Bryan Caplan  

Do Labels and Good-versus-Evil Stories Drain IQ?

Should Medicare Be Cut?... Consistency and IQ...
I'm a libertarian, a natalist, an atheist, a credentialist, an economist, an optimist, a behavioral economist, an elitist, a public choicer, a dualist, a Szaszian, a moral realist, an anti-communist, a pacifist, a hereditarian, a Masonomist, a moral intuitionist, a free-market Keynesian, a deontologist, a modal realist, a Huemerian, a Darwinian, the other kind of libertarian (=a believer in free will), and much more.  I could spend hours adding additional labels to the list.  So it naturally caught my attention when Will Wilkinson remarked:
People call me libertarian but I don't in part because I'm not one, but mostly because I suspect that accepting any such label dings my IQ about 15 points.
If the IQ ding is additive, my many labels have long since reduced me to the intelligence of a cranberry.  And even if the ding isn't additive, I don't have 15 IQ points to spare.  Especially not if Tyler is right about the effect of good-versus-evil stories on IQ:
As a simple rule of thumb, just imagine every time you're telling a good vs. evil story, you're basically lowering your IQ by ten points or more. If you just adopt that as a kind of inner mental habit, it's, in my view, one way to get a lot smarter pretty quickly. You don't have to read any books. Just imagine yourself pressing a button every time you tell the good vs. evil story, and by pressing that button you're lowering your IQ by ten points or more.
I'm not as big on good-versus-evil stories as I am on self-labeling.  I strive to be friendly to everyone.  I see noble adversaries, embarrassing allies, and various shades of grey.  But there's a good-versus-evil story just below my surface, pitting reasonable, constructive, iconoclastic people who agree with me against the benighted masses and their emotional, whiny, conventional intellectual apologists.  If Tyler and Will are both right, I'm down a minimum of 25 IQ points.

But what reason is there to believe that either Will or Tyler is correct?  There are obviously many labels and many good-versus-evil stories that drain your effective IQ.  Think Leninist,  creationist, or astrologer.  But it is equally obvious that many labels and many good-versus-evil stories boost your effective IQ.  Think behavioral economist, Darwinian, or astronomer.  ("And yet it moves.")  Will and Tyler act as if these differences don't exist.

Will and Tyler might protest that the average effect of labels and good-versus-evil stories is to reduce effective IQ.  But they'd be wrong to do so.  Agnostic, neutral thinkers have little to say and less to teach.  Yes, it's better to suspend judgment rather than embrace error.  But intellectual progress only occurs after someone discovers and publicizes good reasons to adopt an ism.

Aren't there intellectual risks of accepting labels and good-versus-evil stories?  Sure.  Labels can blind us to counter-evidence.  Good-versus-evil stories give us an excuse to damn the messenger instead of considering his message.  But the wise response is to strive to compensate for these specific risks - not to salute the intellectual equivalent of the Swiss flag.  Indeed, when you really think about it, labels and good-versus-evil stories are unavoidable.  Will's implicit label is "label-avoidism."  Tyler's implicit good-versus-evil story is "the never-ending war between the good people who don't believe in good-versus-evil stories and the evil people who do."

Why am I so inclined to defend labels and good-versus-evil stories?  Because when I review my life's work, I realize that I owe my life's work to my labels and stories.  You don't have to be a libertarian to appreciate The Myth of the Rational Voter, but without my libertarian goggles I would never have conceived the project.  The same goes for virtually everything I've written.  You might point to something like "Why I Am Not an Austrian Economist" as a counter-example, but you shouldn't.  I couldn't have written that piece if I weren't a lapsed Austrian, and wouldn't have written it if I didn't have a superior alternative (and label) to offer.

Labels and good-versus-evil often effectively drain IQ.  Many drain 25 points or more.  But there's no substitute for actually examining the specific content of the labels and stories.  Stupid worldviews reduce IQ.  Smart worldviews raise IQ.  Declaring "a plague on all your houses" solves nothing.

COMMENTS (27 to date)
Milos writes:

That is well said, Bryan.

Vipul Naik writes:

Anybody who argues that saying or doing something reduces your effective IQ by 15 points is reducing his/her effective IQ by 15 points.

Evan writes:

I think what matters is the mechanism that causes the IQ-drain. In my opinion the majority of the IQ drain comes from the tendency of labels to divide people into tribes. There then comes a temptation to act in the self-interest of your tribe, rather than act according to the principles your tribe is built on.

That's why we have stories like Democrats forgiving Obama for privacy invasions they'd castigate Bush for and Republicans allowing Bush to implement economic policies they'd call "socialist" if Obama did them. The IQ drains comes from the fact that all your IQ is going to explain why you're suddenly forsaking the principles your tribe was built on in order to stand behind its individual members.

