The topic of focus this year was “How Smart People Go Wrong”. Society generally regards intelligence (IQ) as the measure of how “smart” people are. And yet, very intelligent people can often go very wrong in their thinking and behavior. One need only look at the supposedly smart investors who were suffered monumental financial losses by trusting their money to the likes of swindler, Bernie Madoff.
But history is replete with examples of smart people gone wrong. Take for example Sir Isaac Newton, who is credited with developing the most elemental foundation laws of physics, who essentially invented calculus and theorized (correctly) that light was composed of many different wavelengths (colors). And yet, this monumental genius devoted significant amounts of his time in the pursuit of Alchemy.
Then there is Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin who worked with equally strong conviction to support the Theory of Evolution. Yet this brilliant scientist also working tirelessly, attending and recording his observances at séances to promote what he held strongly was the validity of the spirit world and a “fourth dimension”.
Few of us don’t know about the legendary forensic detective, Sherlock Holmes, created out of the imagination of Sir. Arthur Conan Doyle. The mind that conjured up the brilliant intellectual detective, who used observation and science to solve crimes, was also a believer in spirits and fairies. So much was Conan Doyle a believer that two school girls from Cottingley England fooled the author, and many prominent scientists of the day, with their pictures of actual fairies taken in their garden with their father’s camera. Most interesting, even after the girls confessed that the fairies were merely cardboard cutouts, Doyle and others continued to believe in fairies.
So what is going on here? If intelligence is a measure of “smarts”, how is it that intelligent people can be so easily fooled? The answer is both complicated and multi-faceted. As it turns out, IQ is not necessarily the best or only measure of “smartness”. It is possible for intelligent people to not properly apply Reasoning Ability. Or to put it another way; if Intelligence is the measure of mental “capacity”, Reasoning is the process of employing that capacity. And often times we don’t do a good job of that; often because we take shortcuts.
Consider the following problem – try to answer it before reading the solution:
Jack is looking at Anne, but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?”As it turns out, more than 80% of people incorrectly answer the question “C”. The problem does not reveal if Anne is married or not, so people take the easiest inference without fully thinking through the problem; they are effectively being Cognitive Miser.
A) Yes ~ B) No ~ C) Cannot be determined?
But if one applies reasoning the correct answer can be obtained: If Anne is married, then the correct answer is “A” – Anne is the married person looking at George who is unmarried. But if Anne is NOT married, the correct answer is still “A” – Jack who is married is looking at the unmarried Anne.
This type of thinking is called “Fully Disjunctive Reasoning" – it considers all the possibilities. Rather than accepting that we do not know Anne’s marital status, we instead consider the possibilities to determine the answer to the question. The suggestion that we do not have enough information causes us become Cognitive Misers, (Dysrationalia) and take the easy way out.
IQ tests are often employed as a measure of smartness, but to fully understand how smart someone is, tests measuring Dysrationalia provide a more widely encompassing measure.
Next: More from the Skeptic’s Toolbox and how Smart People Go Wrong.