Thinking About Intelligence: More Trouble Than It Is Worth

Consider. William Buckley is very smart. So is Gore Vidal. Yet in their debates they wrangled like excessively elegant cats and could never agree on anything, except that they were both very smart. So what was the use? Two taxi drivers in a Chicago bar could have failed equally well to decide anything. Or they could have come to opposed and equally erroneous conclusions.

Pick your subject—economics, say, or foreign policy, or crime. You will find brilliant men on Left and Right, each arguing intricately to a bellowing claque of witless followers who don’t know anything about it either. You can tell where they will come out by seeing where they went in—on the Left or on the Right.

Generally intelligence has no effect on conclusions, which are glandularly determined. It just rationalizes hormonal inevitabilities.

Further, there’s no point in knowledge, except to show off with in sports bars. If you are in Willie’s Rib Pit to watch boxing and know about the Long Count (in the Cribb-Molineaux fight), then you amount to something. You do no harm, anyway. All other knowledge is suspect. At best, it is a minor vice, like crossword puzzles. At worst, it encourages people to do catastrophic things with a smug sense of fundamental rightness. The people who got America into Iraq were no end bright and could say impressive things like “Twenty-Seventh Caliphate” and “Theravada Sufism.” Much good it did them. Or us.

Brains just allow you to be more elaborately and ornately disastrously wrong.

However, smart people are at least interesting, like rare tumors, so early on I started having a lot of smart friends. I noticed that most of them were crazy. The right-wingers were hostile paranoids with the empathy of a torque wrench who wanted to nuke somebody. I don’t think they really cared who. The left-wingers were angry totalitarians-in-waiting with minds closed tighter than Fort Knox. For this they needed IQs of 160? You could do as well with derelicts in the Port Authority Bus Station at three a.m.

See, what happens is, as kids the bright don’t fit in. They don’t have much in common with anybody. They dress funny and get made fun of. They can’t dance. They don’t get laid much, or at all. This warps their heads. They retreat into isolation with others like them, become contemptuous of everyone else to get even, and deal in abstractions because it’s all they know. (I claim that if Marx had been able to jitterbug, the Soviet Union would never have existed.)

In short, a large IQ is an infallible predictor of emotional inadequacy.

Where intelligence unfortunately does work reasonably well is in the sciences. Really smart men have ideas; lesser men, usually engineers, make them explode; the least men get the triggers. This suggests that we ought to put a bounty on engineers.

Anyway, at first I figured my friends were nut jobs because I just had strange tastes in friends. Maybe I attracted the demented. Then I found myself on a list-serve of people, mostly men (who are crazier by far than women), who were interested in race, intelligence, and the differences between various human groups.

Many were professors at places like Stanford and MIT—scientists and anthropologists not of the first rank, nor of the second—too rigid, I thought, for originality—but nonetheless highly intelligent. Sometimes one would demurely let slip that “I got 1600 on my SATs before they dumbed them down,” (People attach their self-respect to what they have. In high school I knew a country boy who prided himself on being able to pee farther than anyone else.)

Here I figured was a window into academe, full of towering minds like Plato. These were not squirrels I bumped into in the back alleys of life. They were the real article. I eagerly awaited clarity, dispassion, and the self-abnegation of earnest bloodhounds in disinterested pursuit of Truth. Ha.

No. They too started with their premises, which they didn’t seem to realize were premises, and reasoned doggedly to…their premises. In this they reminded me of Pooh and Piglet tracking the Heffalump around the bush.

An example: One of them used Google to search for rescue operations in the US, Mexico, and China. He found countless rescue stories for America—trapped miners, children in wells, cats in trees, what have you—and only one or two for China and Mexico. From this he did not conclude that the English press just doesn’t cover Mexico and China well—I searched in Spanish and found lots. No. He decided that Mexicans and Chinese do not regard individual life as important. They just don’t bother to rescue people, see.

I don’t know whether this guy had 1600 boards, but if so, he needs to try for 3200 next time.

Here you have it: large IQ, zero grasp of humanity, all is abstractions. (I have another theory that people become psychologists because they lack the normal grasp of human behavior and spend eight years trying to learn what everybody else already knows. A doctorate in psychology is a sure sign of confusion.)

I have lived in both Mexico and China—well, Taiwan—and can report that the fellow’s notions of Sino-Mexican unconcern are highly cephaloproctological.

The tired business of one group or another not caring about human life resonates among the insular smart. It is perennially appealing to conservatives. “Defense intellectuals,” scintillating types with flat heads from being dropped that you could set a martini on, used to say that China could sacrifice five hundred million people in a nuclear war without caring. Today it’s Moslems. (Left-wing intellectuals, similarly afflicted, say “We must sacrifice the masses in this generation to build communism in the next.” Both like the idea of extermination.)

Does any of this make sense? I picture young Pedro running to tell his daddy that sister Maria just fell into the well. “Let her drown, hijo. We Mexicans don’t do no steenking rescue.” After the earthquake that leveled Mexico City in ‘85, passersby on the sidewalks doubtless ignored the screams of the trapped, hands flapping piteously from beneath the rubble, because Mexicans don’t do rescue. And at the firehouses, firemen insouciantly drinking tequila and Squirt and playing cards, because Mexicans don’t do rescue.

We ought to put something in the water to keep IQs down. There would be so much less noise.

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