Retracted Paper Claims Religion Keeps Dumb People From Murdering Each Other

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I’m not really sure what I want to talk about today so let’s bring out my idea hat. It’s full of different topics and is really helpful for finding a stress-free way to find something to talk about. Let’s see, first up we have…”race.” Huh. You know what, let me just reach in and pick out a different one. “IQ.” Shit. Hold on, let’s just try one more time. “Religion?” What the fuck, Idea Hat? Okay, last chance. “Criminal justice reform.” I HATE YOU IDEA HAT

That’s right, today we are talking about a single study that combines race, IQ, religion, and criminal justice reform, a bunch of topics that are rife with misunderstanding, poorly defined, scientifically complicated, and prone to start a hell of a lot of arguments in the comments. Fun! 

Back in January, Psychological Science published a paper titled “Declines in Religiosity Predict Increases in Violent Crime—but Not Among Countries With Relatively High Average IQ”, authored by Cory Clarke, Roy Baumeister, Bo Winegard, and others. Here’s what the authors argue: societies with “more cognitively gifted citizens” don’t require religion in order to be peaceful, while societies with “relatively lower average IQs” benefit from religion regulating violent behaviors. They say that this “raise(s) questions about how secularization might differentially affect groups of different mean cognitive ability.”

“Perhaps then,” they write, “highly educated and intelligent groups should be humble about promoting the unique and relatively novel values that thrive among them and perhaps should be cautious about mocking certain cultural narratives and norms that are perceived as having little value in their own society.”

It’s stunning to see someone admonish “intelligent groups” for mocking religion in the midst of a paper arguing that religion is good for keeping stupid people from murdering each other. “Hey atheists, I know you want to laugh about how fake religion is, but did you ever stop and think that maybe without belief in a God a bunch of DUMB DUMBS would start stabbing each other? Yeah, thought so. Maybe try to be a little humble next time.”

As you may have already guessed, this paper is trash. Luckily, enough people read it and pointed out that it was trash that the authors themselves decided to retract it, leading to a lot of racists crying that the Politically Correct Mafia has come for them. First they came for the phrenologists and I did not speak out, because the bumps on my head meant that I was superior to the phrenologists anyway…

But yeah, it turns out their data was based in part on some “highly questionable” sources. Their data on IQ was based on a variety of different measures, some of which are IQ tests and some of which are things like school assessment studies. They estimated an average IQ for each country, which is problematic enough, but then for countries where they had no data they simply imputed data from countries nearby. For instance, if they didn’t have data for the United States they could just average together Canada and Mexico and bam, now you’ve got some science going. They did the same thing for homicide data. Don’t know a countries’ average homicide rate? Just guess based on the countries around it. How different could it be?

Those are the ostensible reasons the study was pulled, but experts like Andrew Gelman, a statistician at Columbia, point out that even aside from the bad data, how on earth do they justify their conclusion that, and I quote, “The prescriptive values of highly educated groups (such as secularism, but also libertarianism, criminal justice reform, and unrestricted sociosexuality, among others) may work for groups that are highly cognitively sophisticated and self-controlled, but they may be injurious to groups with lower self-control and cognitive ability.” Like, even if you believe that, first of all, entire countries or “groups” (wink wink) are smarter than other entire countries or “groups,” and if you believe that those dumber groups benefit more from religion when it comes to violence, how on earth does it follow that those dumber groups would not also benefit from “criminal justice reform” or “unrestricted sociosexuality?” I’m so sorry you’re dumb, Vatican City, but you have religion. If you try to have casual sex or ask for cops to stop beating the shit out of people, you’ll probably be worse off because you have no self-control. Because you’re stupid. Looking at you, THE POPE.

I gotta say, I’m slightly impressed that the authors retracted their study before Psychological Science had the chance to do it for them, but I’m not sure these researchers are walking away from this with a better, more nuanced understanding of IQ, religion, or racism and xenophobia in the sciences. I say that because of the fact that one scientist, Roy Baumeister, made waves by arguing vociferously that women were only in the sciences because male scientists wanted to fuck them and now that they’re in they’re getting way too much acclaim. Another, Bo Winegard, is a proponent of some, let’s say, interesting hypotheses about race and IQ, including being a fan of the white supremacist “cold winter” hypothesis that suggests white people are smarter than black people because it takes more intelligence to survive a winter in Europe than any time in Africa. Sometimes a bias is so ingrained that it takes more than an entire Internet of statisticians pointing out your mistakes to change someone’s mind.

Still, I look forward to seeing this paper properly martyred by Nazis, Joe Rogan fans, and whatever “Intellectual Dark Web” heroes haven’t given themselves brain damage yet. When you hear them cry about the SJWs, remember that the SJWs in this case were statisticians who care about those hot social justice topics: accurate data and conclusions that follow from the premise.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca is a writer, speaker, YouTube personality, and unrepentant science nerd. In addition to founding and continuing to run Skepchick, she hosts Quiz-o-Tron, a monthly science-themed quiz show and podcast that pits comedians against nerds. There is an asteroid named in her honor. Twitter @rebeccawatson Mastodon Instagram @actuallyrebeccawatson TikTok @actuallyrebeccawatson YouTube @rebeccawatson BlueSky

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  1. I’m very disappointed that this made it out of review. Psych Science is the flagship journal of the American Psychological Society (very different than the APA, American Psychological Association). It’s been a long time since I worked in the field, but I always respected Psych Science.

  2. IQ tests are supposed to be independent of cultural background, education, wealth and other factors, but they are not and never have been. Using garbage to prove garbage never ends well.

    But maybe the “cold winter” theory explains why the giants who live north of the wall are the smartest and most decent people in Westeros?

  3. Any time you measure intelligence of a large group of people like the population of a country, and you finding that they are substantially “below average” on average, you need to seriously questions your methodology for testing intelligence.

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