Thinking about Thinking

Even highly intelligent people are prone to evading reality. Think you're immune? Here are five questions you can ask yourself, to help evaluate your own intellectual courage and fidelity to reality.

“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

“Clear thinking requires courage rather than intelligence.” —Thomas Szasz

Response to my column “Making up Stories” has been very gratifying, and not only because it was overwhelmingly positive, though I do thank you all for your kind words.

There were many thoughtful comments, observations, and some very good recommendations of sources for further research. And, refreshingly, many admitted to “making up stories” themselves from time to time — as have I.

That is compelling evidence of intellectual courage and honesty in individuals, and of a mature movement in philosophy.

One correspondent asked about the examples I gave, “How can you call such people intelligent?”

That’s why I included the Stephenson quote above. I think there is a confusion between “intelligent” and “stupid.” Stupidity is independent of intelligence, and in fact high intelligence often gives added scope to the harmful consequences of stupidity.

Stupidity in intelligent people is marked by their ability for rationalization and self-deception. Stupidity is not lack of facts, but willful failure to face facts. That’s why Sir Arthur Clarke remarked that ignorance is forgivable, stupidity is not.

A not-too-bright person may make a stupid decision about their personal budget and lifestyle choices, but is scarcely likely to do harm of the magnitude that’s been done by academics and intellectuals over the past two centuries.

After all, Karl Marx was a very intelligent man.

I sometimes illustrate this with a conundrum: What is the stupidest thing that walks the earth?

Answer: an adolescent with above-average intelligence.

How does that compute? An adolescent with above-average IQ can see from direct observation that he is more intelligent that most of the people around him. What he cannot understand is that experience counts for anything at all — that’s what makes opinionated young twerps so insufferable. He can’t believe it because he doesn’t have any; it’s like the fourth dimension to him.

Please 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.

Somebody once said that in any conflict between logic and experience, experience is almost always a better guide to action. Logic is a method of dealing with the relationship of facts, or rather 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, as in a logical syllogism or mathematical formula, but enough of a match to guide our actions most of the time.

Consider the above-mentioned example of Marx. Though he theorized at length about industrial workers, he had no direct experience of them — and made no effort to get any, in spite of numerous invitations by his collaborator Friedrich Engels to visit his factories.

That’s where the issue of intellectual courage comes in. Marx had no experience of the subject of his theorizing, and made no attempt to acquire any — in fact, resisted getting any.

So how does a reasonably intelligent person guard against the temptations of self-deception? The insidious desire to bend our perception of reality to what is comfortable, rather than what is needed to cope with an often uncomfortable reality?

A number of things have been recommended by the wise: studying logic and in particular the informal fallacies, studying rhetoric to learn to recognize the tropes of persuasion, and studying history — which is, after all, the record of other people’s experience.

What I came up with was a series of questions, to try and keep myself intellectually honest:

1. How often have you changed or abandoned a deeply held belief because of either 
(a) personal experience or (b) a persuasive argument backed by compelling evidence?

2. How often have you, after examining the evidence reached a conclusion that was uncomfortable, unsettling, or profoundly disturbing to you, i.e., reached a conclusion you did not like and wished weren’t true?

3. How often have you admitted honest confusion about an issue that was important to you and decided to defer judgment — or simply live with the uncertainty?

4. How often have you realized while listening to someone speak for a position you agreed with, that it was nonetheless being supported by a weak or invalid argument?

5. How often have you listened to two sides of an issue and concluded that you agreed with someone you disliked and disagreed with someone you liked?

If you answered “never” to all or most of them, you might ask yourself whether you are thinking at all. You almost certainly won’t, though.

And if you answered “yes” to any, it might be fun and profitable to compare examples in the letters-to-the-editor section below.

Stephen W. Browne is a writer, editor, and teacher of martial arts and English as a second language. He is also the founder of the Liberty English Camps, held annually in Eastern Europe, which brings together students from all over Eastern Europe for intensive English study using texts important to the history of political liberty and free markets. In 1997 he was elected an Honorary Member of the Yugoslav Movement for the Protection of Human Rights for his work supporting dissidents during the Milosevic regime. His regularly-updated blog is at

9 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
I am interested to know your opinion of Nassim Taleb's "The Black Swan." In particular, his comments regarding what he calls the "Narrative Fallacy" - the tendency of "experts" to explain a series of connected or unconnected facts by a favored theory.

