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Research Suggests “Smart” People Are Better at Bending Data to Fit Their Biases

Over the last few days I’ve come across a piece of research, more than once, suggesting that a high IQ doesn’t protect you from certain kinds of bias. The first was a defeating-defeater style video by Inspiring Philosophy. The video attempts to undercut claims that a higher IQ leads to atheism. Instead it seems that it is merely a correlation and furthermore, people with lower IQ’s may just be following what is culturally in vogue. In the US it is religiosity but elsewhere lower IQ folks may in fact follow atheism if it is more prominent culturally. The video is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM Don’t rush off and watch it (do watch it later), but note that I first came across the article there at about 2:24.

I saw the research again in Anne Duke’s book Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts.

On page 62 she writes,

That is a magic line. “The smarter you are, the better you are at constructing a narrative that supports your beliefs, rationalizing and framing the data to fit your argument or point of view.” If I may, sprinkle my own bias right into this blog post: I feel like I see this in academic theological contexts. Lots of smart people, reframing and recontextualizing available data to fit their own narrative. Duke goes on and writes that:

In 2012, psychologists Richard West, Russell Meserve, and Keith Stanovich tested the blind-spot bias—an irrationality where people are better at recognizing biased reasoning in others but are blind to bias in themselves. Overall, their work supported, across a variety of cognitive biases, that, yes, we all have a blind spot about recognizing our biases. The surprise is that blind-spot bias is greater the smarter you are. The researchers tested subjects for seven cognitive biases and found that cognitive ability did not attenuate the blind spot. “Furthermore, people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.” In fact, in six of the seven biases tested, “more cognitively sophisticated participants showed larger bias blind spots.”  They have since replicated this result.

The bit of research I’ve been referring to above, cited by both sources, is by West, Meserve and Stanovich (2012): “Cognitive Sophistication Does Not Attenuate the Bias Blind Spot.”

Note the topic of a similar piece on Stanovich’s Research Gate page published the next year (2013): “Myside Bias, Rational Thinking and Intelligence.”

Personally, Stanovich’s page on ResearchGate has a number of fascinating research titles that look like they would make for an interesting conversation partner with theology given the high number of discussions that intersect the idea of “rationality” and theology. Is theology rational? What is it to pursue theology rationally? Is worldview X more rational that worldview Y? You get the idea.

Yes, I realize this is only one piece of research and that one is better off with a meta analysis of multiple findings that corroborate this. Still, its too juicy to leave uncommented.

My interest in this research is connected to the following question: “If high IQ does not protect us from blind-spot bias generally then it is likely the same in theological work. How then can we avoid blind spot bias in theological work?” Does this suggest that interdisciplinary projects are the most “rationally safe” ways to do theological work?

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