#40 – Why smart people defend bad ideas

By Scott Berkun, April, 2005

We all know someone who’s intelligent, but who occasionally defends obviously bad ideas. Why does this happen? How can smart people take up positions that defy any reasonable logic? Having spent many years working with smart people I’ve cataloged many of the ways this happens, and I have advice on what to do about it. I feel qualified to write this essay as I’m a recovering smart person myself and I’ve defended several very bad ideas. So if nothing else this essay serves as a kind of personal therapy session. However, I fully suspect you’ll get more than just entertainment value (“Look, Scott is more stupid than we thought!”) out of what I have to say on this topic.

Success at defending bad ideas

The monty python argument sketchI’m not proud to admit that I have a degree in Logic and Computation from Carnegie Mellon University. Majoring in logic is not the kind of thing that makes people want to talk to you at parties, or read your essays. But one thing I did learn after years of studying advanced logic theory is that proficiency in argument can easily be used to overpower others, even when you are dead wrong. If you learn a few tricks of logic and debate, you can refute the obvious, and defend the ridiculous. If the people you’re arguing with aren’t as comfortable in the tactics of argument, or aren’t as arrogant as you are, they may even give in and agree with you.

The problem with smart people is that they like to be right and sometimes will defend ideas to the death rather than admit they’re wrong. This is bad. Worse, if they got away with it when they were young (say, because they were smarter than their parents, their friends, and their parent’s friends) they’ve probably built an ego around being right, and will therefore defend their perfect record of invented righteousness to the death. Smart people often fall into the trap of preferring to be right even if it’s based in delusion, or results in them, or their loved ones, becoming miserable. (Somewhere in your town there is a row of graves at the cemetery, called smartypants lane, filled with people who were buried at poorly attended funerals, whose headstones say “Well, at least I was right.”)

Until they come face to face with someone who is tenacious enough to dissect their logic, and resilient enough to endure the thinly veiled intellectual abuse they dish out during debate (e.g. “You don’t really think that do you?”or “Well if you knew the <insert obscure reference here> rule/law/corollary you wouldn’t say such things”), they’re never forced to question their ability to defend bad ideas. Opportunities for this are rare: a new boss, a new co-worker, a new spouse. But if their obsessiveness about being right is strong enough, they’ll reject those people out of hand before they question their own biases and self-manipulations. It can be easier for smart people who have a habit of defending bad ideas to change jobs, spouses, or cities rather than honestly examine what is at the core of their psyche (and often, their misery).

Short of obtaining a degree in logic, or studying the nuances of debate, remember this one simple rule for defusing those who are skilled at defending bad ideas: Simply because they cannot be proven wrong, does not make them right. Most of the tricks of logic and debate refute questions and attacks, but fail to establish any true justification for a given idea.

For example, just because you can’t prove that I’m not the king of France reincarnated doesn’t make it so. So when someone tells you “My plan A is the best because no one has explained how it will fail” know that there is a logical gap in this argument. Simply because no one has described how it will fail, doesn’t necessarily make it the best plan. It’s possible than plans B, C, D and E all have the same quality, or that the reason no one has described how A will fail is that no one has had more than 30 seconds to scrutinize the plan. As we’ll discuss later, diffusing bad thinking requires someone (probably you) to construct a healthier framework around the bad thinking that shows it for what it is.

Death by homogeny

shelf of boxesThe second stop on our tour of commonly defended bad ideas is the seemingly friendly notion of communal thinking. Just because everyone in the room is smart doesn’t mean that collectively they will arrive at smart ideas. The power of peer pressure is that it works on our psychology, not our intellect. As social animals we are heavily influenced by how the people around us behave, and the quality of our own internal decision making varies widely depending on the environment we currently are in. (e.g. Try to write a haiku poem while standing in an elevator with 15 opera singers screaming 15 different operas, in 15 different languages, in falsetto, directly at you vs. sitting on a bench in a quiet stretch of open woods).

That said, the more homogeneous a group of people are in their thinking, the narrower the range of ideas that the group will openly consider. The more open minded, creative, and courageous a group is, the wider the pool of ideas they’ll be capable of exploring.

Some teams of people look to focus groups, consultancies, and research methods to bring in outside ideas, but this rarely improves the quality of thinking in the group itself. Those outside ideas, however bold or original, are at the mercy of the diversity of thought within the group itself. If the group, as a collective, is only capable of approving B level work, it doesn’t matter how many A level ideas you bring to it. Focus groups or other outside sources of information can not give a team, or its leaders, a soul. A bland homogeneous team of people has no real opinions, because it consists of people with same backgrounds, outlooks, and experiences who will only feel comfortable discussing the safe ideas that fit into those constraints.

