Saturday, June 10, 2017

Smart fools and confident idiots

Way back in November 2014, well before trump even announced his candidacy, I blogged about a Cornell professor's research on "confident idiots":
What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.
As much as this alone goes a long way towards explaining trump and his enablers, in the big picture and in specifics like coal, this post is not about those assholes.

We are quite a few people, other than those assholes, who should be able to do something, right?  Furthermore, with a claim to the intellectual and cultural high ground--which is why trump constantly snarls at us "elites"--we should be able to do better, right?

Not only do we lack the ability, we are further contributing to the education of young people who will lack the ability to make the world a better place:
Our overemphasis on narrow academic skills—the kinds that get you high grades in school—can be a bad thing for several reasons. You end up with people who are good at taking tests and fiddling with phones and computers, and those are good skills but they are not tantamount to the skills we need to make the world a better place.
My high scores and ability to do math and science did not impress me one bit.  I was not sure how I could make the world a better place through that route.  I quit engineering--mentally even during my final year of high school itself, and for good when I came to the US for graduate studies--with a hope that I would get on to the path that would help me become a better person and also help the world a tiiiiiiiiny bit better.

A few terms ago, a student--Bill--remarked something similar when he argued that, for instance, scientists and technologists working in various government and university research that was aimed at destruction to life and property are not engaged in any value-neutral effort.  His hypothesis was that maybe these experts were not asking themselves whether they were using their smarts to make the world a better place.  "I wonder if they take courses in the humanities" he asked.

The older I get, the more I am discouraged by expertise that is devoid of an understanding of humanity.  I care less and less about the SAT and GRE scores and fancy degrees, if the person cannot seem to understand and empathize with the human condition.
What I argue is that intelligence that’s not modulated and moderated by creativity, common sense and wisdom is not such a positive thing to have. What it leads to is people who are very good at advancing themselves, often at other people’s expense. We may not just be selecting the wrong people, we may be developing an incomplete set of skills—and we need to look at things that will make the world a better place.
I am not sure about the "other people’s expense"; otherwise, I am in agreement there.
You know, it’s easy to think of smart people but it’s really hard to think of wise people. I think a reason is that we don’t try to develop wisdom in our schools. And we don’t test for it, so there’s no incentive for schools to pay attention.
And we now have a president who is the antithesis of wisdom!
Not only do we not encourage creativity, common sense and wisdom, I think a lot of us don’t even value them anymore.
Therein lies the problem--a lot of us don't even care about these anymore.  We have met the enemy and ... it is us :(


Ramesh said...

This a theme to which you have returned repeatedly. Yes, of course, e need a balance. You case would be much stronger if you argued more explicitly that skills are important too, but that alone is not enough and that the study of humanities is also necessary to compliment a fuller education.

Sriram Khé said...

I am not talking about the "technician" level ... I am referring to college grads and more, where we are seemingly producing more and more "smart fools" :(

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