Skepticism: Your IQ must be this high to ride.

Friend of Skepchicktm Greg Laden was kind enough to put up a post to help promote Skepchicon, and it spawned some interesting discussion about what we do here at Skepchick. Most of it was stuff that’s been talked to death around here, about how we’re ruining skepticism with our bewbies. On this point, this is all I will say: There are many ways to be a woman in skepticism, different women have different goals and ideas on how to achieve those goals. We need to be secure in ourselves and stop cutting down anyone that approaches things differently if we are to get anywhere.

Skeptifem brought up a different point, though, that I think warrants some discussion. It’s something that’s been on my mind lately.

Oh, and as far as how smart all of the skepchicks are; this is another piece of the snobbery rampant in skeptic groups where intellect is equated with skepticism. Skepticism is a skill anyone can use to improve their lives, you really don’t have to be a genius to use it. Smart people can rationalize the hell out of things and be as not skeptical as any other person. Acting like it has anything to do with how smart you are alienates everyone. A focus on caring about the truth is something everyone can get behind, caring about the world you live in is something that doesn’t take any natural ability and is a really admirable quality of skeptics. Making it about intellect is almost like making it about how tall you are, it rejects people who could do some good based on an irrelevant quality.

Actually, I agree that intellectual snobbery does nothing for skepticism. Acting like we’re superior to believers and outright calling them stupid or silly is not helpful, and a person with a 150 IQ can be perfectly capable of believing in 100 irrational things. I think there is a nuanced discussion that needs to be had regarding the meaning and usage of the word “smart”, and the distinction between skeptical elitism and everyday intelligence.

I see a huge difference between ivory tower intellectual elitism (as in, “I have 85 letters after my name, from x, y, and z Prestigious Educational Institutions, therefore you are stupid and should grovel before me.”) and the plain and simple pursuit of truth on the part of everyday people. In fact, I think the latter example better defines the word “intellectual”, and is the quality that best exemplifies true skepticism. That’s not to say that all people with advanced degrees are elitist sticks in the mud: we’re down with the PhDs and the AAs and the GEDs alike. Look, it’s just a fact that some people have a higher IQ. And sometimes that fact is going to be a big factor in how those people’s lives turn out. Having a high IQ score or a schmancy degree doesn’t make you intelligent. Using your brain makes you intelligent. And using your brain to analyze claims and think critically makes you a skeptic.

Obviously, I can’t control how others perceive us, but I don’t think we’re presenting an image of intellectual snobbery. I see Skepchick as having two main aims: to spread skepticism and critical thinking to a broader and more diverse audience, and to offer a counterpoint to the way intelligent and independent women have traditionally been portrayed in our culture. In the service of that second goal, yes, sometimes some of us are going to talk about our intelligence, because for some of us, it’s a key part of who we are. What you won’t see us doing (and if you do see it, I do hope you will call us on it) is using intellect as a gauge for value.

I think a key to changing the perception that skepticism has a minimum IQ for entry lies in more average folks speaking up, especially people who work in fields other than science, which I’d like to think we’ve been doing more and more around here. Case in point: if you haven’t read my bio, I’ve been doing construction work for the past 10 years while working in fits and starts toward a bachelor’s degree. Yes, on paper, my IQ is high, but so far I’ve been far too lazy to use it in any kind of conventional sense. I’ve always viewed my intellect as something of a burden to live up to someone else’s definition of “potential”; it doesn’t make me better than anyone else, just more of a slacker.

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  1. I don’t think skepchick has ever been intellectually snobbish. As far as I see, all of the posts here has been about skepticism, how it affects our life, and really random, fun topics (which I really enjoy).

  2. Actually having a high IQ does mean you’re intelligent if capacity is the measuring stick. It certainly does not mean you are predestined to make good, rational and reasonable decisions, just more likely to. And lowering your expectations usually takes care of those pesky “potential” issues.

  3. *shakes bewbs*

    I was born with some genetic traits (decent rack, decent brain), which were a matter of luck. However, how I have developed them over my life is not a matter of luck (decent bras, decent books). So I have every right to be proud of either asset and show them off as I see fit (a calendar pic, a blog post).

    Neither is “better” or more important to me. They’re things that make me me, and also define how others react to me because we don’t live in Fairy Rainbow Land – preconceptions exist. I work around them, I work with them, I work over them, I work. And I win, frankly.

    I have no issue with marring skepticism with my bewbs, because if the presence of bewbs could mar it then skepticism needed to lighten up anyway.

