Friday, June 15, 2012

Being “Smart” Doesn’t Mean There Aren’t Blind Spots

by Gary Berg-Cross

Smart vs. dumb seems like a simple dichotomy. No one likes to thought of as dumb, let along being called dumb publically. It’s generally a good thing to be considered intelligent and informed and able to think rationally. Of course we have models or absent minded professors and deep thinkers that are socially clueless and inept at ordinary tasks. But we have a general sense that knowledge is power and that intelligence (along with a dose of skepticism and a good method) can expose the truth and the truth is better than falsehood and critical investigation is a better long-term strategy than unc
ritical acceptance.
We are stunned to hear uniformed opinions and willful ignorance expressed as facts as in “keep your government hands off MY Medicare But Cornell political scientist Suzanne Mettler has shown that a large % of recipients of government benefits somehow don’t believe they’ve received any benefits.
Wild generalizations like “corporations are people my friend… of course they are…Everything corporations earn ultimately goes to the people.” can also rankle, since there are so many counterarguments to hidden, common sense assumptions. Willard Romney said this in August 2011 while attempting to counter an argument that taxes should be raised on corporations as part of balancing the budget. Romney is smart all right and Harvard trained, so why the blind spot about how his thinking comes across as false, but yet appeals to so many? Seems like a bit of a paradox, which you may have experienced in talking about such things with seemingly intelligent supporters of such policies. But it is wider and gain you may have experienced this when talking to elite professionals on topics that are outside their training.  Little is funnier than having a lawyer or economist ask you not to use too many technical terms or speak in simple sentences on scientific topics. One may be trainied and intelligent and still yearn for simple answers when they may not be so available.

Simple, contemporary political statements like corporations are people ring hollow since we can ask if corporations have to follow the same rules as we humans and be responsible in the same way. This is clearly not what it means nor is the idea that all the benefits wind up in “the people’s” hands. Some of the people’s wealth seems to be missing.
These type of seemingly smart vs. dumb dichotomy abounds in freethinkers’ vs. religious arguments over evolution and the verbal barbs thrown such as :
I love how the atheists on blogs like to act like they're a part of an elite squad who are masters of logic and reason.

It is true that simple logic can expose some silly arguments justifying religion which seems in part defended by an element of willful disbelief. Such styles are part of larger factors than reasonability that produces a spectrum that is not just elite smartness or general dumbness. Some people seem to dislike atheists and freethinkers just because they ask difficult question which challenge others to answer about open ended topics like morality. And most of us like to think we are on the right side of moral issues. I show my bona fides and the case is closed. I don’t have to exhaust my self in a long change of reasoning supported by evidence.The point here is that our supposed intelligence is often blinded by competing cognitive and social factors.

 In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Nobel prize Daniel Kahneman (subject earlier blogs on knowing) points out how such slow, carefully thinking is often the poor minority of reasoning. Research is such areas helps understand some of the blind spots and disputed implied above. It’s because reasoning is part of a pretty complex system evolved over time and engaged in particular ways by culture and cultural elites (e.g lawyers, economists & clergy).
There are fast associations that we make when a topic comes up and thus questioning suitable religious (or political) authority which has status in culture. Attacking religion seems anti-social and unpatriotic to those who value social cohesiveness. After all won’t such things lead to socialism or communism?
Into this discussion we now throw the idea of cognitive biases and intuitive thinking. It is the humbling realization (as reported recently) that bright people can be especially prone to stupid mistakes. After all the work on human, cognitive bias shows that we are subject to systematic cognitive errors. It is just that different people have different degrees for particular types. If we have good memories we make react to a Pol flip flopping on his/her position. If we associate government with bad things we may accept some statement with little support since it is consistent with our beliefs. But it turns out that a general intelligence doesn’t really protect us from holding and defending stupid positions. Indeed a simple higher intelligence (as measured by S.A.T. scores) can make things worse. This is the understanding of research (by West & friends) that looked at awareness of faulty reasoning or a blind spot. West and his colleagues began by giving 482 undergraduates a questionnaire featuring a variety of classic bias problems. Here’s a example so you can judge the problem:
In a lake, there is a patch of lily pads. Every day, the patch doubles in size. If it takes 48 days for the patch to cover the entire lake, how long would it take for the patch to cover half of the lake?
An intuitive, short cut response is to divide the 48 in half. That gives an answer of twenty-four days. Sorry that’s wrong. The correct solution is forty-seven days. After all it doubles every day!!!
The wrong answer seems easy to get to that somewhat intelligence people fall prey to it, but think it right and defend the answer since after all, I am smarter than the average and therefore must be right. A humbling thought is what seems to be an ever increasingly American meritocracy that with Pols like Romney represents more of a de facto oligarchy. It is perhaps a bit of an insight into why there seem so wild thinking, but smugly confident politicians in America. 

For more see Jonah Lehrer's article in the New Yorker and Blind Spots: Why Smart People Do Dumb Things

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