Do Labels and Good-versus-Evil Stories Drain IQ?
By Bryan Caplan
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
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.