Being too ‘smart’ to see your own errors

Bart brings my attention to this thought-provoking piece:

Jonah Lehrer’s new post at The New Yorker details some worrying research on cognition and thinking through biases, indicating that “intelligence seems to make [such] things worse.” This is because, as Richard West and colleagues concluded in their study, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them.” Being smarter does not make you better at transcending unjustified views and bad beliefs, all of which naturally then play into your life. Smarter people are better able to narrate themselves, internally, out of inconsistencies, blunders and obvious failures at rationality, whereas they would probably be highly critical of others who demonstrated similar blunders.

I am reminded of Michael Shermer’s view, when he’s asked why smart people believe weird things, like creationism, ghosts and (as with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) fairies: “Smart people are very good at rationalizing things they came to believe for non-smart reasons.” If you’ve ever argued with a smart person about an obviously flawed belief, like ghosts or astrology, you’ll recognise this: their justifications often involve obfuscation, deep conjecture into areas you probably haven’t considered (and that probably aren’t) relevant, and are all tied together neatly and eloquently because she’s a smart person…

Interesting proposition.

Here’s how I responded to it…

Well, I think there is little doubt that smart people are better at rationalizing a bad position.

I’ll also agree with the proposition that it is harder to argue a smart person out of a position if he is wrong. But only because it is harder to argue a smart person out of a position whether he is wrong OR right.

I’m going to strain your credulity by using myself as an example, even though that requires you, solely for the sake of argument, to consider me to be a smart person (but hey, I consider this to be a community of smart people — dumb people would be watching TV rather than debating ideas in writing, right?).

People — smart people — on my blog get frustrated sometimes with their inability to talk me out of a position. It’s not that I’m incapable of changing my mind on something. I sometimes do so quite abruptly. But usually not on the kinds of things we talk about on the blog. That’s because I have spent SO much time over the years honing my positions on those issues. And much of that time has been spent thinking about, and one by one knocking down, the arguments that might be offered in an effort to change my mind.

It’s not that I’m smarter than any of y’all. It’s that it was my job, every day for many years, to write my opinions for publication. When you do that, you take much greater care than most people do with their opinions. (I was very surprised to realize, over time, how much more carefully considered my positions on issues were after a couple of years on the editorial board. Before that, my opinions were private, and therefore largely untested. After I joined the board, every opinion I had went through the wringer before and after being expressed, and I took greater care accordingly.) You obsess about everything that could be wrong in your position, and raise every possible objection that you can think of that the hundreds of thousands of folks out there likely to read your opinion — including people more knowledgeable than you about the particular subject under discussion — might raise to knock it down. You work through each and every one of them before you finish writing and editing your opinion piece. Add to that the fact that it won’t get into the paper until it’s been read, and potentially challenged, by other people who do the same thing for a living, and go through the same daily exercises.

It makes for positions that, once fully formed, are hard to shake — whether they are wrong or right. I also believe that the process helps one be right, but whether wrong or right, shaking it takes some doing.

So basically, I admit that I could be wrong. It’s just that the process I went through in arriving at my wrong answer was sufficiently rigorous that even if you’re smarter than I am, you probably aren’t willing to invest the time it would take to dismantle the constructs upon which my position rests.

But I do hope you’ll keep trying. I like to think there’s hope for me…

10 thoughts on “Being too ‘smart’ to see your own errors

  1. `Kathryn Braun

    You are also somewhat proud of your opinions, which makes it harder. I do not have the same confidence/arrogance in myself to believe that I have the right answers all the time.

    Intelligence is like my old BMW Z3: great at going fast and handling the road when driven by a good driver, but even more likely to go into the ditch when driven by a poor one.

  2. Brad

    I don’t know if “proud” is the word. “Invested” is more like it.

    Actually, just now, I accidentally typed “infested” initially, so seize upon that if you prefer…

  3. Brad

    Actually, you know what? I just read back over what I wrote above, and I need to add a caveat to this assertion: “I’ll also agree with the proposition that it is harder to argue a smart person out of a position if he is wrong…”

    No. HARD, yes. Hard in a different way, even. But there is nothing in this world harder (because it is hopeless) than arguing with a position held by a thoughtless or ignorant person who THINKS, with very little justification (in connection with the adage that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing), that he is wise.

  4. Steven Davis II

    “I do not have the same confidence/arrogance in myself to believe that I have the right answers all the time.”

    I don’t know why, but I laughed at that comment.

  5. Tim

    I have always found it was much harder to argue with a dumb person than a smart person. They dig in, or take a swing at you.

    This brings to mind the George Bernard Shaw quote, “those who cannot change their own mind cannot change anything.”

  6. Mark Stewart

    So then, based on your last observation, that would mean that smarter people ARE better able to overcome bias, irrationality and internal inconsistencies.

    I don’t think the author thought through the dilemma too rigorously. In fact, the study seems flawed. I would think that smarter people would work through far more biases and irrationalities than the less smart out there as they progress through life. So what would be left are the real whopper’s – the place where one’s history, belief structure and psyche meet in messy, unresolvable ways at the core of our beings (dumb people have these same issue, but it’s just less clear to others as there are so many non-core types of zingers to notice in them first).

    Maybe it’s just that we are all flawed humans? And why wisdom is a puruit and not a state of being.

  7. `Kathryn Braun Fenner

    Well, Steven–if you flick through my comments on this very blog, you will find many instances where I agreed with commenters, including you, with whom I would otherwise be opposed to, if I had to just vote on them as a whole.


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