Why is it possible for extremely intelligent people to be truly stupid?

I’m referring to this essay by Garth Zietsman, reproduced in part below, which appeared in Issue #190 of Noesis (the Mega Society journal).

But before I go on, here’s a quick digression on a really interesting thing I found while browsing through an AMA Reddit thread where a Mega Society member of reasonably even general disposition makes an appearance, called Nobel disease:

The Nobel disease has been defined as “an affliction of certain Nobel Prize recipients which causes them to embrace strange or scientifically unsound ideas, usually later in life.”*

Examples of the Nobel disease include:

Pierre Curie, physics (Eusapia Palladino)

Ivar Giaever, physics (global warming denier)

Louis J. Ignarro, physiology or medicine (Herbalife Niteworks)

Brian Josephson, physics (psi)

Philipp Lenard, physics (Nazi ideology)

Luc Montagnier, medicine (autism)

Kary Mullis, chemistry (supports astrology, denies anthropogenic climate change, denies HIV causes AIDS)

Linus Pauling, chemistry (vitamin C)

Charles Richet, physiology (ectoplasm/mediums/telepathy)

William Shockley, physics (race & IQ)

John William Strutt, 3rd Baron Rayleigh, physics (president Society for Psychical Research)

Nikolaas Tinbergen, physiology or medicine (autism)

James Watson, physiology or medicine (race & IQ)

The first use of ‘the Nobel disease’ that I am aware of occurred in one of David Gorski’s Science-Based Medicine blogs where he not only discusses several instances of the affliction but attributes the expression to “a few wags.” Gorski describes the affliction as “a tendency among Nobel Prize recipients in science to become enamored of strange ideas or even outright pseudoscience in their later years.”

There are many reasons why smart people sometimes believe dumb things. The smarter one is the easier it is to see patterns, fit data to a hypothesis, and draw inferences. The smarter one is the easier it is to rationalize, i.e., explain away strong evidence contrary to one’s beliefs. Also, smart people are often arrogant and incorrectly think that they cannot be deceived by others, the data, or themselves.

(Seriously, it scares me how smart people can believe dumb things. It’s part of the general idea that problem-solving capacity does not necessarily translate to increased rationality.)

The Mega Society is probably one of the two most famous of the ultra-high-IQ societies (the other being the Prometheus Society, in which journal Grady Towers wrote his now-classic essay “The Outsiders” – it’s heartbreaking mainly for its portrayal of isolation and the Sidis narrative, but also talks at length about psychometric testing), and has therefore been a longstanding interest of mine. It has a one-in-a-million score cutoff for acceptance, which sounds patently ridiculous on the face of it, and makes attempts to circumvent problems caused by this unreasonably high acceptance bar interesting reading. At least the Prometheus Society doesn’t aim that high (“only” 1-in-30,000, though still comfortably four standard deviations beyond the mean. Sample sizes for score norming, brah!). If you’re interested, here’s a list of higher-than-Mensa-IQ societies maintained by Kevin Langdon (who not-so-incidentally had a falling-out with Mega Society founder Ronald K. Hoeflin a long while back).

The standard criticism leveled against societies this exclusive is that most psychometric tests can’t evaluate that high, because they bump against the test ceiling. Wikipedia:

No professionally designed and validated IQ test claims to distinguish test-takers at a one-in-a-million level of rarity of score. The standard score range of the Stanford-Binet IQ test is 40 to 160. The standard scores on most other currently normed IQ tests fall in the same range. A score of 160 corresponds to a rarity of about 1 person in 30,000 (leaving aside the issue of error of measurement common to all IQ tests), which falls short of the Mega Society’s 1 in a million requirement. IQ scores above this level are dubious as there are insufficient normative cases upon which to base a statistically justified rank-ordering. High IQ scores are less reliable than IQ scores nearer to the population median.

Ron and Kevin got around this by collecting data on old SAT scores (pre-1994, when the ceiling was much higher than since the introduction of the 12-point essay section) and norming the tests they designed with that data. The 1-in-a-million cutoff score for the Mega test turned out to be 43 questions right out of a possible 48.

I’d give more details, but unfortunately they seem to have taken down everything related to the Mega test (for instance, none of the relevant links here work anymore, but they used to and I had great fun reading them hahaha).

