WHY INTELLIGENT PEOPLE MAKE DUMB DECISIONS AND HOW IT AFFECTS ALL OF US
By: Dr. Victor M. Sternberg, D.M.D.
November 27, 2019
I recently finished reading a book whose title is The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes by David Robson.
The book challenges the idea that intelligent people usually make the right decisions. The author goes into depth based upon different scientific studies, looking at the relationship between a high IQ, education, expertise and how often people with those attributes fail to make an evidence-based decision.
The concept of evidence-based decisions is frequently more discussed in the medical community as it evaluates the appropriateness of treatment and drugs.
It has not entered the educational, economic nor the political arenas in a significant way.
The author clearly addresses the difference between intelligence and wisdom. He sees wisdom as an open mindedness; the ability to see alternate viewpoints; and examine the evidence by putting aside personal bias. Very often the most intelligent people come with significant biases that prevent them from looking at other viewpoints, and using the facts and reason, thus resorting to their knee-jerk belief system.
In looking at American history, the founding fathers struggled with the writing of a constitution that would deal with disparate issues of each individual state.
Ben Franklin, known as a great compromiser, used the concept of moral algebra, in which decisions were based upon the pluses and minuses of each position. This made it possible to resolve the differences between the diverse colonies. It resulted in the resolution of the Constitutional Congress’s struggle and hence a constitution was born.
The author views intellectual humility as a critical attribute. He made the example of Albert Einstein whose insights into the nature of the universe and relativity were landmark advances in the world of physics. Sadly, during the last 25 years of his life he failed to make any progress. He aggressively resisted the concept of quantum physics, the idea that there is a certain randomness to nature that had to be entered into the equation of his general theory of relativity. This view of quantum physics challenged his world view and thus this brilliant man was unable to look at another alternative theory and incorporate it into his own; completely negating his future contributions to physics.
The author finds that even the most brilliant among us choose the facts that support our position and ignore those that do not. This is seen in the way we view different cultures, our economic system, our education system and our political system. Let me give you a few examples.
In 2007 this country was beginning to unravel economically. It began with the belief system that all people are entitled to own a home, thus supporting the American dream that this is a rite of passage. At no time did those in government (ranging from Jimmy Carter through Bill Clinton and George Bush) ever examine the possibility of home prices turning downward. With poor people not and/or able to pay a mortgage, this could have a disastrous effect upon our economic system. Hence, banks were encouraged to lend and the government looked the other way when lending agencies began to make loans to people who should not have qualified due to their income levels. This was compounded by the fact that as these sub-prime mortgages began to grow in number, Wall Street had the grandiose idea to take these mortgages, bundling them together, calling them collateralized mortgage-backed securities. They would take these securities and buy them for their portfolio, or sell them to investors. Again, never believing that the prices of homes would ever go down, they never looked or examined the creditworthiness of many of the mortgages that were now in these large portfolios. Then, the rating agencies, Moody's and Standard & Poor's, were asked to rate these mortgage-backed securities. Again, ignoring that these collateralized mortgages were often filled with mortgages that people could not afford to pay, they gave their blessing.
Then, in 2008 and 2009, as home prices turned downward and these mortgage-backed securities became worthless, banks that were holding them as collateral suddenly became insolvent. Brokerage houses from Lehman to Bear Stearns to Merrill Lynch, AIG, and banks such as Wachovia and Countrywide, all became financially insolvent. The federal government, under Presidents Bush and Obama, stepped in and bailed out all of these institutions that either purchased securities, insured these securities, or had sold them. These institutions were bailed out to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars at the taxpayers' expense. The government, the watchdog of our economy, had failed to pay attention and/or did not believe this could happen, and thus the watchdogs, banks, mortgage companies, home sellers, home buyers, all were unable to examine the possibility that this whole system was based upon a non-evidence-based philosophy. There were plenty of naysayers, but they were ignored, because each one predicting doom threatened the world view of everyone from the president down to the local savings and loans association.
Education is another area where the lack of an evidence-based approach continues to plague our educational system providing America with one of the lowest levels of outcomes among other western nations. Charter schools are a hotly debated topic within this arena.
Let me begin with the value of charter schools. Those who are in support of charter schools strongly believe that their system of education is superior to the public schools. They defend it with the outcomes that they obtain compared to the neighboring public institutions. They view the structure of the school, the discipline, the uniforms, small class size, longer school days, as well high standards, making the essential difference in the outcome.
Those opposing charter schools believe that they cherry-pick their students from among the best of the public schools, they exclude students who underperform and/or have discipline problems, and therefore the results are skewed by the choices they can make that the public schools cannot.
Interestingly enough, a study which doesn't get any attention, comparing children who go into charter schools by lottery with those who did not get in by lottery, came back with some interesting statistics. A similar group of children whose parents wanted them to attend a charter school and did not get in, performed significantly lower on standardized tests than the group that was able to get into the school based upon their parental application.
There is truth on both sides, but rarely are the individuals on either side of the divide willing to look at evidence that contradicts their viewpoint.
Another issue that fits this criterion of how bias and unwillingness to look at objective data influences our struggle politically is that of guns in our society. On one side of the divide are those who believe strongly that the second amendment is morally superior and should not ever be challenged. It is essential to the freedom of Americans. Guns don't kill people, people kill people. That's their stated viewpoint. Any attempt to limit guns will only empower criminals and take away the ability to defend yourself.