    *shakes bewbs*

  4. @Advocatus Diaboli: And the initial development of IQ tests was never intended to measure overall intelligence; the goal was to identify mentally impaired children. And certainly intelligence is much more than any test can measure. However IQ tests have a long and proven history of reliably identifying a persons capacity in a number of domains that affect our ability to learn and use new information which is quite predictive of success in many areas of life.

  5. Generally “constructive criticism” is not taken with that degree of insensitivity and/or cruelty even when it is warranted and, in this case, it most certainly is not. manages to convey some very important material in a means which can be understood by all and in a fun and entertaining environment.

    This site is a pleasure to read.

    Everything in that blockquoted paragraph is essentially the opposite of what is “in fact the case.”

    Where did that expression come from?

    You’re doing it right.

  6. Smart people can rationalize the hell out of things and be as not skeptical as any other person.

    This is a point well worth remembering. Even a person with good native intelligence and a decent education can believe some highly irrational things and will tend to use that intelligence to rationalize those beliefs (usually without even realizing it), especially if he spends time with like-minded others who reinforce those beliefs or has some other incentive to not question those beliefs.

    Perhaps he was brainwashed with the belief from infancy (e.g., religion); perhaps the belief fulfills some inner need to feel special (e.g., psychic ability); perhaps he simply finds the belief’s falsity too upsetting to consider (e.g., innocent people don’t get sent to prison).

    What’s most important to skepticism isn’t a person’s intelligence per se, but a willingness (indeed, an eagerness) to consider not just ideas themselves, but the evidence given for them, whether the claim involves government conspiracies, medical miracles, or how well a given consumer product can do what it says it can do. It’s a matter of attitude more than it is a matter of intelligence.


  7. @Tracy King:

    *shakes bewbs*
    something something something
    *shakes bewbs*

    That’s how I read it! And that’s how all men will read it. You see, any attempt on our part to simultaneously process both sexiness and smartness confuses and frightens us. This is somehow your fault, so it’s your responsibility to protect our fragile minds, and must hide your sexiness when you want us to listen to your words. It’s just plain silly for you to expect us men to overcome any infantile and unproductive prejudices we possess.

  8. This reminds me of a long, long story, so feel free to moderate the hell out of it.

    Many years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting someone who was about as far from a skepchick as you can get: He was an old, septuagenarian Hoosier farmer (salt-of-the-earth, not-much-book-learnin’, name-your-stereotype) from an old farming family going back to the 19th century. I was a guest at someone’s family gathering, and I must have said something vaguely skeptical, because he says, “C’m’ere, Howard. Here’s a story you might enjoy.”

    Well, a few years ago I got this call from a feller from the State Department, and he says they’re bringing a bunch of farmers from Arabia to come and see how we farm in America. And would I like to get some farmers together to show ’em what we do. So, I call up a bunch of guys I know, and we talk about it, and pretty soon we’re pretty excited about the idea. And one feller says, “We should show them A-rabs a real Hoosier hog roast!” So I call the guy from the State Department, and tell him what we want to do. And he says, “That sounds great, but Arabs don’t eat pork.” And I said, “Well, what do they eat?” And says, “They like goat.” So I went back to the boys, and one of ’em says, “My daughter raised some goats for 4H, and now that the fair’s over, you can have one.” And another feller says, “I got a brand new hog roaster; never been used.” So it’s all set. And those A-rabs come out, and we show ’em how we do things. But then, the night before the hog roast, the State Department guy says, “Oh, I forgot to tell you. According to their religion, they can only eat kid goat before the adult teeth come in. Is that going to be a problem?” And I said I didn’t think it would be. Well, come’s the party, and you know the first thing those Arabs did was look inside that goat’s mouth to make sure it had no teeth. And the State Department guy comes up to me afterward and says, “Well, you certainly made an impression. They said they’ve never eaten kid goat that was so large and flavorful. How did you do it?” And that’s when I reached in my back pocket and showed him my Vise-Grips.

    And that’s how you do skepticism down on the farm.

  9. Can’t say I have been threatened by anyone’s IQ on here. At time I am a little intimated by how much everyone seems to know, but given that I just started on this skeptical journey a couple of months ago, I know there is much I don’t know – and I am certain everyone started off in the same position that I am in.

  10. @Howard:

    I don’t mean to sound… um… snobby and intellectual… but that story doesn’t say “skepticism” to me. It says “racism”… stupid Arabs can’t outsmart good hardworking Americans! And we’ll show them for not bein’ good pig eatin’ folk. We’ll meet them half-way, but we’ll still show them!

  11. There wouldn’t be any need for a skeptical movement if it were about intelligence, mensa would have it covered. I’ve never seen an intellectual pissing contest here, so I don’t see where that criticism’s coming from.

