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Saturday, May 31

smart people, stupid things

Stumbling around today and I found this excellent article.

It discusses the elephant in the room with regards to passionate debates between smart people, both of whom are positive that the other is wrong. I've certainly engaged in a number of these debates with friends and co-workers, and while I've never lost ;) these conversations certainly do cause some measure of consternation.

More than one time I've thought to myself "man, how can such a smart person be arguing so passionately for something so damn STUPID?"

Some highlights:

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.”)

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.
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.

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.

I think its a truly excellent article and I've forwarded it to a friend that I have these kinds of debates with all of the time. I also think that it's an excellent lens through which we and the media should examine political rhetoric. If the rhetoric relies on weak data points, glosses over legitimate concerns, and assumes certain things are obvious which are in fact not obvious, then it should be viewed with suspicion.


el ranchero said...

I'm glad to finally learn why people sometimes disagree with me.

Pete Harris said...

I think one of the benefits of being a convert to the church of probability is I have never denied my possibility of being wrong.

That said, I've annoyed many a person who wants an argument when I go "Well, there's a chance both of us are wrong". They don't like that :D