If you want your smart people to be as smart as possible, seek a diversity of ideas. Find people with different experiences, opinions, backgrounds, weights, heights, races, facial hair styles, colors, past-times, favorite items of clothing, philosophies, and beliefs. Unify them around the results you want, not the means or approaches they are expected to use. It’s the only way to guarantee that the best ideas from your smartest people will be received openly by the people around them. On your own, avoid homogenous books, films, music, food, sex, media and people. Actually experience life by going to places you don’t usually go, spending time with people you don’t usually spend time with. Be in the moment and be open to it. Until recently in human history, life was much less predictable and we were forced to encounter things not always of our own choosing. We are capable of more interesting and creative lives than our modern cultures often provide for us. If you go out of your way to find diverse experiences it will become impossible for you to miss ideas simply because your homogenous outlook filtered them out.

Thinking at the wrong level

Several story tall buildingAt any moment on any project there are an infinite number of levels of problem solving. Part of being a truly smart person is to know which level is the right one at a given time. For example, if you are skidding out of control at 95mph in your broken down Winnebago on an ice covered interstate, when a semi-truck filled with both poorly packaged fireworks and loosely bundled spark plugs slams on its brakes, it’s not the right time to discuss with your passengers where y’all would like to stop for dinner. But as ridiculous as this scenario sounds, it happens all the time. People worry about the wrong thing at the wrong time and apply their intelligence in ways that doesn’t serve the greater good of whatever they’re trying to achieve. Some call this difference in skill wisdom, in that the wise know what to be thinking about, where as the merely intelligent only know how to think. (The de-emphasis of wisdom is an east vs. west dichotomy: eastern philosophy heavily emphasizes deeper wisdom, where as the post enlightenment west, and perhaps particularly America, heavily emphasizes the intellectual flourishes of intelligence).

In the software industry, the common example of thinking at the wrong level is a team of rock star programmers who can make anything, but don’t really know what to make: so they tend to build whatever things come to mind, never stopping to find someone who might not be adept at writing code, but can see where the value of their programming skills would be best applied. Other examples include people that always worry about money despite how much they have, people who struggle with relationships but invest their energy only in improving their appearance (instead of in therapy or other emotional exploration), or anyone that wants to solve problem X but only ever seems to do things that solve problem Y.

The primary point is that no amount of intelligence can help an individual who is diligently working at the wrong level of the problem. Someone with wisdom has to tap them on the shoulder and say, “Um, hey. The hole you’re digging is very nice, and it is the right size. But you’re in the wrong yard.”

Killed in the long term by short term thinking

Tasty foodFrom what we know of evolution it’s clear that we are alive because of our inherited ability to think quickly and respond to change. The survival of living creatures, for most of the history of our planet, has been a short term game. Only if you can out-run your predators, and catch your prey, do you have the luxury of worrying about tomorrow.

It follows then that we tend to be better at worrying about and solving short term issues than long term issues. Even when we recognize an important long term issue that we need to plan for, say protecting natural resources or saving for retirement, we’re all too easily distracted away from those deep thoughts by immediate things like dinner or sex (important things no doubt, but the driving needs in these pursuits, at least for this half of the species, are short term in nature). Once distracted, we rarely return to the long term issues we were drawn away from.

A common justification for abuse of short term thinking is the fake perspective defense. The wise, but less confident guy says “hey are you sure we should be doing this?” And the smart, confident, but less wise guy says “of course. We did this last time, and the time before that, so why shouldn’t we do this again?”. This is the fake perspective defense because there’s no reason to believe that 2 points of data (e.g. last time plus the time before that) is sufficient to make claims about the future. People say similar things all the time in defense of the free market economy, democracy, and mating strategies. “Well, it’s gotten us this far, and it’s the best system we have”. Well, maybe. But if you were in that broken down Winnebago up to your ankles in gasoline from a leaking tank, smoking a cigarette in each hand, you could say the same thing.

Put simply, the fact that you’re not dead yet doesn’t mean that the things you’ve done up until now shouldn’t have, by all that is fair in the universe, already killed you. You might just need a few more data points for the law of averages to catch up, and put a permanent end to your short term thinking.

How many data points you need to feel comfortable continuing a behavior is entirely a matter of personal philosophy. The wise and skeptical know that even an infinite number of data points in the past may only have limited bearing on the future. The tricky thing about the future is that it’s different than the past. Our data from the past, no matter how big a pile of data it is, may very well be entirely irrelevant. Some find this lack of predictive ability of the future quite frustrating, while others see it as the primary reason to stick around for a few more years.

