Tuesday, February 21, 2012


If you've been paying any attention at all, and have read this blog regularly, you'll have noticed that each post is basically a thesis paper. By the end of the first paragraph, you know that "I'll argue that X is true," or "... that we should do X instead of Y." So I'm going to be upfront with you here, I can't be so clear this time. I don't think I actually have a point to what I am writing about today, though maybe I will by the end. Today, I really just have a bunch of similarly themed thoughts that have been bumping around in my head over the past few weeks. 

What I want to talk about today is intelligence, and the role it plays in human society. I've encountered a number of different discussions, and had a number of personal experiences, all over the last few weeks that have all kept redirecting my thinking back to this question of intelligence. So, please, come along as I try to sort through these out loud.

Intelligence, along with bipedalism, symbolic language, upright posture and opposable thumbs, but intelligence more so than all the rest, is the trait that distinguishes our species from the rest. (OMG I hate Blogger's spell-check- it didn't recognize "bipedalism" or "opposable.") And, from our species-centric perspective, we can't imagine anything more valuable. (Note, the having of a species-centric perspective does not distinguish us from other species at all, as most species seem to share this, each in their own limited way. If you were a bat, what could possibly be a more important trait than the ability to echo-locate? How else are you gonna find dinner?) Nevertheless, this natural favoritism of our most distinguishing trait plays out in complicated ways in human society, as it is simultaneously highly-regarded and deeply mistrusted.

(Before we go on, I should not wish to leave language behind. While symbolic language does not seem to be a prerequisite for intelligence up to a certain point- I just read about pigeons that had been trained to do math with numbers less than 10- it is fairly clear, from the evidence of species on Earth anyway, that intelligence beyond a certain point does require symbolic language. However, while I think language is a huge part of this discussion, incorporating it at every turn would add unnecessary complications, so I will try to simplify my points by sticking to "intelligence." When I finish Pinker's The Stuff of Thought, Language as a Window into Human Nature, I'll surely have a lot to say about language.)

So let me begin by discussing what I mean by intelligence being "simultaneously highly-regarded and deeply mistrusted." The first is more obvious- we all want to be smart, or at least thought of as such. Few things sting more than an insult to one's intelligence. (Except among middle-school boys, where being dumb is cool, though I always tell them that by high school girls don't think it nearly as charming as they do in 8th grade.) We say in awe when we recognize that someone is more intelligent than us in a certain area, "Wow, she's really smart." So while it isn't always the most highly regarded trait- some people would take looks over brains any day, despite the former's ephemeral nature- having it is generally regarded as a good thing.

But at the same time, being too smart, especially in the presence of those who are aware of the limits of their own intelligence, can be seen as something that merits distrust, suspicion, even animosity. Think about the way people talk about lawyers. While some of the distrust and dislike people have of lawyers is directed at the perception that they are greedy (surely some are, but the ones I know are the opposite of that) or that they use the law to manipulate the system for their own gain or profit (again, surely some do, but not all), most of the deep-seated distrust of lawyers stems from the fact that they are "tricky." But what people mean by "tricky" is that a good trial lawyer can force a witness to acknowledge the contradictions in their own statements- contradictions that the witness's own brain hadn't yet perceived. In other words, people distrust lawyers because they are generally smarter than the average person and their whole job is to use that intelligence to prove that what someone else is saying is false, misleading, inaccurate or impossible. (Perhaps Great Expectations' Mr. Jaggers is the epitome of what I mean here.)

This same mode of distrust towards intelligence and the people that have it can be witnessed in subtler ways in society at large. Try this: go out before dawn during hunting season in Maine, or anywhere, stop in a road-side gas station/ diner, saddle up to one of the counter stools, turn to the large flannel clad man in the orange cap next to you, and ask him what he thinks about the homo-eroticism in Shakespeare's sonnets. 

Okay, while there is certainly a cultural divide that factors in here as well, degree of education, and field of education, these are all part of the same discussion. But the point could still have been made with something less provocative, for any soliloquy on your part that tended beyond the monosyllabic in usage would risk your leaving with fewer teeth than you entered with. 

With these admittedly extreme examples in mind, we can surely imagine more subtle instances that we actually encounter in our own lives. I think that the these are the factors at work here- When someone with a more sophisticated intellect tries to explain a complex idea to someone who is struggling to grasp the concept, the struggler adopts an attitude akin to someone who fears they are being conned. Even while they understand on some level that the explainer grasps something they don't, they aren't willing (somewhat understandably so) to take the explainer's word for it, and adopt a defensive attitude of mistrust, often refusing to accept an idea that would have greatly benefited them.

We see this writ large in American society. It has become something of a truism that Americans don't want their president to be too smart; they'd prefer someone they can have a beer with. (If you're in a another country reading this, yes, that is accurate- the American public is willing to trust the launch codes of the world's largest nuclear arsenal to someone who we think would be hoot to shoot a few games of pool with down at the local pub.) At least to some degree, this underlies the current right-wing hatred of Obama, because many people don't feel like he is someone they could talk to, mano-y-mano, despite objective analysis that suggests he is the most moderate president since WWII .