On the other side of the divide, obviously, there are those who believe that access to guns, particularly guns capable of inflicting mass casualties, are a problem. They believe that assault rifles have no place in society and are responsible for the spike in mass shootings. They believe the second amendment does not eliminate the need for background checks and for limitations on the types of weapons.
I can cite statistics regarding this viewpoint, but I just want to remind us all that the sanctity of the constitution, which is often used to defend the second amendment, should be looked at through the lens of the fact that the constitution, written by our best and brightest, has been revisited.
We have made 17 amendments to the constitution since we had the original 10. The original body of the constitution allowed people have indentured servants, e.g. slaves. It is a fact that only 6% of Americans were eligible to vote for George Washington since at that time voting was limited to land-owning white males. Slaves, women and 18-year olds were all excluded by the constitution, and the amendments altered that. The original body of the constitution stated that senators be chosen by state legislatures, not by the voting of the state's citizens. The constitution was changed and amended. The body of the constitution did not have a statement about term limits for the president. After Franklin Roosevelt's four term presidency ended with his death, the constitution was again amended.
The issue of opioids. How did we get here? Obviously, the doctors who were convinced that opioids were not addicting and would provide the pain relief that other medications did not were unwilling to look at the data which clearly revealed that non-narcotics such as ibuprofen and Tylenol, when combined, provide equal or better relief than do narcotics for almost all pain. They were influenced by drug companies; they were influenced by patients and their colleagues to believe that narcotics were safe and more effective than other means of pain control. Evidence-based logic was not used.
Similarly, drug companies who had a vested bias in selling drugs weren't willing to look at the data, or even entertain the fact that they were creating an addicted society and the results would be catastrophic for tens of thousands of Americans.
Congress, unwilling to challenge the medical profession, believed they knew best, and being influenced by drug companies who felt that there was no supportive data, that addiction was an outcome of using opioids in the medical arena, did nothing until more Americans had died from overdoses, than from every foreign war we've ever fought.
On a political level, when one thinks of how intelligent the Kennedy cabinet was thought to be, and yet they mistakenly believed that launching an attack on Cuba, fully expecting an uprising of the Cuban people, would lead to the end of Castro. How wrong they were. Their obsession with communism, and with Castro, completely prevented them from seeing alternative outcomes which almost led us to World War III.
From there we go to Vietnam. Clearly the American political establishment strongly believed that the fall of Vietnam to communism would lead to a domino effect in which all of Asia would become communist. Our obsession with the spread of communism, originating with the Iron Curtain in Europe, completely dominated our State Department, resulting in a disastrous war that was, retrospectively, unwinnable. Had the bias about communism being the overriding issue been examined in the light of the fact that many felt that Ho Chi Minh was fighting a civil war to reunite his country. The thought that it was a civil war conflicted with the bias that this was a communist insurgency. When Henry Kissinger went to Vietnam and came back with reports that the war was not winnable (because the South Vietnamese people were not committed to their government) that no matter what we did that war was going to end as a disaster, Kissinger’s writings were ignored because they contradicted the very smart people who believed strongly that we must win the war and it was winnable.
Then there is Iraq. Those who felt weapons of mass destruction were present in Iraq would not look at alternative evidence, and there was a great deal of it. The inability to look at the worst-case scenario if a Sunni regime was overturned that was deeply hated by the Shiites who had been persecuted by Saddam Hussein, led ultimately to the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq & Syria. Did not the best and brightest understand that you cannot build a nation among people who have hated each other for centuries and whose only method of resolution was violence?
We, a country that has struggled mightily and went through our own civil war because of our own political differences, were unable to extrapolate that a country dominated by such warring religious tribes was never going to reconcile peacefully. Did they not ask what would happen once the Sunnis were driven from power? Many people who interjected other opinions, such as the need for 500,000 troops, were discounted because, what did they know? That few conflicted with the think tanks in Washington D.C. that were influencing the government.
Hence, one just has to look at the hundreds of thousands of dead Americans, hundreds of thousands of dead Iraqis, and the ongoing cauldron of violence that seems to have no end.
All of these issues relate to the inability to look at alternative viewpoints because you are intelligent and therefore you know the answer.
Finally, the issue of climate change. This is a scientific issue but it has become totally politicized. There are facts. There are facts on both sides. Because of bias, based upon either political bias or economic based bias, this issue is not looked at as an evidence-based problem.
Bringing together the world's most esteemed scientists and have them present their evidence clearly and succinctly at the United Nations with no politicians allowed to contribute to the conversation would be a wise way to explore this issue of world importance.
But we need a dialogue, we don't need an argument.
There are theories that have not been absolutely scientifically proven, such as evolution and the big bang theory of how the universe began. It does not mean that these theories are incorrect. The preponderance of evidence indicates they are.
Very little in the world is black and white. The sign of an intelligent individual is one who can see the gray between the black and the white. Hubris is a serious human flaw. Sadly, it is a trait possessed by the brightest among us. It even affected Albert Einstein.
There is one caveat I would like to add. Some of the decisions made in the course of the events I have discussed were made out of either greed or avarice. These affect almost all decisions humans make, both individually or collectively. That being said, I believe that many of the decisions and choices made in the body of this article were examples of smart people making wrong choices.
A very wise man taught me many years ago that the most intelligent person I will ever meet is the one who learns from everybody, since all of us have something to teach each other.
This book explores this viewpoint in a very scientific manner which I think you will all find enlightening.
As always, I welcome your opinions.
Victor M. Sternberg, D.M.D.
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