This Just In—Kerry's IQ Likely Lower than Bush's!

"Does anyone in America doubt that Kerry has a higher IQ than Bush? I'm sure the candidates' SATs and college transcripts would put Kerry far ahead."

Howell Raines
- Former Executive Editor of the New York Times
"The 'Dumb' Factor"
Washington Post, August 27, 2004

Oh yeah?

On this tenth anniversary of the publication of the much-denounced The Bell Curve, it's amusing to reflect on one of the enduring ironies of American political life. Liberals tend to believe two things about IQ:


  • Second, that liberals are better than conservatives because they have much higher IQs.

Thus back in May, hundreds of liberal websites, and even the prestigious Economist magazine, fell for a hoax claiming to show that states that voted for Al Gore in 2000 have higher average IQs—by as much as an incredible 28 points—than states that voted for George W. Bush.

(In reality, no such data exist. But, for what it's worth, Bush and Gore voters were identical in educational level, and the states they won were almost dead even in 8th grade achievement test scores.)

Similarly, in 2001, many liberals, including Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau and The Guardian newspaper, fell for the notorious "Lovenstein Institute" prank, which absurdly claimed that the IQ of Bush, a man with two Ivy League degrees, was a sub-average 91, while Bill Clinton's was a Galileo-like 182.

But now I've turned up some hard facts about the IQs of Kerry and Bush.

Most significantly, at the age of 22, both men took the IQ-type tests required of candidate military officers. (The U.S. military, which has studied the predictive power of IQ in vastly more detail than any other institution, remains intensely dedicated to the value of intelligence testing.)

Bush's scores on the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test have been briefly mentioned in the press. But no-one before now has fully explained what they mean.

And, even more important, this is first article to publish Kerry's score on the Navy's Officer Qualification Test.

The two tests aren't perfectly comparable. But they provide no evidence that Kerry is smarter. If anything, Bush is smarter than Kerry.

These scores are still relevant because IQ's don't change much over time. The Daily Telegraph of London reported on a 66 year long study in Scotland:

"People who sat an IQ test at the age of 11 in 1932 were ranked in exactly the same order when they took the exam again at the age of 77, showing that intelligence is stable throughout life." [Longevity is linked to IQ, By Auslan Cramb, September 28,2000]

So the scores politicians earned as college seniors still have surprising significance.

Yes, it's crass to look at the Presidential candidates' scores on IQ-like exams. For all their many limitations, however, cognitive tests have a unique advantage. Spinmeisters can manipulate their clients' images—but they can't manipulate these old test scores.

And, yes, the candidates' IQ scores are hardly the most important factor in choosing a President.

But I believe the public has a right to know all the facts.

Am I writing this because I am biased against one candidate?

No. As a conservative Republican concerned by the President's Invade-the-World / Invite-the-World policies on Iraq and immigration, I've certainly criticized Bush more than I've attacked Kerry.

But I haven't spent weeks on this story out of any hidden desire to denigrate or promote either candidate. In fact, I couldn't prove who scored higher until two days ago. And, for all I know, showing that Kerry isn't quite the brainiac that his supporters assume might make him more popular.

I just think Americans need to know the truth.

In the long run, however, we do need to think about the quality of the candidates our current primary system is producing. Are these two the best our nation of nearly 300,000,000 can put forward?

Despite Howell Raines's diktat on the natural superiority of the liberal candidate, quoted in my epigraph, there was always room for doubt that Kerry was objectively sharper than Bush. While Bush mangles the English language, Kerry inundates it in dependent clauses. Chris Suellentrop recently reported in Slate how Kerry somehow bloviated the 2,500 crisply-written words his speechwriters handed to him into 5,300 soggily-spoken words.

Bush's 1206 SAT score on the college entrance exam and his C average at Yale have been public knowledge since the last election. (Bush's Graduate Management Aptitude Test score and grades at Harvard Business School, however, are not known.)

Kerry's grades and academic test scores remain wholly unavailable. But we do know that he did not graduate from Yale with honors. His biography by three Boston Globe reporters recounts:

"During his senior year he 'majored in flying,' as Kerry put it, learning aerobatics and performing loop-de-loops instead of focusing on his studies."