Anyway, my point is not that Winnebagos or free market economies are bad. Instead I’m saying that short term bits of data are neither reliable nor a wise way to go about making important long term decisions. Intelligent people do this all the time, and since it’s so commonly accepted as a rule of thumb (last time + the time before that), it’s often accepted in place of actual thinking. Always remember that humans, given our evolution, are very bad at seeing the cumulative effects of behavior, and underestimate how things like compound interest or that one cigarette a day, can in the long term, have surprisingly large impacts despite clearly low short term effects.

How to prevent smart people from defending bad ideas

smart people defending bad ideasI spent my freshman year at a small college in NJ called Drew University. I had a fun time, ingested many tasty alcoholic beverages, and went to lots of great parties (the result of which of course was that I basically failed out and had to move back to Queens with my parents. You see, the truth is that this essay is really a public service announcement paid for by my parents – I was a smart person that did some stupid things). But the reason I mention all this is because I learned a great bit of philosophy from many hours of playing pool in the college student center. The lesson is this: Speed kills. I was never very good at pool, but this one guy there was, and whenever we’d play, he’d watch me miss easy shots because I tried to force them in with authority. I chose speed and power over control, and I usually lost. So like pool, when it comes to defusing smart people who are defending bad ideas, you have to find ways to slow things down.

The reason for this is simple. Smart people, or at least those whose brains have good first gears, use their speed in thought to overpower others. They’ll jump between assumptions quickly, throwing out jargon, bits of logic, or rules of thumb at a rate of fire fast enough to cause most people to become rattled, and give in. When that doesn’t work, the arrogant or the pompous will throw in some belittlement and use whatever snide or manipulative tactics they have at their disposal to further discourage you from dissecting their ideas.

So your best defense starts by breaking an argument down into pieces. When they say “it’s obvious we need to execute plan A now.” You say, “hold on. You’re way ahead of me. For me to follow I need to break this down into pieces.” And without waiting for permission, you should go ahead and do so.

First, nothing is obvious. If it were obvious there would be no need to say so. So your first piece is to establish what isn’t so obvious. What are the assumptions the other guy is glossing over that are worth spending time on? There may be 3 or 4 different valid assumptions that need to be discussed one at a time before any kind of decision can be considered. Take each one in turn, and lay out the basic questions: what problem are we trying to solve? What alternatives to solving it are there? What are the tradeoffs in each alternative? By breaking it down and asking questions you expose more thinking to light, make it possible for others to ask questions, and make it more difficult for anyone to defend a bad idea.

No one can ever take away your right to think things over, especially if the decision at hand is important. If your mind works best in 3rd or 4th gear, find ways to give yourself the time needed to get there. If when you say ” need the afternoon to think this over”, they say
“tough. We’re deciding now”. Ask if the decision is an important one. If they say yes, then you should be completely justified in asking for more time to think it over and ask questions.

Find a sane person people listen to

Some situations require outside help. Instead of taking a person on directly, get a third party that you both respect, and continue the discussion in their presence. This can be a superior, or simply someone smart enough that the other person might possibly concede points to them.

It follows that if your team manager is wise and reasonable, smart people who might ordinarily defend bad ideas will have a hard time doing so. But sadly if your team manager is neither wise nor reasonable, smart, arrogant people may convince others to follow their misguided ways more often than not.

And yet more reasons

I’m sure you have stories of your own follies dealing with smart people defending bad ideas, or where you, yourself, as a smart person, have spent time arguing for things you regretted later. Given the wondrous multitude of ways the universe has granted humans to be smart and dumb at the same time, there are many more reasons why smart people behave in stupid ways. For fun, and as fodder, here’s a few more.

If you have some thoughts on this essay, or some more reasons to add, leave a comment:

  • Smart people can follow stupid leaders (seeking praise or promotion)
  • Smart people may follow their anger into stupid places
  • They may be trained or educated into stupidity
  • Smart people can inherit bad ideas from their parents under the guise of tradition
  • They may simply want something to be true, that can never be

References

181 Responses to “#40 – Why smart people defend bad ideas”

  1. George

    ok.so,if i have some of the previous “symtoms” what can i do to fix them?