While I am on the topic of the prez, it was actually the man himself that got me off on this train of thought a few weeks back. By any objective analysis, regardless of what you think of his policies, Obama is an intelligent human being (despite the common American usage of the term "idiot" to refer to anyone we disagree with.) In January, Obama gave his third State of the Union address. One of the most common accusations against him is that he sounds to "professorial," that he "talks over people's heads." Well, I guess if your head was up your ass, I can see how he could be talking over it, because each of his three SOTU addresses have been given at an 8th grade level. (Please follow that link, it's fascinating, and relevant to what I am about to say.) In fact, Barry Os SOTUs are all near the bottom of the charts in terms of the complexity of the language, behind even, yes, W. Of course, then begin the accusations that he is dumbing things down too much, being insultingly simplistic (he kinda can't win), except the average American reads at a 7th grade level. Yes, you read that correctly. Seventh grade. In other words, Johnny Tremain or The Old Man and the Sea, both 8th grade lexiles, are a bit of a struggle for your typical voter.

Now, reading level and intelligence are not exactly the same thing, but there is a very high correlation. Besides the obvious fact the literacy increases vocabulary, verbal intelligence and background knowledge (which does play into intelligence- you can build a better car if you have access to more parts), literacy is tied to working memory and the ability to sustain concentration, both essential for understanding complex ideas. And as us educators like to remind our students, "Reading is thinking," and like any muscle, the more practice a brain gets, the more efficient it is.

What it boils down to is this- The United States of America, the most affluent and powerful nation in the history of the world, is guided by the political will of millions of people whose intellectual capacity (and arguably emotional capacity as well) was arrested when the most important thing on their mind was whether or not that zit on their chin would be gone in time for the school dance. And what we look for in our leaders is that they fit roughly into this mold as well. (I don't think the stupidity problem is limited to the US, but such intense hatred of those we think of as "elite" is a particularly American phenomenon.)

You probably find that thought as depressing as I do. But fortunately, the situation is more complex than this. First, we must recall the meaning of the term "average." George Carlin puts a hilarious spin on it with his elucidation of the term in this particular context; "Think about just how dumb the average person is. Just think about that for a minute... and then remember, half the people are even dumber than that!" Fortunately, the opposite of this is also true. Half the people are smarter than the average, and this, probably, is enough to save us from the doom of our own self-inflicted stupidities. 

Let's just talk about this from a statistical perspective for a moment. Let's say you take an IQ test and you get a score of 138 (on the Weschler scale). (Yes, I am aware of the limitations inherent in using IQ as the sole measure of intelligence, but it is one, it is widely accepted, and it shows very strong correlations to the ability to perform all sorts of mental and creative tasks. So for simplicity's sake, I will stick to that here.) This score puts you in the highest category on any conversion-scale (Stanford or Cattel) and says your IQ is in the 99.5 percentile of the population. Well, doesn't that sound extraordinary! Aren't you special? 

Well, not really. Being in the 99.5% on any scale means that out of a sampling of 200 people chosen at random, you should, statistically speaking, have the highest whatever-you-are-measuring. But 200 people isn't really all that much, when you consider the population of the human race. In other words, there are 1.5 million people as smart as you in the US alone, and 35 million of your peers in the world. 

Don't feel so awesome now, do you?

The point is, while there are certainly a lot of truly dumb people out there, there are fortunately, a fair number of intelligent ones. And that may be enough.

Because despite what we think, we human beings are not innovators. We are copiers. (I owe most of what I am about to say to Mark Pagel, evolutionary biologist at Reading. That talk is from edge.org, "the world's smartest website." Check it out.) To use Pagel's example, think about how many truly original thoughts, ideas or innovations you have come up with in your lifetime. I'll give you a minute... Let me guess? Zero? If you are like most of the rest of us, that is very likely the number. (I actually thought I had two original ideas myself, both regarding how our evolutionary heritage factors into certain key aspects of the way we view the world, but alas, when I read Dawkin's The God Delusion I discovered that he, and likely others, had already thought of both of them. Not only that, but he even coined, in the book, the exact term I had settled on for one of those ideas. So, back to zero...)

Pagel's not talking about a poem you wrote, or some chords you put together on your six-string, because we all know how heavily influenced all art is by those who came before. He, and I, are talking about truly original, hand-axe, spear, wheel, fire, printing press, telephone, light bulb-type innovations, the kind that utterly and irrevocably change human history. Of course, that is setting the bar awfully high, but isn't that the point? Very, very few of us will be clever enough, or lucky enough, to stumble upon an idea so incredibly history-altering. 