After fighting and losing the most expensive Congressional race in the country in 1972, Kerry wound up the next year at a surprisingly non-glittering law school, Boston College. The Boston Globe biography reports:

"A nationally known figure, Kerry was not your typical law student. 'I remember looking up at my first-year class, and sitting there, big as life, was this guy I had seen on television, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and running for Congress,' recalls Thomas J. Carey Jr., one of Kerry's professors. 'He stood out from the beginning.'"

Then three weeks ago, a minister in Florida named Sam Sewell, a Navy veteran and Mensa member who works with gifted children with learning disabilities, pointed out to me that, although no one in the press had noticed it, the Kerry campaign had posted on the Web the Senator's score on the IQ-like test he took when he applied to join the Navy as an officer on February 18, 1966.

After interviewing military psychometricians and reading Defense Department reports from the 1960s on the development of the tests, I can now compare Kerry's score on the Navy's Officer Qualification Test to Bush's score on the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test.

Kerry's PDF file on JohnKerry.com is blurry, but it appears to read:

TEST

FORM

RAW
SCORE

STAND. [?]

SCORE

OFFICER QUALIFI-CATION TEST

7

58

50

To help me make sense out of this, a retired Navy psychometrician advised me to buy from the National Technical Information Service a 1961 technical bulletin called "Development of the Officer Qualification Test, Forms 7 and 8" by Smith, Guttman, Proctor, and Sharp of the Bureau of Naval Personnel.

According to this documentation, the Form 7 of the Navy's OQT that Kerry took in 1966 was a 90-minute pencil and paper test consisting of 35 verbal analogy questions, 30 mechanical comprehension questions, and 50 arithmetic reasoning questions.

Kerry got 58 out of 115 questions right, or 50.4 percent.

The bulletin explained that,

"The Verbal Analogies section emphasizes understanding of conceptual relations rather than knowledge of vocabulary. The Mechanical Comprehension section calls for ability to understand mechanical principles and ability to apply them to visually presented problems. The Arithmetic Reasoning section measures skill in arithmetic reasoning and problem solving, and requires an understanding of basic arithmetic processes."

In the validation process, the test was found to have a satisfactory correlation of about 0.6 with various measures of success in Officer Candidate School.

To standardize this new version of the test when it was developed in the early 1960, it was given to "approximately 1600 applicants to OCS [Officer Candidate School]."

The mean raw score (i.e., number of questions answered correctly) of the preliminary norming group on Form 7 was 57.11—almost identical to Kerry's 58—with a standard deviation of 16.14. In other words, Kerry finished almost exactly at the 50th percentile.

(Technically, the "50" on his record appears to refer to his "Navy Standard Score." This is a bell curve-based scoring system where the midpoint is 50 and each standard deviation is 10, so that a score of, say, 60 would fall at the 84th percentile and a score of 70 would fall just below the 98th percentile. In Kerry's case, though, the differences between percentile and Navy Standard Score don't matter, because the midpoint for both scales is 50—his score on both.)

It's possible that the test slightly underestimated Kerry's overall cognitive ability—if he is a stronger verbal thinker than mathematical or visual thinker. And this seems likely. He was political science major at Yale and then went to law school, a typical verbalist's career path.

The Navy test was tilted in the opposite direction. When the Navy's OQT was revised in 1961, the number of arithmetic reasoning questions was boosted from 20 to 50 because of "a study by Wollnack and Guttman (1960), which found that quantitative reasoning items were the most valid predictors of OCS performance."

During the 3.5 month-long Officer Candidate School, Kerry outperformed his test score, finishing 80th out of his class of 563.

I found two other class ranks for Kerry. In a ten-week class on damage-control, Kerry ranked 17th out of 33 (p. 2 of this 5 megabyte PDF). In a three-week Command and Control course, he ranked 7th of 22 (p. 4).

So, if Kerry is about as smart as the average applicant to the Navy's Officer Candidate School, how smart is he?