That’s long enough for a digression that barely made a point. Here’s another: one benefit of copy-pasting entire articles, I’ve found, is that it preserves at least one copy online when the original disappears. This has happened too many times for me to ignore, and it makes me die a little inside every time it happens (see e.g. Dawkins’ essay on replicators and vehicles, available on this blog but not easily found online anymore). At least when the link goes dead, you still get the magic.

Back to Zietsman’s essay, reproduced in part below:

I am interested in the phenomenon of idiot behaviour by unquestioned geniuses and very high IQ people.

Why, if the g factor is reflected in every task which requires thought, is it possible for extremely intelligent people to be truly stupid?  It makes a bit more sense when you understand g a little more clearly.

The essence of the g factor is that it is the efficiency with which we form neural networks in response to experience.  Low IQ people seem to have low performance across the board because they have trouble forming any network.  High IQ people form those networks relatively easily but whether a network forms still depends on having the formative experience.  High IQ people show quite marked inequalities in abilities because they pay more attention to some experiences than others.  Genius level achievements usually require an unusual level of focus (obsession with something to the exclusion of other things) in addition to high g levels, so it stands to reason that the extraordinary ability of a genius tends to be confined to a narrow field and that many may perform badly outside their fields.

There are a great many examples of geniuses behaving, and indeed thinking, badly.  One area is romantic relationships.  Divorce does decrease with increasing IQ, so it would seem smarter people are wiser about relationship issues, but in my readings of biographies of geniuses I was struck by the fact that they seem just as irrational in the throes of passion as anyone else.  They seem just as prone to make bad choices that come back to bite them.

For example Schopenhauer proposed to a 20-year-old when around 70 (OK, so it was worth a shot, but he must have known he would have been laughed at), Byron married someone most calculated to make him unhappy.  Shelley married his first wife (still a schoolgirl) on an impulsive whim to save her from a father who was being beastly to her, after a single conversation.  Feynman didn’t appear to apply his mind when he married his second wife.  Marilyn vos Savant married while still in high school, rapidly had 2 kids and got divorced.  She then (in spite of the fairly good sense she displays in her column) married someone else who proved even less satisfactory.

Editor’s Note: While Marilyn’s first two marriages ended in divorce she has been married to her third husband, Dr. Robert Jarvik, famous for his artificial heart innovations, for over twenty years.

I recently read a book of love letters written by various geniuses.  The letters were hardly elevated, balanced or dense with ideas but rather were at the same level as stuff we wrote at school.  It isn’t as though passion is impervious to intellect either.  One just has to read Kahlil Gibran’s love letters to see what can be achieved if you apply your mind. Many super-bright people simply do not think through some areas of their lives—particularly where strong feelings are involved.

Then there is the failure of a disturbingly large fraction of Mega society members to finish college, gain employment that makes any use of their intelligence, earn above poverty level incomes, etc.  This seems to happen mainly to those from working class or poor backgrounds with no mentor or examples of success.  It also seems to happen to children growing up with extreme wealth where the spur to achieve is absent and the obvious role model is distant, e.g., Warren Buffet’s kids.  It seldom happens if the family is middle class, where the need for achievement is fostered, and if dad (or an uncle or brother) is successful.  Experience, practice and good examples are essential, even if you do have a stratospheric IQ.

Many high IQ people are inclined to book learn and to master areas that are self- contained—maths, programming, chess, economics, etc.—because it is here that their superiority is most marked.  They are less inclined to get involved in learning by doing and in the messy, uncertain real world.  They end up being superb in their closed worlds but worthless outside of it.  A large fraction of hyper-educated experts are like that.  People who study long hours, and seldom leave their rooms, in order to get superb grades, come across as virtually helpless, naive and immature when they leave their schoolbooks and step outside.

Specialization is necessary for genius level performance, but it backfires when those individuals trade on their reputation in their fields to pontificate outside their fields. 


One thought on “Why is it possible for extremely intelligent people to be truly stupid?

  1. Maybe really smart people don’t believe a lot of mainstream “correct” answers, but have to get along like everyone else. Once they get their big prize, they decide to say what they believe.
    Maybe the problem is your paradigm is being rattled and you take such pride in being on “right” side of things. Remember: new discoveries and paradigm shifts usually come single individuals, whilst the vast bulk of “scientists” and “experts” will hang on for dear life to their old ideas.
    Maybe the problem then is that you are not “really smart” but someone who only feels secure going along with the crowd?


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