And, the sort-of good news is that we don't need to. Because we have language. And we have writing. And we have long-distance communication. And now we have the Internet and mobile devices. And who knows what will come next? As Pagel points out, our species ability to disseminate a single good idea to millions and billions of new brains is at an unprecedented peak, and is accelerating at an accelerating rate. Much has been made of this, but think back to the Arab Spring. A single fruit vendor immolates himself to protest the abuse of corrupt officials, and, within months, tyrannies that had survived decades fall. 

As Pagel argues, the reason Facebook (not even an original idea itself, just a superior copy, now worth $70 billion) is so popular is that we have an innate desire, even need, to see what others are up to, particularly those who we admire, and imitate them. Not overtly, in a toady kinda way, but in the more subtle, "Oh, my friend that's in a band and knows a lot about music is listening to this band I've never heard of on Spotify. I should check them out, maybe they're good. And if they make it big, I'll be ahead of the curve for once, instead of 'discovering' an artist when they release their third album" kinda way. Of course, our thinking is never so overtly pathetic, but honesty will help you appreciate that something similar to that is going through your mind on a regular basis. 

And we all do it, every single one of us. Even those of us who like to pretend we are different, above all that. Whether you are the most mall and Facebook addicted wannabe, or the most extreme living-off-the-grid anarchosocialist queer pagan, you are a target market. Somewhere out there, an idea, a style, a trend is heading your way that you will snatch up greedily because it will make you feel more like what you envision yourself wanting to be, or at least thinking you want to be. And the chances are very, very incredibly slim that the idea will be your own.

I was reminded of this yesterday when my wife and I actually went to the mall, something we do about twice a year. She was getting dressed, and came down in a leggings, a long shirt that came below her butt, a long open "sweater" (though it probably weighed 3 oz), and knee high leather boots. She said, "Do I look ridiculous? This is what everyone is wearing." Well, I thought she looked smoking hot, so I told her so. But if you know my wife, you know that she is not "trendy" in any way, which is one reason I adore her. Most of her favorite clothes are from the 1940s. But nevertheless, this is the "look" right now, and the allure of that is strong. 

(I am so glad to be a guy, since our styles don't change all that much. I'd wear the same perfectly innocuous , boring, one-in-a-million outfit everyday if I could, because I happen to be of the opinion that if you need fashion (or piercings or tattoos) to show "who you are," there may not be much there to begin with. If an article of clothing or spot of ink can sum you up, you must not have a lot to say. But that's just my own snotty, superior opinion, so, please, don't mind me.)

Okay, so I've gotten from intelligence to fashion, by means of discussing how ideas spread, and how readily our brains take them in. We are copiers, and in a sense, that's okay. This fact does, again, as Pagel argues, have two effects. One, our ability to copy does put a downward pressure on any one individual's necessity, and hence, ability, to innovate. Why do all the hard work of coming up with an original idea when you can just wait for one of the other 7 billion people on the planet to do it and copy it from them? It's bound to happen, and statistically speaking, bound to happen fairly soon. 

For example, my wife is photographer. Using a digital camera requires storing photos on SD cards, which can be corrupted, or get lost or destroyed, before the images are downloaded and backed up. When these photos are of a once-in-a-lifetime event, such as someone's wedding, this is a big deal. Now, when I take a picture on my Android phone, it immediately (if I have it set this way, which I do) uploads that photo to a folder in my Google+ account, where it is private until I share it. So I asked my wife the other day, "When is your camera gonna do that? Why aren't they already making professional digital cameras with 4G connections that immediately store all your photos in the cloud so that they are automatically backed up the instant you take them?" 

That's not an original idea, but it is a combination of several ideas to come up with a new solution to a relatively new problem. I hadn't heard of this yet, and neither had she, but a quick google shows that there are already plenty of cameras that do just that, and more on the way that will do it more efficiently. So even as I was thinking I had come up with something fairly original, products were already rolling off the line that anticipated what I had been thinking. So now, instead of me having to build one for her, she can just go buy one the next time she decides to upgrade. 

Now, if we had been living in the Middle Ages, or any time previous, and this was a problem with, say our plow, we wouldn't have had that luxury. I would have had to analyze the problem on my own, come up with a solution, manufacture the parts on my own and implement the solution. Unfortunately, this would have come at the expense of valuable crop-tending time, time I probably could not afford to lose. So the innovation I had dreamed up for our plow, the one that would have saved us time in the long run and kept us better fed, would have to perish before the more immediate needs of our bellies. If this sounds dour and extreme, recall that it took hundreds of years for Europe to make the transition from two-crop rotation to the vastly superior three-crop rotation.

So, am I dumber than a medieval farmer because I leave it up to others to come up with solutions to most of my problems? Well, first of all, at no point in history was the average person a better innovator than at any other time. That's the whole point. If they were, the idea of three-crop rotation wouldn't have taken hundreds of years to spread, and it would have started much sooner. People are copiers, it is just that back then, ideas transmitted at the speed of donkey, not the speed of light (which is about 185,999.999... miles per second slower.) The average person has always relied on others to do most of his innovating for him.

