Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas

[First published 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 entirely 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 many levels of decisions. Part of being a smart person is to know which level is the right one to solve a given problem. It’s often at least one level higher than we assume. 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


277 Responses to “Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas”

  1. NoOne Special

    Makes sense to me. Seems others have a problem, or lack of experience. Of course as another has said, dont follow a leader or group off the bridge. Its along way down.

  2. Cassle

    Another reason in my mind: it might be also because of the experience from the past. For the example, a kid who always get blamed by his / her parents tends to avoid getting trapped of being fault. In the way to defend themselves, these kids want to show that their faults is not really wrong (even though every fault is always wrong). So they end up to give bad/wrong perspectives to escape away.

  3. NoOne Special

    Cassle, what a brillant observation you have!
    I agree.

  4. Bob

    Great post, it also remind me of cases in a team where a smart person is really defending something that is really right, but the whole team couldn’t see it and believe strongly that he is just somebody who think he is right all the time.

    I’m in such a situation before, there a smart person in our team against a certain idea, quoting plenty of research reports and such that it did much more harms and hardly any pros. I’m pretty neutral as I don’t like to argue but the rest of the team is against him & think he couldn’t see the whole picture. But they are wrong. He have in fact done plenty of home work to come to such a strong conclusion. He eventually got the sack.

    Years passed and he turn out to be right, the company I worked for has fallen but virtually nobody recalls about the incident, that the whole disaster could have been prevented if they stop thinking that the “smart guy” is just obsessed with his own thought.

    I would like to say smart people sometimes have this ability to see the unknown and it could be hard for them to explain it to others who might not understand. As a result, they think this “smart” person have a huge ego and refuse to admit defeat. But sometimes they don’t admit defeat for a reason. Because they know too well.

    Still it’s hard to judge, I continue to leave this for the project leader to deal with.

    1. Fem

      Someone who’s intuitive ..

  5. Hajduszoboszlo

    It´s an important criteria for many companies to hire leaders who can make a difference between important and less important tasks. You have very limited time to get things done, so you really have to know what to focus on and what is likely to be skipped.

  6. Waweru

    I wondered for many years ! !
    I guess this article in a way answered many of the questions and disapproved several other assumptions.

  7. Turtle

    Nice article! I live with my brother who is like this, and he wants to go back to medical school.

  8. Paulo Eduardo Neves

    There’s a new edition of the book “Difficult Conversations”. Update your link so I can buy through your Amazon link. Thanks for the article.

  9. craig christianson

    i enjoyed your opinions and essay, not only did i gain in-sight on “how to diffuse smart peoples bull-shit” but also gained perspective on my own behavior as well thanx.

  10. Sussi

    Hi there
    Ever read Chris argyris’s “Teaching Smart People How to Learn”

    I sort of expected to see it in your references.

    By the by – just read your Confessions – and LOVED it – only… I an still REALLY scared of lecturing. Isn’t that sad… I am told I am good at it – but I just KNOW I can do better – I can tell from looking at them that I tend to talk too much. Or maybe I am not provocative enough

  11. Ikonos Youros

    I saw the picture of the nice sandwich, and now I’m hungry.

    Oh, the essay?

    It’s garbage.

  12. kat

    i am very smart and so is my friend and we both have no common sense

  13. mangojet

    This article is really great. Very interesting and innovative. My boyfriend does this all the time (defend bad ideas, simply because he has to be right about everything), and I actually told him exactly what this article is about -that he needs to be right always even about stuff he do not know about. Great to see that there might be something about it. Thanks!

  14. Jenn

    The problem with some people is they hate it when someone knows almost everything.

  15. fajas colombianas

    Why you ask? It is because of ego. People have huge ego’s that at times in their life, they defend something that they know that is wrong but still defend it because of their pride.

  16. Paul Cottingham

    As a Mensa member with an IQ of 164, I suppose you could call me unusualy smart. The position I take is that I am always knowingly right and say why, and if no one can say why I am wrong then I am right. Therefore I can honestly say that I am always right and also change my position if someone proves me wrong. I can understand people who stick to something even when proven wrong. As a spoilt egotistical child I was that kind of person, who then turned into a depressed teenager who then became a contented adult who can say “I am always right” without being egotistical, but instead trying to provoke someone to try to prove me wrong so that I can decide whether to change my position or not so as to remain in the right. An example I can give is this. The biggest science issue in Mensa today is the debate about Climate Change. The best way to calibrate Carbon Dioxide warming on Earth is to use the Atmosphere of Mars. Using the scientific paper (Greenhouse effect in semi-transparent planetary atmospheres, Ferenc M. Miskolczi, 2007) I calculated that the total for man made warming was an irrelevant 0.015 Kelvin, I subsequently found that was very close to the figure given by (Jaworowski, 2007) of 0.01 Kelvin. My article for the Space special interest group of Mensa “Global Warming on Mars and Climate Change from Space” was subjected to scrutiny, but to date only one error has been found. This error did not effect the final result because it involved removing six zeros and placing the word million in the article. I made the error of only removing three zeros. However my whole article was dismissed by this one person based on this single issue, also this was the only part of my article that this person commented on. Although he had to be knowledgeable to recognise this error he did not reveal the details of the error or the correct answer. I suggest that he must be one of these smart people who defend bad ideas.

