Oh, Shit! — or — Why Things Are Always So Fucked Up

I’ve thought for many years about why “otherwise intelligent” people can believe or say certain things that are demonstrably false. I mean, there are people who can look and sound as smart as anyone you know, but who don’t “get” certain things. Who WON’T get certain things.

For instance, you can know someone who is a fantastic organizer or salesman, someone who can get rich in running a business, handing every detail easily, but who can’t accept global warming, or evolution … even when you explain it.

This popped into my head this morning:

(And though I mention President Obama as an immediate example of the thing, my larger point is NOT specifically about him, or about the upcoming election.)

“Clever” is using your brain as a spotlight on your own life. It’s the ability to be smart, even incredibly smart, but selfishly smart.

“Intelligent” is using your brain as a floodlight, to examine and operate in a space larger than your own life and concerns.

Clever people can make facile arguments about why global warming is a hoax, or why Barack Obama is a socialist and Muslim, or is equally corrupt as Bush, or Romney. They can find ways to profit from immediate situations, even from fooling and using their fellow men. But they aren’t even interested in seeing outside their self-involved spotlight (even when they might benefit by it).

Intelligent people work to see beyond the facile arguments and the selfish concerns. “I want to see what’s really there, the way things really work. I want to understand the longer view and the bigger picture, even if it costs me, even if it turns up something bad, even if it puts me and my fellow humans in a negative light.”

We’ve all known the “clever” salesman, the “clever” businessman or politician. The world is full of them – people who can turn a profit or become successful in the world, those who are very good at taking care of themselves and their immediate families. The U.S. news media, U.S. politics and business, are run by clever men.

Our own individual lives are impacted daily by clever people. If you make any argument of fact or opinion, there will be an instant contrary response. Not because the person making that response has intelligently thought about what you’ve said, but because they want to jump in – cleverly – and garner points by showing how you have to be wrong (and they right) in this one instant.

Cleverness can easily succeed in the short run. Clever arguments, clever policies, are easier to spread and understand. (And what is easier to say than the opposite of what has just been said?)

Intelligence can win – may not, but can – in the long run. Arguments about the equality of women, or doing away with slavery, were sound arguments, intelligent arguments. But they still took generations to win. Because the clever arguments were easier to speak and accept in the moment.

Clever men – even those who might otherwise be supporters of rescuing and repairing the U.S. – see the faults of Barack Obama, and highlight those over his strengths and accomplishments, and even our own larger goals and longer-term success.

What we lack in the world is a ready supply of “intelligent” fellow men and women. People who are willing to consider things at length, people who can see beyond immediate benefits and profits. Those who can put themselves in the background, at least temporarily, as they study each new idea or proposal or situation.

These are those too-rare humans who think about larger issues such as our own place in a society run by clever people, our future in a nation run by clever politicians, our fate in a world being consumed by the clever men.

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  • machintelligence

    We are awash in politicians, but the statesmen(and women)are a vanishing breed.

    • Leo

      Um…it’s nearly the anniversary of when Aaron Burr killed Alexander Hamilton in a duel back in 1804. I don’t know the technical term for what you are saying (or if there even is one), but you’re sounding a lot like the Christians who think the world is getting worse and worse and that Armageddon is near. Though, you do have some data to back your claim up. I think it was on Crommunist’s blog that I saw some research showing that politics are indeed more polarized today than they have been in the past 50 years or so.

  • Cuttlefish

    On local NPR the other day, there were a trio of Tea Party representatives. Two of them were “clever”, as you define it here, with quick, pointed statements that shone like laser beams on what they wanted to illuminate. One rep was dumb as a sack of sand.

    Two callers were “intelligent”, as you define it here, able to put the laser-illuminated points into a broader context and show that they were baseless.

    Given humans’ remarkable ability to confirm our own biases, I wonder if any listeners were moved. I know the reps were not.

  • Mike L

    Seems like there are at least a few subclasses of “clever,” too: The ignorantly clever, who simply haven’t discovered the concept of thinking broadly and confuse factoids or spin for real knowledge; the comfortably clever, who avoid taking the long wide view because it’s too frightening or complicated, and the cynically clever, who are perfectly capable of seeing the big picture but realize that the power lies with those who can skew the truth for their own benefit.

    Personally, I have to fight every day to stay out of the “comfortably clever” zone.

  • Mike L

    Also, your salesman example reminds me that (in my limited experience) career salespeople seem to have some of the lowest “resistance to bullshit” of anybody I know. You’d think they’d be the most skeptical folks in the world, since they know and use all the techniques and psychology that are used to steer customers away from rational comparison of factual data. But my acquaintances who are salespeople seem to fall for shit like religion, pseudoscience, AGW denialism, etc. in far higher proportions than one would expect. WTF is up with that?

    • bad Jim

      Salespeople are insatiable consumers of motivational training. It could be that selling is such a difficult and draining occupation that they need counseling just to be able to make the next call. It could also be that sales is principally theatrical performance and what they’re getting is mostly coaching.

  • Mike L

    One last mini-rant:

    I’m of the opinion that one of the best ways to become a big picture thinker is by studying the arts and humanities — you know, all those disciplines that *aren’t* specifically focused on producing worker-bots for the factories. The insights available from even a cursory reading of history / literature / philosophy can go a long way toward expanding a person’s circle of concern.

    Maybe that’s why so many “clever” creationists and AGW denialists seem to be “technically trained, but not quite scientist” types — engineers, medical doctors, etc. The huge number of technical courses required for that type of career path tends to force students to take a bare minimum of humanities electives. Or maybe those professions are just self-selecting for folks who are brilliant in a relatively narrow field instead of broadly competent….