If you make sure to stick to the principals and beliefs your label describes, and not support other people for no reason other than that they identify with the same label as you, you can avoid the IQ drain.

James writes:

In a world where good vs evil stories really happen and where people really do hold views that come close to the meanings of labels, deliberately avoiding labels and good vs evil stories will lead to faulty thinking.

Since my only motivation to avoid damaging my IQ would be to avoid faulty thinking, Will and Tyler's advice seems inapplicable.

Maybe they have reasons to preserve their IQ that do not relate to avoiding faulty thinking?

Andy Wood writes:

Has anyone performed a randomised controlled trial to measure IQ before and after the subjects have applied putatively IQ-draining labels to themselves?

Greg G writes:

All learning is a form of prejudging future questions to some extent. But judging future situations well also requires being open to new possibilities.

Labels and good versus evil stories are signals the latter process has been closed down in particular areas. Sometimes that is necessary but much more often it short circuits the thought process.

Will and Tyler have the best of this one in my opinion.

Javier Hidalgo writes:

A perhaps relevant quote from Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson's paper "Are Disagreements Honest":

Scientists with unreasonably optimistic beliefs about their research projects may work harder and thus better advance scientific knowledge (Everett 2001; Kitcher 1990). Instead of simply agreeing with some standard position, people can better show off their independence and intelligence by inventing original positions and defending them. In response to our informal queries, numerous academics have told us that trying to disagree less would feel dishonest, destroy their identity, make them less human, and risk paralyzing self-doubt.

Self-favoring priors can thus be “rational” in the sense of helping one to achieve familiar goals, even if they are not “rational” in the sense of helping one to achieve the best possible estimate of the true situation (Caplan 2000).
The suggestion here is that, if you believe that your academic work is a dagger into the heart of evil, then you may be more likely to do good work and advance knowledge, even if you don't necessarily advance your own knowledge.

RPLong writes:

Reason implies decision. If you engage in dialectics with respect to ethics, you are bound to come to a conclusion about right vs. wrong, i.e. good vs. evil.

If not, I'd argue you're not very good at dialectics. So now we have a choice: Either we come to firm moral conclusions about good and evil, thereby lowering our IQs, or we are bad logicians, in which case we have comparatively lower IQs to begin with.

Is there anything that raises one's IQ, other than simply agreeing with people who claim that categories and moral judgements are stupid?

Brian writes:

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Eric Falkenstein writes:

How can you be a deontologist and an economist? Doesn't that presuppose some anti-utilitarian, anti-empirical, natural law? I mean, every evil dictator you probably hate had a vision that was 'good faith' at some level, so should we give them a pass because they meant well?

John S writes:

A good-vs.-evil story isn't just "a story that involves choices between a better and a worse outcome." It's a story in which self-evidently bad people, people motivated primarily by self-evidently evil desires, do evil things, while good people try to stop them.

Your blogs follow the former mental model. Cowen's quote concerned the latter.

Bostonian writes:

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John Thacker writes:

And as you've noted before, you have a collection of views which is highly correlated among professional philosophers with being theist, yet are not. And perhaps being a theist goes along with being fine with good-versus-evil stories as well.

Almost seems like you have a collection of views left over from your religious upbringing, but without the theism.

Derek Scruggs writes:

In your personal life, I think it's best to adopt the strategy of avoiding good vs. evil formulations. However, when you're trying to win power -- politically or in business -- good vs. evil is powerful. Steve Jobs famously compared IBM to Big Brother.

Henrico writes:

I've never found the motivations for modal realism -- as opposed to many worlds interpretation of QE, which MR distinctly is not -- very compelling. Very much like Platonism, or number realism, I have never seen much to recommend the view. A number of folks I respect do hold those views, but I just haven't ever felt the pull to the arguments they advance in favor of them.

What is the basic problem you see as being solved by MR (curious also, are you a number realist too?)?

Sean writes:

Henrico said:

"Very much like Platonism, or number realism..."

Just a nitpick: one can be a Platonist about things other than mathematical entities -- there is Platonism about properties and relations, propositions, logical objects and so forth -- and not all mathematical realisms are Platonistic, like, e.g., the immanent realism of people like Maddy.

Herico Otto writes:


Perhaps a poorly used comma, but I meant to use Plantonism in the broad sense you describe and number realism as a separate overlapping concept, but one that seems to be motivated by the same intuition as MR (but which has never grabbed me, to such a degree I find the this set of beliefs a bit bemusing). I would not include immanent realism in my comment, just straight up "these entities exist" sorts of realisms.

