors have their own role to play, including things like social background, education and physical appearance. What makes things even more complicated, are the various ways intelligence itself correlates positively or negatively with all of these other things. It’s important, I think, to strike a balance: Intelligence isn’t always and in every context explanatory, but it’s equally unreasonable to cast after reasons to exclude its influence whenever somebody finds an IQ-related effect. Human cognitive variation really does matter.
What the Swedish study showed, more than anything, is that in a highly compliant, consensus-driven society, cognitive barriers limit vaccine uptake. Almost all participants in the study were vaccinated, after all, with lowest uptake concentrated among those with a stanine score of 1. These are plainly not the dreaded “antivaxxers” and conspiracy theorists whom our intelligentsia dread, but rather people for whom scheduling appointments and travelling to unfamiliar places represent a serious cognitive burden. The study also showed that vaccine enthusiasm was concentrated among the most intelligent participants. The limitations of the stanine scale means that these people aren’t supergeniuses, but rather overwhelmingly the kind of university-educated, upper middle-class urbanites to whom vaccination and all manner of other hygiene radicalism has appealed from the very beginning. This, as I argued, is the archetypal midwit class. Socially and culturally, vaccination is for them; it is an activity in which they feel personally invested with which they especially identify.
Mass Covid vaccination was also kind of stupid. There were abundant reasons, in 2021, to avoid the jabs entirely. When we take a broader view, we see not only that our smarter-than-average midwits routinely engage in all kinds of irrational behaviours, from community masking to transvestite story hour, but that the beliefs and rationalisations which underlie these behaviours just reek through and through of midwittery. They are sophisticated in shallow ways without being very cognitively demanding, and this matters more than the irrationality part. One should not mistake intelligence for immunity to silly behaviours and beliefs; nonsense is the province of man across the intelligence spectrum, and highly intelligent people suffer from very bizarre fever dreams indeed. The irrationality which afflicts us today, however, is not the irrationality of IQ 175 geniuses. It is the irrationality of bright-but-not-earth-shattering IQ 125 Head Girls.
The question, then, is how midwits came to dominate in the first place, and why their influence isn’t overshadowed by the many people in society who are much smarter than they are. A related problem, is why society in general appears to be steered by people in the somewhat-smart-but-not-really-smart range. This is the case in many domains beyond public health, from the highest reaches of political decision-making to the most fashionable academic theorising. Intriguingly, things often get much more intelligent when you leave heavily trafficked fields, which suggests that there is some kind of downward force on the level of cognitive influence across society as a whole. You can escape it in specific subcultures and niche areas, but the more people involved and the bigger the audience, the more the Midwit Effect will express itself.
Whether or not you find Simonton’s theory as to the “range of comprehension” specifically convincing, some part of this downward force must arise from the features of mass society. Ordinary people must be able to understand social and political discourse, and some less-than-trivial number of these people must identify with it personally. This is more than a question of persuasion; it is a limit on sophistication and complexity itself. Consider our hypothetical IQ 160 intellectual. If he’s to exercise wide social influence, he’ll have to do so by pitching not only his arguments but his thought at a much, much lower level. Here, however, he has enormous competition, namely from all the other less intelligent people who are also clamouring to do the same thing. Suddenly his great intelligence is no longer much of an advantage. Being smart thus pays dividends in terms of influence only to a point; beyond that, you’re better off doing something else with your brains, and the anecdotal evidence is that very, very smart people quickly work this out and arrange their lives accordingly.
I am extremely eager to agree that there are other downward forces at work here. As I’ve said many times before, institutions select for a great many things which don’t correlate well with intelligence at all. Above all, managerial systems like people to be conscientious, agreeable and (increasingly) extroverted. Because very highly intelligent people are rare, these additional requirements all but exclude them from positions of institutional prominence. There are, statistically speaking, only about 7,300 Germans with an IQ of 160 or higher. How many of those are likely also to be extroverted (which is negatively correlated with high intelligence), agreeable (which has no good correlation with intelligence) and conscientious (which is only weakly correlated)? The answer is, not nearly enough to matter. And the situation is even worse than that, because, together, these personality traits are so desired by administrative systems because they are aspects of conformity. It is no good at all to hire only conformist geniuses, because they’ll merely go along with whatever the prevailing midwit culture has already decided.
To be clear: You can’t have an organisation comprised of disagreeable unconscientious eccentric geniuses, but you most definitely want a few of them. They’re the people who tell you when you’re wrong, who figure out new things, and who keep everybody honest. The Head Girls also have a role to play, and a valuable one, but their overweening dominance since the liberalisation of society after the twentieth century has entirely displaced more abrasive, corrective elements. This is primarily why Western learned culture has become so insufferable, and this insufferability in turn acts as a great filter. If you want to think for yourself, if you have original ideas, I strongly recommend that you stay the hell away from the academic professions.
Because the influence of intelligent people is heavily modulated by social and institutional factors, what “smart people” do and believe is therefore not a great heuristic for working out what is correct or advisable. As IQ increases, people converge on a set of beliefs and behaviours that are manifestly not the best that our collective cognitive capacity has to offer. Rather, they are both characteristic of and inherent to that somewhat smart, highly conformist segment of the population that also happens to exercise the most social influence.
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