Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas

I just read a fantastic essay by Scott Berkun on “Why smart people defend bad ideas.” This is something I’ve thought some about and it is something I am guilty of often: intellectual bullying even if my logic doesn’t add up. Scott attempts to answer “How can smart people take up positions that defy any reasonable logic?” Print it out and read it when you aren’t rushed. Excerpts below:

Proficiency in argument can easily be used to overpower others, even when you are dead wrong. If you learn a few tricks of logic and debate, you can refute the obvious, and defend the ridiculous. If the people who you’re arguing with aren’t as comfortable in the tactics of argument or aren’t as arrogant as you are, they may even give in and agree with you.

The problem with smart people is that they like to be right and sometimes will defend ideas to the death rather than admit they’re wrong. This is bad. Worse, if they got away with it when they were young (say, because they were smarter than their parents, their friends, and their parent’s friends) they’ve probably built an ego around being right, and will therefore defend their perfect record of invented righteousness to the death….

Simply because they cannot be proven wrong, does not make them right. Most of the tricks of logic and debate refute questions and attacks, but fail to establish any true justification for a given idea…

People worry about the wrong thing at the wrong time and apply their intelligence in ways that doesn’t serve the greater good of whatever they’re trying to achieve. Some call this difference in skill wisdom, in that the wise know what to be thinking about, where as the merely intelligent only know how to think. (The de-emphasis of wisdom is an east vs. west dichotomy: eastern philosophy heavily emphasizes deeper wisdom, where-as the post enlightenment west, and perhaps particularly America, heavily emphasizes the intellectual flourishes of intelligence). BC Note: That was a very interesting point.

Smart people, or at least those whose brains have good first gears, use their speed in thought to overpower others. They’ll jump between assumptions quickly, throwing out jargon, bits of logic, or rules of thumb at a rate of fire fast enough to cause most people to become rattled, and give in. When that doesn’t work, the arrogant or the pompous will throw in some belittlement and use whatever snide or manipulative tactics they have at their disposal to further discourage you from dissecting their ideas.

At the end of the article there are additional resources, and you better believe that those books have made it onto my Amazon wish list!

4 Responses to Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas

  1. Saar Drimer says:

    Ben,
    In the same vain, see Paul Graham’s “Why Smart People Have Bad Ideas” essay.
    link to paulgraham.com
    All his articles are excellent and recommended.

  2. Lyle Ball says:

    Ben,

    I strongly agree with your comments above, under “Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas”. Very well stated.

    I was surprised to see this statement seemingly juxtaposed next to your reference to “Under the Banner of Heaven” as “excellent literary non-fiction”. Check out (http://www.lds.org/newsroom/showpackage/0,15367,3881-1—3-748,00.html ) for a collection of statements from the Boston Globe, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, The Economist, The Daily Yomiuri and Pop Matters…sources that I generally view as reliable. They seem to dismantle or at least shed doubt on the book’s core historical facts and Krakauer’s sincerity.

    Lest I be viewed as sympathetic to deviant behavior, know that I am appauled by incest. As well, I believe that men and women throughout history and across today’s globe errantly give credit to God for misbehavior. And I am glad that Krakauer’s “semi-non-fiction / semi-fiction” book caused me to think, BUT I cannot accept it as “excellent literary non-fiction”.

    Assumption, exageration and misrepresentation are not good siblings to truth, regardless of intent.

    I value your blog. Thanks for keeping it fresh.

    Lyle

  3. Ben Casnocha says:

    Lyle,

    Thank you for your comment. Let me respond.

    First, I find it odd that you quote my phrase “excellent literary nonfiction” and not simply say that I thought it was an excellent book – because I did think it was an excellent book. Whether you liked it or not, it still exemplifies many of the shining characteristics of the genre literary nonfiction in which Krakauer is a leader: intense character portraits, detailed reporting, lengthy immersion in his setting and with his characters, etc.

    Second, your link to the Church of Latter Day Saints page isn’t very useful (or objective). For one, you cannot broadly claim that reputable news organizations like the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe “made statements” which refute Krakauer. Perhaps there was an individual who wrote a book review at that paper which said certain things, that is not a researched news article or even a collective paper editorial. Even then – how would we know? The Church site doesn’t even link to the full review – just to the main site like http://www.wsj.com. The only reviews it links to in full, it seems, are the ones from the Utah newspaper. Excerpts of reviews that support your side doesn’t seem like a fair way to present a case.

    Third, I hope you read the afterword in the new editions of Under the Banner of Heaven in which Krakauer responds to the intense efforts of the Church to undermine the credibility of his book. He responds to the Church’s memo to members point by point in fairly convincing fashion.

    Thanks again for the note, Lyle.

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