  17. Thinkwildly

    Smart people can be humorous. Funny and intelligent, or just crazy. There mental and physiological development are insainly fragile and DNA may result “Smart people”…. to inadvertently not b smart…haha…sad but odds are yeah. U get the idea…

    Intelligence;) To observe information and retrieve data by, testing, researching, identifying, any or all information.
    (Usualy what the person is searching for)

    Now psychology, is a tricky one. Because of the person’s unique start. Now when the “smart person” attempts the above (tiny paragraph), the person identify s objects to his goal. Creating the thought (that should start research) to complete goal in mind. the human obsession takes over and the thought sprouts. This is a big subject due to um……. robot me. i think differently. “have to set a win win goal. think all scenarios. identify, process, Adapt” We are only human. we have faults its true. unless ur dumb…. then we can work on that. The truth hurts but it helps. let it inspire you. Time alone was my key the intercrap slowed me down but the internet set me free. i am a robot i ThinkWildly. Is there a stop to information…

    Thats another…..um story….yup the worlds Realy big.

  18. Monkey Man

    Loved the article. Sorry, but I am a privacy freak. No real ID given.

    If you look underneath each of the categories (and you touch on it) all irrational thought derives from primate instictive behaviors, most of which are not well suited to current social and environmental constructs.

    H.S. is just another animal . . . yes, really smart, but still an animal. A few people will acknowledge and then, through self-awarenes, mitigate their animal instincts, but the overwhelming majority (83% +/-) either lack the abilty or lack the desire to rise to something more.

    I think of them as rabid monkeys and have found it best to avoid their notice.

    That said, if we are doomed by the insanity of H.S., well I love a good adventure. Enjoy the ride.

  19. Dave

    I enjoyed the essay and fascinated with different approaches to this problem. Sometimes intellegent folks talk like they are an authority on topics that they think they have a deep understanding of. But sometimes they have only gone about two and a half inches deep into the topic. And this may be somewhat deeper than the average Joe has gone but their egos prevent them from wanting to entertain further discovery or discourse. I believe some intellegent people consistently do this.
    It’s helped me to try and size up the situation at the begining of the debate to see if it is even worth “sparring” with this person. I look at this dilema from a psychological perspective because we all have “issues” but some smart folks will never be aware, nor want to be aware of them. Their narcissism will never allow it. And it’s worth noting that we all have various degrees of narcissism but it’s useful and smart to be aware of it and know that some have toxic levels of it. I believe many toxic egos won’t respond to logic. I think the emotional part of our brain is a valid resource that can be a useful way to enhance our understanding of things and people. It may be useful to become more aware of our own feelings and motives before engaging with some individuals. Logic will work with most people and don’t want to discount it’s usefullness. I just wanted to point out that there are other things to consider and it seems to be what confuses us. It’s just hard to understand why smart people make poor decisions and I think the emotional piece is important.

    Another perspective is to define what is smart. Researchers are now defining various kinds of intelligence. To use a computer analogy, some individuals have very good “processors” but poor “scanners”. In other words, they may have been High School Valedictorians but we never hear brilliant innovative thoughts uttered from their fast talking mouths. They just have good processors. I have wondered about some individuals that are considered smart but in some ways have simplistic, narrow ways of thinking. They may, however, be very good at information retrieval. Some, of course, are fortunate to have both.

    If this other person is our boss, then there is a bigger problem. Volumes of research could be done on how to deal with toxic egos in the business environment. Sometimes I think unhealthy egos are actually valued in some businesses. But I don’t think politics or our collective egos will allow us to see the real truth. I think logic can be very helpful and I admire the writing skill and smart perspective in this essay. And maybe we can use logic to convince others of the importence of having emotionally centered people in positions of power.

    1. tammyruger

      Not to happen. Emotionally-centered people have the wisdom to avoid positions of power and so stay in the shadows of obscurity. Those who are egocentric crave the attention and spoils of power because that is how they define themselves. And so, with Obama’s second term, this country will forever wallow in the depths intellectual despair.

      1. Dave

        Tammy, Thanks for the comment. I agree with you that emotionally cemtered people have the wisdom to avoid positions of power. I have been looking at this after being knocked around periodically by bad bosses. This is after working in the business world for 20 plus years. I have had good bosses but it appears that in the higher levels of management there appears to be higher levels of unhealthy personalities. I have had an interest in this and still learning, so I want to believe there are emotionally centered folks in management. And it’s hard to know because some unhealthy egos are subtle and it’s only evident after spending time with the individual. Some men and women carefully craft their image in order to hide the unhealthy ego. They learned how to be proficient at playing the game.