    Reply
  2. Rafa

    The problem with smart people is that they like to be right and sometimes will defend ideas to the death rather than admit they’re wrong. –> This is so my sister, stubborn.
    I grow up watching my parents scold her for always defending her ideas and reject all of of others, so I learn by that.
    Even If I didn’t agree with others (especially elders)I would avoid saying it by changing the topics or agree with them. This way is easier… Arguing with people who lack common sense is troublesome, most of the time I stuck with my ideas in my head,LOL

    Reply
  3. Steve Thomas

    Scott,

    I seem to be one of the sole dissenting voices here. There is much irony embedded within your essay, for it leads me to ask “why smart people defend bad ideas?” In your case, here, this is just an absurd idea, and you end up double-backing on yourself a few paragraphs later. You note that smart people love to be right “until they come face to face with someone who is tenacious enough to dissect their logic, and resilient enough to endure the thinly veiled intellectual abuse they dish out during debate […].” Okay, let me get this straight; if another person proved a “smart person” wrong by using logic then the other person is a smart person, so how do we know that the other person isn’t simply defending another bad idea.

    Look, let’s level here. For a guy who claims to hold a degree in logic yours is beyond flawed. Firstly, you create a straw man argument by carefully crafting a purposefully vague notion of “bad idea” without first defining what this bad idea actually is. Secondly, reading through your essay I do not see a man who has been trained in logic, but rather an ideologue who has jumped on the anti-intellectual bandwagon. Moreover, you have it entirely backwards when you say “the wise, but less confident guy says “hey are you sure we should be doing this?” And the smart, confident, but less wise guy says “of course.” This is so dumb it actually pisses me off. You have created such a transparent straw man argument that it is laughable, and the fact that so many people have agreed with you confirms the anti-intellectual state of America. Sorry, but the smart person always understands what they don’t know and will almost always exercise caution in uncharted territory. Your post is tragic nonsense!

    Reply
    • Scott Berkun

      Sorry you didn’t like the essay.

      It would have been more accurate to have titled the essay “Why *some* smart people defend bad ideas some of the time” or perhaps “Being smart vs. being wise” as clearly by definition being smart doesn’t guarantee you will defend bad ideas – instead my point was being smart doesn’t guarantee you’ll defend good ideas either, which often people assume to be true.

      The relevant quote would be:

      “The primary point is that no amount of intelligence can help an individual who is diligently working at the wrong level of the problem. Someone with wisdom has to tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘Um, hey. The hole you’re digging is very nice, and it is the right size. But you’re in the wrong yard.'”

      You might claim that person is not in fact smart, since a smart person would not work on the wrong problem. Ok. We perhaps have different definitions of smart. Isaac Newton spent much of his life studying alchemy, and seeking the Philosopher’s Stone. I’d say he was very smart, but yet also was interested in something improbable, which I’d call a bad idea. And I imagine he’d use his sizable intellect to defend his pursuit of something that is untrue, at least by today’s standards of science.

      As its 7 years from when the essay was written, if I wrote it again today, I’d talk about cognitive bias, and our well documented flaws in reasoning, but I didn’t know about them in a formal sense then.

      Reply
      • Steve Thomas

        Hi Scott,

        Admittedly I can be brusque so please don’t take my comments personally, but we have a real social problem here in America. For some very strange reasons we’ve become, as a culture, anti-intellectual, and it is one that is beginning to cost us dearly. This is a dangerous state of affairs where our economic viability is beginning to wane. Have you ever traveled abroad? My wife is European and, while there, I am always astonished at the in-depth and mature conversations I am able to have with young people; particularly on topics such as economics, science, history, culture, etc. In America, I typically get “Hey, you socialists keep your government hands of my Social Security.” We have become a nation that embraces ignorance and glorifies the easy way out; my most sincere recommendation for you is to help reverse this ugly trend and not to add to it. I have watched one of your videos and you seem to have some good ideas.

        Nevertheless, I understand your point when you say “[…] that no amount of intelligence can help an individual who is diligently working at the wrong level of the problem.” Notice one thing about your sentence? There is a subtle change: it doesn’t single out smart people—and shouldn’t—because any person, including us, can work on the wrong level of a problem. My boss calls me the absent-minded professor for I can tell you innumerable things about history and politics, but ask me what I did yesterday… I think your point about Newton is a little flawed too because we are not talking about him being smart or not but rather what is know—this is called evidence. A smart person recognizes evidence and usually will cease working on the wrong level of a problem. Usually, dumb people just keep on digging and believing; despite, in many cases, overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

        In other words, don’t confuse a lack of evidence with stupidity, but it is stupid to ignore evidence. When the premises of an argument become a little more complex, say, global warming or evolution it is then incumbent on individual citizens to be able to understand the underlying science. My point is this: w can prove beyond any doubt that Newton was wrong about alchemy in as much as we can prove that evolution is a fact, and that the preponderance of the evidence suggests strongly that global warming is indeed caused by human activity. However, people in America are now so poorly educated that they believe things that just aren’t true, and when one provides evidence they still reject it. I have come to the conclusion that most people are now unable to distinguish what constitutes evidence. In America, it’s just too easy to be dumb. In the end, I suppose my overriding impression of reading your essay was that “wow, he’s actually describing what dumb people do; it’s too bad he didn’t state it as such.