    Anyway, my brain can piss WAAAY farther than anyone else’s.

  12. This post reminds me of hearing Steven Novella criticize that Jimminy Neutron kids show because it treated science and scientists as an inaccessible other, impenetrable to all but the intellectual elite, when kids would be better served in seeing that science – like skepticism or critical thinking overall – is something everyone can and should use throughout the day.

    I don’t think skepticism will ever totally shake the “intellectual snobbery” image, because that’s the first go-to for a lot of people when their beliefs are challenged with ‘facts’ and ‘reason’, no matter how diplomatically they may be engaged. Regardless of smarts, there are a lot of people who seem really pleased to not think for themselves.

  13. @Elyse: Hmm… My storytelling abilities have let me down. That wasn’t at all my intent, and it certainly wasn’t what I got out of hearing the story. I was trying to keep a long story reasonably short, but maintain the gist of it, and I failed. Feel free to delete my post. Or leave it up, I guess, but I’m not sure how I could fix it now.

  14. I think there is something to be said for being skeptical when you work in an environment where you are not surrounded by people who are skeptical at all. (I tell myself this to make myself feel better at the end of the day of dealing with woo.)

  15. I’ve been nursing something of a conspiracy theory that PZ uleashed Skeptifem on the blogosphere to teach us a lesson about sucking the fun out of life for other people viz a viz the Bill Maher ordeal. It’s probably only partly true if at all but if he did pull it off I would have to say that he is a good deal more brilliant than I had previously given him credit.

  16. I am skeptical of the assertion that anything could be ruined with bewbies. Please try to support that assertion by making a 2010 Skepchick calendar. Or is argumentum ad picturesque a logical fallacy?

  17. @Elyse:
    “..And we’ll show them for not bein’ good pig eatin’ folk…”

    and yet you yourself do not eat meats. typical woman, playing both cards and not living the Uh-Mrrr-Ri-Kin Way Of Life in the way Beardy-Jesus-guy intended. ;)

  18. @James Fox: I’ve only studied psychology at an undergrad level so I could be wrong but I’m pretty sure that the only thing IQ tests do well is predict success at school. You know what else predicts success at school? Success at school. It’s not really a measure of ‘potential’ more a measure of the ability to solve problems of a specific type. That’s why you can study for them and get better and why cultures that aren’t exposed to that type of problem solving don’t do as well.

    Personally I think that measuring people’s IQ is at best at waste of time and at worst a tool for oppression.

  19. @Tracy King:

    I have no issue with marring skepticism with my bewbs, because if the presence of bewbs could mar it then skepticism needed to lighten up anyway.

    Boobs and scepticism are complementary goods as far as I’m concerned :)

    I think there is a real difference between intelligence and scepticism. In some ways, smart people are more vulnerable to poor logic since intelligence improves your ability to rationalise.

    Intelligence is like have a fast car, rationality is like having a good map. If you have a good map, a fast car gets you there quicker. If you have a misleading map, a fast car just gets you lost quicker.

  20. I’m going to quibble.

    Everybody take a moment, let the shock wear off.

    Being a skeptic is about being smart… for a given definition of smart. Skepticism is smart as a skill. It’s old school smart, using your skeptical work ethic and intellectual fundamentals rather than relying on your raw materials and flashy moves.

    To grab a definition off the web, smart is “showing mental alertness and calculation and resourcefulness”

    So the real problem isn’t the idea that all the skepchicks are smart (in fashion, discussion, and life), but the idea from skeptifem that smarts are something you get for free, rather than a skill anyone can develop.

  21. I came for the bewbies but I stayed for this.

    Actually, I agree that intellectual snobbery does nothing for skepticism. Acting like we’re superior to believers and outright calling them stupid or silly is not helpful, and a person with a 150 IQ can be perfectly capable of believing in 100 irrational things.

    The thing Skepchick has done for me is provide diversity. I’ve self identified as a skeptic since I saw Randi on Carson but I’ve never been a fan of all boys clubs. Skepchick is a breath (originally I typed breast by accident, weird) of fresh air and not just because I get to talk to girls but because of the way their presence changes the tone of everyone I talk to.

  22. @Advocatus Diaboli: I understand that is your opinion. However your opinion appears to be conjecture as opposed to the views of researchers and authorities in the field whose conclusions are supported by many decades of diligent and replicated scientific research that has produced huge amounts of reliable date.

  23. @James Fox: However IQ tests have a long and proven history of reliably identifying a persons capacity in a number of domains that affect our ability to learn and use new information which is quite predictive of success in many areas of life.

