Skeptic magazine publisher Michael Shermer has gotten onto the same “science can determine moral values” bandwagon as other scientistically-minded writers such as Sam Harris. But this commentary isn’t directly about Shermer’s latest book , and even less about Harris (about whose ideas I’ve written more than enough ). Rather, it concerns a more specific claim about science-driven moral progress made by Michael in a recent article that appeared in the libertarian Reason magazine, entitled “Are We Becoming Morally Smarter? The connection between increasing IQs, decreasing violence, and economic liberalism” . The piece is an interesting mix of good points, good reasoning, bad points, and bad reasoning. I am going to try to sort things out in the interest of stimulating further discussion.
Shermer begins by talking about the famous (and still poorly understood) “Flynn effect”  the observation that IQ test scores, when non standardized to the population average, have increased by two standard deviations throughout the 20th century: we have become “smarter.” Of course, one has to buy into the idea that IQ tests actually measure “intelligence,” or that the latter is even a sufficiently coherent concept to be quantified effectively. But for the sake of the argument, let’s say that cultural evolution (obviously, as Shermer himself readily acknowledges, this has nothing to do with biological evolution) has made it so that people are getting better at scoring high on a certain class of standardized test that has something to do with intelligence, at the least when the latter is understood in certain ways.
The controversy really heats up when we move from the observation of the Flynn effect to what it means and what is causing it. Shermer quotes Flynn himself as attributing “the effect to an accelerating capacity for people to view the world through ‘scientific spectacles.’” I’m not sure what that means, but the publisher of Skeptic magazine should be cautious about this sort of conclusion. If people really have increasingly been donning scientific spectacles during the past several decades, wouldn’t we expect, say, a correspondingly decreasing degree of acceptance of anti-scientific notions? Alas, this is clearly not the case, as demonstrated by repeated Gallup and NSF surveys about Americans’ beliefs in ghosts, telepathy, creationism, and so forth. These beliefs have been holding steady for decades, Flynn effect be damned.
Shermer (and Flynn) shift into an even more speculative mood immediately afterwards: “Flynn and his colleague William Dickens suggest that the increases in reasoning abilities may have started centuries ago with the industrial revolution, which required certain cognitive abilities not needed in a predominantly agricultural society.” It’s too bad we don’t have data on IQ going back to before the industrial revolution, though I seriously doubt that the history of humanity until that point had been characterized by low cognitive abilities. More likely than not, the Flynn effect is part artifice (because of substantial problems with the whole idea of IQ testing) and part the result that more people have become educated in certain ways of thinking, exactly those ways (not at all by coincidence) that lead to high scores on IQ tests. None of this is a bad thing, mind you, but grand claims about historical levels of intelligence ought to be tempered by the utter lack of corresponding historical data.
In the last paragraph of the first section of the article, Shermer tells us where he wants to go next, and why he began by talking about the Flynn effect: “Our improved ability to reason abstractly may also be the result of the spread of scientific thinking — reason, rationality, empiricism, skepticism. Thinking like a scientist means employing all our faculties to overcome our emotional, subjective, and instinctual brains to better understand the true nature of not only the physical and biological worlds, but the social world (politics and economics) and the moral world.”
Notice a few preliminary points, before we get to the meat of Michael’s argument: i) the assumed equation of scientific thinking with “reason, rationality, empiricism, skepticism,” as if these were inventions of the scientific revolution, rather than some of the very attitudes that contributed to make the scientific revolution possible; ii) the artificial, and both philosophically and scientifically flawed, opposition of reason and emotion, where of course the latter is bad, the former is unquestionably good, David Hume (and modern neuroscience) be damned; iii) the overt suggestion that scientific thinking leads to moral development. The latter is the true main focus of the rest of the article.
