From The “Bias Makes You Stupid” Files: Three Unethical Lists

Unless lists are based on on hard numbers, they are all subjective, based on opinion only. The worst lists are the ones that are opinion but that claim to be based on hard data. Lists are unethical when they mislead the lazy and ignorant, which is to say, most of the public and those who pay attention to internet lists. Again, as in today’s warm-up, the ethics issue is incompetence, and often breaches of honesty and responsibility as well.

The first of the unethical lists was this one, click-baited as “The Smartest Presidents, Ranked By IQ (Guess Who’s No.1)” It’s hard to imagine a worse hash could be made of that topic than the article prepared by Esther Trattner, who must have difficulty spelling IQ herself. This topic became popular during the Trump administration and the previous campaign, because Donald kept boasting about high his IQ is (which is a stupid thing for anyone to do.) There are a lot of these lists (Trattner’s is the worst, but they are all bad.) To begin with, IQ doesn’t measure “intelligence;” it measures, as one psychologist told me, “what IQ tests measure.” There is so much more to intelligence than what that test indicates that conflating the scores with intellect is absurd. Indeed, the man who invested the IQ test condemned using his creation to measure above average intelligence, since its purpose was to assess intellectual deficits.

I’ve been around a lot of smart people in my life, and I learned long ago that assessing intelligence by any single standard was, well, dumb.

Here’s how incompetent the Trattner list is: though it claims to rank the Presidents from smartest to least smart by IQ, its slide show (web slide shows are unethical) begins with #1, George H.W. Bush with an alleged IQ score of 130.3. Wait: no U.S. President had an IQ higher that 130? Well, no, because #3, John Tyler, supposedly had an IQ of 136 and #7, Jimmy Carter clocked in at 145.1. How can this list rank the Presidents by IQ and jump around like that? Simple: it’s garbage. I didn’t bother to take the year and a half it would have taken to scroll all the way to the end, but I’ll assume that the “surprise” smartest is John Quincy Adams, the 6th President. Someone fake scholar somewhere a while ago “estimated” that JQ Adams had a soaring IQ of 175. There’s no doubt that Adams was well-educated and brilliant—the offspring of John and Abigail Adams would have big genetic advantage (though his brother gambled and drank himself to death). But “estimated IQ”—and all the Presidential IQs on all the lists are either “estimated” or “alleged”—is a synonym for “bullshit.” Estimated IQs with decimal points in them, as in the Trattner list, means “super bullshit on steroids.”

The usual academic bias is also on metaphorical steroids on every such list I’ve ever seen. The dumbest Presidents are all Republicans: Trump, Bush II, Ford, and Reagan. All of the last three Democratic Presidents, in contrast, (mirabile dictu!) are in the top ten—Obama, Clinton, Carter (If they were so smart, why were they such poor Presidents, making such bad choices?) along with the martyred Democratic saint Jack Kennedy, whose reputation as an intellectual giant was entirely manufactured by his publicists. JFK got a Pulitzer Prize for a book he didn’t write (“Profiles in Courage”) and it was later admitted that all of the reports of Kennedy being a speed reader were fiction.

It literally doesn’t matter what Presidents’ IQ scores might have been. IQ doesn’t measure character, courage, or leadership skills. All these lists do is lower the understanding of American history, leadership and Presidency on the part of badly-educated Americans.

For what it’s worth, based on my long-time study of these men, I think the evidence is pretty clear regarding who was the most intellectually gifted President. Yes, it was Abraham Lincoln. Jefferson is an easy second.

What started me down this annoying road was another historical list, this one a ranking of the First Ladies. It’s a Sienna College and C-SPAN “study” that was released in 2014 and resurfacing now. The spouses were scored in ten categories, including value to the country, integrity, leadership, being her “own woman,” accomplishments, courage and value to the President. This technique is a dishonest way to attach numbers to a completely subjective set of choices, usually, as in this case, governed by bias.

Again, as in the idiotic POTUS IQ poll, #1 is numbered #40. Luckily, when it comes to First Ladies, the most influential, most courageous, valuable to the President and the nation, etc, is an easy call, and no study is necessary to make it: Eleanor Roosevelt was the longest-serving FLOTUS and the most accomplished by any measure. Even this incompetent list couldn’t louse up that choice. But the rest? Ugh. Yecchh.

Jackie Kennedy is considered #3. Sure. She was abused by her husband and lived a lie in the White House. She had no political influence whatsoever (unlike the First Ladies who followed her), and Jackie’s popularity was mostly grounded in the verdict that she was “glamorous.” #5 on the list is Michelle Obama, the only First Lady to insult the nation in published remarks. The next on the list? Hillary Clinton, who lied to the public and the press while assisting in the Monica Lewinsky cover-up. Her major attempt at direct policy influence, her health care reform scheme, was an embarrassing flop. As with the Presidential IQ poll, the Democrats in this list obviously benefited from the listers’ thumbs on the scale, and sometimes their feet as well.

And yet, amazingly, these two weren’t the most unethical of the three lists. No, the most unethical by far—incompetent, misleading, biased and negligent—is this: “A Definitive Ranking Of The Top Western Films Of All Time.”

Western films are a passion of mine; I’ve lectured at the Smithsonian on the topic twice. My perspective has its own biases, and I respect different standards and points of view, but not this one. The list should be titled “The Top 40 American Western Films According To Those Who Don’t Like America, The American West, or Know What Westerns Are.”