So, despite the Flynn effect (which shows that the average IQ increases over time, though the tests are always re-normed to 100), we really aren't much better at innovation than our ancestors were, and we may be, according to Pagel, a bit worse. However, as a society, we should expect to see more innovations, and also expect to see these innovations have more rapid and widespread impact on society as a whole.

This is for two reasons. First, as the population continues to increase, hopefully leveling off around 9 billion (if the faithjobs don't have their way stifling the education of women and limiting access to contraceptives and family planning), we will continue to see a greater absolute number of people with high intelligence (though as a ratio it will stay the same). Now, intelligence isn't the sole criterion for innovation, though it would be hard to argue that it doesn't help, and the same ratios would likely hold true for "creativity" if it could be measured in a similar way, which it really can't be. Second, as we have more and more "innovators" out there, more of the rest of us will have more immediate access to their ideas, as communications and travel technology continues to make the world a smaller and smaller place.

So while there is even less and less need for any one individual to be innovative on their own, society as a whole is getting "smarter."

Or is it? Because of course, if individual people aren't all that sharp to begin with, what's to say that bad ideas won't spread just as quickly as good ones? Nothing, of course, and we see the spread of bad ideas taking place all the time. (Yeah, I'm just kinda going with this now. I know this post is absurdly long, but what the heck, right? I've already told Pandora "I'm still listening," about 4 times.)

Take Harold Camping. Twice in the past year, that crazy old loon got a large number of people in this country into a tizzy because he said he knew that the world was going to end on a certain imminent date. He was on the news, trending on Twitter, people in my own family were discussing the likelihood of his prophecies. Think about that. An obviously bat-shit crazy old bastard, who had already pulled this stunt once before years back and been proven wrong then, says that he knows, absolutely knows, based on his reading of a 1700 year old book, about a guy who may or may not have lived 300 years before it was written, and was written precisely to make it look like other prophecies which had been made hundreds of years before that had come true, and based on Harold's reading of this myth, he says that the world is going to end in a few days. And it is on the news. And people are actually a little bit nervous.

Yeah. "Holy shit" is right.

Obviously, people's bullshit detectors suck, which is a lot of what this blog has been about. And there are probably a lot of people out there thinking, "Well, I don't think a lot of people took him very seriously." No, that's probably true. But do you wanna know what the most common argument against Harold's prophecy was?

Not, "Why is anyone listening to someone who belongs in an asylum?"

Oh, no. The most common comeback I heard was Matthew 24:36, "No one knows the day or the hour of His return."

BOOM! Take that! Suck on that Harold, you false prophet you! Burn in hell, sucka!

Yeah, I know. But that was all over Facebook, all over Twitter, all over the news media and the religoblogs. I even saw two people in my own family, after Harold died of a heart attack a few weeks after the world failed to end for the third time, high-fiving over God giving Harold his comeuppance.

So this little example should be a reminder of how quickly bad ideas can spread, just as easily as good ones. Sometimes even more so, because an indulgent lie is often much more comforting than a harsh truth.

So here is where we're at. A regular commentator on here, who writes her own excellent blog, admitted to me that she was a little nervous about writing a post that touched on a something some people might find offensive (it was religion, in that particular case). The short answer I gave her was, "If you say something that makes people uncomfortable, good. People need to be uncomfortable from time to time, or else they just get stuck on unquestioned, often very bad, assumptions."

This post is, I guess, my long answer to her question. You can't take your ideas out of the marketplace simply because you worry that people might be offended. Too much is at stake. Too often, very intelligent, thoughtful people end up being "good idea sponges" that suck suck suck up intelligent, thoughtful positions on issues that are critically important to society as a whole and then... nothing. They don't speak their mind when around others who they know are less informed, and maybe even obviously less intelligent than themselves.

They do this for several reasons. One, they fear being treated with that mistrust people have for those who are obviously smarter than the rest. Two, they know that no matter how clearly they articulate and defend their position, the hoopleheads will just shout louder, use more caps, and take even more extreme positions, rather than simply fessing up to the fact that they are talking to someone who clearly knows more than they do, and understands the topic better.

I see this all the time on Facebook, when the discussion turns political or something equally heated. You can tell the most knowledgeable commenters because they generally have the least to say. They will make a subtle point here and there, or point out a gross inconsistency or contradiction in what someone else says, but they usually drift away long before the most ignorant have tired of screaming hypocritical or irrelevant platitudes in all caps. I personally try my best to make my case when I see a discussion taking a turn like this, and it is on a topic I feel informed about, but I am also usually quick to succumb to the exhaustion of carefully picking apart every line of someone's argument only to have them utterly ignore you and just repeat the same thing in a slightly different way.

