I’ve always been fascinated by the phenomenon of very high IQ people believing utter nonsense. We have been indoctrinated to think that smart people not only believe the right things, they never indulge in crazy fads or nutty politics. The former is obviously the important part of the proselytizing we hear from our rulers. Only dumb or evil people question the Progressive theology. Even putting that aside, most people assume smart people are too smart to fall for crazy ideas, conspiracy theories and so forth.
Way back in my youth I was dating a gal who had a brilliant uncle. The guy worked for NASA and had a PhD in physics. He started out from a working class family and went through college on scholarships and a love of mathematics. He was also very well read in a variety of subjects, which is unusual for math guys. He was also a communist. Every conversation would eventually lead to him ranting and raving about private property and the abuse of the poor by the rich. It was strange hearing a smart guy celebrate Marxism.
Of course, lots of very smart people were communists in the last century. I took a graduate class from a guy who was a Marxist believer. The class was on Marxism, so it worked out pretty well, but it was strange hearing an otherwise smart guy talk reverently about the worker’s paradise. The Cold War was still going so it was even more jarring, especially since he had traveled to the Soviet Bloc. All these years later I wonder how he managed to square what he saw in his travels with what he sincerely believed.
Anyway, I’ve become a fan of Tyler Cowen’s blog Marginal Revolution, mostly because it is that strange conflict of smart people not seeing the obvious.. He appears to do most of the posting, but maybe he has graduate students doing the work. Even though he is in the pseudoscience of economics, he does have a broad range of interests. Being a libertarian economics professor living off the public dime leaves a lot of time to be curious about stuff. Funny how all of the big foot libertarians tend to live off the sweat of others.
Anyway, this post caught my eye today. The first thing was the reference to left-wing blogger Matt Yglesias. I continue to marvel at his ability to fool people into thinking he is smart and interesting. Signalling on the Left is a highly developed part of how they reinforce their faith in Progressivism. Lefties put on the smart, smug guy outfit signalling that they are super smart. Then they go about repeating all the approved bits of the catechism, but with a cheeky twist. Everyone feels good about being in the faith.
A good example of it is the liberal blockhead Janeane Garofalo. She is as dumb as a goldfish, but she has been trained to play make believe on screen. She kits herself in the bohemian outfit, pretends to be smart, while repeating whatever she heard from the TV clown Jon Stewart. Of course, Steward is another great example of the mediocre mind spouting conventional liberal lines in a highly choreographed manner intended to cast him as brilliant. Maybe Yglesias is just doing a form of this that is lost on me.
Anyway, what go me posting about this is how Alex Tabarrok, the other half of the Marginal Revolution blog, starts out great, quickly summarizing that Yglesias post and then his own position on the topic. Then in the last paragraph he veers into the madness of climate change and the need to placate the sky gods. I admit I have a strong bias against the topic of climate change. It’s pretty much just neo-pagan nonsense that fills a spiritual hole for people who fancy themselves as the intellectual elite of the West
That’s the thing. Tabarrok seems like a smart guy, maybe not a genius or even brilliant, but certainly smart enough to be a tad skeptical of climate change. Instead, he is eager to show how deeply he believes in it. It raises the question as to why he, and other above average intellects, feel like they need to repeat this stuff. Maybe it is social pressure or maybe it professional concerns. Politics in the academy can be nasty. Still, simply ignoring this stuff and sticking to safe topics would seem like the better option.
Belief, of course, plays a big role in this stuff. The communist physicist I knew in my youth was not a religious buy, as communism was his religion. For many modern academics, the sub-cultures within Progressivism fill the role of religion for them. Belief is one of those hard to quantify traits in humanity that drives much of what we do. It plays a huge role in social status, which in turn means it plays a role in reproductive fitness. Being seen as pious has always been and important part of establishing social status in settled society.
This is a long way to go to juts point out that smart people often believe nutty things, but it is something that cannot be said enough. People can be wrong and be smart. Even smart people get things wrong. At the same time, even brilliant people need to believe in something and often they believe in crazy stuff. It may be that the lack of a formal, retrained religion for the elites results in smart people searching around for something to fill the void and landing on kooky new age fads and destructive civic religions.