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  • Writer's pictureEve Was Right

Are Smart People Actually Smart?

Updated: Apr 8

Example 1: The Smart, Proud High Schooler


In 9th grade, my best friend’s brother tutored me in chemistry. He and his best friend wore the title of Nerd as a mantle, so I gave him a great gift by requesting his tutelage. One night, while he was pontificating on the subject of organic chemistry, I dared to ask an independent question. I asked, “But not all chemistry is organic, right?” 


He and his best friend laughed at me for a full minute. How could I even ask, they said. Of course all chemistry is organic. 



As it turns out, not even close to all chemistry is organic. But so convinced were they, and so embarrassed was I, that I never pushed harder. I even googled “is all chemistry organic” while writing these paragraphs, despite having taken organic chemistry and ultimately having decided against taking metallic chemistry (an example of inorganic chemistry.) 


But so convinced were they, and so embarrassed was I, that I never pushed harder.

Example 2: The Smart Big Thinker


I was at a party attended by a charmingly gregarious couple. She worked in tech, and he was a teacher. Later, I learned he taught at one of the best universities in the US. I overheard a conversation between them and one other person, someone who worked in a morally questionable industry. In an effort to assuage her professional guilt, he used an example he taught in his college classes. 


If an army commits a massacre, who ultimately has responsibility? Is it the person who pulled the trigger? What about the person who gave the order? The president? The engineer who designed the weapon? The scientist who discovered the precursor technology? 


A complex question, he concluded - One without an easy answer. 


The host of the party approached the group and remarked, “The things you three talk about! If the FBI comes to the door, we can tell them we have the three smartest people at the party right here!” 


Society decided these people were smart. We all know people like this - those who get complimented and congratulated on their intelligence. 


But are they actually smart? And if they aren’t, what does it say about the world?


But are they actually smart? And if they aren’t, what does it say about the world?

In Example One, the guys ended up being wrong, but they were high schoolers - they were supposed to be wrong more often than right. The interesting part is how confidently and oppressively they stated their opinion. 


We see this type of “smart person” all the time, where smart just means stubborn and confident. The boys in Example One were unwilling to pause for a second to consider the alternative viewpoint because it would endanger their fragile patina of intelligence. So, they shut it down and soldiered on. 


The tech and venture capital industries demonstrate particular skill at this kind of naively arrogant leadership. They don’t even realize their arrogance; they just assume they’re smarter than everyone else.


When people ask obvious questions such as, “But how is that any different or better from what we had before?” or, “Why do we need another app to do the same thing?”, it proves their initial assumption - we just aren’t cool enough to get the innovation. 


Many people know vast swathes of the tech industry are hollow, and some corners of it are evil. However, only recently have cracks emerged to reveal a further truth: most successful tech CEOs have no idea what they’re doing, and they are idiots. 


Most successful tech CEOs have no idea what they’re doing, and they are idiots.

It’s not difficult to succeed for a while when someone gives you hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. You can hire smart people to work for you, and they’ll prevent your poor leadership from making too much of a mess for a decade or so. It helps when, for the same decade, the stock market doesn’t require you to actually turn a profit to be valuable. 


Before we tackle the second example, let’s jump into the central questions: What is it about these types of people - the people everyone generally agrees are “smart” in a comfortable, easily admired way - that links them together? What do they have in common, and why have these people, of all people, set the definition of intelligence in the face of so much evidence to the contrary? 


The second example holds a partial answer. Let’s say you asked anyone off the street the question the professor posed to his class of university freshmen: “If an army commits a massacre, who is at fault?” and you give them the options listed in the example. The person will probably wonder why you asked them such an obvious question. 


The answer, of course, is all of them, to varying degrees, with the exception of the people who had no way of knowing their contribution would one day turn into a weapon (e.g., the scientist.) The person who pulled the trigger can’t entirely fall back on the excuse of, “I was just following orders,” but they still have less responsibility than the person who ordered the massacre in the first place. 


These answers are baked into our DNA, and if you’ve never pondered the question before, it’s probably because you assumed it obvious enough not to be worth exploring too much. But the guy who mentioned it gets accolades for doing so, because someone hears him expounding and thinks, “He’s saying these things very confidently and with a lot of detail; therefore, it must be new information. I understand and grasp this information easily, which means I’m smart, too.” 


If you’ve never pondered the question before, it’s probably because you assumed it obvious enough not to be worth exploring too much.

There’s an element of flattery and comfort in these discussions. They’re comfortable because it’s obvious information in a pretty package! The real insight is often thorny. It surfaces truths we don’t want to confront. 


They’re comfortable because it’s obvious information in a pretty package!

Returning to the tech industry example, this is also why so many highly competent people in the tech industry find themselves denied career advancement. They’re unique, and their differences cause their managers discomfort. Discomfort is too difficult for the managers to grapple with, so they choose people like the guy from our example, who packages self-evident things in a pretty way.


The faulty definition of intelligence is woven deeply into the fabric of our social hierarchy. Its opposite is inextricably present as well: so many people are underappreciated by our society because they look too different from the norm. 


What do we do? 


First, we need a new definition of stupidity. Stupidity is the ignorance or denial of our intrinsic human knowledge. It’s rejecting what’s right in front of our faces. It’s the people who cannot question and who do not take the time to consider a person or viewpoint if it isn’t packaged in the usual way. 


Stupidity is the ignorance or denial of our intrinsic human knowledge.

Second, we adopt coping strategies. The most challenging hurdle is overcoming self-doubt, the primary weapon society wields against different people and thoughts. I still actively struggle with this. Looking back on my high school self, I wish I had had the emotional freedom to think, “Wow, it’s weird for a tutor to react to a question this way. There must be some ego behind it. I bet it’d be funny to see what happens when I ask him why all chemistry is organic.” 


The most challenging hurdle is overcoming self-doubt, the primary weapon society wields against different people and thoughts.

I found vast freedom when I learned more about psychology. I began to approach these situations with curiosity; I tried to identify the psychological mechanisms informing these types of reactions. 


Finally, once we practice the thought pattern, “Wait, no, maybe I’m the one who’s right,” then we can begin to appreciate how our individual intelligences add value to society in unique ways. Are we the people who watch and listen to everything, rarely speaking? Are we the outgoing social butterflies who work as superconnectors, using our innate understanding of humans to bring everyone together? Do we ask a ton of questions with no presuppositions, always curious to learn more without ego? 


The point of this post is not that there are many more types of intelligence in addition to our conventional understanding of intelligence. My point is deeper: conventional intelligence is not actual intelligence. Our social definition of intelligence is wrong, and it’s responsible for the shitshow we find ourselves in. We need a wholly new definition of intelligence if we want to survive the threats against us. 


We need a wholly new definition of intelligence if we want to survive the threats against us.

Our world is starving for true diversity. To make it out of the next decade, we need our society to radically accept differences in speech, thought, connection, relationships, tone, and interests. We can start with identifying the root cause: the criteria by which our society chooses its authority figures is fundamentally flawed.

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