Why smart people aren't better at transcending their biased views

Jonah Lehrer's post at The New Yorker details some worrying research on cognition and thinking through biases, indicating that “intelligence seems to make [such] things worse." This is because, as Richard West and colleagues concluded in their study, “people who were aware of their own biases were not better able to overcome them."

Being smarter does not make you better at transcending unjustified views and bad beliefs, all of which naturally then play into your life. Smarter people are better able to narrate themselves, internally, out of inconsistencies, blunders and obvious failures at rationality, whereas they would probably be highly critical of others who demonstrated similar blunders.


I am reminded of Michael Shermer's view, when he's asked why smart people believe weird things, like creationism, ghosts and (as with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) fairies: “Smart people are very good at rationalizing things they came to believe for non-smart reasons." If you've ever argued with a smart person about an obviously flawed belief, like ghosts or astrology, you'll recognise this: their justifications often involve obfuscation, deep conjecture into areas you probably haven't considered (and that probably aren't) relevant, and are all tied together neatly and eloquently because she's a smart person.

It is troubling that smarter people are often worse off, because they cannot recognise the biases and blunders, due to a deep, complex layer of justification they've narrated to themselves. It's troubling because we expect smart people to be the ones devoid of biases more than others. However, expectation as usual takes a backseat to evidence. Perhaps all we should expect of intelligence, however you conceive it, is a way of thinking, not the content of thought. This means, even if the belief is quite absurd, the methods to get to it can be smart (sophisticated theology is like this to me). But that's just one way and assuming one kind of definition of intelligence, which is notoriously difficult to study, let alone quantify.

However, this confirms something more practical to me. As Lehrer says, we're good at picking out the flaws in others. If this is true, this confirms my earlier view that we shouldn't want a world in which agreement is everywhere. We must welcome criticism and argument, since, no matter how smart we are (indeed, as this indicates, especially considering how smart we might be), we could be wrong. We are, fundamentally, flawed and fallible.

Smart people will usually be able to brush off criticism since they are convinced they are right and, due to their thinking abilities, can probably out-argue most criticism even if the criticism is right. Smart people will especially be difficult to counter if the criticism is made with capital letters, bad spelling, worse grammar and comparisons to Hitler, psychopaths and terrorists. This is a further reason why online trolling doesn't help and can make things worse: it's already difficult trying to convince a smart person that he's wrong, reasonably and with evidence, but it only makes him more convinced of his views if he sees opposition as mostly wrathful Neanderthals banging their knuckles on a keyboard.

The irony of course is that if smart people are good at picking out flaws in others, but terrible at recognising their own even when it's pointed out to them, the entire project seems pointless! I'm not sure that it is (I wouldn't be writing if I didn't have good reason to think otherwise). Smart people at some point will be stumped, since, if you have the advantage of being smart and right, with irrefutable evidence, you can do a lot of damage to their layer of internal confirmation stories (which tells of how an individual is right despite inconsistencies).

We forget that learning something new usually means unlearning biases we are probably all born with: thus, (1) if we are smart and (2) haven't been challenged at vulnerable times, say when we're younger, on certain entrenched views that many have, then when counter-arguments are presented, the bad beliefs are so tightly knitted due to our being smart that we can't simply weave a new thread. The previous one, with all its knots and bows, must itself be carefully undone.

This is, as Lehrer pointed out in a previous post, why many people don't believe in science, especially as per the Gallup polls findings on creationism and evolution: 46% believed in creationism in 1982 and 44% think the same in Gallup's latest poll. Science is, to use Lewis Wolpert's phrase, “unnatural": common sense “will never give an understanding about the nature of science. Scientific ideas are, with rare exceptions, counter-intuitive… secondly, doing science requires a conscious awareness of the pitfalls of natural thinking… lay theories are highly unreliable." Not only is a scientific view on subjects, like "Where did we come from?", counter-intuitive, even when presented with evidence to support it, people must overcome their previous, deeply entrenched views. If these views are entrenched furthermore with the abilities of a smart person, no wonder then that it makes the job even more, rather than less, difficult.

This, again, though, should not make us apathetic in trying to still convince people, even smart ones. Smart doesn't make you right: it just makes you, in many instances, better at thinking that you are.

Image Credit: olly/Shutterstock

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  • Global Oneness Project is a free library of stories—containing short documentaries, photo essays, and essays—that each contain a companion lesson plan and learning activities for students so they can expand their experience of the world.
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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

Image source: Shashank Sahay/unsplash
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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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