        Reply
    • Travis

      Steve, why are you so antagonistic? If you wanted to disagree, why couldn’t you simply refute what you needed to and then be done with it. Instead you go out of your way to demean the OP (calling his argument laughable) and say you how the article “pisses me[you) off”. The focus of your first paragraph is a refutation of the OPs rhetorical/theoretical situation. It seems your definition of the word “intelligent” is just different from the OPS, but you assume his is the same as yours, and you use that to berate his argument. He is saying that people will defend their previous views, even if they are wrong (not they necessarily are wrong) until someone confronts them about it and dissects their argument. He is just trying to make the point that people have a tendency (even people generally considered smart) to stick to their previous beliefs/ideas/viewpoints.

      I want to ask again my first question. Steve, why are you so antagonistic? The way you insert a tone of anger and frustration into your comment makes you seem like you are defending something close and personal to you, like a patriot defending their country. What are you defending? Why are you ‘pissed off’? Is there something behind this argument that you feel is being attacked, or do you just get angry as a response to someone questioning your previously-held views?

      Thank you and please try to answer me respectfully, without calling my argument laughable or dumb.

      Reply
      • Randall Harms

        I don’t agree with your use of the word “antagonistic” to describe the style of Steve’s argument. It seems to me to be more a passionate expression of a thesis brewing in Steve’s mind that the author’s essay catalyzed into a clear and coherent logical structure, and that Steve believes dissemination of his identification and defining outline of the problem IS important to the viability of our republic. Your characterization of the bad faith use of smart in a different and “known to be different by Steve” is accurate and illuminating to both arguments and solves some muddiness in both perspectives. However, the remainder of your remarks after the “antagonistic:” label was introduced assumes that characterization is correct and fatal to Steve’s argument. I think you applied some instant karma there. Finally, your defensive closing is a wicked trap in that Steve is left with the threat of dismissal of his response if your subjective assessment of his level of respect is negative. Indeed, your response to Steve is an example of the very thing Steve finds troublesome.

        Reply
    • bill

      The reason why this article “pisses” you off is because you are a clearly a narcissistic thinker. The author isn’t providing you a frame work of logic as proof of HIS knowledge for YOU to work to dispel with your all-knowing brilliance, he is merely providing value insight into the flawed minds of people like you, so that the rest of us don’t spend any time arguing with you because it would equate to wasting precious minutes of one’s life for no good reason.

      Reply
      • Steve Thomas

        It is interesting in that you presume to know why this article pisses me off, yet, based upon your words, I suspect you didn’t even read my responses to it. Do you not see the ironic nature of Scott’s argument? If not then let me help: In the first paragraph, Scott asserts that “[he] feel[s] qualified to write this essay as [he’s] a recovering smart person [himself] and [he’s] defended several very bad ideas.” Firstly, although his self-deprecating manner is humorous it sets a rather strong air of anti-intellectualism. Indeed, as if only “smart” people defend bad ideas. The truth is we all, from time to time, defend bad ideas, so his self-deprecating comment makes me suspicious. The simple truth is that far more often than not it is poorly educated and dumb people who defend bad ideas; for example: global warming deniers, anti-evolutionists, conspiracy theorists, etc.

        So, I invite you, go back and reread Scott’s article and ask yourself: did he really convince me that only smart people do the things he asserts or do all people? We all like to be right; we all can be forceful; we all can defend bad ideas. Think about it. Great swaths of our population believe that anthropogenic climate change is merely an idea crafted by alarmists. So, are these people dumb or smart? Other than anecdotes, there isn’t anything which Scott wrote that convinced me that “smartness” is the culprit here. In fact, as I said before, it is rather ironic in that we can dismiss Scott’s entire argument as a smart person defending a bad idea. No, all along my point has been that we can all defend bad ideas but, for the most part, it is usually the dumb people you’ll find doing this. Don’t get me wrong, I think Scott is likely a very smart guy and he’s a good write, but I think this piece is not one of his better ideas.

        Reply
  4. Sean Crawford

    Maybe it’s just me, and I know I’m only a bystander, but when someone comments disrespectfully to Scott, then I feel disrespected too.

