Wednesday, November 28, 2012


You see there's the dumb kind of smart, and the smart kind of dumb. The dumb-kind-of-smart follows the old milatary addage 'if it's stupid and it works, it's not stupid' of which I am particularly fond. The dumb-kind-of-smart is your 'Forrest Gump' effect, somebody who you wouldn't bet on, but seems to negotiate their way through life successfully, because they possess uncanny common-sense and good judgement despite a lack of knowledge/education/opportunity.

The smart-kind-of-dumb though, they are your psuedo-intellectuals. Characterised by large vocabularies, name dropping, overkill studying and the general superficial trappings of intellectuals. They are nevertheless defined by the low quality of their opinions, a compulsion to express them and frustration that the world doesn't conform to oversimplified views of how it should work.

Have you ever met somebody who was well-read, well educated, quite knowledgeable and thought 'this guy's an idiot, if he was in charge it would be a disaster'? (I find this to be characteristic of 'conservatives' which interestingly published a story on a study linking low-IQs with tendency to vote conservative).

That is what I am talking about when I say 'psuedo-intellectualism', I had a friend in high-school, very early high-school whom for various reasons, highly valued intelligence as the most prized human quality. As a result he listened to jazz, and Phillip Adams show on the radio religiously, in fact he idolised Phillip Adams and sought to imitate his dress and what not. He thought I was intelligent, he was a good guy. But he wasn't 'intelligent' at least not as intelligent as he desired to be. In fact I don't think he knew what intelligence is.
The jury is in - intelligence is hard to define. But I feel if you follow the link and read through, intelligence is generally oriented on 'thought processes' that is that intelligence is a measure, hazy as it may be, of how efficiently, effectively - in other words - the quality, of an individuals thinking. Intelligence is an evaluation of our thinking, and thus there is an important distinction between 'intelligence' and 'knowledge' even though the two correlate.

And what happens when intelligence comes into vogue? becomes chic? When the general population wants to be percieved as intelligent, profound, creative, genius...?

I think this is the age we live in. There are probably a bunch of marketing and social anthropology PhD thesisi being written to explain the environmental factors that have driven us from a decade-and-a-half of people pursuing the trappings of affluence ineffectually (cosmetic surgery, luxury brands, ostentatious jewellery, german automobiles, bigger houses) to the current pursuit of the trappings of intellect ineffectually (reading Camus and Kierkegaard, Vegan Yoga, wearing glasses, occupying wall street).

What I see and what fascinates me about psuedo-intellectualism is that it produces the same results as the pursuit of the cosmetic.

Just as people who undergo expensive cosmetic surgery are frustrated that they still don't feel beautiful nor look convincingly like the youthful beauty celebrated and overrepresented on the newstands, people who have done the philosophy subjects and read the great russian novelists feel frustrated that they don't feel as intelligent, nor command the kind of influence and respect as the intellectuals they idolise.

What harm? Why complain about psuedo-intellectualism? Well because it is just another way for people to feel inadequate. Perhaps this is the human condition, it certainly is exploited as readily by marketers as any other desired state. Just at the top end of town the winners this decade won't be big business like Dolce & Gabbana, Coco Chanel etc. but the arts department of Melbourne University, RMIT, Monash and whatever your local tertiary equivalents are. At the bottom end those making knit-wear and horn-rimmed glasses are the new winners as compared to the oakleys and levi's of decades ago.

Will humanity ever wrench itself free of the marketers vice-like grip? If it can't do it while the nerd, the geek, the academic is held up as the ideal, when will it? If people can't empirically distinguish between knowledge and intelligence, while desiring the latter by pursuing the former, I feel it unlikely that in any great numbers people will realise that it is wrong to assume that products and services can bridge the gap between our actual and ideal.

Another reason to bemoan the trend of psuedo-intellectualism is that it results in frustrating and annoying oversubscription. Not just to philosophy majors but to all manner of niche interests that are of no general relevance to most people or the human condition.

Installation art for example has its place and like everything else, the good is good but rare the shit is really shit and abundant. The same is true walking through the Louvre's 'marble gardens' of mostly unrecognisable and non-descript marble sculptures of nudes. The Venus De Milo (or Di, or whatever) stands out as exceptional, the rest fades into white noise. Andy Warhol pieces are eye-catching, the rest of pop-art is often quite dull. That is not the point of oversubscription, the point is that for most people, having their concept of space and how they interact with it challenged is not the best use of their time nor likely to lead to the most growth and personal development compared to the other activities they could choose to do.

How for example would an intelligent person answer the question: would you benefit more from flying to Berlin to visit its galleries of contempary art or flying to New Zealand and experiencing a bungee jump?

I contend (but can't prove) that a psuedo-intellectual would pick the trip to Berlin everytime, but intellectuals wouldn't like the question because it is subjective and thus you couldn't know what an intelligent person would benefit most from. To avoid being evasive on my part, my educated guess would be more often than not the honest answer would be bungee jumping. The experience of art is more easily simulated via the internet than something that is pure experience (vertigo, adrenalin, accelleration, decellaration etc.) like bungee jumping. But you could 'cheat' the spirit of the question and choose Berlin just on the mathematical certainty that a big-city will have more shit to do than the relatively remote areas of New Zealand required for bungee jumping.

