Monday, October 15, 2007

Stupid Smart People

Stupid smart people. Who are they? I don't mean "Smart People Who Do Stupid things," as in the title of a book by a Yale psychologist. Everyone sometimes does dumb, self-destructive things, including smart people.

I'm talking about people who are widely believed to be smart and yet who are, in fact, really stupid. Stupid smart people typically boast impressive credentials, yet promote concepts and policies that ultimately prove to be false, and even dangerous. Think of them as "idiots who went to Yale."

I'm not referring to a certain White House inhabitant who also attended the Harvard Business School, courtesy of family connections. I mean people who actually qualified for admission to distinguished institutions.

(There also are people who are very bright, but are generally underestimated because they don't have posh educations, or even much education at all. Smart stupid people, if you will. Sadly, members of this group are rarely in a position to influence the public - though they are masters at detecting the bullshit produced by the stupid smart people.)

You will find stupid smart people everywhere, but especially in fields where talking the talk is more important than walking the walk. Politics and academia, notably. Also in foundations and think tanks, home to many has-beens and wannabes in the same lines of work.

Start with Donald Rumsfeld. He graduated from Princeton and was admitted to Georgetown Law School - yet for all his credentials, as Secretary of Defense he clung to his misguided Iraq policy, even when confronted with its disastrous consequences. His famous "I'm not into this detail stuff" illustrates another common characteristic of stupid smart people: they arrogantly defend and excuse their own incompetence.

Academia is a great bastion of stupid smart people. The highest concentration on any given campus is often in the social science buildings. Harvard's Daniel Gilbert, to name one, is a Harvard psychology professor whose recent book on happiness research has been getting a lot of attention. His premise is that both happy and unhappy events have only a brief effect on our sense of well-being. The 2004 presidential election is one of his prime examples. Gilbert contends that we on the losing side may have imagined we'd be miserable if John Kerry lost. Soon after, though, we would seldom think about it.

I don't know about up in Cambridge, but around where I live the wailing and gnashing of teeth over the current administration hasn't let up for a single day. If anything, my friends and acquaintances are MORE unhappy about the election than we ever would have thought possible, thus disproving Gilbert's supposedly ground-breaking theory.

Then there is Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton, and possibly the stupidest smart person alive. His utilitarian approach to ethical issues has led him to conclude that senile old people and other "non-persons" should be euthanized to conserve resources for the young. He has long urged readers to "put feelings aside" when dealing with dispensable family members.

Then his mother developed Alzheimer's. He was shocked to find himself unable to follow his own recommendations -- because, he said, "It's different when it's your mother."

Talking the talk carried Singer to a named chair at Princeton. But when it came time to walk the walk, the professor was unable to practice what he had so successfully professed. People do have special relationships with their families, he belatedly came to understand. It is different when it's your mother,

Any smart stupid person on earth could have told him that.

1 comment:

The Architect said...

Very nice post. Someone finally had the balls to say it the way it is.