It's certainly nothing to be ashamed of. To take the test, applicants were supposed to be college graduates, or on track toward a four-year degree, or be high scorers on the IQ test for enlisted men, the AFQT. The average IQ of a college graduate is typically close to one standard deviation above the national mean, over the 80th percentile. Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve, told me that, in the huge National Longitudinal Study of Youth that was featured in his book, the average college graduate's IQ, as measured by the AFQT, was 114.

(A quick summary of IQ scoring: Scores are assumed to fall according to a "normal distribution," or bell curve, with the average score at 100. Each standard deviation is 15 points. So, a 115 IQ falls at the 84th percentile and a 130 IQ at the 97.7th percentile.)

Perhaps a better way to estimate Kerry's IQ is to look at the average SAT scores of military officers.

A second Navy psychometrician told me about a major study he had conducted:

"I looked at the SAT scores of new officers from 1975 through 1985, by separate fiscal year. For each of the eleven years examined, new officers in the Navy had the highest SAT mean scores (on SAT-Verbal and SAT-Math) among all four services. Overall, including all officers commissioned from 1975 through 1985 combined, SAT scores were as follows:" 

1975-1985

SAT-Math

SAT-Verbal

Total

Recentered * (post 1994 scores)

Navy

584

519

1103

1188

Air Force

557

494

1051

1132

Marines

531

487

1018

1113

Army

522

479

1001

1098

Male high school seniors

495

437

932

1032

[* The "recentered" column converts these average scores into the easier scoring system that the College Board adopted in the mid-1990s.]

So, the average SAT score for Navy officers was 1103 (old style).

Of course, the SAT isn't taken by high school dropouts, nor by students who don't intend to go to college. So the true national average would have been much lower, probably around 800 under the old (uninflated) style scoring system.

Can we convert the average Navy officer's SAT score of 1103 into a rough IQ? There's a reasonable correlation between SAT and IQ.

The standard deviation of the SAT was around 230 back then, so if the typical Navy officer scored 1100, or 300 points above the estimated national average of 800, then his IQ was about 1.3 standard deviations above the national average IQ of 100 -- roughly 120, or maybe a little higher, which is in the low 90s on a percentile scale.

Of course, Kerry's OQT score was average for applicants for Officer Candidate School, not for officers, who presumably score better than those who flunk the test. This suggests he might have scored under 1100 on his SAT.

Another complication: it's not clear whether the applicant pool was stronger or weaker when Kerry's version of the test was normed in 1961 than in this 1975-1985 period for which we have data.

The draft was in effect in 1961, so many young men chose to volunteer to be an officer rather than to be drafted into the enlisted ranks. The late 1970s in contrast, were the early years of the all-volunteer military. Recruiting was notoriously difficult and the quality of the military drooped. But then, in the Reagan 1980s, pay increases and revived patriotism brought in better recruits.

An SAT score of 1100 for Kerry seems low, however, because that might have been low enough to keep him out of Yale, which he entered in 1962. I don't know the average SAT score at Yale at that time, but The Bell Curve reports that in 1960, the Harvard freshman class averaged 1373.

Yale turned down Former Senator Bill Bradley, who challenged Al Gore for the Democratic nomination in 2000, despite being an outstanding basketball player, because his SAT-Verbal score was only 485. Bradley was accepted by Princeton and became a Rhodes Scholar. But, although he built a good reputation in the Senate, his dull style during his dismal 2000 Presidential campaign certainly did not disprove his SAT score's validity.

Two years after Kerry's admission to Yale, Bush slid into Yale too. According to a 1999 article in The New Yorker, he had a 566 Verbal - 640 Math, for a 1206 total (which would be about 1280 today). Combined with Bush's mediocre grades in prep school, this meant he was left sweating over whether he'd get in. During spring break in 1964, Bush downplayed expectations by telling friends how much he looked forward to attending the University of Texas, which was his "safety school."

Kerry, being a Forbes, had family pull too—but certainly no more than Bush, whose father and grandfather were Yalies. And the latter, Prescott Bush, had been U.S. Senator from Yale's state of Connecticut until the year before.

