Thoughts on Intelligence from watching Election Results.

“If a wise man has an argument with a fool, the fool only rages and laughs, and there is no quiet.” Proverbs 29:9

“A rebuke impresses a man of discernment more than a hundred lashes a fool.” – Proverbs 17:10

One of the advantages of living in east Asia is that election results I’d have to stay up late to hear when I was back in Canada, come in at pretty regular intervals during my waking hours in Korea. It’s even better when it’s during a US election, which tends to have interesting commentaries, and honestly has very little to do with me, a Canadian expatriate.

That said, it also gives me an opportunity to see the opinions of friends of mine as they express their own understanding of the situation in the US. To be blunt, very few wind up agreeing with me on much of anything when it comes to politics, which is honestly okay, because I’m not too worried about being silenced for my difference of opinion quite yet.

That said, I have been noticing a very troubling trend in public discourse over the last little while. I don’t think it’s a new thing, just something I’ve only noticed recently.

Political satire can cause us to question cherished beliefs, but it can also harden prejudice. The ability to laugh at something does not mean you are more correct than those you laugh at.

It has become common to make moral judgements about people who come to different conclusions than you do. I noticed this first when I expressed my right wing proclivities to a friend of a friend, who said that the only person who could be right wing was either evil or stupid, and I was forced to ask which he thought me to be. Of course, he stammered for a while, since previous to this, he had had no reason to doubt either my love for my fellow man, or my intellect. I never really got an answer.

The reason he had made his statement, however, seems to me a rather common set of assumptions in modern western dialogue, and I think stems from a mixture of pride and a misunderstanding about intelligence. Quite simply, people want to be seen as smart, because in the modern technological age, it’s seen as very important to be intelligent, and to be seen as intelligent. You can see this most readily in the way people denigrate opposing positions (as my friend did) as “stupid”. Note that the problem isn’t that the opposing position is incorrect or dangerous or immoral, rather, the opposing position is seen as lacking in intellect, meaning that the person holding the position is also seen as stupid.

The problem is that this shows a fundamental failure to understand the nature of intellect. While it is true that smart people often know a lot of details about things, it is not the knowledge of details that makes one intelligent. Even less is intelligence marked by holding “correct” opinions about given subjects. The simple fact is that there  are many very intelligent people, who for very good reasons, have held incorrect opinions; most commonly due to a lack of pertinent information (or a lack of seeing information that is pertinent as pertinent).

Intelligence is not marked by the ability to hold correct opinions, but rather by the ability to come to correct conclusions. This is NOT the same thing. Anybody can learn correct opinions and not know the reasons behind those opinions (which means they cannot adequately critique their own opinions). An intelligent person is one who, once given the necessary information, will be able to synthesize that data into valid conclusions based on the data.

Unfortunately, finding out about that takes a great deal of work. To know if a person’s opinions are intelligent based on that kind of synthesizing of information, you need to look at the information, and the person’s reasoning, not just the conclusion. It is far easier to simply look at the concluding opinion and make a judgement on that. Unfortunately, the result is that people who do that often then label conclusions that are different from their own as stupid without actually looking at the evidence and reasoning, meaning that the opposing position cannot do any work to correct errors in our own thinking.

This is compounded by a level of pride in society that wishes for us to see ourselves as intelligent. Being corrected is hard, and often not comfortable. It can lead to the questioning of cherished beliefs, or to isolation from a majority position, and is almost always a blow to pride. Thus it is often much easier to insulate our own opinions from critique, by grading opposing positions based on the conclusions rather than on the reasoning that got there.

This is why it is important to know, not just correct opinions, but the reasons behind correct opinion.

I think that is also why in the recent political movements in the United States, denigration of the opposition as unthinking or stupid became the norm, with statements themselves seen as being stupid without looking at the reasoning behind them (why do Keynsean economists think that government spending can stimulate an economy, why did a failed senate candidate think that the first amendment did not contain “the separation of Church and state”, etc.).

The question then is simple. Will we take the easy road of acceptable opinion, or the much harder road of humility and examination? Will we do the work of finding out why an opinion is correct or incorrect, or simply rest on the perceived intelligence of our own conclusions?

I fear in my own heart, I often do not answer that question well.

Author: Stephen Dawe

Steve is a part-time vocational elder Calvary Baptist Church, St. John's as well as a full-time student at Memorial University of Newfoundland, in the Religious Studies Department.