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The Billmon hypothesis

Author Jared Diamond asks:
How can people be so dumb? It's a crucial question, with a complex answer. ... sometimes it's a failure to perceive a problem, especially if it comes on very slowly, like climate change. Often it's a matter of conflicting interests with no resolution at a higher level than the interests -- warring clans, greedy industries. Or there may be a failure to examine and understand the past.
Billmon has his own ideas:
I have to wonder if [Diamond] isn't overanalyzing things. Maybe the reason humans act so dumb isn't because of their intellectual frame of reference, or their clan structure, or because they lack historical awareness. Maybe people act dumb because a lot of them are dumb -- dumb as turnips. So stupid they have trouble each morning remembering that their shoes go on their feet...

Might that not be a more plausible explanation for our present predicament then a complex failure of the intellectual substrata of our socio-political paradigm considered as a subset of the tragedy of the commons?

Maybe we're simply not smart enough to fix the massive mess we've created -- just as some of our early ancestral cousins couldn't quite make the evolutionary grade either ... Maybe we've reached the end of our rope ... maybe we've risen to a level of intelligence just high enough to create problems we're not bright enough to solve...

Certainly, I don't see anything about our current national leadership, or the dominant political party in America, that would disprove my hypothesis.
I think the question - How can people be so dumb? - can best be answered by appreciating an important distinction between what we usually call intelligence and what you might call wisdom or good judgment.

Humans, as a species, are obviously highly intelligent, in the sense that they are quite clever. They are problem-solvers - natural born engineers, really. When given a task, humans generally find a way to achieve it, even when this requires mastering something enormously complex. The crown jewels of human achievements - the computer, space travel, quantum mechanics, etc. - are not the work of a generally dumb species.

While it's true that these were achieved not by the average man but by the exceptional one, the fact is that Einstein's brain was vastly more similar to an average person's than different from it. And besides, even people of average intelligence manage to pull off, on a daily basis, feats that require no small amount of brainpower. Billmon was obviously being facetious about people not remembering to put their shoes on their feet, but the fact is that people are able to do that, and a lot more. Even people we wouldn't hesitate to call stupid.

In general, however, the human animal is not a wise one; it exhibits sound judgment with a much lesser frequency than it does cleverness. While humans are capable of staggering intellectual exploits, they are also capable of remarkably poor judgment. It wasn't just the dumb Germans that supported Hitler. Kim Jong-il is said to have a genius-level IQ, but he is not a wise man. It is this discrepancy between human intelligence and human wisdom that accounts for the phenomenon that Diamond and Billmon are trying to explain.

Good judgment is never just a matter of understanding the facts. Judgment requires us to go beyond the facts, into the realm of evaluation. This is where humans tend to fail. They decide that someone is trustworthy when really they are criminal, or they decide that their desire for greater wealth is more important than the needs of the poor. They remain stuck in the same cycles that prevent them from progressing, failing to implement what they have learned from their past mistakes. Intelligent people make these kinds of choices all the time; wise people, people of sound judgment, never do.

Think of a teenager who drives recklessly on dangerous roads. We often say that he is "dumb," but is that really accurate? It's not as if he is acting that way because of a faulty analysis; it is not that there is some mistake in his reasoning that led him to the conclusion that reckless driving would be a good idea. His failure is a failure of judgment, a failure to choose wisely. He is not being "dumb" so much as he is being foolish, and we have seen that such foolishness is distributed more or less proportionately across the spectrum of IQ scores.

If the human species is indeed at the end of its rope, I don't think it is because its ability to create problems has outstripped its ability to solve them, but rather that its judgment hasn't kept pace with its raw intelligence. After all, it's not so much that there are a lot of problems with no answer - for many of the biggest problems before us, the solutions are rather simple and obvious, and the vast majority of those who spend any time thinking about them with any degree of seriousness end up coming to the same conclusions. What's missing is the strength of character necessary to accept these conclusions, and to implement the course of action dictated by them.

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