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Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Dumbing oneself down

I was talking with a friend the other day about how brave the black conservatives Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams and Clarence Thomas are. I said I admired them because they spoke the truth even though it meant ostracism from their brethren. I also said that I thought Sowell and Williams were quite intelligent.

My friend agreed, but added that he had met Walter Williams, who didn't strike him as being all that smart in conversation. He said that of the three, Sowell is the brightest. He also mentioned that he had heard that Sowell is something of a recluse and doesn't like to be recognized by fans.

I reminded my friend that he had once said the same thing about someone else, whose intelligence is beyond question.

I think a lot of really smart people simply get into the habit of dumbing themselves down for every day discourse because they're so much smarter than most of the people they meet.

I suppose the reason they dumb themselves down is mostly because of the universal human desire to blend in, and not be the tall poppy that gets cut down.

The other problem is, if these smart guys are just going to be themselves, they'll often end up being resented as condescending showoffs. And correcting others all the time is pretty much a guarantee of becoming unpopular. Who wants that?

Some of these people also get used to not having people understand them, so they get into the habit of explaining things that may not need explaining to their current audience.

As a result of these habits, they end up not coming across as being nearly as smart as they are, even when they're with other smart people.

I've known a fair number of people I'd classify as super-smart. Most didn't bother to dumb themselves down, but a few did. Most of the ones who didn't dumb themselves down managed not to be off-putting, but some didn't. It often boiled down to how argumentative they were.

There are also, of course, people who absolutely have to show off their intelligence to everyone they meet; but they tend to be less smart than the people who are less needy.

As far as Sowell not wanting to be recognized, I can sympathize with that. Since much of what he writes consists of pointing out black dysfunction and racial double standards, many of his fans would probably be whites who are reflexively anti-black, which would make meeting them a somewhat uncomfortable experience for him.

In any case, next time you meet someone who talks about the weather with the best of them, don't assume he's necessarily dumb.


Jokah Macpherson said...

There is an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal today about a study of what signs people use to gauge the intelligence of others. it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be as stuff like listening to others, asking relevant questions, and being able to adjust one's belief were mentioned (I think...I'm going from memory), although this was alongside total bullshit stuff like moving slowly and wearing glasses. Unfortunately, conspicuously absent was, "having beliefs supported by coherent arguments and real-world evidence." When it comes to demonstrating intelligence, no one cares if you are actually right or not.

Steven said...

They probably just realise there's no point in talking to people about complicated things they wont understand. So they don't. Most of us follow this principle automatically when talking to children or to somebody we know is not very smart.

I like this: Edward Teller said "von Neumann would carry on a conversation with my 3 year old son, and the two of them would talk as equals, and I sometimes wondered if he used the same principle when he talked to the rest of us."

btw re-read third paragraph from bottom.

John Craig said...

Jokah --
Walking slowly??! That's a good one. I've never noticed any correlation there at all, if anything it's the other way around. (Fat people waddle, fat people are too dumb to exercise.) As far as the wearing glasses, that used to be somewhat true (people who read a lot were more likely to develop myopia) but what with Lasics and so on, that correlation has lessened.

You make a good point about being right: it seems to matter less than sounding good. At least in Liberal Land.

John Craig said...

Steven --
Thank you; I just corrected the error.

That's a great line by Teller. Funny, and insightful.

Steven said...

John, re-read the third paragraph from the bottom. haha

John Craig said...

Steven --
Thank you again. That's actually how the majority of my errors occur: by changing one part of a sentence without making the other changes that go along with it. I always proofread, but don't always proofread the changes.

Anonymous said...

It would be extremely frustrating to be extremely smart, maybe a reason to be reclusive?, it would be the same for a "truth teller" like yourself, always being very careful to gauge those around before unleashing.


John Craig said...

Andrew --
True enough. I always make sure there's absolutely no one else in my room before I start typing on my computer.

I actually started this blog because I wanted to vent. You'd think after all the venting I've done I would start to calm down a bit…..but……no, I haven't.

Taylor Leland Smith said...

I recently met Walter Williams when he visited TTU. I would guess that he does dumb himself down in some situations. He came off as extremely intelligent to me, but I met him at a small academic research seminar. Nobody dumbs themselves down at a research seminar.

John Craig said...

Taylor --
That makes sense, and he would probably be more comfortable there too.

Steven said...

I sat in on a few of those seminars as a student and how true that is! That's the place where people do the opposite of dumbing themselves down and egos definitely get involved. Then again, science seminars are probably more productive and less about intellectual masturbation than humanities ones.

I'm not sure where economics falls but at least it's got quite a lot to do with the real world.

Taylor Leland Smith said...


You're right, humanities research seminars are usually just a big intellectual circle jerk. As for economics, it depends. The seminars I attend are always full of economists that advocate for free markets, and the debates we have are always of the highest quality. When they're really good, I can't keep up... I just listen and absorb.

I find that it's only when 'intellectuals' either from political science departments or philosophy departments come that we're side-tracked with either normative arguments and/or logical fallacies.

Hardly surprising, just more evidence supporting a trend I think we've all picked up on.