During the 1960s, Yale tightened up entrance requirements for sons of graduates considerably, especially in the year after Bush was admitted. The late historian Jim Chapin, who taught at Yale during those years, told me that the intellectual quality of his students leapt upwards the next year.

This sudden arrival of so many brainy, bookish, leftwing nobodies may be a major reason Bush became so alienated from Yale during his later years there.

Still, it's important to keep in mind that Kerry was admitted two years before Bush—when admission was even less meritocratic.

(By the way, there is a web page out there that claims that Kerry's SAT score was 1190. That's not implausible, but, unfortunately, the site provides no supporting evidence whatsoever, and I wasn't able to find any confirmation on Google.)

What kind of IQ does Bush's 1206 SAT imply?

Linda Gottfredson, co-director of the University of Delaware-Johns Hopkins Project for the Study of Intelligence and Society, told me:

"I recently converted Bush's SAT score to an IQ using the high school norms available for his age cohort. Educational Testing Service happened to have done a study of representative high school students within a year or so of when he took the test. I derived an IQ of 125, which is the 95th percentile."

In other words, only one out of 20 people would score higher.

Charles Murray came up with a similar result:

"I think you're safe in saying that Dubya's IQ, based on his SAT score, is in excess of 120, which puts him in the top 10 percent of the distribution, but I wouldn't try to be more precise than that."

This suggests that applicants to the Air Force Academy averaged about 122.5 (halfway between one and two standard deviations above the average), putting Bush in the 125-130 range -- a little better than his SAT score would suggest.

By way of comparison, Bush's 2000 opponent Al Gore scored 134 and 133 the two times he took an IQ test in high school, putting him just under the top 1 percent of the public.

Not surprisingly, the former vice president's' SAT scores were also strong but not stratospheric: Verbal 625, Math 730, for a total of 1355, which would equate to the upper 130s in IQ.

We can compare Kerry's 50th percentile performance to Bush's performance on the different but reasonably comparable Air Force Officer Qualifying Test.

On January 17, 1968, Bush took the AFOQT. (Just to keep our military acronyms from getting tangled up in a SNAFU, the AFOQT is different from the AFQT or Armed Forces Qualifying Test, which is the IQ portion of the ASVAB or Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery that all applicants for the enlisted ranks take.)

This AFOQT then consisted of 13 subtests that were aggregated into five composites.

Here are Bush's percentile scores (p. 25 of a huge PDF on the USA Today website):

Test Composite

Percentile

Pilot Aptitude

25

Navigator Aptitude

50

Officer Quality

95

Verbal Aptitude

85

Quantitative

65

Bush took the 1966 version of the test. I couldn't find the technical report on that revision, so I bought from NTIS the report on the 1964 revision, "Development and Standardization of the Air Force Officer Qualifying Test-64," by Dr. Robert E. Miller and Dr. Lonnie D. Valentine, two prominent psychometricians at the Lackland Air Force Base.

The percentiles are based on the scores of Air Force Academy candidates during 1955-1960. (To be technical, the 1964 version of AFOQT was renormed using the huge 1960 Project Talent study of high school seniors, but the percentile scores continued to reflect the scores of applicants to the Academy at Colorado Springs.)

This baseline group would appear to be fairly comparable to the Naval OCS applicants against whom Kerry scored at the 50th percentile. The Air Force norm group was typically younger, being high school seniors, than the Navy OCS candidate group, but applicants to the Academies tend to be a little more elite than OCS applicants. For example, the average SAT score of today's Air Force Academy students is 1292 (using the easier post-1994 scoring system), compared to the  recentered 1132 of the average Air Force officer during the 1975-1985 period.

How did Bush do? In estimating his IQ, we can probably throw out his high score (the 95th percentile on Officer Quality) and his low score (25th percentile on Pilot Aptitude) because those tests don't measure IQ very directly. Instead, we should concentrate on his Verbal Aptitude (85th percentile), Quantitative (65th), and Navigator Aptitude (50th). In fact, those three are fairly similar in subject matter to the three parts of the Naval OQT that Kerry took: Verbal Analogies, Arithmetic Reasoning, and Mechanical Comprehension, respectively.

