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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Intelligence is not enough

I've realized lately just how common it is for very intelligent persons to write things that they cannot possibly believe or know to be true. Sometimes the evidence is lacking (I saw a claim that the religious right is quickly losing power in the U.S.), and sometimes the evidence is obviously contradictory (a fellow asserted that Saddam was "never a threat to the U.S. or her allies" -- which might be news to the orphans of certain dead Israelis). I've seen about half-a-dozen surprising examples of this on discussions boards etc. in the last few weeks (and not just regarding politics), cases where the writer was obviously intelligent and obviously had some grasp of the importance of logical argumentation based on facts.

Now I already knew that intellectual integrity is in short supply generally. Many people just don't care about thinking. (Peruse a random set of blogs and you'll see what I mean.) But it's been a little amazing, and saddenning, just how common it is for intelligent people who do intend to make factual and nuanced arguments to just blow it like this.

The failing is not one of intelligence or knowledge. It is a specific moral issue: having the integrity to only "believe" that which you know that you know. There is the secondary issue of the injustice of carrying out this act before others -- the obvious example from the headlines is Dan Rather's insistence that the meaning of his story was true even though the story itself was false. (Google for Rathergate.) But the root issue is personal and epistemological: what are you doing in your own head? If you want to believe that you know, for example, what's the best method concerning a certain aspect of baby care, do you go with that desire even when the cognitive evidence is lacking?

The Genius discusses this issue at length: reason versus whim; emotions as responses to evaluations, but not as tools of cognition themselves.

It is hard to overstate the importance and fundamentality of this issue, and of its practical effects throughout world history and within each man's life. Civilizations live and die because of intellectual integrity or the lack thereof -- and so does each person's capacity for happiness.

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