So the point is this. We all need to throw our thoughts in the ring, even at the risk of appearing "smart." Because that is how the world works. Most of our ideas aren't our own. Heck, probably none of them are. But the world needs good ideas to compete with the bad. And chances are, if you are smarter than 99.5% of the population, the ideas that got by the "contradiction!" "hypocrisy!" "untruth!" "impossibility!" filters in your own head, have a certain merit to them. That doesn't mean you are always right, or even that most people whose filters aren't as stringent will even listen to you, but we need your ideas anyway.

Or else we spend our time battling lunatics on Twitter with Bronze Age literature as our most sophisticated weapon. 


  1. Normally I throw a lot of sunshine up your ass and tell you you've written a great post, but really I don't like this one. Aside from the meandering format (which is acceptable in a blog and I'm far more guilty than you are), there are more than a few places where the correlations you put together just aren't quite there.

    First, I would argue that people have a good reason to be afraid of smart people. Smart people are responsible for not only many of the good things we enjoy, but unfortunately they are also responsible for much of the large scale misery. The average Nazi at Nuremberg had an almost genius level IQ. Marx was a bright guy, but his theories and the "smart" people who disseminated them in Paris in the 30's are indirectly responsible for the death of millions in places like Cambodia, China, Vietnam, Russia, and even Nepal (not to mention being the philosophical basis that transformed western republics into unsustainable and tyranny saddled "democracies"). Smart people run a highly corrupt financial system around the world that swindles the average family out of half their earnings over their lifetime. Smart people rig elections (sometimes they get caught and those ones aren't that smart I guess), smart people can sell you into slavery and be cunning enough to make you pay for it. Smart people screw a lot of people over.

    You also overly equate skepticism and intellect. While the two aren't mutually exclusive, there are plenty of very smart people that believe absolutely ridiculous things. While I'm generally more interested in what "smart" people have to say, other trait combinations are just as important. I'll listen to someone like Forest Gump before I'd listen to some arrogant prick who is smart but mostly uses his intellect to impress others or engages in discussion not for the reason of discovering insight but to make themselves look good. There are many traits that are of equal value to intellect in discovering the worth of what someone has to say. Wisdom trumps intellect in my opinion, and though again the two aren't mutually exclusive, they are different. (please see any D&D character sheet as proof!)

    (continued- apparently I'm too long winded and exceeded the max character count)

  2. Finally, I just want to say that I normally enjoy your examples but I think you were just off the mark on almost all of them here. The one with the guy in the flannel and the discussions of homoerotic overtones in Shakespeare has almost nothing to do with intellect. I mean, hell, if some little snot came up to me at 6am before I was going hunting turned to me and asked me that question I'd probably hit him too. I'm also not even sure that this kind of discussion that you site is a mark of intellect, but I digress. As to the presidents speech, the criticism is often not so much about the substance of what he is saying (be it on an 8th grade level or at a doctorate level) but more about his delivery and the way the content is put together. It's not that the words are hard, it's the way he engages an audience, a style some like, some criticize. Also the entire way you present the concept of an "original" idea is a bit of a misconception I think. Almost all ideas are just a gradual evolution of other ideas just brought together in some new way. The line between original and the old idea is a bit of a gray blur in almost all but the rarest cases. Much like evolution, while we can easily appreciate the difference between a chicken and a dinosaur, the steps in between were not so easily discernible, and yet each was "original" in its own way. Such is the case with most ideas as well.

    Yes people should throw their thoughts into the ring, and with that I agree, but when we take the position that we are smarter than our audience and that their criticisms come from a mistrust of our massive intellect I can't help but feel that this is a bit of folly and a bit too haughty for my liking. I say this as someone guilty of just this attitude on occasion. And if our goal is to actually approach some kind of truth, to convince others of our ideas, than raw intellect must be combined with a certain amount of tact, something we often both lack, to be more effective. Otherwise it's just mental masturbation and more an exercise in ego than making the world any better than it is. All that said, thanks for throwing your thoughts out there!

  3. Wow, that was long, but worth reading!

  4. Hmm, well I may have meandered to far then, if that's what you got out of the post. Because most of what you are saying is the exact opposite of what I intended.

    I think you hit on something that I originally intended to include, but just got left aside as the post ambled on, probably largely due to my lack of, or really, inability to, think through the post fully before I started writing. I actually HAD intended to say something about the way that intellect plays out in the modern world. For example, as you point out, we are at that sad, later stage in a culture when the shift in where the best and brightest shift their time from ideas, discoveries, exploration and innovation to finance. And we are still, and will for a long time, be feeling the effects of a massive swindle pulled off by some very, very "smart" people.

