Quote of the Day: The Perils of Intelligence

 

“There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs.” – Thomas Sowell

This phenomena is one I call the “smartest person in the room” paradox. Really smart people so generally out-think and out-perform those around them (especially in fields requiring intellectual activity) that over time they begin to fall into the trap of believing themselves omniscient. Given a complete set of facts they generally come up with the best solution.

There are two problems. The first is that in the real world the facts they are given are rarely complete. The second is the “facts” are often flawed, created by others with agendas other than getting everything right. (Given a choice between telling the boss what the boss wants to hear to keep their job or telling the boss something contradicting the boss’s beliefs and risk getting fired, guess what some people are going to tell the boss? This explains the current state of climate science. Your grants do not get renewed if you don’t give the paymaster the results desired.)

Working with a set of facts that are incomplete and flawed a brilliant person comes up with a solution — that if everything goes as predicted — yields marvelous results. However, if things begin deviating, even a little, disaster follows. But the brilliant person, knowing they are the smartest person in the room, ignores the warnings because they have been so often right in the past. Even if things go wrong, their adamantine arrogance rarely gets punctured because they know their failure was due to sabotage of others: wreckers, kulaks, revisionists, reactionaries, and the like. Often they double-down on the flawed solution multiplying the damage until monumental disaster follows.

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There are 18 comments.

  1. I Walton Member

    Exactly. Ordinary folks are frequently aware of their limits. Super bright folks quite frequently are not. They tend to specialize and have especially high presence in academia where they don’t have to confront their own limits. The fact is, the most humans can know about any subject is very limited and the more specialized, which tends to happen, the less comprehensive the knowledge.

    • #1
    • April 27, 2019, at 6:58 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  2. Vectorman Thatcher

    Seawriter: Working with a set of facts that are incomplete and flawed a brilliant person comes up with a solution – that if everything goes as predicted – yields marvelous results. However, if things begin deviating, even a little, disaster follows.

    There are brilliant people in all aspects of life. Probably the toughest job is that of a military general/admiral. Their overall strategies can be brilliant, such as with Napoleon and Robert E. Lee. But because their opposition is not consistent, they can meet their Waterloo and Gettysburg. If other brilliant people would understand this, they might not make such disastrous decisions.


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    • #2
    • April 27, 2019, at 7:34 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  3. David Foster Member

    The writer Andre Maurois asserted that people who are *intelligent* but not *creative* tend to become adherents of intellectual systems created by others, and to apply those systems more rigidly than their creators would have.

    • #3
    • April 27, 2019, at 8:43 AM PDT
    • 10 likes
  4. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher

    I struggle with this. I often do come up with the correct answer. I hear the siren call to join the technocrats. 

    What keeps me grounded are the following:

    1. Pride goeth before the fall. The idea that I have it all figured out is laughable. 
    2. There are other people as smart or smarter than me. They have not solved the complex problems either. I am not going to ride in and do it. 
    3. In a technocratic system, what are the chances of being top dog? Nil. If I cannot be that guy, no one should. 
    • #4
    • April 27, 2019, at 8:57 AM PDT
    • 11 likes
  5. Seawriter Member
    Seawriter Post author

    I was saved by being the dumb one in the family. I am smart, but my two brothers are literally geniuses. Kept me from believing I was the smartest man in the room.

    • #5
    • April 27, 2019, at 9:53 AM PDT
    • 12 likes
  6. Arahant Member

    I agree with Dr. Sowell that it takes a more intelligent person to really mess things up and create disasters, and yes, those doing so think of themselves as the smartest person(s) in the room, but that does not mean they are. Part of that is also that nobody will trust the known moron with the power to create great disasters. We tend to entrust smarter people with the power to act, whether in commercial enterprises or governments and other non-profits. The thing is, though, that most of these folks are a bit above middling intelligences. They are not the truly elite.

    Most academics are not geniuses. I believe I have seen average IQs for academics at around 119 or 120. (The chart linked in a few sentences shows 115.) That’s not even “gifted,” which starts at 130 (given standard deviation of 15). Research scientists? According to this chart, their average is about 112. The highest on the chart is medical doctors and related occupations with an average of about 121. Looking at the chart as a whole, there are four occupation groups that reach the far end of the scale: Natural scientists, legal occupations, college professors, and medical doctors. But the ones who rise to the top are not necessarily the smartest of the bunch. The ones who get put into positions of power or become well known outside their fields have a different set of skills. Some special skills they might have would fall under topics such as administrative, political, and communicative. They also have to care enough about going up and being put in a position of power to go up. But they might have a middling IQ for the occupation.

    The really high IQs might be living quiet lives as individual performers, perhaps in occupations you might not expect, just because they always wanted to be a policeman or fireman when they grew up.

    And if you like short stories about disasters, here is a great one: Day of the Moron.

     

    • #6
    • April 27, 2019, at 10:16 AM PDT
    • 13 likes
  7. Richard Finlay Member

    Early in my systems consulting days, I was one who given free reign would have created major disasters. I have embarrassing memories of advocating really stupid procedures for the sake of data accuracy. Later on, having internalized the danger of centralized control over remote operations, my greatest accomplishments circled around resisting the centralizing tendencies of those who still adhered to their obviously superior concepts. Results could not mitigate their belief that things could be better if only corporate HQ was making all the decisions.

    Raw intelligence is one of the most overrated talents. The people who get away with installing metrics of success that comport with their abilities have the eternal advantage. That is a political talent, not an intellectual one. Fund-raising, grant-winning … much more important skill than academic excellence.