At the beginning of the next section, Shermer tells us that “since the Enlightenment, humans have demonstrated dramatic moral progress. … Liberal democracies are now the dominant form of governance, systematically replacing the autocracies and theocracies of centuries past.” Broadly speaking, this is true, though it’s not like moral progress began with the Enlightenment. As for the triumph of liberal democracies, let us temper our enthusiasm just a little bit, as data show that out of 167 countries only 25 are characterized by “full democracies,” while in another 54 democracy is “flawed,” 37 more have hybrid regimes, and another 51 have authoritarian ones . Still, there has been (qualified) progress, though the full democracies are still found only in Western Europe and North America (and if you ask me, they are pretty flawed).
“Abstract reasoning and scientific thinking are the crucial cognitive skills at the foundation of all morality. Consider the mental rotation required to implement the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” says Shermer. But presenting the Golden Rule (obviously a much more ancient moral principle than the scientific revolution, as Michael admits) in pseudo-mathematical terms like “mental rotation” makes it sound “sciency” without any particular scientific reason behind it (doesn’t that ability to see things from other people’s perspective have to do with the function of mirror neurons and the emotional capacity we have for empathy rather than with geometrical exercises?).
It is also highly doubtful, indeed, it goes against everything we know about evolution, that the foundation of all morality is abstract reasoning, and even less so “scientific” thinking. Research by primatologist Frans de Waal and others  has long showed that moral instincts are present in other social primates, and that that is where we get the foundation for our morality. Of course, abstract reasoning is necessary for anything like the sort of language-articulated, sophisticated thinking about morality that people have exhibited since at the least the ancient Greeks, but that’s not foundational to morality itself. And, it should go without saying, we have engaged in moral thinking long before anything like science came along. The fact that more people accept sophisticated moral reasoning (though, not nearly as much, or as many people, as we would like, given recent events) is likely due to the spread of those ideas via mass education, and of course to the prolonged, sometimes violent, struggle on the ground that has forced people in power to accept, say, equal rights for women and blacks (at the least in theory). Or do we want to argue that the good people of Alabama bought into civil rights in the ‘60s because they became scientifically literate?
Shermer continues: “As Enlightenment philosophers and scholars consciously adopted the methods of science to establish such abstract concepts as rights, liberty, and justice, successive generations have become schooled in thinking of these abstractions as applied to others in matrices-like mental rotations.” I don’t know which history books Michael has been reading lately, but that’s not how I understand what happened during the Enlightenment. I don’t remember Voltaire, Diderot, or Hume doing scientific experiments or observations in order to establish the abstract concepts of rights, liberty and justice. To begin with, those concepts were known and debated for many centuries before the Enlightenment; moreover, it was a great educational (remember the Encyclopédie?), literary (Voltaire’s Candide, for instance), and philosophical (Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding) effort that characterized the intellectual vibrancy of the period. Science didn’t enter into it, though of course the scientific revolution was already in full swing, reaping the benefits of that earlier rekindling of human thought not at all casually known as the Renaissance.
The next section in Shermer’s article deals with the (scientific) evidence backing up his thesis. The evidence he refers to is indeed interesting, but it is altogether unclear why he thinks it supports his own particular view of things.
Here is a taste: “Numerous studies from the 1980s onward, for example, find that intelligence and education are negatively correlated with violent crime … correlation between literacy and moral reasoning, most particularly between reading fiction and being able to take the perspective of others … A 2013 study by the psychologists David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano explored the causal relationship between reading high-quality literary fiction and the ability to take the perspective of others.”
Interesting stuff, but notice that the mentioned correlation is between reading literature (i.e., fiction) and ability to take others’ perspective. Could it be that a liberal arts education, rather than specifically a scientific one, is more relevant, or at the least one of the crucial factors at play?
Shermer then moves closer to his real target: “among 20,000 young adults there was a positive correlation between IQ and liberalism. Data from the General Social Survey clarified the link in noting that the correlation involves classical liberalism of the Enlightenment kind, in which smarter people were less likely to agree that the government should redistribute income from the rich to the poor.”