    And that comes down to the difference, as you rightly point out, between wisdom and intellect. But one, intelligence, is innate, though malleable to some degree. What is the other? If I was to try to formulate "wisdom" I would say that it is the quality of the ideas one holds in one's head. It is something gained from experience, but is something that is a product of the ideas that we are exposed to, but also how we sift, sort and retain those ideas. And I think, all other things being equal among people, since our exposure to new ideas is fairly equitable these days (comparatively speaking) one's ability to sift through those ideas for the gems IS dependent, to a fairly large extent, on intellect. Of course, it is also highly dependent on the other ideas one already has in one's head. But recognizing when an idea you hold is false, and letting it go, takes a certain amount of intellect, along with will.

    I guess I didn't do a very good job capturing what Pagel was saying, which I was kind of agreeing with. It has nothing to do with any one person's own intellectual prowess. The exact opposite, in fact. His point, and the one I was trying to reiterate by tying it in to other things, was that the way ideas transmit through culture, we are all merely, (mostly,) passive receptacles, sifters and transmitters. Some people are better equipped to perform the almost automated function of separating the wheat from the chaff, and I was merely suggesting that they should not willfully shy from that role.

    But, coming back around again, it DOES have a lot to do with the ideas a brain already holds. I am reminded of something from the intro to Jarod Diamond's collapse, where he talks about an executive who wrote him to say that he loved Guns, Germs and Steal and his basic impression of the book was that it justified all of the predatory business and environmental practices that the man was already engaged in. Obviously, this was the exact opposite of Diamond's point. This man was fairly intelligent, it would seem, but the way this new idea fit into his brain was not what the generator of the idea had intended.

    And yes, that IS my point about ideas, they are hardly ever original in that absolute, straight out of the box way. (Aren't we both saying exactly the same thing? Or did I miss something?) And thus there are very few of us who ought to go around tooting our own horns about them, myself included.

  5. (Oops, I did the same.)

    I guess I'm still confused. I look over what I wrote, and what you did, and I just don't see the connections, apart from the obvious gap left out by pointing out all the evil wrought by clever swindlers, or overactive intellects, and apart from you not liking two examples (both of which I acknowledged the limitations of in the original writing, I just couldn't come up with better). And I also thought I made very clear at the beginning, that I wasn't touting intellect as the sole relevant factor in settling truth or what's good or what's valuable. My intention, which I thought I made clear, was simply to talk about this one thing, in isolation, because its role in how we operate as a society had come up in several different places in my own recent experience.

    And I stand by the assertion that when it comes to filtering and selecting from the marketplace of ideas, intellect has a critical role to play. And while "wisdom" is ultimately more important, if wisdom is (and I don't see how it could be anything else) the sum of the ideas already present in one's head, then intellect played an initial role in that process as well. We all know examples of people with towering intellect who still managed to muff up the selection process, just as we know simpler people who seem to have hit on all the "right" ideas. I'm not saying that either of those can't or don't happen, I'm just trying to point out the role of one trait in that process. Because, you are absolutely right, it is the end result, the ideas one holds and carries and uses to make decisions that affect ourselves and others that is what matters.

    My intention with this post, as with all of them, is not to be haughty, but to knock everyone down a peg, myself foremost among them. Unfortunately, it is hard to talk about intellect in an objective way, because everyone always assumes you are just being a snot. We can talk about the role of personality in how we select ideas, because then we are all just "different" and no one is absolutely better or worse than anyone else. But as soon as you switch over talking about something that varies only on an vertical line, people get miffed. I generally hesitate a great deal before writing something like this, but I ultimately decide to precisely because if I didn't, I wouldn't be living up to my own ideal of putting ideas out there and letting them sink or swim. I've long ago given up on being concerned with how my ideas come off, though I do as best I can to make them palatable, but for a blog with about 12 regular readers who somehow keep coming back, I can only really say what I have to say.

    All THAT said, thanks a lot for the critique. I love the notion that "normally you'd blow a lot of sunshine up my ass..." Uh... "normally"? Like when? That one time in 7th grade? Unless I am greatly deceived, you're not a sunshine-ass-blower. Which is why I really do appreciate the criticism, because I know it is genuine, as are the compliments.

  6. And while we are on the topic of examples we don't like, I raise you Forrest Gump. He's fictional. And that's kinda the point. The caricature of "The Noble Idiot," is as ridiculous as the caricature of "The Noble Savage." While being intelligent has little bearing on how nice you are, and Forrest certainly is nice, the idea of someone with mental retardation consistently being more profound, more wise and more insightful than all the "smart" people around him, is pretty absurd, but it is what made the movie sweet, and sold tickets. But in RL, that just doesn't happen. At least not that I have ever witnessed.

  7. Sure ol Gump is extreme and fictional, but simple decent people do exist that can be great teachers. Actually I've met some fairly noble idiots in my day. I've worked with a few of them, and while they weren't the brightest bulbs in the pack, they were really decent people that knew bullshit when they saw it, understood acting as a generally good person, and I was on a few occasions put to shame by these people. Now maybe they were much "smarter" than they came across, they certainly weren't retarded, but lets just say they weren't going to win a Pulitzer or Nobel prize any time soon. I learned a lot from one guy in particular not because he was all that smart, but he had a good sense about relation to the world at large and his honest humility was...well quite humbling. Especially when I got showed up a couple times by him.