The Officer Quality score was derived by combining Bush's score on the 60 item Quantitative Aptitude subtest, the 60 item Verbal Aptitude subtest, with the 100 item Officer Biographical Inventory. The latter was a personality test that asked about "past experiences, preferences, and certain personality characteristics related to measures of officer effectiveness." It inquired into enthusiasm for sports and hunting, and was only vaguely correlated with IQ.

(A retired Air Force test psychologist told me that this section was later dropped because women did very poorly on it, and urban and suburban youths didn't do as well as country boys. "It was politically incorrect, but"—he recalled wistfully—"It was a predictor of success as an officer.")

Judging from his scoring at the highest percentile possible on Officer Quality, Bush must have absolutely nailed the Officer Biographical Inventory test, as you might expect coming from his ultra-competitive family.

In contrast, his not having any flying experience dragged down Bush's 25th percentile score in "Pilot Aptitude." He would have scored poorly on the Pilot Biographical Inventory and on Aviation Information, two of the seven subtests for this composite. Many of the other subtests focused on three dimensional imagination capacities, such as the "Visualization of Maneuvers" component. These are valuable mental skills, no doubt, but not ones called upon much in the Oval Office.

So, if you take the average of Bush's percentile scores on the three composites most similar to the test Kerry took, Bush scored at the 67th percentile, a little better than Kerry's 50th percentile.

This isn't an apples to apples comparison, so you can't say that Bush would have done better than Kerry on the same test. But this doesn't provide any evidence in support of the common assumption that Kerry has a much higher IQ.

The standardization report by Miller and Valentine says that the "officer population" that provided the percentile scores was about one standard deviation better than the average 12th grade male on the Verbal subtest and about two standard deviations better on the Quantitative test.

This suggests that the 50th percentile among the norm group of Air Force Academy applicants had an IQ of about 123, thus putting Bush in the 125-130 range—a little better than his SAT score would imply.

Of course, effort matters at least as much as IQ. That's why Kerry would probably beat Bush on a current events quiz, since Bush has never seemed particularly interested in learning about the duties of his job (as opposed to winning and keeping his job, at which he shows great cunning). In contrast, Kerry has been fascinated by the Presidency since his adolescence.

The subtle difference between Bush and Kerry in two words: Bush is competitive and Kerry is ambitious

Bush, by nature and by upbringing in the hyper-rivalrous Bush-Walker clan, is driven by a need to win.

If he'd been born into a family where his father owned the biggest junkyard in town, he'd be scrapping to own the biggest junkyards in two towns. By chance, he happened to be born into a family where to earn top honors requires him to win not one, but two Presidential elections. This helps explain the President's striking lack of interest in the content of his job—being President is just a means to an end (of beating his Dad).

For Kerry, in contrast, being President is the end, the goal of the last 45 years of his life. He came from a family background where this burning ambition to be President was unlikely but hardly unthinkable, just unusual. At prep school, his naked flame of ambition made him a bit of an outsider among the sons of the hyper-rich who strove for nonchalance.

In Vietnam, Kerry was certainly brave, and relatively few men on his boat ended up hating him (which is an above average performance for an officer in Vietnam). But he was always a glory hog. In the Senate, he has mostly seemed to bide his time, being liberal enough to get re-elected in Massachusetts, but keeping a low enough profile that the GOP couldn't hang the "Massachusetts Liberal" moniker on him as effectively as they did on Michael Dukakis.

Kerry has generally tried to portray himself as an intellectual, which has been a successful strategy for him in college-crowded Massachusetts.

In contrast, the only election Bush ever lost was a 1978 Congressional race in the Texas Panhandle, where his opponent made fun of Bush for having degrees from Yale and Harvard.

Bush resolved never to get out-dumbed again.

Soon we shall see whether Kerry can beat him by trying to outsmart him.

[Steve Sailer [email him] is founder of the Human Biodiversity Institute and movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog.]