“He’s so intelligent”

On ZombieHero’s blog, we’ve been discussing the appeal to authority/expert fallacy that was used by the left to describe Obama.  Commenter yttik reminded me of an example that went something like “Obama is so intelligent that it’s like he’s playing 11 dimensional chess,” so the rest of us should just basically watch and admire because there’s no way our intellect could grasp what he’s trying to do.

I’m interested in finding concise and compelling sentences that might cause someone who holds this belief to question it.

Thomas Sowell says that the incorrect beliefs we hold tend to be those that we do not bear direct consequences for being wrong.  For example, when I put my hand on a hot stove because I believe it won’t hurt I quickly learn that my belief is incorrect.  The consequence for being wrong was direct and instantaneous.

However, if I believe that someone is so much more intelligent than I and that I should just trust his solutions for the economy and government, the feedback on whether I’m right is not as direct and instantaneous.  It’s also prone to bias, rationalization and spin. “I inherited a really bad economy.”

When I got in trouble as a kid because I went along with what someone else was doing, my parents would ask, “If he jumped off a bridge would you too?”

Now I understand the brilliance of this question.  It exposed the fallacy in my argument (“he was doing it too” was not a valid argument for bad behavior) and it created a strong visual in my mind for a direct and instantaneous feedback for allowing the bad behavior of someone else to have such influence my decision-making.

So, maybe that’s a first question to ask someone who trusts Obama because he’s intelligent.

Another possibility, since we now have some experience to deal with:  “How has that been working out for us?”

Those are just starters.  At some point, it might be helpful to go into roots of their faulty beliefs.  I believe their are two faulty assumptions that form the basis of the belief that an intelligent person can work wonders with the economy.

The first is that intelligence of one person or a small group of people can do positive things with more centralized power on something as complex and dynamic as the economy. Believing this comes from a lack of appreciation of how the economy works.

The second faulty assumption is that what someone like Obama is doing is similar to what someone like Reagan did.  It usually surfaces in a conversation as something like, “your guy had a shot, now let our guy try.”  This assumption stems from a lack of appreciation for the limitations of politics, humans and government.

I’ll write more about those two faulty assumptions in the future.

4 thoughts on ““He’s so intelligent”

  1. The real question isn’t why do people use it. That’s easy, they use it because people fall for it. So the real question is why do people fall for it.

    Now that is a big big question and I don’t know the answer. (If there is an answer at all) I think the reason people fall for it lies somewhere between Kahneman’s Bounded Rationality and epistemic closure.

    What I mean is that people don’t have perfect knowledge and they must choose between a small sampling of knowledge. That’s where bounded rationality comes in. Epistemic Closure comes into play because people are biased and they choose sources that appeal to their biases. They don’t bother to listen to opposing views because they have vested interest and the psychological costs to change their views are too great.

    So to a Liberal reading Ezra Klein, all Klein has to do is quote Krugman and now Klein gets to appeal to Krugman’s authority to make whatever nonsense, BS point Klein usually makes. The Liberal isn’t going to bother to check on Krugman’s quote for validity, that would require to much work and gasp, what if Krugman were wrong. That would be too much to deal with, so it’s easier to just stop at the Klein quote and be done with it.

    • Good questions and good answers. Sometimes, I like to search back to my early days for answers. Back then, I may have been prone to accept an appeal to authority.

      I think your two reasons fit.

      But, I eventually tired of discussing which authority was right. The conversation usually went something like: “He’s right! He won a Nobel Prize.” “No, he’s right, he also won a Nobel Prize.”

      I realized it wasn’t drawing to a suitable conclusion even before I knew that it was a fallacy.

      I eventually took a leap that few seem to take and tried to find out “why” one expert might disagree with another expert.

      I think the reasons I took this step was because I learned something very valuable: I could be wrong and I might learn something if I don’t let myself get in the way (I still have to remind myself of that).

      I also learned that an expert can and often is wrong.

      I credit these learnings to my wisdom column. These are things that intelligent, yet unwise, people don’t seem to know (yet).

      • The other thing I think that gets people with the appeal to authority fallacy is that sometimes it’s not a fallacy. You do follow your doctors (expert) advise, sometimes right? You generally accept what your teachers tell you as true. (Although that’s changing a lot for me lately.) Maybe it’s laziness, since we are taught not to challenge our teachers, but why do we challenge our doctors by seeking second opinions? Maybe it because with doctors we pay for their services and with teachers we don’t? I don’t know…but it’s fun thinking about it huh?

      • I agree. In his books, Nassim Taleb (“The Black Swan”), wrote about how we mistake experts with practical knowledge like doctors, dentists and car mechanics (go to a dentist with a toothache and chances are he’ll help you) with “experts” of not so practical knowledge, like investment managers and economists.

        Even doctors can be wrong. I think we get second opinions from doctors for two reasons. First, doctors encourage this because they know they might be wrong (which I think is a sign of a good doctor economist and scientist). Second, because the individual and direct consequence of being wrong on certain things medical is much greater than with teachers.

        Though, it would be refreshing for teachers–especially of subjects like history, government and economics–to more readily admit that there’s more than one way to peel the onion.


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