“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 StephenWBrowne.com.