The great Greg Cochran will often point out that a smart person is someone who says smart things, but more important, they don’t say many dumb things. Everyone, no matter how smart, will get a dumb idea in their head or get carried away and say something stupid on occasion. It’s just not common with smart people, at least not as common as it is with dumb people. Being smart is as much the absence of stupidity as it is getting right answers or having a long list of brilliant insights.
This comes up often in public discussion of the human sciences. It is remarkable how often an allegedly smart person will say things that are laughably wrong about something in biology or human evolution. A favorite example is Cordelia Fine. She is a Full Professor of History and Philosophy of Science at The University of Melbourne, Australia. That is quite impressive, but she writes books that are full of nonsense about biology. Cochran’s review of her book, Testosterone Rex, is a great read.
Is Cordelia Fine stupid? Well, if you look at her credentials, you have to think she is pretty smart. She has a degree from Oxford and PhD in psychology. It’s not physics, but it’s not nothing. She has advanced in her career to a very high position. Presumably, she is a smart woman. Yet, she routinely writes and says things that are wrong and not just a little wrong either. As Cochran pointed out in his review of her book, she makes the sorts of errors one expects from undergraduates. That’s not smart.
The point is not to pick on Mx. Fine. She’s probably a delightful woman, who would be a pleasure to know. It’s just that she is a great example of the plague of incredibly stupid smart people we see in public life. In fact, it seems to be a requirement of the modern public intellectual to have a long list of credentials and an equally long list of statements that are obviously wrong. We live in an age in which the greatest barrier to success as a public intellectual is not having enough mistakes on your record.
In fairness, you can be smart and have a lot of crazy ideas in your head. The Unibomber was a genius. Ted Kaczynski graduated high school at 15 and was a professor of mathematics at Cal Berkeley at 25. His tested IQ was 167. There’s no denying he was a brilliant man, but he also sent bombs to people in the mail. The old line about there being a fine line between genius and madness always comes up in these cases, but the truth is, you can be both a genius and have a head full of nutty ideas.
Similarly, you can be a genius and be extremely weird or unpleasant. Richard Feynman was a brilliant physicist and a terrible human being, by most accounts. He was often described as ruthless and amoral. Another brilliant physicist was Paul Dirac, who is counted as one of the weirdest people in the history of science. He was so strange that someone wrote a book about him called The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac. Smart people can be so strange, people confuse them for stupid or nuts.
The problem we have today, however, is not an excess of evil super-geniuses or even a glut of eccentric ones. There’s no doubt that many of the pseudo intellectual posers we see in public life are mendacious and immoral. Ben Shapiro says things all the time he has to know are false, but mendacity serves his agenda. Like the Unibomber, he graduated high school early and zoomed through college in three years. He is not sending bombs through the mail, but he says a lot of ridiculous and dishonest things in public.
Everywhere you look, we have people with credentials that strongly suggest they are quite bright, yet they advocate for things that are quite dumb. Even after all these years, we still have “foreign policy experts” demanding we stay in Afghanistan and the Middle East, in order to turn them into democracies. Like Shapiro, they could be saying these things because they are paid to say them. That’s been known to happen. Still, it means our public intellectuals are smart people without scruples.
It’s also possible that the credentialing system we have been using for generations has gone horribly wrong and it now selects for charismatic sociopaths. Not to keep picking in Shapiro, but he is mostly a Hollywood creation. Perhaps the vetting system of college and graduate school has been corrupted to select for the sorts of people, who fit a role in the propaganda machine. Whatever the case, the people who are supposed to help the public sort through things are mostly stupid, crazy or mendacious.
Humans are by nature inclined to look to authorities, in order to understand the world around them. At least it seems that way. In every society that we know of, there were people in positions of authority to whom the people looked for solutions. The shaman or witch doctor may have been nuts, but he knew more about curing ailments and appeasing the gods than anyone else, so everyone looked to them for answers. To put it in modern terms, being less wrong used to count for a lot in human societies.
In the current age, “being smart” automatically bestows authority on someone. It even grants them authority on topics well outside their area of expertise. Yet, our shamans and witch doctors seem to have been selected for their propensity for error. As a result, people are walking around thinking there’s no biological difference between boys and girls, because they heard it from Cordelia Fine. They think James Watson is history’s greatest monster because some enlightened dingbat said so in the New York Times.
Maybe it does not matter that the public is made dumber by the new class of stupid, dishonest public intellectuals. The Aztecs made it a long time thinking human sacrifice was a good idea. Perhaps it really does not matter that the public is clueless, just as long as the people in charge are not clueless. The Iraq War, Bill Kristol, open borders and a whole host of recent public polices suggest the ruling class is suffering from the same malady as the intellectual class. Rule by stupid liars can’t possible end well.