I’m not voting for Barack Obama because he’s black. I’m voting for Barack Obama because he’s brilliant.
__Oprah Winfrey, 2008
Perhaps no topic has fascinated the HBD blogosphere more deeply than the IQ of President Obama, with some bloggers estimating his IQ might be as ordinary as 116 and others estimating it might be as spectacular as 150. But as many of you know, a few years ago, some actual data was unearthed. Ultra-influential blogger Steve Sailer cited sources claiming that:
…during the 1987-88 academic year, ten African-American students from Columbia University applied to law school. Only two earned LSAT scores above the 63rd percentile, and those each had scores in the 94-98th percentile–i.e. scores between 42 and 45 on the 48-point scale then in use (166 to 171 on today’s 180-point scale). The other students earned scores that would have been extremely unlikely to qualify for admission, even considering factors such as affirmative action. Other demographic data from LSAC–including the fact that there were only two 27-year-old African-American students five years out of college that year who achieved scores in that range–further suggest that Obama’s LSAT scores were among the two from Columbia in the 94-98th percentile.
But as a responsible journalist, Sailer cautioned:
This sounds pretty reasonable, although I haven’t checked the methodology or sources…Of course, there’s a big assumption that Obama wasn’t one of the 63rd percentile or lower applicants, but assuming he was one of the two very bright black applicants from Columbia who applied to any law school doesn’t seem unreasonable.
If we assume LSAT takers resemble college graduates intellectually, and thus have a mean IQ of 112.8 and a standard deviation of 13.7 (the distribution for Americans with 16+ years of schooling on the WAIS-III), then we can start assigning Obama some possible IQ scores. If Obama was indeed one of the two top black law applicants from Columbia, then he had a score in the 94-98 percentile of LSAT takers (+1.53 SD to +2.06 SD above the LSAT population), so IQ 134 to IQ 141. On the other hand, if Obama was no better than the 63rd percentile, then that would imply a score no higher than +0.33 SD above the LSAT population), so IQ 117 or less. So which is more likely, an IQ pushing 140, or an IQ below 118?
Evidence for an IQ around 140
1) Academic achievements: Obama graduated in the top 15% of Harvard; the most prestigious university in the world. Emminent law professor Laurence Tribe described Obama as the best student he ever had, out of thousands of students. While such over-the-top praise calls Tribe’s credibility into question, there is no disputing Obama got above average grades at Harvard.
2) Speaking ability: When Obama brings his A game, he can be extremely verbally skilled. Although liberals tend to exaggerate his brilliance to a ridiculous degree, even some extremely bright anti-Obama conservatives have acknowledged his talents.
For example, following Obama’s February 9, 2009, press conference, political analyst Dick Morris told Fox news host Bill O’reilly: “It was a refreshing change to see a president this articulate, this fluid, this intellectually dexterous. I don’t agree with much of what he said, but he was obviously very impressive.”
While conservatives often mock Obama for mindlessly reading a teleprompter, the press conference Morris praised showed Obama’s ability to extemporaneously answer questions from the media about complex topics.
3) Writing ability: British literati member Jonathan Raban crowned Obama “the best writer to occupy the White House since Lincoln”. Considering that writing is just something politicians do on the side rather than a skill they’ve obsessively practiced, it’s likely a good estimate of their verbal IQ, and if Obama was really the best of the last 28 presidents, then his verbal IQ would be at the 96.4 percentile of the presidential distribution. Assuming U.S. presidents have an IQ mean around 130 and SD around 12, then the 96.4 percentile of this group should be a verbal IQ of 152.
I remember English novelist Martin Amis telling talk show host Charlie Rose how angry he gets when people criticize Obama; that it was the equivalent of them insulting a member of his family. Amis was just so thrilled to have a true writer in the white house that he couldn’t stand to see Obama disrespected. Similarly, writer Jonathan Franzen told Oprah that Obama was his hero. However skeptics argue that Obama’s best writings were largely written by 1960s activist Bill Ayers.
4) High IQ physique: As I’ve previously discussed, weight/height ratio is negatively correlated with IQ, so Obama’s unusually low body mass index is very mildly indicative of high IQ, though it may have more to do with his East African ancestry.
5) High IQ temperament: Obama seems unusually good at staying calm, cool, and collected under pressure, earning him the nickname “No Drama Obama”. Hysteria is associated with low IQ, and Obama is the opposite of hysterical.
6) Adaptability I love to define intelligence as the mental ability to adapt whatever situation you’re in to your advantage. Obama displayed great adaptability in rising up to become the most powerful man on Earth, despite being black and having a Muslim name in post September 11th America. Of course skeptics argue that being black actually worked to his advantage, but that argument is mostly made retrospectively. Not long ago, the idea of a black president was considered unimaginable.
7) High IQ genes
A blog commenter who sometimes uses the name “Jorge Videla” stated:
…as noted by LotB, senior Obama must’ve been very smart himself. never mind the Harvard degree in econ. one of Obama’s half brothers earned a masters in physics from Stanford.
so either 100% black senior Obama was smart or he had a taste for and the ability to attract smart white women.
