Clever? Or Right?

by F.

Which would you rather be?

I’ve known a lot of clever people, but they are often wrong. Probably not more wrong that the un-clever, of course. Probably substantially less wrong. But cleverness is not a proxy for rightness.

This is easy to forget.

Generally, I think we tend to put too high a premium on cleverness at the expense of rightness. Given the choice, I’d rather be right, even if I didn’t appear clever. If I could have a machine that delivered 100% correct answers to me, even if I didn’t know why, I would hook that machine to my brain and never look back. Even if I seemed like a dumbass to everyone around me.

Cuz I really like being right. Even if no one else knows I’m right. I just like having the right answer. It’s a personality flaw, I know. I can’t help it. Probably genetic or something.

This is why I like libraries and, now, Google. These tools get me the right answer. Quickly. Sure, I could sit and think about a problem for a while. I could do some calculation myself. But, odds are, if I have thought about the problem, someone else has, too. Probably a lot of people have. And they probably have come to some conclusions. So why wouldn’t I look at what they have done and then see, among those hypotheses, which one seems more likely to be true?

It’s that whole “standing on the shoulders of giants” thing that Newton told us about. That wasn’t just bogus humility. That was the truth. Believe, brother.

After all, what is the point of cleverness? To get the right answer quickly. But too often, because there is no clear criterion for rightness, or for some other reason, cleverness becomes the goal. Or, seeming clever in the view of the audience, the crowd, the peanut gallery—whomever.

And cleverness is impressive. Sort of like people who talk fast. It’s slick. It makes them sound brainy. And yet they can still be dead wrong, viz., the salesman. How many salesmen aren’t full of shit?


Sounding clever is often enough, too, even when “the crowd” is educated and intelligent. Hence the prevalence of the facile (that is, the apparently clever) in place of the clever.

Take David Brooks’ article from The New York Times on “The Gender Gap at School.” The Language Log points out the obvious flaws in Brooks’ piece. But Brooks is published on on the Op-Ed page of the Times. So I think many people will give his piece a credibility it doesn’t deserve, partly because it’s quick, easy, and superficially plausible. He’s wrong. He doesn’t understand the science for shit. And he even admits that. But he has a short, pithy, superficially plausible “answer.” And that’s enough.

Facileness is the staple of journalism. I imagine this is one of the reasons why the Main Stream Media is coming in for such a drubbing nowadays. Thomas Friedman is the ne plus ultra of facileness. Even his colleagues think so. The Financial Times describes Friedman like this:

A gifted populariser, he is most fluent when writing about the Middle East and is an impassioned advocate of globalisation. But he can sound facile and smug. He does not “get” Europe and his francophobia is grating.”

Sound? The motherfucker is facile and smug. There is no “sounds” about it. For a journalist, a person who after all is 100% voice, “to sound” is “to be.” We don’t care how Friedman treats his cat. He is his writing.

Facileness is also what lawyers and their close kin, politicians, do. And it works because lawyers and politicians discuss questions with no clear answers—or maybe no answer at all, even in principle. “I don’t know” is a psychological impossibility for a lawyer, politician, or doctor, generally. Hence, a glib, facile, seemingly correct, clever answer is better than nothing.

When in doubt, say something. Say something superficially plausible. Don’t be caught with nothing to say.

In law school, I was the first student called on. In the first class of the first day. The class was torts. The professor, and old Texan asshole, called my name out and asked me a question—Who was the movant on appeal? I was about 10% confident of the answer (it wasn’t obvious from the way the case was printed in the casebook). But I said something that sounded like it should be right. Some glib answer. And then I stuck to my guns, remembering lawyer trick #1: Don’t back down. Ever. So I didn’t. He started to badger me—“You’re telling me that—-?” “You mean to say that—?” That sort of bullshit. He continued to badger but, inexplicably, I stayed calm and repeated my “conclusion.” It turned out I was right.

Go figure.

Afterward another instructor (who had been in the room) congratulated me. “You did great,” he said. I thanked him for the compliment, which seemed sincere, but I couldn’t really smile. Because I was bullshitting. I gave the facile answer and got lucky.

The facile is not the correct.

And it’s better to be correct. Whether anyone else knows it or not.