    Reply
  5. Steve Thomas

    Travis,

    I am not really pissed off although I can understand why you would say that. I am however exceedingly frustrated because everywhere I turn there are people who are deriding intelligent people or the intelligentsia, in general. I am fighting against this vein of anti-intellectualism that has permeated the United States. You say that “it seems your definition of the word “intelligent” is just different from the OPS, but you assume his is the same as yours, and you use that to berate his argument,” and I am going to challenge you on this point. Why shouldn’t I assume that it has the same definition? Last I checked there is really only one definition for this word. The fact that you seem to think that we can simply redefine words to suit or choosing is actually part of this problem. I admit to the frustration, yes, because everyone wants to jump on the internet to play the intelligent person, yet all the while many of you are berating intelligent people. It doesn’t make a lick of sense.

    To your last point as to whether “[…] I just get angry as a response to someone questioning your previously-held views?” The answer is a resounding “no” because I was the one doing the questioning. Keep in mind that logic dictates the soundness of our arguments, so perhaps you should look up and understand what constitutes a straw man argument. As I noted, I did not mean any disrespect but it is my prerogative to challenge what I see as nonsense. It is also Scott’s prerogative whether he posts it. He did, warts and all, and I think that shows a level of character and honesty on his part.

    Reply
    • DCC

      Mr. Thomas wishes to inform us all that Americans are stupid.

      If I understand his argument, he is saying that he disagrees with the essay, because anyone defending a bad idea is by definition not a smart person. And that America is anti-intellectual.

      He further adds that Americans are anti-intellectual, and that apparantly is why the OP wrote this essay in the first place.

      Finally, Americans are dumb, and Mr. Thomas disapproves of this fact.

      Reply
      • Steve

        DCC,

        I really don’t know why you took the time to write such drivel. If you are going to respond to something which another wrote then don’t you think you should take some time to make it cogent? You didn’t understand my point at all so I think you should go back and reread it again. Also, you can read my review on Amazon too. Perhaps that will clarify some points for you. Lastly, the word you seek is “apparently” not “apparently,” unless, of course, I am just another “smart” person defending a bad idea like proper spelling…

        Reply
  6. Jordan Koepnick

    I have to say that for the past couple of hours i have been hooked by the impressive articles on this blog. Keep up the wonderful work.

    Reply
  7. Elizabeth

    Thank-you Scott! I have been trying to understand my husband and his giftedness for years. I simply am searching for ways to help us live as peacefully as possible, which as you probably know and understand, can be a challenge. Your article gave me what I was looking for – more insight into understanding why he seems to like to argue and a new awareness about how slowing it down could help.

    Thank-you very much.

    Elizabeth

    Reply
  8. Caitlin

    Thank you so much for writing this! Very thought-provoking.

    Reply
  9. Joe Smarter than You

    Clearly your not a smar person, or you wouldn’t have written this garbage.

    Reply
    • David M Linehan

      Joe, bro, I don’t want to be the guy that calls out spelling mistakes, but in a post where you are trying to call someone dumb, at least spell “smart” right, or get Google Chrome; it has spell check.

      That’s how you use commas.

      Reply
  10. Robert Barnes

    Thumps up for you David: (Linehan). That was awsome, and it was smart!

    Reply
  11. Robert Barnes

    David Linehan,

    I forgot to mention that I would have said it this way:
    Joe, bro, I don’t want to be the guy that calls out spelling mistakes,
    but, in a post where you are trying to call someone dumb, at least
    spell “smart” right, or get Google Chrome; it has spell check.
    Notice the extra comma?

    Reply
  12. Fred

    Scott, the opening of your essay confused the crap out of me. I think I might get it, now. By talking about “smart” people, you must mean “sharp-witted, possibly educated dumb people”. I guess I usually understand “smart” to mean “quick-to-learn, wise people”.

    I’ve found over and over again that the correct response to genuinely smart people when they say something you think is stupid is to stop and understand what they mean by it. More likely it’s you (or me) who is failing to see what’s really being communicated.

    I’d guess this idea is what Steve had in mind as well, when he interpreted your post to be anti-intellectual. I do agree with him that your post’s flippancy is somewhat ironic, given your point. Though I also think that the advice you give is sound, if you’re truly being confronted by a dumb fast-talker (aka “smart” person), as opposed to an actual smart person.

    Reply
  13. tammyruger

    I haven’t read all the comments so this question may have been addressed, but I’m wondering if Steve’s anti-intellectual rant translates into “low information voter.” Is this to assume that the special interests that voted Obama a second term are therefore anti-intellectual by choice? If true, this is indeed hideous and resolves the issue of whether this country is headed into a deep abyss never to emerge.