    As for wisdom, I don't think it's the sum of the thoughts in your head. Wisdom, to me anyway, is understanding how to apply intelligence and action and how to see more than what is directly before you. While straight up intellect might be something like the sheer processing speed of a computer, wisdom is more like the frame that applies where those resources are spent and on what. Wisdom is what makes intelligence worth having, and what makes it dangerous when lacking.

    As for ideas, I think my point was that those small steps that are created from other ideas, actually are kind of worth being called original- I mean it's a grey area, but the almost all steps forward are small and even those incremental improvements to ideas already in the vicinity are worth being (hmm lacking a word here..."proud of" or "celebrated" isn't quite right but something like that). Anyway my point is that those incremental steps are as important, if not more, than the big leaps (which I would argue are often just slightly larger steps built on numerous other nearby ideas and not as original as they seem from a distance).

    I know you weren't really arguing it to be haughty or condescending, but it does come across that way slightly. Maybe you're right that there isn't a way to breach such a topic and not come across this way, but who knows. As for sunshine...look through some other comments, I'm not THAT stingy with praise!

  8. Had a chance to sleep on what you said, and have more to add here, but no time now.

    But as for the last, I think you are misusing the "sunshine up your ass" phrase. I've always understood it to mean "false or empty praise, (and obviously in the wrong place!)" THAT you are stingy with, and that's a good thing.

  9. Brian-

    Some more random thoughts:

    I don't really disagree with anything you are saying, I just think a lot of that was out of place as comments on this post, because I don't think you saw where I was going with it, which is probably largely my fault.

    At the same time, and I say this as objectively as possible, with no slight intended, we have always differed in what we value in the company we keep. You have never had much tolerance for those who didn't already kinda agree with you in the first place, though I am sure you don't see it that way. I am pretty intolerant of stupidity, I will admit that, but I have always had much more room in my life for people who I fundamentally disagreed with, but who I could respect their positions because at least they were thought through and well-articulated. We have always differed in that way, and clearly, we still do.

    As for the nature of wisdom: Yes, you're absolutely right as to what it is- our idea of what we should use our time and energy and intellect for... but that itself is an idea, or a series of them. Take the book you were writing- it is an outline of where one should put one's time and energy, and it strives to be wisdom in this regard (and I think it is) but that whole schema is an idea- an idea that I think very few people with less than your intellectual capacity would be able to formulate or articulate on their own.

    Now here is the difference, there are probably a fair number of people out there who are living your ideal, but who lack the intellectual capacity to articulate it, formulate it and share it. They can teach by example, which is wonderful, but it stops there. You are fortunate enough to have the intellect to systematize it in a fairly concise way and thus truly enter it into the marketplace. And that has value, and all I am saying is that people who have that capacity shouldn't shy away from it.

    We had a discussion recently about someone we both know, who you feared was suffering needlessly due to a certain lack of perspective, you were refraining from sharing what you felt like would have been helpful insights with that person. What has holding you back, it seemed to me, was the belief that your suggestions would not be grasped in their entirety by the person they were designed to help, and thus would come off as haughty and condescending. If you were more certain of that individual's capacity to fully grasp the nuance of what you were saying, you would have been able to share that bit of wisdom with them. And this is where I think cognitive capacity plays into the discussion.

  10. (4096 character BS)

    As for the semantics of the word "original" in reference to ideas: Yeah, the point wasn't really about who gets celebrated for what, or at what point we draw a line between "truly original" and "imitation." As we're both saying, almost all ideas are a combination of those that came before and a bit of insight on the part of the most recent transmitter. I don't really care if we only call a handful "original" or call all of them "original." I was more interested in pointing out precisely the fact that all of us have a role to play in this filtration process, and it is necessary to perform that to the best of our ability.

    And my last thoughts on mistrust of intellect: I don't think people distrust intellect, and I am realizing how poorly I articulated that. As I was trying to say, there is a very split view of intellect in society- people see its value, but like anything else they don't understand, they are suspicious. If I was going into a bank to sign off on a mortgage, I would have all my hackles up that this person across the desk from me, who knows the terminology and fine print better than I, was going to swindle me into something I don't want, some variable rate BS. And I am just trying to point out that people (again, understandably) have the same reaction, whatever the topic of discussion. It is not a distrust of intellect, it is a inherent distrust of things we don't fully grasp. Understanding that, when you are in the knowledgeable position, is key to helping you bridge that gap. This can help smooth communication between people who DO spend of a lot of their time trying to understand an issue, and those who just pick a side and start shouting, though the burden falls on the more thoughtful person to pick up the other side's slack.

