23 Jun 2019

David Robson: Why smart people do stupid things

From Sunday Morning, 10:04 am on 23 June 2019

We've all wondered why clever people do stupid things. A new book by David Robson has become a New York Times best-seller because it uses the latest research on intelligence to explain why being bright and brainy is no protection against being dense and dim.

David Robson

David Robson Photo: supplied

The Intelligence Trap - Why Smart People Do Stupid Things and How to Make Wise Decisions, delves into concepts such as intuition as a virtue and a vice, earned dogmatism and outcome bias.

Robson is a science writer, specialising in neuroscience and psychology. He's written for BBC Future, New Scientist, Nature, The Guardian, The Observer and The Washington Post.

He told Jim Mora even Nobel prize winners can have wildly irrational opinions; Kary Mullis being a prime example. Mullis shared the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1993 for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction – he was one of the founders of the Human Genome Project.

Mullis also believes he was abducted by an alien, that we can travel through space on the astral plane, that astrology is bang on the money, and that there's no relationship between AIDS and HIV.

In other words, IQ and rationality don’t always go hand-in-hand.

“So it was really writing about these people and finding that there was kind of two sides to their genius that could lead them to greatness, but also lead them to these very bizarre, very foolish opinions that really made me want to investigate how that could be, and how intelligence could be a blessing and a curse,” Robson says.

And Mullis is not alone, quite a number of Nobel prize winners hold foolish opinions, he says.

“There's some science writers who have even coined this term called Nobel Prize disease.”

Super-charged intelligence may allow the intellectual leaps that make world altering discoveries, but it needs tempering with other skills, Robson says.  

“Philosophers such as Descartes had also considered that intelligence could be a vice, as well as a virtue. What’s really new now is that this very robust scientific evidence helps us to explain how that happens, and really helps us to explore the nuances of that shows us how we can avoid those kinds of errors as well.”

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Photo: pixabay

Perhaps the most famous example of intelligence gone awry is that of Einstein.

“In everyday life, we almost use the word Einstein as a synonym for genius and his thinking is almost so far beyond the realms of what a normal person can think and imagine, it's just almost unbelievable, he's almost like this kind of magician the way he came up with those incredible theories of the way the universe would work. But a lot of those theories were really quite intuitive, he really did rely on a kind of gut feeling to get there.”

Later this powerful intuition made Einstein a figure of foolishness among his peers, Robson says, when he spent 25 years working on a theory of everything.

“It would just basically help to explain how all the important parts of physics fit together and could explain the universe as we see it, he absolutely hated the idea of quantum physics, and just would not contemplate that it could be part of his theory.

“He would keep on coming up with new ways to try to get his theory to work, but it was just never going to, and a lot of his colleagues at conferences and at his university in Princeton in America, they eventually found him so embarrassing, that they would really try to avoid him because they couldn't bear to see this great man working on such a fool's errand.”

Earned dogmatism, Robson says, is an intellectual weakness common among established experts in a given field; Einstein’s refusal to countenance quantum physics is a prime example.

“You can close your mind to new ideas, because you basically know everything that there is to know about that subject, or so you believe, and that's really quite dangerous, because it stops you from updating your ideas and new evidence in any field is going to come along at some point that's going to cause you to question your views.”

Highly intelligent people are also prone to something known as disconfirmation bias, Robson says.

“Confirmation biases are where you're collecting the information to support your points of view, disconfirmation bias is almost the opposite, you're trying to destroy the arguments against your point of view.

“So you're really just looking for any kind of loophole that will show that the argument against your opinion is wrong. Intelligent people are very good at that disconfirmation bias. They're very good at dismantling arguments to support their own point of view.”

It’s a form of identity protection, Robson says.

“Say you're a Republican, and you see evidence that would support climate change and suggest your opinion is wrong, that can be quite frightening, because it might also lead you then to question all of the other opinions and beliefs that come with your political ideology.

“So soon your whole worldview would seem like it might start to collapse, if you start to accept that one fact. So that's when your motivated reasoning kicks in and you apply your intelligence to protect that belief and to protect your identity so that you don't have this very troubling feeling of your whole world collapsing around you. “

This is a phenomena found across the political spectrum, Robson says.

“Everyone really is going to be susceptible to some of this motivated reasoning in some way within their lives.”

Deepwater Horizon

Fire crews response crews battle the blazing remnants of the off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Photo: AFP

History is littered with examples of very intelligent people getting it very, very wrong. Thomas Edison is a spectacular example.

He believed that electricity would be best delivered to people's homes through direct current, Robson says. The alternative method alternating current was vehemently opposed by Edison.

“Alternating current is where the voltage fluctuates very quickly, because that reduces the amount of energy that is lost during transmission - so it's much more economically viable. With direct current you just lose a huge amount of energy as heat, so it could never really transmit electricity over a long distance.”

Alternating current is more dangerous than direct current and it was this that Edison leapt upon.

Edison threw himself into a public relations campaign, even conducting a live electrocution of an elephant to show how deadly AC was.

“He even helped to design the electric chair, even though he was meant to be opposed to capital punishment, because he wanted the idea of death to be associated with alternating current.

“What happened was that he didn't really persuade the public with these very public demonstrations, all he did was lose a huge amount of respect, and a huge amount of money in the process and eventually alternating current won out and Edison was left humiliated and much poorer as a result.”

Outcome bias is another cognitive weakness that can affect highly intelligent people – the two space shuttle disasters, the Concorde crash and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are examples of the terrible consequences of this kind of thinking. 

In simple terms, outcome bias is the idea that there is a near miss event, where a disaster almost happens but doesn't, people's risk tolerance increases meaning they're less aware of the risks over time.

“There were a huge number of near misses, across all the companies that had worked on the Deepwater Horizon tanker, but they were just ignored, and the risk tolerance increased, and eventually, a disaster happened.

“And if it hadn't happened there, it would have happened somewhere else, because they were just playing Russian roulette with the technology.”