On the other hand, Obama also has a half-brother found living in a hut, suggesting the family also has some low IQ genes.
8) Opposed the Iraq war: The decision to invade Iraq was arguabley the worst decision in recent American history, so Obama showed good judgement on this most important issue by opposing it.
Evidence of an IQ below 118
On the other hand, there’s also evidence Obama isn’t brilliant, as another blog documents.
1) He was a mediocre high school student. A blogger named Vox Popoli states:
Obama graduated from my mother’s alma mater, where everyone takes the various college prep tests. He was not a National Merit Scholar, a National Merit Semifinalist or an Outstanding Participant. This indicates a ceiling on his SAT percentile…
It’s also worth noting that despite qualifying for affirmative action, attending an elite private school, being raised by upper middle class grandparents, having a father who attended Harvard, and being willing to travel far from home for college, Obama ended up at Occidental instead of an elite college. This may indicate his SAT scores were not great.
2) JFK’s tested IQ was 119. As commenter “Pincher Martin” noted, Obama has a lot in common with JFK. Both were handsome charismatic Democrats who offered hope and change and got elected President of the United States. Both are credited with writing outstanding books and both attended Harvard. If JFK managed all that with an IQ below 120, maybe Obama did too.
3) He’s an uneven debater. Obama notoriously flopped in his first debate against 2012 Republican candidate Mitt Romney and a 2008 Observer.com article noted the sharp contrast between Obama’s ability to give a great speech and his ability to debate:
Obama’s political star was launched when he delivered a dazzling address on national television at his party’s convention in 2004. His oratory was mesmerizing, his message inspiring, and his appearance and manner made him an instantly likable figure to millions of Americans. That Obama—Big Speech Obama—is tailor-made for television.
But then there’s Debate Obama, a hesitant, stuttering, easily rattled and mostly unsmiling public performer who litters his platitudes and “uh’s” and misses countless opportunities to throw his opponents’ taunts back in their faces. Debate Obama unwittingly affirms Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that he lacks the seasoning to withstand the scrutiny of a fall campaign and leaves those who have only seen Big Speech Obama wondering, “Is this really the same guy?”
4) He seems to have an unimpressive spatial IQ. He describes himself as “not very good at video games” and he’s compared his bowling skills to the special Olympics.
5) He shows problems with general knowledge. The ability to correctly answer general knowledge questions is one of the strongest indicators of IQ and it’s an ability Obama sometimes appears to lack. At times he’s seemed confused about the number of states in America, the size of the national debt, the pronunciation of certain words, and even his own birthday. While he may have pretended to not know the size of the debt because he didn’t want to admit how big it was, and his other mistakes were likely influenced by fatigue, it does make me doubt he’d do well on Jeopardy.
Knowledge problems have sometimes emerged in the very field he studied. Right-wingers claim Obama somehow used powerful connections to get into Harvard, and although his grades were good, Obama’s legal knowledge was questioned when he stated the following in 2012:
Well, first of all, let me be very specific. Um [pause], we have not seen a court overturn [pause] a [pause] law that was passed [pause] by Congress on [pause] a [pause] economic issue, like health care, that I think most people would clearly consider commerce. A law like that has not been overturned [pause] at least since Lochner, right? So we’re going back to the ’30s, pre-New Deal.”
This caused one blogger to write:
Lochner v. New York is one of the most important cases in Constitutional Law. How could someone who was supposed to be a professor of Constitutional Law at a top-14 law school not know that Lochner v. New York was about the Supreme Court overturning a New York STATE statute and not a federal statute? And then he was thirty years off because Lochner was decided in 1905.
I used to think Obama earned his magna cum laude from Harvard Law School, but now I have to wonder.
Talk show host Rush Limbaugh went on an amusing rant about Obama’s law school grades:
6) No evidence of math talent. Despite having an economist father and a physicist half-brother, there’s no evidence Obama has inherited the family math genes. On the contrary he jokes that he can’t help his daughters with ninth grade math. Interestingly Bill Clinton also claimed he couldn’t help his daughter with math homework beyond the eighth grade.
7) No evidence of large brain size. A photograph of Obama in the Situation Room during the Osama Bin Laden raid made his head look so tiny that conspiracy theorists speculated the image was photosphopped.
Social conservative Bryan Fischer stated:
I encourage you to go look at that picture, look at the size of his head compared the size of the head of everybody else in the room. Even people standing in the back of the room, their heads are bigger than his head.
In addition, Obama has stated that as a kid, he was bullied for having big ears. This suggests he might not have a big head, because the smaller the head, the bigger the ears appear by comparison. Indeed a community of severely small headed people (microcephalics) in Pakistan are known as the “rat children” because their ears are too large for their heads, creating a rat-like appearance.