    I'll close by conceding that I think you did point out what I now recognize is the grossest error above- by bias towards always seeing intellect in a positive light. From an objective standpoint, of course that isn't the case, but from a personal standpoint, it is what I see around me. I know a lot of really intelligent people, (to whom this was addressed) who are using their mental capacity to try and live better lives and make the world a better place, even if I disagree with the way they are going about it. I also know a lot of less intellectually capable people who are mired in close-mindedness, implacable insistence on the correctness of their own very un-considered stances and who don't at all care when they are talking to someone who is clearly better informed about precisely the topic at hand. And while this isn't a universal rule, it does seem to me to be a general trend.

    It wasn't until I got to my final paragraph that I finally realized what I was trying to say, though I can understand that if the reader had to wait that long to get there, their own opinions of the ideas in the writing will have been pretty well formed by that point. But I think the key line is, "That doesn't mean you are always right." No indeed.

  11. You have a damn good point, Robert, and so does Brian.

    Perhaps it would help if we expanded the definitions of intelligence?

    In social work, we extensively use something that we term emotional intelligence. There's a definition that doesn't quite work for what I mean by this on wikipedia, so I'll describe it.

    It's something like intuition, or wisdom, but just like intelligence, it requires honing and practice. It's what allows you to deal with a schizophrenic who is screaming bloody murder at you by realizing that they don't actually want to hurt anyone, they want someone to ask how their day was. And what makes you "know" that this same person, on a different day, exhibiting the same behavior, actually wants to kill someone and needs police intervention.

    It could easily be extended to many other examples, and I'd suggest that the greek concept of Metis (wisdom with cunning, also craft) applies to most of the examples.

    But I think what you're most mortified at, Robert, is the culture of positive idiocy, the one which embraces not speaking another language or aggressively dismisses a difficult-to-read book as "so much nonsense." Most of those folks--you're right--are attacking something inaccessible to them, but I've got quite a bit of patience for those sorts, because there are many, many other ways to convey powerful ideas, like art.

    Brian's point about the smart financiers is illuminating. I suspect that many of the popular idiotic memes in american society (drinking a beer with Bush, hating french, denying global warming, etc.) are actually originating with very highly intelligent people. Very highly intelligent people are dangerous as much as they are vital, and it unfortunately depends greatly on who's on who's side.

    Pagel's interesting, by the way. Though that link provided a lot of material for my next post on the Progress Narrative, the idea itself is fascinating. If I had anything to add at the moment, it would be that specialization (the increasing division of labor, as well as the current higher education paradigm that is shrinking humanities departments to make room for the sciences) could become dangerous, since it seems many "innovations" come from "renaissance" men and women, the widely read/trained/interested/educated folk. Also, experimentation requires time, and time (along with enough resources to use that time) is not given to many except the very rich.

  12. Well made points, Rhyd.

    I think what you are getting at is with the other varieties of intelligence is basically Gardner's Multiple Intelligences, which is something that comes up in education theory all the time. He would refer to what you describe as "emotional intelligence" as "interpersonal intelligence" but it is essentially the same thing.

    While it is very true, as Gardner argues, that there are multiple ways to be intelligent, I stuck with the types of intelligence that are generally classified as verbal and logical because these are the ones that most strongly and immediately effect our discourse. Your example of art is a poignant one, and valid, but art is generally less effective at conveying the actual meat of an idea the way words are.

    Good points, all.

  13. You know Rhyd, I just took a shower and had a few minutes to reflect on what you said and I think your presence here is brilliant. Because I think your comments perfectly encapsulated what I was trying to say.

    Here you are, reading the words of two people with whom you have some major, major ideological differences (and many similarities too, granted) and were able to read both sides, analyze them and very succinctly sum them up, point out the differences, and most importantly, the common ground. That was an intellectual endeavor that many people would not be capable of, at least not so succinctly and accurately.

    THAT is what I value, when we are talking about the marketplace of ideas (I'm sure you hate that term :) While I think we would all agree that it is not the most important thing in life, it IS a valuable skill that those who possess it, I would argue, are almost ethically bound to utilize.

    Much obliged, sir.

  14. Ah, thanks.
    I'm always best experienced after a shower. : )

  15. Well, actually, it could be said I was thinking about you while IN the shower.

    Somehow, I knew that would get dirty...

  16. I'm sorry to be late for the discussion, but wanted to add a point. It seems as if the most precious freedom we've found online is the freedom to have an opinion, no matter how ill-informed. I often avoid reading comments because of so many ignorant and ugly opinions posted by the great unwashed (maybe we could call them "the lower 40"). We as a society like to think in short gulps, and have become less able to understand anything that can't be expressed as a simple X = Y formulation. The internet is enabling this, and it could become the most important intellectual current of our time. Or perhaps it indicates our centuries old anti-intellectualism is still alive and vital.

    It's refreshing to read someone take the trouble to think through and make a point in several paragraphs. Thanks.