    I was with you right up to the last bit, but I was studying EQ a while ago and this wasn’t the information I came away with. EQ is still about as controversial as IQ (although I still have a strong emotional attachment to it — no pun intended), but I do remember a couple of things.

    One was a group that reanalyzed the data from _The Bell Curve_ with what they thought were better criteria for evaluating socioeconomic factors. Their conclusion was that The Bell Curve had given entirely too much credit to IQ. (

    There are also some people that try to find correlation between IQ and net worth. It doesn’t correlate well (

    I think this whole field is fraught. It is hard to agree on how to measure IQ and it is hard to agree on how to measure success. I had a very hard time finding quality research on the topic. There are also chicken/egg problems. If smart people tend to be successful and smart people tend to have smart babies, then how do you tease apart the effect of successful parents and smart babies in the data?

    The only thing I know for sure about smart people is they are the sort I like to hang out with.

  24. @davew: ” There are also chicken/egg problems. If smart people tend to be successful and smart people tend to have smart babies, then how do you tease apart the effect of successful parents and smart babies in the data?

    Regression toward the mean, near infinite genetic complexity within the genome… .

    I have no dog in the fight if someone thinks I’m saying IQ tests are some wonderful way to see what kind of person you will be; however as a predictor of success they are quite good. IQ tests are a tool that serve a function; they are not a magic mirror or crystal ball. When I have clients I suspect have cognitive delays I will often ask that an IQ test be part of their psychological evaluation. This is crucial information when determining if someone has the capacity to learn new tasks and make adequate decisions when significant safety issues are at stake.

  25. @jtradke: Skepchick Burkas: bring on the sexy in style this season!

    I admit that I post less than I should here because some of the regular commentors are a bit intimidating. However behind the semi-transparent screen of FB I tend to, um, let loose.

  26. @James Fox: This is crucial information when determining if someone has the capacity to learn new tasks and make adequate decisions when significant safety issues are at stake.

    So you’re coming at this from the other side. High IQ is not so much a predictor of success, but low IQ is a significant impediment?

    You might counsel someone to give up their dreams of being a physicist and concentrate on something more attainable like a two-term presidency?

  27. @sethmanapio: “So the real problem isn’t the idea that all the skepchicks are smart (in fashion, discussion, and life), but the idea from skeptifem that smarts are something you get for free, rather than a skill anyone can develop.”

    I think that’s a really important point. Skepticism, to me, shows that anyone can be “smart” and that you don’t need an innate gift to think rationally, nor does innate intelligence mean you automatically will. That’s the kind of thing that I see in Skepchick and the skepticism movement. I’m worried that there are those who do feel like there is an air of elitism or snobbery… maybe I just avoid anywhere I get those feelings myself without thinking much about it?

    Also, I know boobs are cool and all, but not all skepti-females have been so blessed. We need to raise awareness for nice asses as well!

  28. @James Fox: Wow, harsh dude! Also kind of misleading for other people who are reading this. There is definitely controversy in psychology about the validity of IQ tests, with plenty of respected researchers who oppose their use including Stephen Jay Gould and Binet himself.

    As you said they were only meant to be used for identifying children with mental retardation. Now they’re used by people like Arthur Jensen to argue that certain ethnic groups are less intelligent than others.

    So before you put your trust into the amazing predictive powers of IQ tests, think about what they’re really testing. Why is it that mean IQ is increasing over time as education levels increase? Shouldn’t IQ be independent of education level?

  29. @Advocatus Diaboli: Are you arguing that IQ tests are flawed and misused by many people or that they are worthless/evil? The former is closer to reality (and not incompatible with what James’s is saying), the latter seems to be taking it a bit far.

    Just because some idiots use it as a way to justify racism doesn’t make it evil. If so, you could say the same thing about genetics and evolution.

  30. @Advocatus Diaboli: IQ test results are known to reflect increasing socio economic circumstances, increased levels of education and a decrease in childhood illness and infections which can have an impact on cognitive functioning. These increases over time have been exclusively seen at the lower end of the spectrum, right where the increase could be reasonably predicted given observed social and environmental changes. Increases are not being seen in the middle and upper end of the spectrum and what increases that are seen are less than one standard deviation.

    I do not place any trust in IQ tests that is not warranted and based on a history of repeated use and research that demonstrates a reliable and demonstrative result, that’s how science works. And the overwhelming and compelling evidence as to the ability of this test to predict economic, educational and life success is indisputable. And opposition to certain uses of the IQ test or a disagreement with someone else’s conclusions regarding research data from IQ tests does not invalidate the test; it’s a difference of opinion with regard to conclusions based on the results. That person A gets a score of 105 and person B scores 95 is not in question. How and why the individuals scored differently is certainly open for discussion.