Ah yes, smarter people lean libertarian! But of course this is very likely an artifact of the fact that the survey in question was conducted in the United States, where Ayn Rand’s novels are still, bafflingly, best sellers among the young. Do the same survey in Sweden, say, and you’ll likely get that intelligent people favor social democracies. Heck, do it in China and I’m sure the smartest will favor a hybrid capitalist/autocratic system. And so on.
Shermer mentions psychologist Ian Deary as saying that “Bright Children Become Enlightened Adults,” where by “‘enlightened,’ Deary meant the values that came directly from the Enlightenment, the definition for which he adopted from the Concise Oxford Dictionary: ‘a philosophy emphasizing reason and individualism rather than tradition.’” So now Voltaire was a libertarian? Perhaps one should consult an historian of the Enlightenment, rather than a concise dictionary, as prestigious as the Oxford is.
And there is more: “the economists Bryan Caplan and Stephen Miller culled data from the General Social Survey and published an article in a 2010 issue of the journal Intelligence tellingly titled ‘Intelligence Makes People Think Like Economists.’” Well, naturally, just like Aristotle thought that the highest occupation for a human being is philosophizing (hint: he was a philosopher). And never mind that certain aspects of economics have an abysmal record as a science, and any intelligent person ought to be weary of whatever comes from the keyboard of an economist (particularly one with a political agenda, as most of them seem to have).
Here is an interesting study cited by Shermer: “the German psychologist Heiner Rindermann ran correlational studies on a number of data sets from many different countries, examining their average scores on popular intelligence tests and measures of academic achievement from the period 1960 to 1972. Rindermann found that intelligence scores predicted the level of prosperity, democracy, and rule of law found in those countries in the subsequent period 1991 to 2003 — even when controlling for the country’s prior level of prosperity.” Right, but I don’t see anything in there that supports the idea that a scientific, libertarian inclined mind is responsible for prosperity. I see instead classical progressive values at work, like education (which is highly correlated with “intelligence”). It is nice to have the data, but it has been rather clear that a better educated populace means generally more open and prosperous societies. It was true in ancient Athens and during the Renaissance, it remains true today.
Michael concludes his essay by saying that “it’s hard to accept the notion that people in the early 20th century were moral idiots, two standard deviations dumber than us.” It is hard because we don’t actually have the data to back up that claim. Shermer has quickly moved from the (actual) IQ Flynn effect to the (hypothetical) “moral Flynn effect,” which has not been measured. In other words, we have seamlessly moved from (debatable) science to pure speculation.
I do agree with Michael that — since moral progress is cultural, not evolutionary — we can expect to go much further along the same lines, possibly very quickly. (Conversely, since moral progress isn’t embedded in our genetics, we can just as easily and quickly slide backwards.) But no, I don’t think that the scientific worldview has much to do with it (as good a thing as it is in itself), and I certainly don’t think that “free trade and market capitalism” are such an obvious positive that they ought to be mentioned in the same sentence as civil rights and equal treatment under the law. As for the Enlightenment, Richard Dawkins once declared himself a son of the movement. So did I, when I was 18. Then I grew up and I started seeing things in a bit more nuanced way. After all, the Enlightenment was followed by the French Revolution, which bred the Reign of Terror, which led to Napoleon. Not exactly a stellar record for the champions of reason.
Massimo Pigliucci is a biologist and philosopher at the City University of New York. His main interests are in the philosophy of science and pseudoscience. He is the editor-in-chief of Scientia Salon, and his latest book (co-edited with Maarten Boudry) is Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (Chicago Press).
 The Moral Arc: How Science and Reason Lead Humanity toward Truth, Justice, and Freedom, by M. Shermer, Henry Holt and Co., 2015
 Are We Becoming Morally Smarter? by M. Shermer, Reason, March 2015.
 Flynn effect, Wiki entry.
 Democracy Index, Wiki entry.
 Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved: How Morality Evolved, by F. de Waal, Princeton University Press, 2006.