  20. Susie

    delightful essay! many points common to Mensa groups at least!

  21. kitt

    Hmm, interesting and relevant article considering the economic crisis we’re in today. My only thought would be, is someone really considered smart or intelligent if he lets his arrogance for always wanting to be right .. get in the way and make him well, stupid? Someone truly intelligent would be the person arguing against his self-motivated logic. Jus sayin ..

    1. Spok

      Maybe we just argue against that stuff for no reason because we need to be challenged…? My own personal reason for arguing against logical sayings…

      1. Ben

        I agree. I don’t defend a bad idea because I’m arrogant and don’t want the other guy to beat me. I just enjoy the challenge of arguing the harder side.

  22. hashem

    Great essay, though I never went to college or university as a 21 year old I totally understand. What you ought to say tho that society made these intelligent people ignorant, maybe the lack of importunity for these people to express their true intelligence in different ways, as they can only use it to help the society in stupid ways to get through life. If these intelligent people act upon your philosophy of thinking it would be very difficult for them to get accepted by the current society. What I’m trying to say is that, they don’t really have much choice.

    1. Chelsea

      Prioritising social status over intellegence has been the downfall of youth for many generations. I believe this is one of many roots of this problem, (especially with youths): People more concerned with their social status than intelligence rarely develop to their full capacity. These are the people that become our future. I’m 20 now and I’ve always been a bit ‘trendy’, but I will NEVER understand why almost everyone else around my age thinks it’s cool to reject reading and act like a half-wit.

  23. Robin

    This article is helpful in deciphering the difference between arrogant parents and understand parents as well. We always feel subject to such auithorities in thinking they are always right just because they have been around longer. Don’t get me wrong, the elderly are honorablr poeple, but knowing the information given in this article could save you from abuse. As the Holy Bible says,
    “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.” (1 Corinthians 1:27)

  24. Edward Underhill

    A smart person questions all and reaches their own conclusions from multiple sources of info. They most likely took LSD at least once sometime in their life.

    1. Debbie

      Loved that one. That’s the best definition of a smart person I’ve heard in a long time. Smart people are smart by never thinking they know it all so stay open.

  25. trish

    Kitt, it is very possible for a person to be both smart and arrogant. It is a stupid thing to do to argue for the sake of strong-arming someone into conceding you are right, and both people might end that argument knowing full well that he was wrong. They would still be smart, but wise, no.

  26. Gil Morejon

    “…That said, the more homogeneous a group of people are in their thinking, the narrower the range of ideas…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.
    “Smart people can follow stupid leaders (seeking praise or promotion”)

    “Just because everyone in the room is smart doesn’t mean that collectively they will arrive at smart ideas.”

    These words/thoughts can explain so much about our work-life and about how people in high places such as gov’t can make frightening decisons when one would expect otherwise.

  27. My name is Sylar :)

    Wow, this is just great.
    you know smart people, when people think they are smart and they know they are smart, it really hurts to say “I am wrong”

    they always want to be right, but we are human, and because we are human it’s likely to be wrong rather than right.

    This essay helped me to be a little bit more open minded, and think things more logical, well to be right.
    to know what is the truth!

    I don’t consider me smart anymore :(.
    at least I’m wiser now :p
    (I’m not letting anyone to tell me that I’m smart, intelligent, nerd, or wise. That will make me stupid. I prefer to be normal than stupid. smart people are stupid because they think they are smart, so no-one is smart really LOL!! well maybe there are…… hopefully….)

  28. Penny

    I have wisdom. Only 60 years. I know I need more, and welcome it.

  29. Debbie

    WOW. That was the one college course I might have taken. Logic. But we don’t have the same definition. My search for truth concluded: Wisdom = simplicity & logic. Truth is a constant. It has power and is true in every situation and all dimensions. No space barriers. If I want the truth I only watch actions & ask what purpose or destination would those actions bring repeated way out in years if necessary. Long and short term patterns. Actions produce affects and are true. That is logic to me. Ego defends and is week. Truth is power and never defends or needs to convince. It is. Bad or good idea easily computed by action pattern repeated.

  30. jay

    Sorry I didn’t read all of it… I’m sleepy.

    From my own personal –painful– experience, otherwise intelligent people perpetuate unreasonable, irrational ideas because they must to remain true to their social infrastructures.

    Often this extends all the way down to their very scence of self. Many men and women go far beyond merely identifying with a social group, their identify is defined by such.

    To deny that, is to deny one’s entire world view, and reject all those you love… it’s a hard thing. Far to hard for older humans, who just want peace and contentment.

    That’s why I advocate rule of the young. The young can absorb SO much more, so much more completely, discarding the dras while ruminating over the complex/perplexing/objective reality.

    Humanity is NOT simple. Nothing of lasting value we’re every achieved is simple… sadly, much that is complex, convoluted, and yet still beautifully human is lost on most of us. They young are agile. They KNOW they don’t have the answers, so they seek them… and our history has so many answers.