    Reply
    • Steve Thomas

      Tammy,

      As a person who has engaged in numerous online debates and such I have learned to be much more careful about misinterpreting what others are saying. In looking back, however, my initial response to Scott was overly aggressive and he certainly did not deserve my angry response, so my apologies to him. Actually, Fred hit the nail on the head when he stated that “More likely it’s you (or me) who is failing to see what’s really being communicated.” However, the point being is this: obtuse people are the ones who are more likely to defend bad ideas.

      I interpreted his words as being anti-intellectual simply because he wrote that “I’m not proud to admit that I have a degree in Logic and Computation from Carnegie Mellon University.” Indeed, this is rather peculiar as if it is somehow embarrassing to have been received higher education and to be taught how to think in a more structured way. Why shouldn’t he be proud to admit this? It is a great achievement on his part. I may be wrong but I interpreted Scott’s sentence as some sort of an appeal to so-called “common sense.” An appeal to common sense is often employed as a logical fallacy and it is often an appeal to right-wing populism; in other words, a rejection of the elites in universities, business and government.

      Tammy, in your post you inquired whether “is this to assume that the special interests that voted Obama a second term are therefore anti-intellectual by choice?” It is my opinion that special interests tend to be anti-intellectual by choice. This is why a great swath of the American population rejects evolution in favour of creationism; they claim that anthropogenic climate change is a myth; they maintain the belief that Obama was born in Kenya, etc, etc. I am not suggesting that this is you; however, whether one loves him or hates him is irrelevant, but to reject the overwhelming evidence that Obama is a US citizen is indeed anti-intellectual. However, special interests do not vote but they are, generally speaking, the ones who affect the opinions of those who do vote.

      Reply
  14. Hughe

    Why most scientists and engineers are so stupid!?

    This situation is worse than smart people defend bad ideas. I did not know it has been happening all the time but I was honestly stupid. Then I slowly went through painful period of relearning how to think and how to look at reality with unbiased attitude.

    The reason I say this modern science except few fields went to backwards. Especially cosmology in astronomy. Any open-mind individuals who study alternative theories about universe, he/she will understand how the Big Bang theory is rubbish, absurd. Mean while virtually all astronomers stupidly support it like religious fanatics. Then it makes wonder “What’s real intelligence?”

    Most scientists hardly give second thought or serious question to basic assumptions, i.e. core definitions and terms that serve as foundation of hypothesis. For example, Issac Newton had implicit assumptions on gravity when he invented Newtonian Mechanics 300 years ago. His marvelous achievement has some serious flaws that began to fail some phenomena discovered by other scientists as time passed. But, these real scientists opinion hardly ever embraced in mainstream scientific community for 19th, 20th century.

    Issac Newton thought speed of gravity is instantaneous. Its range of force extends up to infinite distance in universe. These assumptions are absurd, non-realistic. So modern cosmology that uses Newton’s gravitational theory and theory of Relativity has been busy to patch, create pseudo entities for explaining observed phenomena.

    What a exciting time for us to live!

    Reply
  15. Bill Riedel

    I think it is relatively simple why smart people defend bad ideas. I read two books fairly recently. Neither of these books made much sence alone; however together they led to the following conclusion:

    1. We are all brainwashed or have brainwashed ourselves and that is particularily true if one has been brainwashed into a profession. So the first question we must answer is: How brainwashed am I? (Reference – McGinn, Colin 2008, Mindfucking, A Critique of Mental Manipulation, Acumen).

    2. What and whose bullshit do I believe? (Reference – Law, Stephen, 2011, Believing Bullshit, How Not to Get Sucked into Intellectual Black Hole, Prometheus Books.

    Only after having answered these two questions can one look at issues objectively.

    Reply
  16. Steve Thomas

    Hughe,

    Your thinking is beyond confused, and your writing skills are even worse. Your understanding of science and how it works is as bad as your syntax. I don’t think Scott’s essay wasn’t an invitation to denigrate smart, educated people. Your post is nonsense unless you can prove examples to which you’re referring. What assumptions and what, pray tell, makes you think the big bang theory is rubbish? Your ideas are very poorly formed.

    Reply
    • Hughe

      I don’t spend time to review my writings and fix errors on comments.

      It took almost entire life for me to gain power of independent thinking in true sense. Even though I hate conventional scientific theories nowadays, I love science and technologies. The problem is to have balanced idea or opinion about a fact one must have different explanations. The great tragic of collective stupidity in human society is educational system is designed to dumb down humans.

      If I give you serious scientific papers and books written by scientists and engineers, will you personally spend your spare time and energy to study alternative theory? For example all text books and journals that public can access on the net or buy in book stores only represent theories and information for mainstream science.

