Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Beware the Brilliant Fool

In prior articles, I have wrestled with how we regard the everyday concept of “intelligence” when a person who apparently has a lot of it makes terrible decisions. I have speculated that because a very prominent person – our President – fits this description, it might cause people to think about “intelligence” in a new way.   (See here and here.)
In one way it is a futile inquiry, because intelligence has many definitions. Can’t beat the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on the topic: “Intelligence has been defined in different ways, including the abilities for abstract thought, understanding, communication, reasoning, learning, planning, emotional intelligence and problem solving.”

Well, there’s one answer right there. A person may have vast capacity for abstract thought, but poor understanding. One can still fall within the definition because a crackerjack abstract thinker, but still be defective in understanding; that is, intelligent, but wrong.

I know this isn’t any brilliant insight. Think of any issue that divides large numbers of people – for example, whether there was a conspiracy to murder John Kennedy. There will be people on both sides that we would think of as highly “intelligent,” as we mean that word in daily use. But some of those very intelligent people have got to be wrong.

In the November 2011 issue of New English Review, British writer and psychiatrist Theodore Dalrymple published an essay about a prominent biographer, Isaac Deutscher, who was a Marxist. I was struck by this passage (emphases are mine):

"His language was clear, but his thought was not. He was what might be called a dialectical equivocator, made dishonest by his early religious vows to Marxism. This made him unable to see or judge things in a common-sense way. His unwavering attachment to his primordial philosophical standpoint, his irrational rationalism, turned him into that most curious (and sometimes dangerous, because intellectually charismatic) figure, the brilliant fool. He was the opposite of Dr Watson who saw but did not observe: he observed, but did not see. He was the archetype of the man, so common among intellectuals, who knows much but understands little."

I’m guessing that if any one of us spent an afternoon in the private company of Newt Gingrich, or Barack Obama, or Mitt Romney, or Nancy Pelosi, or Rush Limbaugh, or Al Franken, just shooting the breeze on topics unrelated to their public policy positions, we would come away thinking that we’d been in the company of a pretty smart person. Perhaps even brilliant.

The brilliant Junior Samples

So what? So . . . people can be brilliant but very wrong. Some of them have stupendous knowledge and experience but no judgment; some are subtle analysts but select incorrect or thin information; some, as Dalrymple suggests, are in the grip of ideology – they apply their brains to deceive others, but mainly themselves, in the service of what they regard as a higher truth.

Most of us, most of the time, can spot the unreliable smart person. The high-IQ person who you would not trust to advise you on your day to day choices, or to be a leader of any polity to which you belong. We generally get the leaders we deserve, although not enough people saw through the brilliant fool who’s running the show now. We can debate the reasons for that another time. (Hint: the usual culprits – media bias, liberal racial guilt, a deceptive campaign, class resentment, weak opposition, disgust with the incumbent, and, truth to tell, a magnetic persona and charming manner.)

And there’s the lesson: We encounter gifted minds throughout our lives. The first time many of us are overwhelmed with the brilliance of a particular individual is college, when our professors present an image of learnedness that is absolutely genuine. And yet, faculties are overwhelmingly liberal Democrats and worse.  Strongly redistributionist, politically correct, and believers in enforced equality of result. Theories that have never worked in the history of mankind, at least not in any free society (and the unfree societies that have enshrined them have declined and even failed, some very recently and very dramatically).

Most adults understand that many of these academics are brilliant fools, but the unformed barely-post-adolescent mind daily exposed to brilliantly foolish instruction does not, and so we end up with things like The Sixties, the McGovern candidacy, and

Some of us shake it off when we start working, raising families, and paying taxes.

Some of us don’t.

Some of us think we have done so, but can still be wowed by the singular, eloquent, attractive intellect without regard to whether he or she is selling something that simple observation of the world would tell us is quite unlikely to be correct. 

And brilliant fools are everywhere, wanting our votes, our investments, our time, and our hearts and minds.


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