    Not to place your faith in some magical being who has no impact on this crazy, mess of a world… but each other.

    That’s all we really have you know, each other… the rest, believe what you want, but have faith in those you love, and love more.

    no doubt–last post on this id


    1. Miluska

      That is beyond true. Society is so demanding , and people feel obliged to feed upon its needs

  31. Alex

    In my opinion smart people defend bad ideas because they can, because its a challenge. They most probaly know its wrong but enjoy making others confused. Like a hobbie to keep you from being bored.
    I dont understand all those reasons at the end… in order to consider someone smart shouldnt that person be able to know on their own what is good and what is bad? regardless on what they decide to defend before others?

  32. Andrew

    This essay is like reading the thoughts of a person listening to a conversation with me and my family. :)

  33. Tam

    well my opinion as a smart ass, i defend bad ideas sometimes cause i am kinda insane and see what others cant, meaning my mentality is diffrent so i usually stick by it and truly believe in it, and ofcourse i know there another stupid type out there that just try so hard 2 be right, but am just saying i do it cause am koko in my own ways :)

  34. Mainual

    The art of argument is the art of politics, lawyers, sellers and others. I believe that there aren’t bad ideas. Each idea is worth for living.

  35. ronnie mckeegan

    a friend of mine shared this site with me, I’m impressed by the refined inner workings of the way smart people are. I’m sure that I myself will think a little bit more, when it comes to situations of dealing with less than qualified brain carriers. great essay.

  36. Cody

    What do you submit to the quality of others lives with your degree in logic? What a cowardly skill – to verbally defend yourself even when you are wrong. That counters growth and a real exchange of knowledge.

    Your article is nothing. The pictures were cute, though. Sorry about the flunking college thing. I’m sorry you’ve run into some people pretending to be smart. The real ones probably don’t engage you.

  37. ralph

    In general, anyone could defend a bad idea. As long as their “ego” is too scared to “die” by “losing”, they will defend the subject at hand. By “ego” i don’t mean the personality characteristic but rather we as ourselves, defined in the Power of Now (E.Tolle :))

  38. eCaps

    An awesome post, loved this one and would share this with one of my friend, who needs to read out. :)

  39. John

    Excellent thoughts and examples… alternatively, maybe you just need one really smart person (who is right) and the rest can follow!

  40. smrtrthanu

    The real problem is the assumption that the smart person’s idea is bad. Smart people, by definition, might know something you don’t – like for instance why the idea they are defending isn’t bad.

  41. D. T. Goldizen

    Interesting – confirms my hunch that being “smart” doesn’t necessarily mean having the right ideas or defensible opinions.

  42. NoName

    Why do you say “be right” when you clearly mean “Be seen as right”?

    I think the real reason this attitude is prevalent is the semantics. Growing up hearing that causes people to associate the two concepts and assume that if the other person wins the argument then it means they must be factually correct.

    We should stop using that phrase altogether and when talking about people who have a strong need for other people to acknowledge them as right refer to them as having a need to “be seen as right”. We could even persuade them out of that mindset then by saying “but don’t you want to know that which is true? You have to admit to being wrong sometimes if you ever want to be right.”

    In a literal sense these people do NOT have a need to actually “be right”. If they did then they wouldn’t cling.

    It’s also awkward to say “look, that sounds like it might make sense, but I’m not sure. I’ll think about it and get back to you later.” You need to consider that proper formation of rational thought takes time.

    I’ve run into it countless times where someone raises an argument and I’m not sure if they are right or not. It just isn’t socially conventional I suppose to say the other person maybe right, they want you to commit either to yourself being right or to them. There’s even more nuance I may realize “aha they are definitely right about X aspect, possibly right about Y, and definitely wrong about Z”. Thinking fast about how to say that isn’t easy, and if I just sit there thinking about it they’ll be like “why you staring into space?” If only humans came with some kind of light-up signal on their heads that turned on automatically to indicate “hold on a minute, I am turning my thoughts into sentences for your understanding”, which people are loathe to say because it sounds so awkward.

    Also ever notice that people insist on using a specific sort of tone in arguments? It always feels fast-paced. Personally I think arguments are more fruitful when people are doing it slowly. I prefer arguing online for that reason. Spoken conversation is too chaotic.

  43. Self Help Books

    Very interesting site and articles. Really thankful for sharing.Will surely recommend this site to some friends! Regards,

  44. Bob

    How do I send a copy of this essay to my Congressman? :)

  45. George

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

    1. Addison

      The author who wrote this, “thought-provoking essay,” clearly doesn’t know a single thing about, “smart people.”

      First point off-the-list: How are you qualified to write this essay?

      You say that you’ve spent many years categorizing the thought patterns and thinking habits of those whom you assume are, “smart people.” – (Where do you get off on writing an essay that was meant to be written by a licensed psychologist?!)

