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February 12, 2008

Wherefore Art Thou Stupid?

Uri Avnery:

When I joined the Irgun at age 15...I worked at the office of an Oxford-educated lawyer. One of our clients was a high British official of the Mandate government. He was an intelligent, pleasant, and humorous person. I remember once, when he passed by, a thought crossing my mind: How can such intelligent people conduct such a foolish policy?

Since then, the more I have become engrossed in other insurgencies, the stronger this wonderment has become. Is it possible that the very situation of occupation and resistance condemns the occupiers to stupid behavior, turning even the most intelligent into idiots?

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at February 12, 2008 09:25 AM

I don't get it. 'Intelligence' is just a structure, template to be applied to something, filled with some substance. I bet Josef Mengele had plenty of intelligence. So what?

Posted by: abb1 at February 12, 2008 11:10 AM

This excerpt immediately struck me -- both in style and substance -- like something Orwell would write.

Posted by: Whistler Blue at February 12, 2008 01:05 PM

it comes from that special place that assumes Intellect leads directly to Right Moral Action. I think this place existed only in Aristotle's head but that's not the point. The point: smart people are just as likely to get dragged into stupid actions as anyone else. This is kind of why it sucks to be human or smart; you can recognize that what you're doing isn't all that great an idea but still be completely unwilling or unable to change your actions.

Posted by: Keith at February 12, 2008 02:07 PM

BLIND AMBITION is truely blind. ( and as always the cruelest strumpet of them all) One should not equate intellegence with character.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at February 12, 2008 02:08 PM

Since someone mentioned him, I'd add that Orwell touched on this from another angle in Shooting An Elephant. Specifically, I refer to his passage about how once he sent for the gun he had to shoot the elephant, even though he knew that there was no reason to do so and it was stupid. (The elephant had quit rampaging and was out of town, all that had to be done was to send for its master.) He couldn't not shoot the elephant with all the villagers looking on because to do so would make him look unsure of himself or mistaken in his original judgment.

That was a canny insight of imperial behavior.

Carry on.

Posted by: Justin at February 12, 2008 03:38 PM

I'm glad the WaPo post was useful. Maybe this will be too.

Intelligence does not by itself protect anyone from their own stupidity. Michael Shermer writes about something similar to Avnery's observation in his book Why People Believe Weird Things. He has a whole chapter on why smart people, in particular, sometimes hold unbelievable beliefs. He asserts that "[s]mart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs," even beliefs "they arrived at for non-smart reasons." He identifies tendencies towards ideological immunity and confirmation bias, among others, as contributing factors and refers to a study by psychologist David Perkins "in which he found a strong positive correlation between intelligence (measured by a standard IQ test) and the ability to give reasons for taking a point of view and defending that position; he also found a strong negative correlation between intelligence and the ability to consider other alternatives." In other words, Shermer writes later, "smart people are better at rationalizing their beliefs with reasoned arguments, but as a consequence they are less open to considering other positions."

Posted by: lurking gnome at February 13, 2008 12:15 PM

Exactly. Excellent quote, Gnome.

Posted by: abb1 at February 13, 2008 05:11 PM