The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Smart People

Humorous article at cracked today about the downsides of being smart. The one I found the most interesting is #2: Smart People are More Likely to Believe Bullshit.

The basic reasoning behind why this is smart people are overconfident in their intelligence and thus are overconfident in their own opinions. This can lead them to dismiss other opinions or evidence, even in cases when they should advert to them. This is most principally true is cases where one is stepping outside one's area of expertise. A person who's a deeply knowledgeable expert on, for example, biology, might come to the conclusion that since they can be an expert in one subject, they can be an expert in all subjects. So, they think that they know a whole bunch about, say, economics and starts pontificating about that, when probably they should just be submitting to the opinion of real experts in economics. Since, less smart people aren't so overconfident, they do more often submit to the consensus of experts, and, though the consensus of experts is not guaranteed to be right, it's more likely to be right than a single persons inexpert opinion.

Nonetheless, experts can even make bad judgments within their own field of expertise. There are surprisingly many ridiculous ideas that one comes forward when you study the thinking of deceased geniuses. These people subscribed to some ridiculous ideas that can't simply be explained away as being a symptom of their times.

I think there a couple of reasons for this. The first, I think, is that smart people are attracted to more sophisticated ideas. If Ockham's razor is true and simpler ideas are more likely to be correct (because they rely on fewer assumptions), then one's smarts can lead one away from simpler and more probable explanations. Ockham's razor does not say that the simplest explanation is always the most correct, but it does mean that the simplest explanation that can explain the available data is most likely correct. But smart people more often prefer the idea that is the most complicated, the one that's the most intellectually challenging and interesting. For a recent example, over at Inside Higher Ed, a some 1200 word essay was penned to explain why it is that students were partying to celebrate the death of Osama bin Laden, citing a few experts and offering much opinion. Clearly, this was overkill, which some commenters rightly made fun of, one noting: "Or, we could spare the world our half-baked analyses of the spontaneous outpouring of emotion, and read it for exactly what it is: 'We got the bad guy. Woot!'" But smart people like to give sophisticated explanations: it's more intellectually stimulating and exciting.

Another explanation is that smart people are very difficult to persuade out of their beliefs because they are very good at coming up with reasons for believing them. In other words, if you get into an argument with a less intelligent person, you can probably persuade them with strong evidence, which they'll submit because they don't know better and have no reason to think they know better. But a smart person will find ways to weasel out of even the best evidence. In short smart people have sophisticated, well thought out reasons to back up even their stupidest ideas. One would be quite amazed for example to see the detail and sophistication of arguments defending the moon conspiracy hoax.

As a person who's completing a PhD I think I can say with some confidence that I'm probably at least a little bit smarter than the average bear, and I can definitely attest to the fact that I have been more than once duped by rather ridiculous ideas and opinions that I have later reversed. This doesn't mean I don't have any stupid opinions now, just that I don't know what they are, but definitely do know I've held some in the past.

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