      So basically, conversing with seemingly random people on a regular basis suddenly makes me an anthropologist? Is that what you’re saying?

      Secondly: This is not an expository essay, and you can’t call it a persuasive essay either

      It’s not an expository essay because…

      You don’t explain WHY you’re right. You only, “explain,” to us that your way of thinking is the lay of the land because you knew a few idiots* in college.

      (Reasonable people have common sense, and the so-called intellectuals you were hanging with would have been studying rather than causing havoc at something so primitive such as a pool party.

      Reasonable people understand that studying is more important than ass and, “tasty alcoholic beverages.”

      P.S: Wtf? Are you trying to come off as sophisticated?! There’s absolutely NOTHING complex about your life in any way, shape, or form.

      You’re just some moron who took college as a joke and wasted your parents hard-earned money in the process.)

      And it’s not a persuasive essay because…

      None of your points are based on proven facts, only arrogance and simple-mindedness.

      Now you can reply back with some rediculous argument explaining why my itsy-witsy, teeny-weenly little brain just simply cannot fathom your deeply intricate and complex outlook on life.

      • Simply and truly, Addison.

  46. 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

  47. Steve Thomas


    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!

    1. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. Mark

          i like this guy, gotta look at things from any perspective. Another point would be something like keep an open mind about everything, most the time when you become fixated on being in the right that whatever your argument is has now been voided. Life is entangled in math, you see patterns in nature and thus the universe in natural.. so if there is a 1:1 chance that there is us that means (via patterns mentioned previously) there is probably more to it. another thing ive been watching is quantum mechanics and the work being done to that regards is changing the way we look at the universe all together. if alchemy or whatever he was considering to be it has been thought about imagined and envisioned then that is pretty much all ya need to say it really happened. no offense but take Jesus for an example. its absurd this line of thinking still continues today but try to tell them that lol. and tbh he could have been real and could have done all that but it would still be just another day. see it to believe it is a awful term when ya can see almost anything in the minds eye.

        2. Katie


          I understand where you are coming from. It is rather frustrating that the average person you encounter in America might have something more banal or “unintelligent” to say in response to your “mature” subject matter. However, culture is heavily influenced by many factors and the culture that shaped a person varies for each individual person. Unfortunately, in America, I’m fairly certain a great deal of people you encounter on a daily basis are not “intellectual” because they have not had access to the resources nor the social upbringing to warrant such a mindset.

          I’d like for you to think, just for a moment, about the experiences and opportunities you’ve had in your life that got you to where you are today. I am not going to guess at the details of your life, but I feel confident enough to assert that you’ve had a pretty decent life financially, since you’ve been able to travel to Europe on your own time. Now, I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that, in almost every state, the most common occupation is truck driver.

          Now, I’m sure there are some people who would consider themselves intellectuals who are driving trucks, but I’m going to go out on a limb and say most of them don’t identify as such. And this is not necessarily their fault and it’s also not necessarily the fault of American culture. It is, unfortunately, the lack of proper funding for public services.

          As someone who somewhat recently graduated from a university with aspirations to teach America’s youth, I know and hear about this struggle for funding and live in it daily. Our current system of funding (or lack thereof) for things like public health services and educational services show a huge gap between wealthier communities who have the money and resources to invest in these systems and those communities who don’t. When you compare Europe to America, it seems you are not considering these fundamental differences. European youth have a lot more opportunity, regardless of their socioeconomic status, to attend university and well funded schools and have access to free/inexpensive health care because of the structure of these systems in those countries.

          If you have a doubt as to whether these things are correlated, or have evidence to the contrary, please inform me. But, I would just really appreciate hearing that you’ve considered that a good number of people in America have not had the same privileges as you have in life, therefore they have not had the potential to grow into “intellectuals”. I don’t appreciate your tone of superiority over these people though, as it tends to discourage people outside of this mentality from adopting it, as they associate intellectualism with derision.

          I don’t disagree with you, though. I definitely would like to see more people in this country become independent, critical thinkers who are constantly analyzing the world they live in and critiquing it. I applaud you for being willing to stand up and speak out about your (obviously) unpopular opinion on Scott’s article. You saw something that didn’t make sense and you called attention to it. That is a skill I hope to impart to my students. But, I do still think you are missing the point of this essay.

          At its core, this essay seems to just point out that we as humans are fallible and also are creatures of habit. Thus, we sometimes think that if something has worked in a particular situation previously, it will work in the future. While that can be a valid conclusion that produces the expected results, sometimes the solution will end in complete disaster. This is most problematic when those who implemented the solution see results that make it appear to be working, but they could be excluding marginalized groups in their data. Unless you’re directly affected by all of the circumstances that required a solution to be implemented, you’re not going to fully understand how well or poorly a solution is working out and if you haven’t tried multiple different approaches, the solution in place might be “working” but it is probably far from the best or most sustainable solution.

