Dangerous Very Smart People

Who do you have to worry the most about misleading you? People who are smarter than you.


Recently there was a debate in one of the areas I follow where a person who by most definitions falls in to the very smart person category was being called to task for something they had said. Who and what it was doesn’t really matter; choose your own example. What struck me about the whole thing was precisely how dangerous this person was. By dangerous in this context I mean able to get you to believe in their point of view. When compounded by a lot of people this represents a form of power. Ideas have consequences. That sort of thing.

People who fall in to this category don’t generally whack you over the head with direct and easily testable/falsifiable statements. They speak in complexities which is a triple winner for them. First, it signals and reinforces that they are very smart people. Second, it opens the door to being able to claim being misunderstood/misinterpreted. Third, it limits the number of people who might be able to call them on it.
Another tool is hedging their bets. This involves using enough caveats to provide easy outs for them later by claiming some condition or another hadn’t been met. Claim astonishment that others don’t see that their idea was never really tested. Belittle the people who raise questions. If all else fails, deny deny deny and wait for the storm to pass.

Apparently, the worst possible thing is to admit having ‘been wrong’. It seems to be a form of Kryptonite. It is infinitely better to go down guns blazing and in staunch opposition. This makes sense in terms of the status loss because, when compared to other very smart people, how could you have allowed yourself to be caught without a way out? Smart people are too smart to let that happen so maybe you aren’t smart enough to be part of that crowd. Notice that it doesn’t have that much to do with whether the original idea was right or wrong. Smart people are too smart to ever have wrong ideas, and certainly too smart to have others determine they were wrong.

The dangerous part about all of this is that very smart people can move from place to place and exist as voices that are listened to indefinitely without ever being tested or facing consequences. It takes a concerted effort among other smart people to challenge them. Even when challenged, they are typically successful in diverting the challenge such that it doesn’t represent a problem for them. Equally problematic is that the ideas continue on with some sort of radioactive half life; they continue to influence long after they should have been set aside.

PS: I suspect that part of this is developmental. When growing up, smart people are right (or aren’t proven wrong) often enough to learn that as a normal outcome. Sufficiently reinforced, the important part becomes being right and sharpening a skillset devoted to protecting being right. This fits with some recent ideas about the human capacity for reasoning developing not as some amazingly tool of objective mental effort but rather as a means to defend and promote your objectives within a group.


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