Oh You Think You’re So Smart!
What a bizarre world we have woken up in.
Just in the past couple of days Twitter decided to put a fact-check warning on a couple of posts by the President of the United States. And the president has responded with freaky threats against the platform and others.
In this information-overloaded, post-truth world, we are bombarded with unprecedented levels of aggressive attempts at agenda-driven persuasion. For skeptics — those seeking to believe as many true things and as few false things as humanly possible — the fake news, misinformation, purposeful disinformation, and outright lies seem to outweigh the facts and truth, by orders of magnitude.
Clearly, in what has been called the “new normal,” critical thinking, one of the pillars of CFIC’s core purpose, is an indispensable tool, perhaps more so now than at any time in human history. The threat is so ominous and so imminent.
Comically, one response you sometimes hear when advocating for critical thinking is, “Oh you think you’re so smart!”, as if critical thinking is somehow umbilically connected to intelligence.
Critical thinking is a learnable skill. Intelligence does not necessarily come equipped with an infallible, critical thinking tool belt. In fact, some research suggests that being smart may make you more prone to cognitive error.
Skeptical Inquirer, a bi-monthly glossy print magazine published by our American partners, the Center for Inquiry U.S., explores this reality in the May-June edition cover story, The Nobel Disease: When Intelligent Scientists Go Weird. In the article, authors Candice Basterfield, Scott Lilienfeld, Shauna Bowes, and Thomas Costello highlight eight examples of Nobel Prize winners who have believed and sometimes promoted some head-scratchingly outlandish ideas.
Their intro to the article states: “A surprising number of Nobel laureates in the sciences appear to have embraced decidedly weird ideas. The story of the so-called ‘Nobel Disease’ bears intriguing implications for the field of skepticism.”
And their list includes some interesting and famous names. For example, James Watson, a 1962 Nobel Prize winner for his co-discovery of the structure of DNA with Sir Francis Crick, has advanced highly dubious claims about race, maintaining that blacks are inherently less intelligent than whites. And this is not a belief he has discarded, perhaps as a decades old, youthful failure. He reiterated this view in a 2018 documentary. Watson has also suggested that obese people lack ambition and that exposure to sunlight in the tropics and higher levels of melanin (dark skin) increase sexual desire.
From the article: “…the capsule case histories we present strongly suggest that intellectual brilliance can coexist with yawning gaps in skeptical thinking.” The authors go on to suggest that intelligence may even come with underlying potential for cognitive failure. “Preliminary evidence further suggests that intelligent people may have a somewhat larger ‘bias blind spot’ than other people, meaning they are less aware of their propensity toward biases.”
Which brings us back to the “Oh you think you’re so smart!” thing. “Unrealistic optimism occurs when people believe that because they are smart, they need not worry about intellectual errors…especially if they are not intellectually humble.”
The article is a great read for any skeptic interested in the mechanics and potential pitfalls of critical thinking.
Skeptical Inquirer is published six times a year. The magazine is available through the CFIC website (CFIC members $45, non-members $60 per year).
This article appears in the June 2020 version of Critical Links.