Sunday, August 14, 2011

When Smart People Go Wrong

I attended the Skeptic’s Toolbox this year put on by the Center for Inquiry (CSI), an organization dedicated to promoting scientific inquiry and critical investigation of extraordinary claims.

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?”

A) Yes ~ B) No ~ C) Cannot be determined?
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.

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.


Antares Cryptos said...

This is more complex than can be addressed in one post, much less one comment.

One needs to take the historiographical context into consideration; the study of alchemy was the chemistry of its time, before chemistry as a science existed.

The fourth dimension is currently considered to be time (Einstein) or hyperspace (fourth spatial dimension). Theoretical physics.

As to measuring intelligence, not a hard science either, since the types of intelligences vary by ability, education, geography etc.

I'll stop here.;)

Kay Dennison said...

IQ testing is a relatively inexact science and we all have our blind spots, eccentricities, etc.

After my massive stroke when I was 31, they sent me for IQ testing to see how much my brain had fried. It was administered orally because the stroke affected my left side and I was left-handed and was still learning to use my right hand -- not an easy task. The way it worked was that the therapist kept asking me increasingly difficult questions and it was taking forever and he said, "When you give a wrong answer, we'll be done." I kept answering a while longer and he finally asked about the Apochrypha (it's been over 30 yrs. so I can't recall the exact question) and I stumbled and told him everything about it except the word 'Apochrypha' so the test was over. Did that measure my IQ accurately? No. I don't think so -- I might have known the answer to the rest of the questions. The result? He told me that he rarely saw an IQ like mine and just shrugged and said, "I just read a lot and remember a lot." He's become a friend and still teases me. I think everyone has blind spots, superstitions, etc. that block reason. Why wouldn't people like Einstein et al?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Cryptos We know the 4th dimension today to be "time", but Clairvoyants in the Victorian era were promoting the 4th dimension as that realm of spirits and other occult phenomena.

The Royal Society had strong opinions about Alchemy and Newton knew it, that is why he kept a lot of his work in this field unpublished (actually published but hidden).

Yes, IQ testing has a lot of critics; often that they are "culturally biased" in many forms. Also a person could have a high IQ and be a psychopath or sociopath.

I've just been to three-plus days of lectures and workshops, wayyyyyy too much to put in a single blog post... let alone adequately address in comments.

Kay Was it really IQ testing specifically that you had? There are various sorts of status exams which are designed to measure different cognitive functions, executive functioning, and other specific parts of the brain.

You are quite correct, what this conference I went to was about precisely that; the blind spots, superstitions, expectations, bias... long list, that can inhibit reason. I only covered briefly one of those in this post.

Wow, that was awkward said...

Thanks for the bar fodder. I can't wait to ask people the Jack, Anne, George question.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Awkward Be damn careful experimenting with that one in a bar... some seemingly unmarried woman's husband could end up giving you a lesson in applied physics.

Kay Dennison said...

The doc called it an IQ test and it felt like an IQ test. He also said he didn't see IQs like mine very often -- to which I said, "That bad?" Trust me when I tell you that when a reasonably healthy woman has a massive stroke at age 31, she is put through every damned test the doctors can think of at least once and they still never found out why it occurred and I probably can't remember all the tests, exams and therapies I went through.

DJan said...

Being smart doesn't seem to keep away the ability to be gullible. I'm just so glad to learn that Robert the Skeptic is still attending things like the Toolbox. It makes me believe in the continuity of humanity. You're my hero, Robert! :-)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and very complicated topic, Robert. My husband and I talk about it a lot because we have family members who are brilliant in some respects yet completely shut off any critical thinking/reasoning when it comes to matters of their Mormon faith.

For example, one who was first in his graduating class from med school teaches adult Sunday School and tries to work in scientific principles and even calculus (he did a problem on the black board) to support his conclusion that Mormonism is the only true religion on Earth. It's a trip.

Can't wait to read more.

Paul said...

Robert, brilliance and good judgement don't always go hand in hand .

Nance said...

I always loved it that Conan Doyle blew it on the faeries (made a great movie, too). I loved it not because I embrace irrationality, but because I think humans are so fascinating...the more so, because of our inconsistencies.

Our rational selves are admirable, reliable, and solid; our irrational sides are charming, lovable, and sometimes harmful as hell. Still, I've never met a one-sided person who didn't meet criteria for diagnosis of a syndromal deficiency.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kay You are likely right, having to go through a battery of different testing which would focus on specific areas and functioning of the brain. My retired professor father-in-law just went through Alzheimers testing; the tests involved interviews, problem-solving, written and memory tests. Not just loss of memory is involved but "executive functions" or problem-solving and reasoning ability are affected.

DJan Precisely the point, smart people can be gullible indeed and for a variety of reasons.

Dissenter This is an extremely common issue, and particularly with religious belief... checking your rationality at the door when you walk into church. On the other side of the equation, I personally know a former BYU professor who left the university and the Mormon Church when he found his scientific inquiry contradicted the Book of Mormon. He is now been excommunicated from the LDS for publishing his findings.

Paul Precisely.

Nance For some reason many brilliant mathematicians and artists teeter on that fine edge between genius and lunacy. John Forbes Nash (for whom the film "A Beautiful Mind" was made) used to stop in the middle of his lectures and talk to Jesus.

kara said...

dad, you should be proud that i fell into the 80%. your daughter is average! huzzah! that means i will never fall under the spell of fairies or the lure of alchemy!

Robert the Skeptic said...

Kara You can guess where I fell on the test... when I read the question I started picturing that scene with DeNiro in "Taxi Driver"... "Hey, You looking at ME?!"

Octopus said...

Fess up. You do stop by and converse with talking cephalopods from time to time. N'est-ce pas?

Robert the Skeptic said...

Octopus I do indeed, though lately I've had a time of it keeping up with all the blogs I follow now.

Sonia Marsh/Gutsy Living said...

I guess I'm not smart in that sense, however, had I been there and witnessed the interaction among married and unmarried, I could tell you the correct answer by people watching.

secret agent woman said...

Just yesterday I was suggesting to my younger son that he read, "Why People Believe Weird Things," so he could better understand exactly what goes wrong in otherwise intelligent people's thinking.

Marylinn Kelly said...

Without the science that Antares brings to the table, I will just suggest that extraordinary minds may have a capacity for seeing that eludes the rest of us; the fact that we can't "see" it, too, doesn't mean it isn't real or true. Clearly I am not one of these visionaries; I flunked the test.

Robert the Skeptic said...

Gutsy I have no doubt; women are very tuned in to the dynamics of human interactions such as these. My wife notes things that I am totally clueless about.

SecretAgent Shermer's books are a good read. Even better I would recommend for your son Carl Sagan's "The Demon-Haunted World". Sagan expressed concepts such as these so eloquently.

Marylinn One of the ways I have heard intelligence described is the "ability to visualize interconnectedness"; or in other words, to see how maybe dissimilar things are related. Or perhaps, being able to see the forest for the trees.

John Myste said...

Perhaps instead of assuming these intelligent people went wrong, we should reinvestigate alchemy, séances, spirits and fairies.

Most interesting, even after the girls confessed that the fairies were merely cardboard cutouts, Doyle and others continued to believe in fairies. As well he should have, since he believed before and cardboard cutouts did nothing to refute that belief.

As for the puzzle, excellent. This was a wonderful post. I love psychological discussions.