          You seem to like bringing up environmental issues, so sustainability should be something you’re quite familiar with. If we don’t come up with a sustainable plan for dealing with the global warming issue, none of our efforts are really going to amount to substantial change. Same goes for “smart” or “intellectual” thinking. Trying the same “solutions” over and over again will not be sustainable in the ever-changing world we live in. Yes, those who are “less intellectual” may get stuck in the rut of trying the same solution over and over because it’s worked once or twice in the past quite often, but those who are “intellectual” also get stuck in this rut sometimes and I think Scott is arguing that it’s more dangerous when someone “smart” does get stuck in this rut because these people tend to hold more power and authority over more than just their own lives, but the lives of others as well. I know that some “stupid” people also sometimes are in these positions of power and authority, but more often than not, the people in charge have more requirements for educational background in order to be in the position they are in.

          Overall, I guess I just wanted to ask you to try and see this from every possible angle, as you tend to come across as having a very narrow perspective on this issue.

          1. Steve Thomas

            Hi Katie,

            Let me begin by saying thank you for a well written and very thoughtful post. However, neither do I believe I have missed the point of this essay, nor do I believe that I have a narrow perspective on this issue. Please, go back and reread Scott’s article. I understand perfectly well what he is saying, but logic alone is meaningless against empirical evidence. Using syllogisms to defeat one’s interlocutors is not the same as defending a bad idea; it is going on the offensive against objectivity and intellectual honesty. Someone may defend a bad idea because he believes it to be true, but to simply overpower someone with “logic” is not the same.

            With that said, I understand and concur with nearly everything you have written—particularly your point about socioeconomic status. However, please note, I never once stated that smart people cannot defend bad ideas (I have done it myself), but rather that this usually isn’t the case. Generally, educated and smart people will yield to evidence, and essentially the question Scott is asking is, why will people not yield to evidence? This is exactly why I mentioned evolution, anthropogenic climate change, etc. There isn’t any other way to put it: blinkered, provincial and poorly educated people tend to believe and defend things that simply aren’t true, and they are easily misled by powerful lobbying groups and political dark money. Aren’t these examples of “dumb” people defending dumb ideas?

            Let me state up front, however, that what may come across as self-puffery is really nothing more than my own frustration. I have battled ignorance for decades and have witnessed firsthand the ease with which people reject evidence, and how certain the average American is that Jesus is about to return at any given moment. As such, this is why I have mentioned the Dunning-Kruger Effect. In my own brusque way, I am trying to wake up the masses, for many of them have been and are voting against their own self interests. For example, only in America do we find people complaining about labour laws which actually exist to protect them. It is astonishing how people have unwittingly adopted the corporate mentality—greed is not good.

            Now, to your point about socioeconomic status, indeed, without question, this is exactly what I am stating and have been stating for years. Europe—the so-called “socialist” states have a social net—and in most EU nations people still matter. There indeed is a direct link between levels of obesity and income and education and income, etc. You stated that “when you compare Europe to America, it seems you are not considering these fundamental differences.” No, this is exactly what I am stating, exactly. Our American ideology (and that’s all it is) enables us to reject funding for important things such as the arts, education, libraries, theatre, universal healthcare and the like. All of these things are rejected as being communist, and instead we get a bloated military budget and imperialism. Yes, European youths have a lot more opportunity because they are not blinded by their self-defeating patriotism. In America, we have the wealth but not the will to be great. It is really tragic.

            My overarching point is that Scott referred to himself as a “recovering smart person” (is he now endorsing ignorance?) and this statement lends itself to American anti-intellectualism. I know that Scott isn’t really anti-intellectual, but it is statements such as this that fuel our unwarranted suspicion against public intellectuals and university professors. In the end, the problem that you are likely to encounter is that the very people you are defending will attack you for calling them poor. They will spit in your face and tell you to take your pity elsewhere. Perhaps this explains why I have turned into a grumpy old fart, so to speak…

        3. Euhill

          What’s really astounding is that stupidity is more than easy. It’s encouraged, while being smart is discouraged via peer pressure. That is a scary thing to see.

      2. Stone

        Darrnit i may b dumb_really hoped what i just wrote on this i could c so i kbew where, i left off.. stupidly smart I’ve known those that aren’t itteligent in the majoridy vote but have such Confidence wben those imaginative people go to prove thier words the confidence has more itelligenct would probly be un able to go roag and get off with something that will wow u!! Like camp fuel taken from walmart discreaty put her back pac. Illigall in so many ways however brilliant in how she managed this. Espec exciting when. later when about to the car with this idem fallsout the bag and rolls under ially on friday night n springfield. Wow evenafter. Brilliance howDarrnit i may b dumb_really hoped what i just wrote on this i could c so i kbew where, i left off.. stupidly smart I’ve known those that aren’t itteligent in the majoridy vote but have such Confidence wben those imaginative people go to prove thier words the confidence has more itelligenct would probly be un able to go roag and get off with something that will wow u!! Like camp fuel taken from walmart discreaty put her back pac. Illigall in so many ways however brilliant in how she managed this. Espec exciting when. later when about to the car with this idem fallsout the bag and rolls under ially on friday night n springfield. Wow evenafter. Brilliance how

    2. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. Mark

          i like you too. You cant have hatred, emotions will often blind peoples critically thinking, when entering a debate. a perfect debate wont be loud…if everyone is polite and everyone gets there point across.. and will have a logical conclusion with perhaps an answer or maybe more questions to be resolved at a later date. But we all know how it really goes, that to me is the big disappointment.

