Rants and Raves

Opinion, commentary, reviews of books, movies, cultural trends, and raising kids in this day and age.

Saturday, September 30, 2006

Intelligence, wisdom, ignorance and stupidity

“…the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts. But this has nothing to do with whether they are stupid or intelligent. The difference between stupid and intelligent people – and this is true whether or not they are well-educated – is that intelligent people can handle subtlety. They are not baffled by ambiguous or even contradictory situations – in fact, they expect them and are apt to become suspicious when things seem overly straightforward.”
Neal Stephenson “The Diamond Age”

Question: What is the stupidest thing that walks God's green earth?

Answer: An adolescent with above average intelligence.

Right now I'm wondering whether you, gentle reader, are nodding your head in recognition or frowning in puzzlement. If it's the first, you're probably a better than average bright person well past adolescence - or perhaps you have a bright adolescent at home. If it's the second, you might be a better than average bright adolescent, or perhaps an opinionated know-it-all of an adult. (No offense, some of my best friends are opinionated know-it-alls. Some have said that even moi partakes of that nature on occasion.)

Understand something, I am not being holier-than-thou. I was that opinionated twerp, and the fact that I've got an unusually detailed memory often brings painfully embarrassing recollections of exactly how conspicuously stupid I could be as an adolescent and young adult.

As I can recall, an adolescent with above-average IQ can see that he is more intelligent that most of the people around him. What he cannot believe, is that experience counts for anything. He can't believe it because he doesn't have any - it's like the fourth dimension to him.

Somebody once said, that in any conflict between logic and experience, experience is almost always a better guide to action. Logic is a way of dealing with the relationship of facts, or more accurately, propositions. (Statements alleged or assumed to be true representations of reality.) But complex situations can have a huge number of relevant facts, not all them obvious, not all of them known and the relationships between them are often far more complex than we can know. Experience is what leads us to believe that similar situations produce similar outcomes. Not a perfect match, like in a logical syllogism, but enough of a match to guide our actions most of the time.

Note in the above quote by Neil Stephenson. "...the difference between ignorant and educated people is that the latter know more facts." So what's the difference between ignorant and stupid people? Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that ignorance is forgivable - stupidity is not. Ignorance is a lack of facts, which may be in no way the fault of the ignorant. Stupidity is willful failure to face facts or learn from experience.

Stupidity is independent of intelligence, and in fact high intelligence often empowers stupidity and gives it greater scope to do harm. A not-too-bright guy may make stupid decisions about buying a new car, but is scarcely likely to do the kind of harm that's been done by academics and intellectuals addicted to theorizing about things they have no competence in.

Don't get me wrong, I think theory is necessary to create structure for the knowledge we have, and guide the further search for knowledge. But theory without experience drifts into fantasy. Experience without theory just drifts.

So if that's the difference between intelligence, ignorance and stupidity, what is the thing we call wisdom? It seems to have something to do with intelligence informed by experience, but that's a description of how it comes about rather than a definition. Someone suggested to me once that you are wise when you are no longer a significant contributor to your own pain. It seems to me that there ought to be more to it than that, but that'll do till something better comes along.


  • At 2:17 PM, Blogger David Foster said…

    Interesting post. You might enjoy a couple of my posts on related topics, namely:

    The ascendancy of theory


    Management education and the role of technique

  • At 2:32 PM, Blogger Uczen said…

    "in any conflict between logic and experience, experience is almost always a better guide to action"

    Read an article recently - I think it was in the Guardian - which said that tests have shown that for decisions involving more than 12 variables, you've more chance of making a correct choice if you use your intuition.

    I'll try to scare up a reference for you...

  • At 9:36 AM, Blogger Gayle Miller said…

    Bet you belong to Mensa, right?

    I'm a founder (I know - me and dirt - same age) of the Cleveland chapter and what you are talking about in your post is delineated to perfection in that organization. Utterly brilliant people with the ability to talk endlessly on abstractions. Completely unable to form a lasting relationship or balance a checkbook. And yes, for a long time, that was me! Thank goodness for the lasting influence of my very bright but practical mother! Helped me survive the act of living!

