No. That is to say, Yes. But not really. Actually, what we have here is an badly phrased question: just what do we mean when we ask “Are men smarter than women”?
We’re asking this again, because (via HotAir) The Daily Mail has asked. And, even though that paper is, as many readers have insisted, England’s equivalent of the New York Post, an article by retired professor Richard Lynn has, as they say in journalism, stirred up controversy.
Judging by the comments garnered at the paper and at HotAir, most do not understand the question, or purposely—or willfully—misunderstand it. Part of the difficulty is that the question is badly put.
Interpretation one: all men are smarter than all women. This is false, obviously. And not on any theoretical grounds: its falsity rests on a solid empirical base.
Interpretation two: some men are smarter than some women. This is clearly true; it has been amply empirically verified. But so has its inverse: some women are smarter than some men.
Interpretation three: some men are smarter than all women. This is true; but once more, so is its opposite: some women are smarter than all men. How can this be?
Because we, like everybody else, have been playing fast and loose with the word “smarter.” We’re letting everybody interpret the word, via the question, in any way they like.
Before we go farther, we have to understand the differences in types of evidence used in answering who’s “smarter.” There are three: empirical observations, “theory”, and counterfactual arguments.
We can dismiss theoretical “evidence” immediately. There are only two theories of any importance. The first we might call political correctness. This states that the sexes are equal, no matter what, and if there are any observed differences between the sexes, it is because one sex has successfully dominated another for century upon century.
This theory falsifies itself, and obviously. For if one sex has successfully dominated another for centuries, it is clear that that sex is smarter in the art of domineering, which is to say, politics. Therefore, both sexes are not equal in all things. Any riposte based on physical differences also fails.
Further, the idea behind this theory is counterfactual. It says that if a certain situation did not hold historically, the observational evidence (discussed next) would have been different. There is no way to know whether any counterfactual like this is true. Desire is no substitute for evidence.
The second theory is that, by fiat, all women are smarter than all men at mental activity X, whatever X might be. It has to be “mental activity” because of the obvious physical differences between the sexes. This theory might be true for some as-yet rigorously classified mental activity, but it has not been observed to be true for common mental activities. Which is to say, some men have been observed to be better than some women at some activities, even though more women are better than most men at those activities. I have in mind “local” politics, though it’s not important whether I’m right about that.
Direct empirical observations tell us, in particular mental activities, who the smartest person (singular!) was. There is, of course, subjectivity in this, because of the difficulty of rigorously defining the scope of the mental activity. Take physics: here, Isaac Newton is probably tops. Therefore we can say that this man was smarter than all women—but also smarter than all other men.
The difficulty here, and a big one, is that only a certain few activities are gauged worthy of tracking. Physics and math are two of these worthies, local politics (“interpersonal relations”) is not. Therefore, whenever we say “smarter” we are including a value judgment about which mental activities are important, and in what contexts. This is why, when asking the main question, we must specify an activity.
Again, take physics. Any list—from all of history; we cannot exclude portions of our sample—of the best of the best includes a majority of men. However, what’s not tracked is the worst of the worst. That is, we cannot draw on all of history to find the stupidest. But we can look locally (in time and geography): here, we discover that the stupidest include a majority of men, too.
From this evidence, we can conclude that males exhibit more variability than do women. We also know that the averages of scores used to track these activities show men and women are roughly the same. These observations hold across a wide variety of routinely tracked mental activities. The implication of these facts gives us a working answer to the big question.
Take any equally sized group of men and women. Given the evidence we have compiled, and knowing nothing else except the sex of these individuals, the probability that more men than women in this group will be at the top on a commonly tracked (and valued) mental activity than women is greater than 50%. The “top” has to be some fraction less than half.
Switch “top” to “bottom” and the conclusion remains the same. We have no or little evidence whether this holds for non-tracked, or non-valued mental activities: it probably does not hold.
Also, the conclusion holds only for groups of sufficient size. If, say, there were only one man and one women, the probability, given the same evidence, is (approximately) 50% that the man will be smarter than the woman. This also means that the man is just as likely to be stupider.
Note that the “nothing else” includes ages, education, country of origin, and on an on. If we do know other probative information, then this naturally modifies the conclusion.
IQ is measured by taking a test or tests. From this observational evidence, it is supposed that those who score high are “smart” and that those who score low are “stupid.” The difficulty is that the IQ is said to measure “general intelligence” and not intelligence of a more specific type, like physics ability. IQ is in large measure a distraction.
Whether or not there is such a thing as general intelligence, or whether intelligence is multi- or unidimensional, is not relevant to our main conclusion. If we can narrowly and rigorously define a mental activity—like ability to do physics—than that is enough for us.
Whether or not somebody who evinces a large IQ score might be able to perform any given mental activity well is not relevant.