The Causes of Poverty (73): Low IQ?

This kind of reasoning is all too common: the poor are stupid and they are poor because they make stupid decisions. Unsurprisingly, it’s mostly the rich who indulge in this kind of pop-psychology, because if true it would also mean that they are wealthy because they are smart.

However, the rich don’t necessarily have higher IQ. There’s no correlation at all between wealth and IQ, not even a weak one.

And that’s not really surprising: a lot of high paying activities do not require high IQ (I’m looking at you, Sarah Palin). Conversely, it’s not uncommon for smart people to be poor.

So, if the wealthy aren’t making a living that is proportionate to their intelligence, then their wages are determined by other factors: specific skills if we want to be kind; networking, nepotism, degrees paid for by their parents if we want to be nasty. And the wages of the poor aren’t caused by their IQ either.

However, let’s just assume for a minute that the poor do indeed have lower IQ than average. Maybe all this would tell us is that the pressure and stress of poverty reduces our cognitive abilities. So, if there’s is an effect, the causation goes the other way: the poor aren’t poor because they are stupid; they are stupid – if they are indeed stupid – because they are poor.

A more fundamental objection to the “poverty is caused by low IQ” narrative: IQ itself is a highly dubious notion. Children’s IQ scores are all over the places, changing almost overnight (up and down). Over longer periods of time, average IQ among populations rises (which is known as the Flynn effect). There is also no agreement on the heritability of IQ – the fluid nature of IQ results seems to argue against heritability. So intelligence is neither fixed nor obviously innate. Environmental factors – including education – change people’s IQ. Much has been made of the fact that African Americans score lower than European Americans on IQ test. However, when black or mixed-race children are raised in white rather than black homes, their test scores rise dramatically. And then I don’t even mention the cultural, gender or race biases inherent in a lot of the IQ test questions (for example, it’s clear that IQ tests are designed for very specific roles in a post-industrial advanced society).

Even more fundamentally: there is no one single and fixed quality or ability called “intelligence” that IQ tests could measure. What these tests do measure is one very particular type of intelligence. They don’t measure planning abilities, long term memory, creativity, emotional intelligence or any practical intelligence such as street smarts, and yet most of us would consider those abilities as essential parts of intelligence.

But again, let’s assume that the “poor = low IQ” claim is true, that the causation goes from low IQ to poverty and not vice versa, that IQ is a good measure of intelligence, that we have a good and objective definition of intelligence, and that the scientifically ascertained lack of innate intelligence among the poor is impervious to any social intervention such as education and redistribution. What would that imply? Inherited disadvantage is unfair and unjust. People should not suffer from inherited disadvantage. Even if the wealth of the rich and the poverty of the poor are the result of innate IQ, that would not lead to a conclusion favorable to the “poor = low IQ” crowd, because the conclusion would be that the poor need to be compensated.

More on poverty and IQ here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Poverty (58): Low Average Intelligence in Poor Countries?

The claim that poverty is caused by the stupidity of the poor has an international equivalent: some people look at the fact that most wealthy countries in the world are mainly populated by white people, combine this fact with the claim that non-Western countries have lower average IQ, and conclude that they have found the reason why poor countries are poor.

This is of course a nasty piece of victim blaming on a global scale. It’s also borderline racist. Moreover, if successful, this view will make poverty reduction impossible, given the genetic determinism that is often paired with IQ analysis. If kids get their IQ from their parents, if IQ determines wealth, and if nothing else causes poverty, then why bother doing anything at all?

For example, a book by Richard Lynn and Tatu Vanhanen titled “IQ and the Wealth of Nations” suggests that the average IQ in Africa is around 70, much lower than in East Asia or the West. They also claim that lower average IQ scores are the cause of low levels of development, income, literacy, life expectancy etc.

There are many problems with this theory. First, most of their data are made up. IQ score aren’t available for many countries. At best, the scores are extrapolated on the basis of tiny samples. Second, the theory confuses cause and effect. It’s poverty that drives down IQ rates. The Flynn effect suggests that factors such as improved nutrition, health care and schooling improve IQ test performance. IQ determinism is simply wrong.

Even if the data could tell us that poor countries have indeed relatively low average IQ rates, that’s no reason to assume that low IQ causes poverty. Causation may go the other way, and it’s also possible that there’s something else, a third element that causes both poverty and low IQ, for example the experience of colonialism. The colonizers were no more interested in creating education institutions than in fostering sustainable, non-extractive economies. Don’t forget about the omitted variable bias. However, now we’re assuming that the data can tell us about IQ, and they currently can’t.

Other posts in this series are here.