Stupid Smart People

January 4th, 2008

“The difference between genius and stupidity is that genius has its limits.” — Albert Einstein

This is going to be a call for reason to the smart people out there who do stupid things too often, too consistently, or too loudly. All smart people do stupid things. I’m a really smart guy, and I’ve been aghast at how stupid I’ve been from time to time (and can barely stand the notion that I’m likely to do even more stupid things in the future). The difference from me and what I call “stupid smart people” is that they’re blind to their stupidity, don’t care about it, or don’t try to learn from it.

I recall reading something somewhere about the difference between intelligence and wisdom (it might have been in an article about dungeons and dragons even), where they illustrated a couple of people with one but not the other. Richard Nixon had intelligence but no wisdom. Edith Bunker (addle-minded but moral wife of bigot Archie Bunker on All in the Family) was all wisdom and no intelligence. Nixon is the quintessential stupid smart person.

I’m equating wisdom here with a type of intelligence, one that “smart” people should have or be capable of achieving. When smart people do/say/believe stupid things, it’s akin to them lacking wisdom, and the stupid things could be avoided if only they applied some of their smarts in a different or more global way. It’s often a failure to see the forest for the trees. Sometimes it’s forgetting that forests are made of trees.

One example I see in astronomy all the time has to do with uncertainties. It’s pounded into our heads as graduate students that a data point doesn’t mean much if you don’t know its error bars, and we often spend more time generating the uncertainties than we do determining the data values. That’s fine as far as it goes. But here’s where the stupid comes in sometimes. There are two kinds of uncertainties: formal and systematic. It’s often possible to calculate and show formal uncertainties, which are usually based on well-understood statistics of shot noise or error propagation. A lot of the time these are worthless, because they’re much smaller than the systematic uncertainties, which depend on the validity of the technique. A simple example of the difference is calibrating how bright a star is in absolute terms. We do this regularly by comparison of photons received in a time period compared to some standard reference stars, and use statistics of photons and detector noise to determine formal uncertainties. The systematic error comes up in the choice of reference stars (or the change in seeing without changing extraction apertures, etc.) — if the standard star turns out to be a variable for some reason, then the formal uncertainty means nothing.

In astronomy, adding those formal error bars to a plot, even when the systematic uncertainties are known to be much larger and more important, will make many an audience member smile happily even when they don’t mean anything. That’s being a stupid smart person.

Another example from my personal experience. Back when I worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, computer security gave us placards to put on top of our computer to indicate whether we were working on classified or unclassified projects. The idea was to make it easy for our colleagues to know when they shouldn’t be looking at our monitors because we were doing classified work. Do I have to explain why this is the dumbest thing ever, and it’s okay that our national laboratories have had to step up security efforts?

Lest I remain too abstract, let me compile a list of a few stupid smart people and explain my reasoning. (Nixon should go without saying.) Here they are: Mike Huckabee, Michael Crichton, John Stossel, Bjorn Lomborg, Bill Clinton, Ralph Nader, the RIAA, and Harlan Ellison.

Huckabee thinks it’s not important for a president to understand science at an eighth-grade level and argues in one breathe in favor of science and technology in America and then denounces evolution on the other. They’re the same thing, and if he’s not smart enough to see it, he’s not smart enough to be president.

Michael Crichton did his own investigations into global warming and decided it was all BS, not only publishing his novel State of Fear but going on to lecture about his conclusions. Huh? He has ancient credentials as a medical doctor, but scientist he isn’t and understanding he lacks. I’ve been irritated with Crichton long before his attention-grabbing anti-global warming lectures because the theme of so many of his novels is that of Frankenstein: scientists playing god shouldn’t.

John Stossel, supposedly unbiased reporter, then did a piece critical of global warming, using Crichton as essentially his only source. This is even worse than the more typical case of stupid smart reporter, who mindlessly adopts the bias of balance, telling both sides of a story as equal even when one side is only represented by a few cranks.

Bjorn Lomborg, the “skeptical enquirer,” is a smart guy who seems to lack a lot of wisdom. He seems motivated to be iconoclastic and contrary, and perhaps to sell a pile of books, but keeps pointing at individual trees that are fine and healthy in a burning forest. He agrees that global warming is happening, but wants to point out things like the cold produces more deaths than the heat, as if these small individual facts and other silver linings he finds are the equivalent of the problems humankind faces.

Bill Clinton nearly lost his entire presidency because he couldn’t keep it in his pants, and we as a people apparently don’t let our leaders get away with that any more. (There really should be a cabinet level position of Head of State that Presidents can avail themselves of without repercussion.)

Ralph Nader today still insists that there was no difference between Gore and Bush in the 2000 election and his candidacy had no role in making Bush President.

The RIAA claims, in courts in a very serious manner on a regular basis, that every music download is a lost sale, going to exquisite detail calculating their lost revenue. I suppose every advertising dollar is also 100% lost revenue, which is why no companies advertise. The industry needs to find a different business model, and making fallacious arguments with a straight face for so long and so strenuously is just dumb.

Harlan Ellison, who is a wonderful writer, spends too much of his limited time on Earth tilting at people downloading his stories. He’s being stupid with his time and probably hasn’t lost a dime that he’ll ever notice.

There are some well-known pro-science writers and personalities out there who have consistently failed to impress me with their smarts, making errors in both big and small picture thinking.    I don’t know that I’d call them smart stupid people — it’s probably more of a case of them writing lots of stuff and some of it just not being very well thought out.   I almost didn’t mention them, but we should all welcome criticism, shouldn’t we?   These include Stephen J. Gould, Natalie Angier, Susan McCarthy, and Michael Shermer.

My own failure tends to be wasting my own time on internet forums arguing with the stupid stupid people or trolls. I have a few hot button issues having to do with attacks on science that keep me from seeing the forest sometimes. Like Harlan, my time on Earth would be better spent writing a new book rather than warring with the annoying.

Life is too short to be stupid.


You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.