A person on twitter recently implied that the extremely high IQ I estimated for Oprah was inconsistent with some of the irrational ideas she seems to believe. Of course rationality is subjective. I for example feel it’s irrational to believe in God, however I’ve watched in amazement as arguably the World’s biggest brained and highest IQ theist Chris Langan made fools out of atheists for denying God’s existence. For how can one “know” there is no God?
“The same way you can know anything else”, said America’s highest IQ woman Marilyn Vos Savant when a reader asked her that very question. “By judging the substance of the evidence and drawing a conclusion. If we insisted on first hand verification, we would know very little…”
And the smartest person I ever corresponded with was a hardcore atheist because he could not respect any mind that would suspend all reason when it comes to the most important questions in life.
When Phil Donahue told legendary atheist Ayn Rand that she wasn’t smart enough to know there was no God, she replied “Yes I am. And so is everyone in this room. That doesn’t take much intelligence.”
Many studies show that religiosity is negatively correlated with IQ, so I would imagine that atheists are more intelligent than agnostics who are more intelligent than the spiritual who are more intelligent than the religious. These would be average differences of course, and some hardcore religious fundamentalists are much more intelligent than even most strident atheists.
Oprah was raised hardcore religious in the rural South, but gradually drifted away from the dogma and began defining God in such liberal and meaningless ways that she provoked the ire of both religious and atheist extremists. Despite distancing herself from the church, she has occasionally been accused of promoting ideas that mainstream scientists would consider pseudoscience and/or magical thinking. The biggest example of this is The Secret which argues that wishing/believing/imagining you can achieve something will cause that belief to come true. When Oprah saw that book becoming popular, she enthusiastically jumped on the bandwagon, arguing that she had independently discovered this law of the universe decades earlier and was excited that someone had written such a popular book about it. However Oprah cautioned that the The Secret was only one law operating in the universe and that it’s not the explanation for all success or failure.
Now in fairness, there’s no doubt that positive thinking is useful. For example, on pg 576 of The g Factor, Arthur Jensen notes that an important personality trait in successful life outcomes is locus of control (the belief that you have the power to shape your destiny). And noting that applying to Harvard is a better predictor of future income than attending Harvard, Steve Sailer writes “I suspect that how much money somebody makes correlates to a surprising extent with how much money they expect to make and/or think they deserve to make.” It’s only when The Secret implies that thoughts in and of themselves create reality (without intermediaries like behavior) that it becomes irrational.
Another seemingly irrational belief-system Oprah has strongly endorsed is the perspective of Gary Zukav (author of The Seat of the Soul) which argues that humans are evolving from five-sensory beings that seek physical power (i.e. wealth, military strength) to multi-sensory beings that seek authentic power (inner peace) and that the universe is wise and compassionate and constantly trying to align us with our soul’s purpose.
Oprah argues it’s important to listen to the signs the universe is giving us so that we can flow with the current of the universe rather than trying to swim upstream.
So how can I claim Oprah is brilliant when she promotes such “pseudo-scientific magical thinking”? I believe there are 3 major explanations:
1) Although I argue that Oprah’s overall IQ is 140, I believe she has a very lop-sided intelligence, with her verbal IQ and social IQ being much higher than her mathematical IQ and technological IQ (as she herself would probably agree). Indeed I estimated that her math IQ is “only” 113, which while high compared to most Americans, would be low for a self-made billionaire.
If you are mediocre at math, you are mediocre at logic and rationality and thus critical thinking. You are also more likely to suffer from what’s called bounded cognition, because if you don’t understand probability theory, it’s easy to believe that the freak coincidences that we observe in life are signs from the universe. This would be especially true for someone like Oprah who must have had incredible good luck to have gone from poverty to the most successful woman in the world in only a few decades. In order for that to happen, a lot of random events must have lined up perfectly, putting her in exactly the right place at the right time to use her considerable gifts. It’s very easy to view such unusual randomness as evidence as some kind of magical process if you don’t have the statistical understanding to realize that extreme coincidences happen all the time.
One extreme coincidence that helped launch Oprah’s career was the fact that when she was still just a local star in Chicago (not yet nationally famous) she was incredibly obsessed with Alice Walker’s book The Color Purple, and didn’t realize that one of the producers for the film adaptation just happened to be in her city, see her on local TV (knowing nothing about her) and instantly think she would be perfect to play a character in the film named Sophia, who just happened to be married to a character named Harpo (Oprah spelled backwards)! It would take incredible rationality to not revert to magical thinking when you experience that level of serendipity.
2) Just as relatively low math IQ can cause magical thinking, I believe a high social IQ can also cause magical thinking. For example, a low social IQ is one of the defining traits in autism, and on some dimensions, autism appears to be the opposite of schizophrenia. Schizophrenia is characterized by extreme magical thinking to the point of being delusional. I’m not in any way suggesting Oprah is schizophrenic (on the contrary, her mental health is excellent); but I am suggesting that there’s a neuro-evolutionary continuum (probably on the r-K dimension), where at the K end of the spectrum you are more prone to low social IQ (relative to overall IQ), autism, and hyper-rational pro-science views, and at the r end of the spectrum, you’re more prone to high social IQ (relative to overall IQ), but lower math IQ and more magical thinking.
It’s been noted that the central deficit in autism is hypo-mentalizing (the failure to adequately consider that other people have minds with feelings and intentions just like you). By contrast, incredibly socially intelligent people like Oprah are so good at mentalizing that they likely even ascribe mental states in mindless entities like the universe. So when random events helped make Oprah rich and famous, she was likely to believe the universe was intentionally trying to help her. An incredibly high social IQ combined with a mediocre math IQ is likely very common in spiritual thought leaders like Oprah and probably would have been found among the prophets of the World’s great religions.
Social IQ > Math IQ is a dangerous combinations because it makes one especially prone to irrational beliefs while at the same time makes them especially skilled at getting others to follow these beliefs. By contrast, scientists tend to have the opposite profile, so despite being correct, often lack the social IQ to persuade the public.
3) A final, and more sinister reason why someone as brilliant as Oprah might promote irrational ideas is that she doesn’t actually believe them but just cleverly used them to attract a larger and more obedient audience by pretending to have some magical solution to most of life’s problems. By claiming for example that she has lived her life according to the laws of The Secret, she quickly became the poster-girl for that wildly successful movement, since her astonishing success was the greatest proof that The Secret works. This caused Oprah’s show to be must-watch TV for all the fans of The Secret and allowed Oprah to claim credit for The Secret‘s success, further enhancing her image as a cultural trendsetter. While this may sound incredibly cynical, a former producer of Oprah’s named Elizabeth Coady claimed that Oprah is a calculating master-manipulator who doesn’t actually believe what she says. Of course Coady is a disgruntled ex-employee who was likely bitter that a confidentiality agreement prevented her from profiting off a tell-all book a book about Oprah, so she may not be the most objective witness.