Thursday, September 24, 2009

Woo Enthymemes #6: "It's All About Brains!"

Welcome to another edition of Woo Enthymemes. My previous post covered much of this in relatively elaborate detail, but for this, I will strive to keep things simpler and more direct.

Contrary to popular belief, being smart, being right, and being a scientist is not about sheer brain power. You don't have to be a large-brained genius to make a breakthrough discovery, though it often helps. It can also hinder.

One cynical stereotype skeptics like me often face is the idea that we think we're right because we're smarter. Let's ignite that straw man before someone claims their 200+ IQ, MENSA membership, PhD, or whatever "proves" them to be smarter. It's never a matter of who's "smarter" or has the largest brain mass. Intelligence, wielded incorrectly, can be a great hindrance as well as it can be a great asset when used correctly: Intelligent people often have a great ability to rationalize bad decisions after the fact.

Parapsychology is a field with many intelligent people backing it. Early in my growing passion for skepticism, I read the Skeptic's Dictionary entry on "psi-missing" and similar rationalizations. I did have some sympathy for parapsychology, but it shrank greatly when I saw those "explanations" for failure. I already dismissed "big" performances of psychic power thanks to a particular Nova special. A magician could replicate the big tricks, and now I knew the "subtle" psychic powers were the result of some self-deception and statistical legerdemain.

My brain did not grow that day. I simply learned some new ways to look at things. People are often prone to forming layers of rationalization, and if you don't question yourself on all those layers, no enormous number of IQ points is going to help break you out of a bad idea.

Sometimes it takes a child to point out that the emperor has no clothes. As a skeptic, that's often what it feels like I'm doing: Stepping out of all the expectations I've grown up with and go over all the disconnects I see when I allow myself to be an outsider. I am not afraid to ask fundamental questions like "can you prove psi even exists?" Once I asked that question, I refused to allow myself to accept the word of others who just appeared smart.

When I did the same with science, the answers tended to be enamoring tales of elaborate experiments producing unexpected results. It didn't matter who did it so much as how they did it, and how mixing all those new pieces of knowledge produced something I took for granted. When I asked similar questions of psi-believers, I instead got venomous insults, evasions, and appeals to authorities.

Knowledge isn't just about your Intelligence score. You need the Wisdom to be cautious about your assumptions. And I just needed some Charisma-filled firebrand skeptics to excite my mind into realizing that.

6 comments:

King of Ferrets said...

200+ IQ? Isn't it generally just about impossible to accurately measure that high with standard IQ tests, because of the whole average whatever thingy? I don't know too much about how it works, but I'm pretty sure that if someone starts claiming they have an IQ of over 200, you start laughing.

Bronze Dog said...

Yeah, I know. And I'll spare my addiction-prone readers the link to the TV Tropes entry. I mostly wrote it for a bit of humorous exaggeration.

Akusai said...

When I met with Mike Stackpole at Gen Con last month he talked about what he called the "smart man's fallacy," when someone knows something is a trick but doesn't have the requisite skillset to explain it correctly and so comes up with an entirely-too complicated wrong explanation instead of just admitting they don't know how the trick was done.

He said he spoke at a MENSA meeting once and did a simple mentalism trick that used a magician's force to get the mark to choose a preordained page from a book (that the magician has already memorized). The magician asks for the number of the page they picked and then says the first few words on the page. It worked, and the MENSA folks were tripping over themselves trying to come up with some way that Stackpole had run the page number through a complicated mathematical formula to derive the first few words from the page. They knew it wasn't psychic powers, but they were too blinded by their own "intelligence" to realize that it was quite simple: Stackpole had simply lied to them. Instead they used that "intelligence" to bloviate about overly-complicated math and completely missed the damn point.

In short, I agree: raw smartness is not the key to anything. It's far more important to have a good mental toolset to use when evaluating claims.

Valhar2000 said...

The TVTropes entry, that's exactly what I was thinking of. IN that entry they claim that IQs of more than 180 or 190 are simply "too high to measure", and I think they even give some examples of fictional works in which that expression was used to describe the IQ of a very intelligent person.

Of course, the examples of fictional works giving characters IQs in the hundreds or thousands are innumerable.

Bronze Dog said...

From Akusai:

When I met with Mike Stackpole at Gen Con last month he talked about what he called the "smart man's fallacy," when someone knows something is a trick but doesn't have the requisite skillset to explain it correctly and so comes up with an entirely-too complicated wrong explanation instead of just admitting they don't know how the trick was done.

Reminds me of Captain Disillusion's recent debunk and correction: Ghost girl in a pantry with a foggy glass window. The Captain tried checking for video editing artifacts, and couldn't find any, and Randi conveniently showed up to give an alternate explanation: The back of the pantry opened to another room, where the girl could sneak in and out. The Amazing Randi himself can be subject to the fallacy, so always be ready to question anyone, even our most mentors.

Then came the correction with a much simpler explanation: The girl would stay out of the camera frame, ducking into a cubby on the side, crawl in or out when the camera was focused up high, etcetera. Much simpler, and requires no expertise in carpentry.

Dunc said...

Anybody who boasts of their MENSA membership clearly doesn't have anything really worth boasting about... It's always a red flag when I see that. (Along with "IPCC expert reviewer"...)

I've probably got a higher raw IQ than my big brother, but he's the one with the PhD, because he's not a slacker and I am.