  31. @Advocatus Diaboli: Or to put it more simply, if a college student is barely able to pass algebra, then its damn sure calculus is a class not worth taking next quarter. And who is administering these evil stigmatizing tests to what population such that you would object? In a school setting to determine an effective educational program or to determine eligibility for federal disability funds I know of no other available option.

  32. I think Tracy just won comment of the year 2010. Go ahead and get the trophy made up. Way to peak early and crush the competition.

    > Tracy King // Jan 21, 2010 at 6:59 pm
    > @Elyse: Skeptijizzum…

  33. Referring to the IQ discussion, I would like to see the correlation between the IQs of those who agree with the validity of measuring it versus those who do not.

    I have a guess that those who score well have little problem with it, while those who do not score well don’t hold with measuring it.

  34. I am a former member of Mensa. When I joined I was excited to see the various SIG’s (special interest groups) where I could talk to people I could be reasonably sure were smart about things.

    They were listed alphabetically, so the first one was the 9/11 truth SIG. The astrology SIG wasn’t far down the list either. I joined the GenY SIG and spent most of the discussion time arguing with the climate change deniers and the birthers on that list. Just a little personal anecdote.

    For myself, I’m pretty sure IQ tests measure something and that something seems to correlate pretty well with analytical and abstract reasoning skills, but I’m not willing to say anything beyond that.

  35. As I said, Skeptifem’s comments were totally off the mark. I will say this though, and I hope this falls into the category of “constructive criticism.” In 4 years, and many incarnations on the web, no one from this site has so much as said hello to me.

  36. @carr2d2 I’m very glad to meet you and thank you for that.

    Unfortunately, this is a legitimate criticism. This is the first time anyone has replied to a comment I have made on any of these forums.

    I’m talking about: unanswered emails, unanswered tweets, rejected friend requests, the whole nine yards over a fairly long period of time.

    I can show you emails from: Steven Novella, Phil Plait, James Randi, Micheal Shermer …. ad nauseum. “Thank you for the add me bulletin,” “thank you for putting me on your blogroll,” “thank you for the follow friday tweet,” …. Honestly, while I understand women on the internet getting a lot of unwanted attention and the “nerd-rushing” and all that.

    The fact of the matter is that we are as much a part of this skeptical movement as you are.

  37. Intelligence is a tool that can be used to do a lot of things, some good, some bad, and some that are really stupid.

    Skepticism is an even more powerful tool that can keep you from thinking and believing things that are really stupid.

  38. While IQ isn’t a good measure of intelligence, and while it is true that smart people can believe very silly things, the fact is that there is a strong correlation between intelligence and various positions that are generally associated with skepticism. See for example, which discusses a correlation between intelligence and atheism (a subject which has been widely discussed). There are other subjects where this has been found to be the case (there was a study a few years ago showing that there was an inverse relationship between IQ and belief in alien visitations but I can’t seem to dig it up at the moment)

  39. I am about the last person to cheer for IQ tests, because I believe they are highly over-rated and there is a lot of evidence to support that. However, I think it is important to realize that they do have some value when it comes to certain metrics – as long as they are not the bottom line metric for any important decision. There is a lot of evidence to support the notion, for example, that people who score rather low on IQ tests are going to need certain kinds of help in school – and in the context of going into special education programs, people with a particularly high IQ are going to need certain kinds of help in school. In the context of a mental health care provider, an IQ test in the context of everything else the provider knows about the client can be extremely useful as well.

    All that said, I also believe that guys who are really bent on the importance of IQ are guys who happen to be afraid of really big trucks and needed some other form of compensation…

    And yes Joshua, there are correlations between belief in ET visitations and IQ – the same is true of belief in a lot of conspiracy theory crap.

  40. Rather than IQ or academic ability (or performance), I tend to use the terms “smart” or “intelligent” to refer to a person possessing the qualities of:
    *intellectual curiosity
    *a tolerance for subtlety, complexity and nuance
    *at least a latent inclination to critically evaluate and, if new evidence is encountered, re-evaluate ideas before accepting or rejecting them.

    I may not be alone with this.

    Would anyone contest that “intelligence” thus defined is a necessary criterion for “skepticism?”

  41. Azkyroth –

    While I think all of those encourage skepticism, they are not particularly critical. Ultimately all that is necessary to be a skeptic, is an unwillingness to accept mere common sense explanations for things. A refusal to believe everything one hears, simply because it makes sense. While I think some amount of at least some of those factors are important characteristics of people who actually get involved in discussing these issues – or get involved with skeptic groups, but by no means do I think they are essential characteristics of being a skeptic.

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