How to use bad stats to justify calling conservatives stupid…

Today in the morning I opened this popular Czech online political blog/magazine that is mostly left-wing oriented. What caught my attention were two articles claiming that some scientists found that conservatism and right wing orientation are a result of – guess what – lower intelligence in childhood. What a coincidence, isn’t it?

There were links to the original article so I went to check out what all the fuss was about.

Turns out it was this article: “Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes: Lower Cognitive Ability Predicts Greater Prejudice Through Right-Wing Ideology and Low Intergroup Contact” by Gordon Hodson and Michael A. Busseri and it was published in the Psychological Science Journal. For easier reference I am copying their abstract here:

Despite their important implications for interpersonal behaviors and relations, cognitive abilities have been largely ignored as explanations of prejudice. We proposed and tested mediation models in which lower cognitive ability predicts greater prejudice, an effect mediated through the endorsement of right-wing ideologies (social conservatism, right-wing authoritarianism) and low levels of contact with out-groups. In an analysis of two large-scale, nationally representative United Kingdom data sets (N = 15,874), we found that lower general intelligence (g) in childhood predicts greater racism in adulthood, and this effect was largely mediated via conservative ideology. A secondary analysis of a U.S. data set confirmed a predictive effect of poor abstract-reasoning skills on antihomosexual prejudice, a relation partially mediated by both authoritarianism and low levels of intergroup contact. All analyses controlled for education and socioeconomic status. Our results suggest that cognitive abilities play a critical, albeit underappreciated, role in prejudice. Consequently, we recommend a heightened focus on cognitive ability in research on prejudice and a better integration of cognitive ability into prejudice models.

I quickly skimmed through the article so I could see what sort of evidence they based their claims on, and sure enough, I found suspicious and badly reported results. Authors used very large samples so there is no surprise their findings were statistically significant. However, their effect sizes seemed to be too low to be worth reporting. You can see basically all the results on the figure bellow (hope it’s not illegal to post it here).

My stats knowledge is not as good as I would like it to be, and authors did not report the used statistical tool explicitly enough (at least for me – I knew it was some regression/path analysis, but the reported coefficients looked strange to me) so I was trying to verify that I was interpreting their findings correctly. Turns out I was probably right, or at least this blog supports my original suspicions. I recommend to read the whole posts, as the author goes much farther in analyzing of the article’s flaws. Overall, the researchers did not find anything worth mentioning, because the effect they described is clearly somewhere from the realm of correlations between the height and intelligence. The only practical application of this finding is that it may serve as a bad example in stats class….

References:

Hodson, G., & Busseri, M. A. (2012). Bright Minds and Dark Attitudes. Psychological Science, 23(2), 187-195.

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