    Bottom line: To the extent that we continue to de-fund our arts and humanities programs, we can only expect things to get worse.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Hank!

    • jenny6833a

      The insights available from even a cursory reading of history / literature / philosophy can go a long way toward expanding a person’s circle of concern.

      Yes, of course. Seeking insights from others does reduce the need to think for oneself.

      Maybe that’s why so many “clever” creationists and AGW denialists seem to be “technically trained, but not quite scientist” types — engineers, medical doctors, etc.

      LOL. “Scientist types” think scientifically. Such thinking is not a function of degree type. Most with “science” degrees are not scientists. Many without “science” degrees are.

      As for engineers and medical doctors, 90% of engineers could have become doctors; 90% of doctors could not have become engineers.

      • http://niftyatheist.blogspot.com/ niftyatheist, perpetually threadrupt

        Did you just pull all of those numbers out of thin air?

    • bad Jim

      It’s not entirely clear why scientists are overwhelmingly atheist, but there are good reasons to think that if you haven’t freed yourself of religious belief in adolescence you may not be cut out for a scientific career, where success is only possible if you’re free to follow the evidence wherever it goes.

      Medicine and engineering allow you to stop short of that, accepting our accumulated store of knowledge as an authority, which make them acceptable careers for authoritarians. The phenomenon of engineers (and physicians) defending creationism while parading their scientific credentials is sufficiently common to be labeled the Salem hypothesis.

      • Hank Fox

        I have this personal theory that science fiction fans (but not fantasy fans) make good atheists.

        Engineers, and to a certain extent doctors, make good believers because they see everything in terms of function and intent. Lacking solid training in evolution and what can be accomplished with it, everything looks DESIGNED to them.

        • Leo

          That’s a very interesting thought, Hank, but my personal experience does not match. As an engineer, I know a lot of engineers. I have never seen the very religious engineers I know* to argue for their religious beliefs from the point of design. Never. The arguments they have ever given me have been buying into bad apologetics (actually, it’s been more like accepting what the apologists say at face-value), accepting eye-witness testimony as credible evidence, and over-extending the true parts of the Bible (i.e., some ancient city existed in the Bible, therefore what the Bible says about it is true).

          * Which are very few – most of the engineers I know either don’t actively practice their religion, and are liberals if they do, or are atheists. There are a lot of engineers in my local atheist community.

  • http://becomingjulie.blogspot.co.uk/ BecomingJulie

    Or to put it another way:

    A clever person can get out of situations an intelligent person wouldn’t have got into.

  • F

    For instance, you can know someone who is a fantastic organizer or salesman, someone who can get rich in running a business, handing every detail easily, but who can’t accept global warming, or evolution … even when you explain it.

    They could even sell you something on the basis that it wouldn’t contribute to global warming (or “fix” it), and believe wholeheartedly that their product is the best. While still disbelieving in the phenomenon.

  • http://cornelioid.wordpress.com/ Cornelioid

    The Obama example may be more illustrative still. I’ve tried to consider Clarke’s case seriously (thanks so much for plugging his blog), and what my unchanged preference for Obama, as a voter, appears to come down to is a different bottom line: I value the process of voting (even for a third-party candidate, as i have in the past but avoid anymore) for its own sake, as i then become disenfranchised when the system fails; whereas someone else may value basic integrity and culpability more highly, as i understand Clarke to.

    I don’t think (nor do i think you suggest or mean to suggest) for a moment that Clarke is being clever rather than intelligent. That, in fact, is the point: People can be intelligent and disagree when their differences reach down into empirically-challenged realms, as bottom lines often do. And it can be helpful to people who disagree to recognize and speak in terms of cleverness and intelligence, so that, when both are being intelligent, neither comes away with a false impression of the other.

  • Eidolon

    An interesting post since I have encountered this repeatedly in dealings with fundamentalists. I find it interesting to see the disconnect between intelligence and accepting ‘clever’ arguments. There seems to be this threshold that, no matter how carefully you lay out the reality, cannot be crossed by ‘true believers’.

    Richard Dawkins in “The Greatest Show On Earth” recounts a debate with a creationist. No matter how often or how carefully he pointed out where she was incorrect, this woman kept falling back on her clever explanation of why evolution was false. As you said, clever is easy to understand and surprisingly immune to reality.

    BTW – I really liked the picture of the ‘clever girl’ at the top of the post.

    • Hank Fox

      Re: Clever girl. I was sure someone would catch that.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Obama himself could serve as an interesting study in cleverness. He seems to have the brainpower to qualify as intelligent, but both his personality and his circumstances push him towards short-term goals within “the box”, not longer-term foci beyond it.

    The same seems to apply to many of his supporters and detractors, but it’s too early in the morning for me to attempt any typologies (either clever or intelligent).

  • smrnda

    The notion of ‘clever’ versus ‘intelligent’ would also help to explain why people with some degree of skill in one area can be absolutely ignorant and wrong in others. I’ve known competent engineers who believed in the most absurd political platforms. Part of the reason is that they had accepted some ideology that contained some axioms about how things were said to be, and reasoned from those without bothering to check the facts. Some of them actually believed it was a waste of time to study sociology, economics or psychology. Perhaps people with good technical skills but who stop short of being real scientists tend to be too easily dismissive of things outside of their narrow specialization.

    Part of that might be that engineers apply theoretical knowledge that is already available but rarely discover or test it on their own – plenty of computer programmers use algorithms that they could never have figured out on their own and would be at a loss to prove correct or optimal, the way you can drive a car without knowing how it works.

  • Buford

    So, Hank’s Intelligent people need to learn to communicate Cleverly.

  • Doubting Thomas

    Sometimes I wish I was clever instead of intelligent.


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