Laslty, I think a little intelligence is a dangerous thing. There's an episode of Qi that poses the question 'how do you know if you are incompetent?' to which the answer insofar as it can be called an answer is 'you can't' the example being a doctor who fails to diagnose a condition in a patient (incompetent) does so precisely because they can't detect their error. Another competent doctor can tell they are incompetent but that doctor can only do so based on the competence she possesses.

I again contend, but can't (and won't) prove that there is a threshold of intelligence or perhaps band between 'above average' but below 'highly intelligent' where life will reinforce to somebody the notion or impression they are intelligent, but they are not intelligent enough to determine how intelligent they aren't.

Say arbitrarily that they occupy the section between 110-120 on the bell-curve of IQ scores amongst the general population. They are capable of recognising that they are above average, but not capable of appreciating that their are still a large number of people much smarter than them, nor that life tends to cluster like amongst like, and that if you have an 'above average' IQ amongst the general population (so over 107 if you are Australian) you are unlikely to have an above average IQ amongst the people you wind up associating with.

With something as objective and easily defined as sprinting, it is relatively easy for the inter-house high school sprint champion to draw the humbling conclusion that good as they are compared to the average high school student, they can't even compete when it comes to inter-school, inter-state or international competitions. It is easy for me at 13 seconds for the 100m to realize without racing that I have no chance against Usain Bolt, or even my high school friend Nicholas who ran it in just under 11 seconds. When it comes to who should run the 100m for our school, it was easy to conclude Nick should.

Less so with intelligence, while it is easy to conclude that you are no Albert Einstein, we don't go around discussing our IQs or even ENTER scores (which don't measure intelligence anyway) but to rely on vague impressions, which brings us back to the question of trying to determine our own level of incompetence, and we can't. We may find an argument frustrates us, but attribute it to our sparring partners obstinance, rather than their superior reasoning. Or blame an inability to articulate what we really meant, rather than admit it became apparant we hadn't really thought through our own position.

For years recruiters have constantly been fucking up recruiting decisions, contracting decisions and even key-note speaker decisions because of their own incompetence to distinguish between polish and professionalisms. Recruiters whom are only human being just as confused in mistaking the trappings of success like fancy watches, nice silk ties and well cut suits, with the qualities that make one successful - conviction, risk taking, interpersonal skills, intelligence.

Now all the above gripes mean recruiters and scholarship panels and grant application reviewers have the opportunity to screw up decisions by confusing the psuedo-intellectual for the actual intellectual. If the decision maker is incompetent, they are as likely to be more impressed by the name-dropping of french philosophers and redundantly big words ("excuse me while I pandiculate.") and fail to notice a complete absence of clear thinking or good judgement. While somebody with an incisive mind, good judgement and the vocabulary of George Orwell may come across as too plain to be intelligent.

Just as a beach can become unpleasant if crowded, so can galleries, libraries and internet chat forums. It's not that reading shit is bad, but read shit that you enjoy. If reading Kant makes you feel stupid in the same way reading Cosmo makes you feel ugly, don't read it, read Harry Potter. They are good books. Don't stop going to gallaries and checking out art, but if you have to stand around a pile of nails for any stretch of time before you can supply a rationale as to what the artist is trying to say or watch a video of a guy eating a hard boiled egg in an open field three times before you 'get it' try buying a train ticket and admiring the graffiti that often makes no pretense of being meaningful beyond the aesthetic.

I am not a big subscriber to 'genetic destiny' and I honestly don't know if our IQs or any other measure of our intelligence, and our intelligence itself is fixed beyond the damage we can do to our brains, I just don't know. I generally have not seen great transformations happen. People mature yes, and adopt improved philosophies of life, I don't know and haven't seen anybody become more intelligent though.

A book says 'Since foolishness depends on context and represents deviance from the social norm, it is not necessarily a permanent affliction. We are all familiar with the person who is an outcast in highschool but a major success in later life. The deficits that define a fool - a lack of understanding, judgement or common sense - are also remediable by experience and learning. Nevertheless, an established inability, even as a teenager, to think clearly makes one a poor candidate for lasting relationships. People with unconventional beliefs, for example, UFO spotters or conspiracy theorists, tend to cluster together for mutual support. Membership to such groups is often a signal that one is in the presence of someone given to alternative and marginal views of how the world works.'

So simultaneously a message of hope and a warning from Doctor Gordon Livingston, M.D. context may change, experience and learning may help, but you also may be a member of a group that has clustered together for mutual support and have no idea how alternative and marginal your views are.

I don't think schools teach the distinction between intelligence and knowledge well enough, so maybe just knowing and appreciating the difference is the first step towards becoming more intelligent.

I don't know, it might be worth a try though.

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