Steve Sailer writes:

Bryan, you are a smart guy, but your dogmatism leads you to start stupid arguments over, say, immigration, in which you get badly outargued by your commenters. If you had never developed a crush on Julian Simon, your posts on immigration would be much more sensible.

Brendan writes:

Whether labels drain IQ kinda depends on whether you're more of an individualist or collectivist. Steve Sailer's book on Obama gives you a pretty good look at what happens when a high IQ collectivist commits his life to living up to the Real Black label.

lawrence d'anna writes:

I think your right. But so is tyler.

The problem with labels and stories is when you adoot one as your own, and somebody contradicts it, instead if actually thinking and examaning specifics you get angry and defensive and at that point your brain doesnt work anymore. At least thats how most people react. You apparently dont, as much, so stories have served you well.

Xerographica writes:

"But there's no substitute for actually examining the specific content of the labels and stories."

I can't help but wonder if you've actually examined the specific content of pragmatarianism. If you have...then what led you to reject the label? Here's the primary reason why people reject the label...Unglamorous but Important Things.

I think when a libertarian rejects the pragmatarian label...well...their IQ obviously doesn't drop. But it certainly does reveal their economic ignorance. Unless I'm actually revealing my own economic ignorance. If that's the case...then please feel free to point out exactly which economic concepts I myself am ignorant of.

Scott Sumner writes:

I couldn't help but notice that you left out "market monetarist." Deduct 25 points.

Pavel D writes:

If we take IQ literally (e.g. the score on Raven's progressive matrices test), all statements about labels increasing or decreasing IQ are wrong. One area in which labels and strict adherence to an intellectual tradition could hurt is prediction. In Phillip Tetlock's classic "Expert Political Prediction", hedgehogs, strict believers in a big model of the world, are poorer forecasters than foxes, who have more eclectic cognitive styles. Notably, these results hold after controlling for IQ. It is useful to think of IQ and cognitive style as inputs and task performance as an output. In the case of political predictions, people who believe in an -ism perform less well than their equally smart, foxier counterparts.

Contrary to Bryan's conjecture that if adhering to one label makes one dumber, then adhering to many would make matters even worse, juggling multiple mental models could make one's cognitive style more eclectic, and thus improve forecasting performance.

K.R. McKenzie writes:

You said that your career has benefited from adopting labels. It seems to me, and I think Tyler may agree, that his career, very broadly defined, has benefited from not labeling himself.

Do you this is true? What do you think Tyler's career would look like if he actively attached more and stronger labels to himself? A fun imagination exercise.

John Fast writes:

Bryan: I share all your labels except that I am a theist and also skeptical about free will versus determinism.

Steve Sailer: It must be very simple and easy for you to point out somewhere that Bryan's arguments for open borders are clearly refuted. Would you mind pointing me at any such place?

Nathan Smith writes:

Steve Sailer: Let's debate open borders sometime over at my new blog home, It will be an easy argument for me to win, but I'll still probably learn a lot.

Bryan: Bravo! Yes, exactly, making a stand stimulates critical thinking. Intellectual history is made by people who have a dog in the fight.

Ari T writes:
"But intellectual progress only occurs after someone discovers and publicizes good reasons to adopt an ism."
People only seem to adopt isms in politics and political science. Physicists don't use labels. In fact almost in any (natural) science where you can verify your results, and real progress is made, people don't like to attach themselves to any single idea too much. Isms seem to be only popular in areas where you cannot be easily be proven wrong. Isms seem to be more about signalling than truth to me.

I dislike labels for the reason that it allies yourself with beliefs that may or may not be right. If there ever was a stock market in politics, I'd imagine it being rather volatile like real stock markets. Information changes and so should our beliefs. By associating oneself with an ism, I think one becomes to certain extent immune to criticism of it, probably for signalling reasons, and reluctant to change their opinion to get their ism fit the picture.

Besides, the signalling reasons seem to be very important keeping very bad policies in place where a lot of people or institutions would be embarrassed if their pet beliefs were proven wrong, and thus we're stuck with them.

I don't deny labels and isms might have instrumental value, but I guess I prefer pluralist thinkers much more. Isms tend to develop group think and all kinds of institutions to protect the existence of such isms. Religion or aust... comes to mind.

Politics isn't about policy.

"Anybody who argues that saying or doing something reduces your effective IQ by 15 points is reducing his/her effective IQ by 15 points."
So you just reduced your IQ by 15 points? ;-)

You're taking Tyler too literally. As a metaphor, yes I've definitely seen both in Internet (more here) and real life behavior that signals, if not low IQ, then at least intellectual laziness. And I do consider telling most evil vs good stories to be part of them.

"Has anyone performed a randomised controlled trial to measure IQ before and after the subjects have applied putatively IQ-draining labels to themselves?"
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