The overwhelming tilt of the list is historical revisionist, anti-Western expansion, anti-American, progressive Hollywood bias. Well, that’s not what the classic Westerns were about. Calling this a “definitive” list is flat-out misrepresentation. I find a large number of my associates are ignorant about Westerns, and I even have created a study guide and a list of movies they need to see to approach necessary literacy on our culture, movies, and American traditions. #1 on my list is “Lonesome Dove,” but technically it’s a mini-series, so I’ll forgive its omission on the “definitive” list of 40. However, #1 on that list is…”The Treasure of Sierra Madre”???

It’s not a Western! It’s a great film, but the American Film Institute doesn’t list it as a Wester, because it’s not. (Wikipedia does, because it’s Wikipedia.) The film takes place in the West, but if that’s the standard, “LA Confidential” is a Western. I’ve seen it many times, and never thought of it as a Western nor heard anyone refer to it as one.

Well, that choice is signature significance for incompetence, but so is the fact that “Stagecoach,” Red River,” ” Shane,” “Little Big Man,” “Ride The High Country,” “Destry Rides Again,” “Winchester 73,” ‘Hondo,” “She Wore A Yellow Ribbon” and other long-acclaimed classics don’t appear on the list, while “Blazing Saddles” does (it’s a parody, not a real Western: Count Basie doesn’t appear in real Westerns…) and most of Sergio Leone’s Italian anti-Westerns, which are more about the Mafia than cowboys, do as well. It also has “Brokeback Mountain” (not a Western, but a gay love story) and “The Power of the Dog,” just a currently trendy, lousy movie, but on the list because Gay is Good.


ADDENDUM: I forget to mention this in the original post, and it must be pointed out. The list claims “Westworld” is one of the 40 greatest Westerns of all time. The movie is set in the future, and is about robots. It literally has nothing to do with the West at all, except that the renegade robot looks like Yul Brenner’s character in “The Magnificent Seven.”


12 thoughts on “From The “Bias Makes You Stupid” Files: Three Unethical Lists

  1. I’m disgusted that City Slickers 2 didn’t make the definitive list.

    That list is really awful and looks like it was compiled by someone that heard about westerns once and looked them up on Metacritic to determine the best in the quickest way possible to get the story posted and head to the lake for the weekend.

  2. I haven’t seen Lonesome Dove yet because it’s never been free on the streaming services I use and I’m cheap like that and yes I know it’s still cheaper than going out to a movie. One day I’ll get to see it.

    • Library cards are free. Get the book, you will not regret it. You get a great story to hold you over until you see the film. I’ve watched the movie (mini-series) and read the book. I do not regret a minute of the time spent on either.

  3. Indeed, the man who invested the IQ test condemned using his creation to measure above average intelligence, since its purpose was to assess intellectual deficits.

    I recently read a blog post that brings this point into focus. To summarize, we know that there are certain forms of thinking, such as recursion or hypotheticals, that appear to be simply out of reach for individuals below certain IQ thresholds. They just can’t do them, in fact they can’t even understand what it is you’re asking them to do.

    Which is all well and good when psychologists are talking about phenomena that emerge around IQ 70, 80, or 90, but what about phenomena at the upper end of the scale? A reasonable person might suspect that a similar result obtains, that there may be forms of thinking which the exceptionally brilliant can perform comfortably, but which the rest of us simply cannot wrap out heads around. Consulting various sources, I’ve found estimates for the average IQ of psychology PhDs to be around 125. That’s bright, but in a pedestrian sort of way. We expect every elementary school classroom and every subway car to have one occupant at that level, every crowded nightclub to have several. Most experts in the theory and measurement of intelligence simply won’t be able to grapple with cognitive phenomena that appear around IQ 130 or higher. If the occasional brilliant outlier writes up his ideas for his peers, most will not understand. That means either it fails to gain acceptance in the field, or that psychologists grant acceptance to ideas they do not understand – with the attendant problems of the ideas being distorted in the process, not to mention the potential for utter nonsense getting passed off as superlative brilliance.

  4. All standard tests such as IQ, ACT, SAT, and MCAT, LSAT, even the armed forces test are predictors of probable outcomes not guarantees of outcome. I went to one of the magnet Schools in NYC (Brooklyn Technical High School). A classmate of mine did his Calculous homework in his head while riding home on the NYC subway. He was, brilliant. However, he did not do well o standardized testing. As a result, his admission to colleges was impeded. he was grudgingly given conditional admission to Rensselaer PolyTech. He did an internship with General Foods and developed the fast freeze process. A fellow officer who did not do well on her GREs also was conditionally accepted to a major university. She completed her Ph.D. in neuropharmacology working on Gabba receptors.
    Both the original Binet-Simon test and the Standford-Binet test were developed in 1904 & 1916 respectively. No president before that time was given the standardized test, so it is inappropriate to make presumptions about their scores.
    We do know, however the Founders were well-red men. The Library of Congress is made up of three memorial halls to honor Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. Their private collections are the foundational texts that make up the Lof C.

  5. Clickbait is an interesting emergent scourge from the structures of online advertising. People literally pay advertising fees to get traffic to garbage articles written only for the purpose to shove other higher paying advertisements in people’s faces.

    That’s the reason for the odd ordering–a more logical order means people are going to stop reading the article before they’ve been exposed to enough ads.

    One particularly bad one that didn’t get me reading past the first item was titled “Ten facts about Bob Ross nobody knows”. Number one fact? “He painted tons of paintings.”

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