8) Low IQ habits: For someone who’s supposed to be a constitutional professor and literary writer, it is somewhat surprising to learn that Obama smokes and is obsessed with sports. Smoking is negatively correlated with IQ, as are low brow media preferences. On the other hand, Obama does appear to be a fan of literary novels.
Expected IQ of a Harvard magna cum laude
Having reviewed the evidence that Obama has a genius IQ (around 140) or merely above average IQ (below 118), it’s time for me to make a decision. I think people doubt Obama’s intelligence, largely because he’s considered black, so it’s instructive to ask how smart people would consider Obama if they stopped viewing him as a black American, and just viewed him as an American. What would be the expected IQ of an American who graduated magna cum laude at Harvard and then on top of that, went on to be president of the United States?
There are about 271,000 former Harvard students living in America, and of those, only about 41,000 could have graduated at the top 15% of whatever they studied there. Assuming Harvard’s the best school in America, and assuming there are about 226 million Americans old enough to be former Harvard students, that means Harvard’s top students are the top one in 5512 most academically successful Americans. Since some are even beyond that, that puts them the top one in 11,000 on average. In other words, if we forced American academic success to fit a Gaussian curve, with primary school dropouts on the far left, and your average American in the middle, Harvard’s top students would be +3.73 standard deviations (SD) to the right. Given the 0.65 correlation between IQ and academic success, we would expect a magna cum laude Harvard student to have an IQ of 0.65(3.73 SD) = 2.42 SD or IQ 136.
This may sound kind of low, because based on their SATs and LSATs, Harvard students seems to have IQ equivalents of around 140, and the top Harvard students should be smarter still. But keep in mind that because Harvard students are specifically selected for high SAT or LSAT scores, they probably regress to the mean on official IQ tests. For example, a sample of Harvard students had a mean IQ around 130 when given an abbreviated version of the Wechsler. If the mean of Harvard students is 130, you’d expect the magna cum laude types to be only somewhat higher (IQ 136ish), given that the correlation between IQ and grades, especially at the university level, is very far from perfect.
IQ of Harvard magna cum laude who becomes President of the United States
An average IQ of 136 suggests Harvard magna cum laudes are brilliant, but a Harvard magna cum laude who then goes on to become arguably the most powerful man on Earth, is likely even smarter still, because he was able to adapt to not only school, but life. How much smarter? Assuming only about one in 19 million Americans becomes President of the United States, and normalizing the distribution, becoming President makes you 5.33 SD more powerful than the average American. Assuming the correlation between IQ and power, is similar to the correlation between IQ and income (about 0.4), we would expect the average U.S. president to have an IQ of 0.4(5.33 SD) = 132, and indeed if you average the few known IQs of American presidents, you get a figure very close to that.
Of course the average U.S. president was not a top student at Harvard, and the average top Harvard student is not a U.S. president. What would be the expect IQ of an American who achieved both those honors?
In order to answer that question, we must use a technique that an incredibly brilliant Promethean taught me many years ago: Multiple regression. Assuming a 0.65 correlation between IQ and academic success, and a 0.4 correlation between IQ and power, and assuming a 0.4 correlation between academic success and power, the following equation can be built, which allows you to predict one’s IQ from both variables independent of one another:
IQ = 0.58(academic success) + 0.17(power)
Thus a person who is +3.73 SD in academic success, and +5.33 SD in power, the equation would be:
IQ = 0.58(3.73 SD) + 0.17(5.33 SD)
IQ = 2.16 SD + 0.91 SD
IQ = 3.07 SD
So statistically, a Harvard magna cum laude who goes on to become the President of the United States should have an IQ of +3.07 SD or IQ 146. Of course this analysis is based on Americans as a whole. It ignores Obama’s race.
What happens when race is factored in?
For as long as IQ tests have existed, blacks Americans have scored about 15 points lower than white Americans. One interesting fact is that (partly because of affirmative action) this same 15 point IQ gap even exists among elites. On page 374 of his book Coming Apart Charles Murray reported the following IQs for educated Americans:
Whites with a bachelors degree: IQ 113.3
Blacks with a bachelor degree: IQ 99.1
Whites with a masters degree: IQ 116.9
Blacks with a masters degree: IQ 101.7
Whites with a PhD or professional degree: IQ 125.6
Blacks with a PhD or professional degree: IQ 112.2
As can be seen, at each level of accomplishment, blacks score roughly 15 points lower than whites. So if the theoretic average white Harvard magna cum laude who becomes president of the United States would have an IQ of 146, a black Harvard magna cum laude President of the United States would be expected to have an IQ 15 points below 146, so 131. However since Obama is a second generation African immigrant, and the children of these highly selected African immigrants score only about 10 points lower than whites, let’s deduct only 10 points from 146. And considering he’s half white, let’s instead deduct only half of those 10 points, which gives an IQ around 140 (smarter than more than 99.5% of Americans). Although 140 is an extremely high estimate, especially given some of the dumb things Obama has said, on balance, I think it’s believable.