    • #7
    • April 27, 2019, at 1:08 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  8. Arahant Member

    Richard Finlay (View Comment):
    Early in my systems consulting days, I was one who given free reign would have created major disasters.

    True of everyone. Some, like you, graduate beyond it with acquired wisdom. Others remain Democrats.

    • #8
    • April 27, 2019, at 1:10 PM PDT
    • 10 likes
  9. Richard Finlay Member

    Richard Finlay (View Comment):

    Early in my systems consulting days, I was one who given free reign would have created major disasters. I have embarrassing memories of advocating really stupid procedures for the sake of data accuracy. Later on, having internalized the danger of centralized control over remote operations, my greatest accomplishments circled around resisting the centralizing tendencies of those who still adhered to their obviously superior concepts. Results could not mitigate their belief that things could be better if only corporate HQ was making all the decisions.

    Raw intelligence is one of the most overrated talents. The people who get away with installing metrics of success that comport with their abilities have the eternal advantage. That is a political talent, not an intellectual one. Fund-raising, grant-winning … much more important skill than academic excellence.

    I blame spell check / auto correct for ‘reign’ instead of ‘rein.’ I simply could not be failure to proofread.

    • #9
    • April 27, 2019, at 1:39 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  10. Mark Camp Member

    I disagree with the premise.

    I think that the materially important stupid ideas are almost always the result of demonstrable stupidity amplified by social interactions with other stupid people.

    In fact it is difficult for an intelligent person to believe something stupid for very long unless he doesn’t think much about it during that whole time. But making a stupid idea manifest in a major way requires a continual investment of intellectual attention during the entire period required for success, which almost guarantees that any intelligent person will discover his error. In addition, all intelligent people seek out criticism from other intelligent people, and dismiss the influences of the powerful but stupid who surround them. The combined skeptical horsepower tends to weed out stupid ideas.

    But isn’t it a historical fact that very intelligent people have promoted very harmful, very stupid ideas? For example, Aristotle made astonishingly stupid statements about economics. But no one would argue that Aristotle was stupid.

    I’ve wrestled with this seeming paradox.

    • #10
    • April 27, 2019, at 5:20 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw Member

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    But isn’t it a historical fact that very intelligent people have promoted very harmful, very stupid ideas? For example, Aristotle made astonishingly stupid statements about economics. But no one would argue that Aristotle was stupid.

    I am not in the best place to be discussing this, but wasn’t it Socrates who said that the wise man was the man who knew how much he didn’t know? I would say it’s the combination of intelligence and pride that leads to danger. 

    • #11
    • April 27, 2019, at 5:32 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  12. Mim526 Member

    I think the most truly intelligent people are those who, in their acquiring knowledge, do not forget the higher pursuit of wisdom.

    • #12
    • April 27, 2019, at 10:48 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  13. CarolJoy, Above Top Secret Coolidge

     

    People with high IQ’s who work inside structured cultures fostered by large corporations often fall into a bureaucratic mindset.

    I’m forgetting who said it, but it bears repeating: “Bureaucrats take the possible and make it impossible.”

    • #13
    • April 28, 2019, at 12:59 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  14. Susan Quinn Contributor

    I never believed I was the smartest person in the room. I rarely was. But when I worked with groups, I often could zoom in on key issues while they thrashed around trying to figure things out. I was able to come in with fewer biases and no history or agendas, except to help them figure things out. And when they chose to fail (or I was unable to help them), I had to let go of success, too.

    • #14
    • April 28, 2019, at 8:03 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  15. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    I would only add that many people are either too intelligent or not intelligent enough to consider that the existence of a problem is not proof of the existence of a solution. 

    • #15
    • April 28, 2019, at 4:19 PM PDT
    • 9 likes
  16. Saint Augustine Member

    Matt Balzer, Imperialist Claw (View Comment):

    Mark Camp (View Comment):
    But isn’t it a historical fact that very intelligent people have promoted very harmful, very stupid ideas? For example, Aristotle made astonishingly stupid statements about economics. But no one would argue that Aristotle was stupid.

    I am not in the best place to be discussing this, but wasn’t it Socrates who said that the wise man was the man who knew how much he didn’t know? I would say it’s the combination of intelligence and pride that leads to danger.

    • #16
    • April 28, 2019, at 4:31 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  17. Saint Augustine Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Most academics are not geniuses. . . . Looking at the chart as a whole, there are four occupation groups that reach the far end of the scale: Natural scientists, legal occupations, college professors, and medical doctors. But the ones who rise to the top are not necessarily the smartest of the bunch. The ones who get put into positions of power or become well known outside their fields have a different set of skills. Some special skills they might have would fall under topics such as administrative, political, and communicative.

    Richard Finlay (View Comment):

    Raw intelligence is one of the most overrated talents. The people who get away with installing metrics of success that comport with their abilities have the eternal advantage. That is a political talent, not an intellectual one. Fund-raising, grant-winning … much more important skill than academic excellence.

    And hard work. Hard work will help you get somewhere in life. I think an academic careers gets more from hard work than from intelligence.

    That’s the bright side. That, and good politics: the stuff of the biblical book of Proverbs.

    The dark side is indeed largely political–the bad kind of politics. Things like selling your soul to please the people who decide where the grant money goes.

    • #17
    • April 28, 2019, at 4:40 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
  18. Arahant Member

    Saint Augustine (View Comment):
    The dark side is indeed largely political–the bad kind of politics. Things like selling your soul to please the people who decide where the grant money goes.

    • #18
    • April 28, 2019, at 5:15 PM PDT
    • 7 likes