Committing Intellectual Suicide

by F.

I find the epithet “smart” really stupid. Probably some of the explanation comes from working for a company where I had to hear how “smart” everyone was, how we wanted to hire “smart” people, how the average employee we hired was “super smart,” and on and on and on. It gets old, fast, particularly after you see these really “smart” people do stupid things day after day after day. (Of course, then I saw what happens at other companies and realized that the people I worked with really were smarter that average: the average worker at most companies is a functional moron.)

Let’s assume, just for fun, that IQ is real and that IQ scores measure it (on average). It seems to me that poor “cognitive hygiene” can lop-off quite a few IQ points. Like 10, 20, 30 or more. By poor cognitive hygiene I mean things like sloppy thinking, laziness, domain ignorance, lack of practice, selective rationality (e.g., the physicist who turns off his prodigious IQ when it comes to thinking about the existence of God), and so on. In other words, it’s easy to commit intellectual suicide no matter how high your IQ.

And there are plenty of ways to commit intellectual suicide:

In 2005, a psychiatrist at King’s College in London administered IQ tests to three groups: the first did nothing but perform the IQ test, the second was distracted by e-mail and ringing phones, and the third was stoned on marijuana. Not surprisingly, the first group did better than the other two by an average of 10 points. The e-mailers, on the other hands, did worse than the stoners by an average of 6 points.

I think this explains the paradox of the “dumbest smart person.” We call someone smart for all sorts of reasons: we like their conclusions or policies (“Bill Clinton is so smart!”), we like them personally, we think they are right (“Milton Friedman is smarter that Paul Samuelson”) or whatever. Conversely, we call someone dumb whose policies we don’t like (“George Bush is so dumb!”) This verbal sloppiness seems, uh, well, really dumb to me.

It’s pretty clear you can raise your IQ with proper training; it’s also pretty clear that you can practice good mental hygiene. Neither one by themselves is enough. My mom has a genius IQ (and I’ve actually seen the test score, from a test she took in the 1940s), and yet because she’s 82 and is cut off from all sorts of information (she doesn’t like computers) she can’t update her beliefs (e.g., to take into account new science). That takes its toll. And yet, if you play a game with her that she’s never played, she picks it up in an instant.

The older you get, the harder it is to practice good cognitive hygiene—as well as doing things like choosing cognitively demanding tasks, taking up new hobbies, having new experiences, reviewing old knowledge and so on. But the rewards are ample.