    3. 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.

      1. 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.

        1. Emy

          I think Scott is just informing us, the readers, to be aware of our own propensity to defend bad ideas due to our own arrogance and to realize that others will also defend bad ideas too.

          He is challenging us to take a step back so that we don’t become intimidated by someone who thinks they know it all, someone who might push their bad ideas onto us because they are better at arguing and defending their points. We can still say no even if we can’t prove someone wrong. We can still buy ourselves time. We can still think things over.

          People tend to self-justify. They defend their decisions to protect their ego even when those decisions have clearly harmed people. They look for excuses. They say that the ends justifies the means. They claim that the person wasn’t so hurt afterall. Some even convince themselves that those hurt arn’t worthy of respect. It is disgusting behaviour to protect the ego, the product of pride.

          Many ‘smart’ people never want to admit that they are wrong. Stupid people don’t want to admit their are wrong either. People do not like to admit that they are wrong.

          A truly wise person realizes that they don’t know everything. They listen. They reflect. They know that their worth is not tied to being right. It is better to do the right thing than to be right, while you do the wrong thing (ie: misdiagnosing someone and continuing with the wrong treatment because you can’t admit that you made a mistake).

          Scott writes, “No one can ever take away your right to think things over”. Be a thinker. Don’t be bullied by someone. Don’t bow down to them because they are good at arguing. But be open minded enough to listen to other views. Maybe someone has a better way of doing something.

          1. Emy


            Many ‘smart’ people never want to admit that they are wrong. Stupid people don’t want to admit that they are wrong either. People do not like to admit that they are wrong.

            People often say that the ends justify the means.

            Some even convince themselves that those they hurt aren’t worthy of respect.

            The result of wanting to be right: (i.e.: misdiagnosing someone and continuing with the wrong treatment because you can’t admit that you made a mistake).

        2. Shaun

          Twice in your posts you have referenced global warming as though the evidence for it is as definitive as gravity. While there is much evidence for it, there are now two separate scandals surrounding the ‘evidence’.
          We will know for certain that AGW is true when the IPCC drops the ‘s’ from their climate model(s) and begins calling it a Law.Until then, it is a theory.
          Given the discussion around Scott’s article, I believe you have failed to step back enough from complete buy-in until the idea of AGW is proven.

          1. Steve Thomas

            Hi Shaun,

            I appreciate your point but scandals aside there is ample evidence to support this scientific claim. To which scandals do you refer? I hope it is not the so-called “Climate Gate” as that has been soundly refuted. I would encourage you to look up what is meant by “law” and “theory” as it relates to science. Laypeople often confuse these terms but I suspect that the word “law,” at least in this sense, does not mean what you seem to think it does. (I say “seem” because I can only take your words at face value).

            There is an overwhelming scientific consensus with regard to AGW and there is for gravity as well. I assume that you know that gravity is a theory as is evolution both of which have overwhelming evidence to support them. For our purposes here, AGW is as close to fact as we mortals can get. So I encourage you, take time to understand what science means by these two terms. There is little to no doubt that AGW is a fact—at least as close to fact as we can get.

        3. Tyler

          This article is all about you Steve. You are Smart but not wise.

          1. Garry

            Steve is an elitist pedant. It is he whom this article is referring to. Notice how he uses the term ‘laypeople’ to presumptuously describe the person he’s responding to.

          2. Mark

            see you cant point at people steve is a person… people can be wrong…. steve can be wrong. but you only seek to accuse (overthow i guess) him and its that negitive mindset that steve fears and is trying to highlight. you do i fine job with an example but it doesnt drive the message home. ALSO i wanted comment on climate.. Manmade or not. we arent the first ones here. this place has been blown apart many times by volcanoes (yellowstone) and meteor’s sooooo theres that too… but thats if your serious about that debate. we have a long list of humankind hurdles and we will have to pioneer new planets if we want to prosper otherwise will will be doomed no matter what…. we out grow earth or never sprout from this seed. or whatever im sure there is more to it. :P im done for the night GL guys

        4. Ryan

          Steve – “Indeed, as if only “smart” people defend bad ideas.” The entire basis of your argument is completely unfounded. Nowhere in the article do I see anything that would lead me to this conclusion. In fact, I see the overall tone being something akin to it being ‘ironic’ that smart people defend bad ideas, despite being so smart. There is nothing stated about whether dumb people do or do not defend bad ideas. I think we can all agree that this in fact DOES take place and I am sure the author would agree. So this is a straw man argument you have created in order to tear down a sound idea that does not concur somehow with your own thought patterns. You come to this conclusion through projection of your own cognitive dissonance. You do not address the actual subject matter at all that I can see. Your arguments are speculative, argumentative, and based on shaky ground at best. These ideas are not useful in the context of the conversation and no minimum word count, quotations out of context or extreme usage of commas will fix this. Perhaps it would be best for you to tell us what is really on your mind no?