I am also skeptical of using history as a guide for future decisions because of the Narrative Fallacy and what Taleb calls silent history.
4. is the one I note most often. I can't remember any instances of the others, but your article is worth printing and reviewing from time to time. Thanks for submitting it.
Hey hey hey... I discovered to my chagrin that I was an alcoholic a few yrs ago: how's that for facing up to things?

and yes, I am still one, but to my delight, though there are few overt Objectivists in AA, the whole principle is a loose Libertarian sounding program which Heinlein would have loved and whose elementary axiom, "You're one if you say you are" has worked wonders.

And that the idea is to examine one's premises [the dreaded "Inventory"], perhaps to the rigorous standards that Ms Rand may have welcomed, is an added bonus.
Jeff O
0 points
I made this connection between intelligence and stupidity many years ago myself. I noticed many people who were very intelligent but not very successful. Also, I noticed people who were low in IQ, but seemed to have very good skills with people and did well in whatever type of business they chose. I found both types confusing. That was when I realized a person could be intelligent and stupid at the same time. Also, a person could be unintelligent and smart at the same time. Maybe it's nature. I find myself entertaining the question: Would I rather be intelligent and poor or rich and stupid? It's not so easy to answer.
Ayn Rand condensed all her philosophy down to the fundamental issue of the rational versus the irrational. This' what she meant by her statement that "contradictions can't exist". A contradiction may seem to succeed only temporarily at the expense of reason, but it will ultimately fail.

An intellegent person who assumes something irrational is more conflicted and dangerous than a less intellegent person who's being more rational. An intellegent rational person is a true genius like Howard Roark. A less intellegent irrational person tends to destroy themself, unless they learn better.

To quote Thomas Jefferson, "Ignorance is preferable to error, and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing than he who believes what is wrong".
As the offspring of two Objectivists, I grew up to in an environment that made the five questions you have outlined to be intuitive for me. It never occurred to me to ask these questions. And yet, seeing them written out, I realize now that these are all questions to which I can answer "yes" and often. But it seems to me that that the wisest thing you have done here, is to recognize the need to formerly frame these questions for yourself. After all, a warrior who has never worn armor in battle, yet still avoided injury, has no gaurantee of remaining unscathed in his next conflict. It is fortunate for one to find that he has had the courage to remain intellectually honest but, it is a far braver thing to derive a plan to remain so. Now that you have shared them, I will save your questions and refer to them often. Thank you.
I have a bad memory, and "How often" is a term without meaning. How often compared to what? But yes I have. Heck I used to be a socialist

Anyway 1. relatively frequently. Which has as much meaning as How often.

2. Never that I recall. Perhaps because, compared to most people, I do not emote (Mild autism / aspergers). the world is what the world is

3. Relatively often.

4. Almost always. After all, people are authoritarian and stupid, and most of their arguments come from these positions. See the book Sex and War to support my assertion that evolution selected for authoritarian and stupid

5. Hmmm. Seldom, as I do not usually go to debates. And in Las Vegas, the home of stupid, there are few debates to attend. Blowhard TV has shouting matches, but no debates of which I am aware.

A better set of questions might include: Can you frame your position in such a way that a falsifiable experiment can be conducted, or do you have peer reviewed experiments to support your positions?

Does god or morality figure in your position, or is it necessary to your position. If so, then it is probably WRONG, since god is an undefined term. God in an argument is the equivalent of devision by zero. It is undefined, and so can be used to prove anything, as for example 1=5 (or anything else for that matter)
Thomas Szasz is one of my favorite writers. After a lifetime as a psychoanalyst, he wrote a book called "The Myth of Mental Illness." I think that would come under the headings of questions one and two.

I remember back when I first read Atlas Shrugged. I was a raving Catholic at the time.
I almost became a nun, I was so enmeshed in that religion, a religion I grew up into, and was surrounded by all Catholics. In fact, when I first traveled out of my comfortable and familiar environs, I was shocked to find out the world was not made up of Catholics.

So after I read Atlas Shrugged, I more or less fell into a state of shock, as all my basic beliefs were tossed out the window, and clarity reared her lovely head. I was in my first year of college, and some good samaritan had noticed my complete ignorance of the facts of life, and lent me her copy of the book. I cut classes for 3 days, finishing it. Read it non stop. My mind did not hesitate for one second in the realization that everything I knew up to that point was false. I had to start over. I was like a baby being born. It was probably the best moment of my life.
One of my favorite all-time quotes is from frequent Atlasphere contributor Thomas Sowell, and is completely in line with this essay: "There is usually only a limited amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster, you need people with high IQs."
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.