      Black Holes do exist. Why? As an average Joe like me believe in as truth because the scientists say so.
      Matter can not travel faster than the speed of light. Again asking why returns simple answer “Mr. Einstein say so.”
      Big Bang theory of universe is absurd and rubbish hypothesis to any individual who really study alternative theories of physics. For instance Big Bang theory assumes our universe is close system that has start and end. How they know our universe is close or open system? To ask this question one has to understand two fundamental approaches for attacking physical problem in sciences: close or open system. Looking at an engine as close system which is completely isolated from external environment probably reasonable. The engine burns fuel and convert part of its energy into mechanical force. Then applying same principal to unimaginably big entity, which is our universe, is simply stupid or intellectual masturbation of bad scientists.
      It became scientific fact that Sun’s weather change effects Earth’s local/global weather. I didn’t make this up.
      Then, it’s just beginning of bigger reality Earth belongs to. Our solar system travels extremely fast in space. Changing conditions of space also affect every thing in solar system. Then there is our galaxy, galaxy cluster, super galaxy cluster, on and on.

      All laws in physics built upon basic assumptions of its inventors. In mathematics it calls as Axiom. Public education do not offer any space to discuss possible or inherited flaws of these Axioms. Whether it’s a kid in a grade school or student in a college, challenging the teacher’ word comes with punishment.

      Why do we have to depend on fossil fuels? Because we’ve been taught energy does not exist in empty space. It only exists inside static matter. To extract energy matter – fossil fuel, oil or Uranium or whatever – has to be destroyed. Exact repetition of stupidity when people was believing in “Sun and all stars revolve around the Earth.”

      To exercise free will and make own decision one needs to have choices. In science different theories do exist. Do you know who Nicola Tesla was? Nearly seven billions still depend on Tesla’s electric power generation and distribution technologies over one hundred years. Nicola Tesla demonstrated how to extract energy in atmosphere even space, which gave a clue alternative perspective how our universe exists. Anyway good signs more and more people are beginning to embrace Tesla’s perspective.

      Reply
      • Steve Thomas

        Hughe,

        Your entire post smacks of typical anti-intellectual conspiracy nonsense. As I said, you do not seem to really understand how science works, and your words seem to confirm this. You stated that “For example all text books and journals that public can access on the net or buy in book stores only represent theories and information for mainstream science.” Mainstream science, are you serious here? What, there’s non-mainstream science? Let me get this straight; in other words, there’s a cover up occurring, right? This is such nonsensical thinking. Science is imperfect but it is the best we have, and it is self-correcting because of its peer-reviewed nature. I wholeheartedly reject your conspiracy position as it lacks any basis in reality.

        Next, what you appear to be doing is to confuse issues. Simply because someone cannot tell you why matter cannot accelerate past the speed of light does not mean that it is less true. You appear to be attempting to equate one’s faith in science as being the equivalent as one’s faith in religion. If so then you are committing the fallacy of equivocation. I do not doubt that there have been examples of certain scientific theories being initially rejected but proved later. Indeed, vindication for these scientists but it proves that science works. Theories and information are altered as new information arises. Most alternative theories are just that—alternative. Simply because something is alternative doesn’t mean that it’s true. I caution you to be careful as your thinking is bordering on conspiratorial and paranoid…

        Reply
  17. Ivana

    This essay is describing typical OCD people when they are wrong ;)

    Reply
  18. Tim

    I follow what is said here, but my friend tries to use rather large words and speak over me. When i argue back, he just gets mad and starts to call me names or say ” you mad bro”. How do i get out of this situation without creating a fight?

    Reply
  19. Mike Mellor

    An excellent article. Scott Berkun gently points out in everyday language some of the most common logical errors. I was also reminded that although I think I’m smart I have bad ideas as often as, or maybe more often than, people of less intelligence, and because I think I’m smart, I tend to hang onto those bad ideas long after they should have been discarded.

    Reply
  20. Bill Redeel

    “Why smart people defend bad ideas” – one word MOKITA. If you look at professor Culbert’s book Beyond Bullsh*t: Straight-Talk at Work on page 126 he notes that mokita is a New Guinean word meaning “the truth everyone knows but no one speaks.”

    Reply

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  2. […] “The problem with smart people is that they like to be right and sometimes will defend ideas to the death rather than admit they’re wrong. This is bad. Worse, if they got away with it when they were young (say, because they were smarter than their parents, their friends, and their parent’s friends) they’ve probably built an ego around being right, and will therefore defend their perfect record of invented righteousness to the death. Smart people often fall into the trap of preferring to be right even if it’s based in delusion, or results in them, or their loved ones, becoming miserable…(continue)” […]

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