          1. Steve Thomas


            I have always said that irony, subtlety and innuendo are lost on the obtuse. Your quoting of me is neither my main argument nor is it its basis. It was a tongue-in-cheek response to Scott’s point. If you would have taken time to actually read my responses then you would understand my main point. All one needs to do is replace the word “smart” with the word “dumb” and this article will make sense. You then go on to state that “there is nothing stated about whether dumb people do or do not defend bad ideas.” You’re right Ryan, there wasn’t but then go back and reread my point about subtlety. You need to understand the logical consequences of an argument whether they are implicit or explicit. Therefore, if you had actually read my entire comments then you’d see that your claim that I have conjured a straw man is null.

            As I have stated repeatedly, this is nothing personal against Scott because I know that he isn’t a stupid person, but, ironically, he is nevertheless defending a really bad idea. America has become the land of make believe—an Orwellian future—where people believe that enhanced interrogation isn’t torture, where collateral damage isn’t state murder and “religious freedom” isn’t discrimination and, yes, that being dumb is actually smart. However, I have always known what Scott really means to say, but the issue (let me state it explicitly for you) is that he had unwittingly given a voice to many of the denizens of Idiot America.

          2. Steve Thomas

            Lastly, what you seem to think is extreme usage of commas (whatever that is) is actually grammatically correct. I assume that you’re referring to this text: “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.” It’s commonly referred to as a ribbon. The text “based upon your words” can be lifted like a ribbon out of the sentence and the sentence still makes sense. Yours is an interesting response because, like many others, you have only help to prove my point, but also attack hostility with hostility. It is rather ironic as well. Perhaps I’ve gone on too long as I that I live in the age of extremely short attention spans . . .

          3. Steve Thomas

            D’oh “helped to prove my point.” I wish Scott’s website allowed edits.

  48. 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.

  49. Steve Thomas


    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.

    1. 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.

      1. Steve


        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…

  50. 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.

  51. 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.


  52. Caitlin

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

  53. Joe Smarter than You

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

    1. 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.

      1. Steve Thomas

        It’s funny how everyone here seems to have zeroed in on what is ostensibly a typo, but seemingly overlooked and obvious and, sadly, a common syntax error. Why do so many Americans have trouble distinguishing the word “your” from the word “you’re?” I think what Joe meant to say is this: “Clearly you’re not a smart person or you wouldn’t have written this garbage.” Perhaps he was trying to be ironic…

        1. Mark

          Steve you seem like a good guy. i feel like i go through this all the time. often when someone has a good idea ill play devils advocate just to see if it stacks up. it isnt to make he or she look bad its just to make sure the idea is more or less sound when it leaves the circle. and the flood of worthless information vs what matters… the headaches of dealing with who are devout to ideas they dont even fully understand….. what i wish to be able to talk to someone again who can go the debate distance with out coming to blows lol :)

  54. Robert Barnes

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

    1. kenny greenwood

      Great essay, wonderful title! I to used to think I was smart as; I have finally realized I know just enough to know I don’t know enough !
      Keep up the great work!

      1. Steve Thomas


        Your post reinforces my point exactly. This is indeed the hallmark of a smart person; one which Socrates himself made millennia ago when he uttered “I know that I know nothing.” That was my original point to Scott. Generally speaking, smart and educated people know what they don’t know, but it is also less educated people who tend to defend bad ideas. My position has not changed as I think Scott is a good writer but I think he got this one wrong. For anyone who is interested, I recommend looking up an interesting phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect, for it explains this behavior perfectly.

  55. 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?

  56. 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.

  57. 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.

    1. Steve Thomas


      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.

  58. 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!

  59. 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.”

  60. Carole

    Hate me or like me u r all arguing just to be right when perhaps u r all looking at this from the wrong angle thank God u r all smart and be helpful and understanding when people aren’t smart and listen to their ideas with an open mind to better urself from the time u started being arrogant for being humble will open ur mind to a whole new world

  61. jacob Eagleshield

    The reason highly educated people defend bad ideas(highly educated does not always equate to ‘smart’) is because with all their PHD’s and Masters they tend to complicate the crap out of everything. Seeking of complicated solutions to simple problems,or creating a problem where none existed previously. Educated idiots who can’t pick out a neck tie without ‘mommy’. Astronomers,engineers,College professors,scientists,Protestant preachers.



  1. […] “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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