  • At 12:09 PM, Blogger Steve said…

    Nope, never been a member of MENSA. I did address a chapter once though. First time we tried to arrange it, they sent me to the wrong address. The second time, they forgot there was a schedule conflict that affected most of the members so only a handful showed up. I don't feel the need for a high-IQ society, I'd be happy with an attention-to-detail club.

  • At 1:44 PM, Blogger Gayle Miller said…

    Become an accountant, Steve. Or a paralegal (my choice)!

    Seriously, you don't need to learn to write - you are better than most and I LOVE your blog. It is now bookmarked.

    By the way - Mensa has one redeeming quality - you can almost always find a really first-rate bridge game there!

  • At 3:52 AM, Blogger Sir Henry Morgan said…

    Gayle Miller

    I was once in Mensa. People who could talk in abstractions that just went way over my head (and they had me marked out as 99th percentile).

    But I never encountered anyone who could find his own backside with both hands, a map and broad daylight.

    I didn't last long.

    Good to read you.

  • At 9:37 AM, Blogger taksan said…

    Y'all need to get a grip on some of the things the wizest man on the planet said...(their called Proverbs).
    "Wisdom is the principal thing; therefore get wisdom; and with all thy getting get understanding. Proverbs 4:7
    I like the way you sling a word, kid...good writing on the Arab situation!

  • At 4:29 PM, Blogger Unknown said…

    As the reluctant owner of an intelligent 18 year old this caught my eye, although I was searching for something about sewerage plants in Medina, Saudi Arabia.

    There are many good quotes about intelligence, wisdom, ignorance and stupidity, such as Twain never let his schooling interfere with his education, youth is wasted on the young, logic is a systematic method of coming to the wrong conclusion with confidence, all great discoveries are made by mistake etc.
    Certainly it is my own experience that only the highly intelligent are capable of being royally stupid. The specialist reigns and he knows more and more about less and less, ending up knowing nearly everything about nothing. Just visit a university or read most academic journals. Maturity is usually a euphemism for conformity but can also be viewed more positively as a function of experience. Wisdom comes from good experience and learning good and learning good judgement, but this is usually derived from making bad judgments etc.

    Education and mentoring should free us from some of the burdens imposed by nature, nurture and outrageous fortune.

    The principle of recruiting classicists from the elitist Oxbridge colleges (or even the original mandarins) into key government positions was that administrators should know a good argument from a bad one. Specific, especially book-knowledge, might in the way of thinking on one's feet.

    Classicists do learn the art of rhetoric, which should be compulsory for all citizens. Unfortunately the few people who even know what the word means often attach a negative connotation to it. Yet we are immersed to our scalp in rhetoric these days. We owe it to our children to impose some Socratic dialogue, even if we have to resort to shameless blackmail - you can use the car, here's ten dollars etc.

    What is an educated person - you can only tell by seeing what they can do when they forget everything they have been taught, or are robbed of a context for its application. The trouble is that there are plenty of people out there who are much older than 14, or even 18, but have all of the weaknesses you portray, no redeeming intelligence, and the amazing ability to get into positions of power and wealth.

    Intelligence requires knowing how little we know. As for intuition, I suspect that the Guardian is right. But of course the qualifier is "Chance." Intuition can certainly be misleading and a little intuition can be worse than one. I saw a program last night about floods - and how there had been so many 100-year floods in the last two decades. Nobody seemed to have concluded the obvious, that the population of floods from which the 100 year flood is estimated, had changed, confirming fears of dramatic climate change. But I'm sure lots of hydorology graduates would be able to calculate it from records for the past 200 years. Few people understand the difference between risk as measured by statistics, and uncertainty. Most operate by one or the other.

    Intelligence is one of those words that is up for grabs and now we have many competitor to the Stanford-Binet model used to filter US servicement. I don't know how many Mensa members drive taxis, or more meaninfully how many people with high IQs do jobs that draw on their talents, however limited you might judge them. I'm sure a lot of very smart people are simply not motivated to get credentialized, and a lot of less with less mental acumen do. I can recall people at school who were much smarter than me but simply never tried. Mensa is not such a bad thing and a lot of people satisfy their need for validation through similar addictions as Sudoku, and even Sudoku Samurai.

    Even stupidity has a role to play in evolution - "machines will never replace human stupidity."

    If I were to have an epitaph on my grave it would be "Surely they wouldn't.."


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