The Cocksure Versus the Intelligent

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."


Yesterday, nearly two thousand people “liked” this quote posted by Big Think on Facebook:

Several subscribers appreciated the irony in Russell’s quip. Here are two:

Below, I’ll return to the irony Thomas, Nancy and a few other Big Think Facebook perusers noticed  by the way, Bertrand Russell doesn’t look particularly unsure of himself in the photo, does he?  and in my next Praxis post I’ll outline a way forward for intelligent people who want to gain more confidence and coherence in their moral and political views without lapsing into dogmatism or posing with a pipe in hand.

Today I want to examine the two propositions embedded in the quotation by Russell, the British father of analytic philosophy who died in 1970.

A famous variation on Russell’s theme appears in William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” written in the wake of World War I:

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Comparing Russell and Yeats raises questions about the relationship between intelligence and virtue: are the most intelligent also “the best”? Are the stupid “the worst”? The juxtaposition relates to the second variable as well. Where Russell speaks of confidence in one’s views, Yeats refers to the “conviction” with which one lives and acts on his views. Someone who is more certain of the truth of his opinions will be more likely to live a life of “passionate intensity” while those of us who are “full of doubts” will spend our days watching “Wheel of Fortune” reruns.

How well do these observations describe reality? Let’s take them one by one.

I - The Stupid Are Cocksure

Judging by the number of commenters who snickered at the word “cocksure” on the Facebook page, plenty fans of “Beavis and Butthead” inhabit the Big Think universe. Cock to one side, Russell’s claim is this: the less intelligent you are, the more likely you are to regard the world in simplistic terms and the more likely you are to think you have a sure grasp on the truth.

Charles Darwin issued this charge in his introduction to the Descent of Man when he claimed that opponents of the theory of evolution had their heads in the sand:

It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

Psychological research bears out the claim that low-intelligence people tend to be unjustifiably confident in their views. David Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell, teamed up with his graduate student in 1999 to publishUnskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments.” The article was influential enough to leave its authors with a psychological phenomenon bearing their names: the “Dunning-Kruger effect.” Dunning undertook the research after reading about a hilariously incompetent bank robber who believed — mistakenly, it turned out  that coating his face with lemon juice would make him invisible to security cameras. Here is Errol Morris of the New York Times explaining what Dunning took away from the news item:

If Wheeler was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber — that is, his stupidity protected him from an awareness of his own stupidity.

Dunning’s research has shown that students who perform poorly on grammar assessments and logical reasoning tests also badly overestimate how well they perform, while students scoring better on the tests make more accurate predictions of their scores.

So yes, it seems the stupid can be pretty cocksure.

II - The Intelligent Are Full of Doubt

This claim has less direct evidence to support it. The Dunning–Kruger effect only implies that smarter people are more able to detect and correct their own mistakes. It doesn’t say that intelligent people are necessarily wracked by self-doubt, and certainly not that they lack all conviction.  

The original intelligent doubter was Socrates, who claimed in his defense speech in front of the Athenian jury that his wisdom consisted in his awareness of his ignorance. In contrast to the politicians, the poets and the artisans he met, all of whom were ignorant of their profound ignorance in everything but their specific craft, Socrates knew that he knew nothing.

But was Socrates “full of doubt”? Hardly. Socrates undertook his fieldwork among fellow Athenians in order to confirm the Delphic oracle’s pronouncement that he was the wisest of them all. He concluded his research with the confident assessment that the oracle was indeed right. The text of the Apology is not the statement of a whimpering nihilist. Socrates was smug from the first word to the last, and the jury was not amused or persuaded. They sentenced him to death for corrupting the youth of Athens and raising questions about the city’s gods.

Turning to our two most recent presidents as another example, we do find a correlation between intelligence level and doubt. Whereas President Bush portrayed himself as the “decider in chief” for whom foreign policy decisions come down to “you’re either with us or you’re against us,” certain moments in President Obama’s first term might earn him the title of “doubter in chief.” Obama was resolute in the operation that killed bin Laden, and he showed moxie in getting his stimulus and health care laws passed, but at other times Obama has appeared less firm in his views. He has testified to this.  

Take the Easter Prayer breakfast last April when he said, “for like us, Jesus knew doubt”:

Or re-read what was for me the strangest passage in Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention:

And while I'm proud of what we've achieved together — (cheers) — I'm far more mindful of my own failings, knowing exactly what Lincoln meant when he said, “I have been driven to my knees many times by the overwhelming conviction that I had no place else to go.”

I’m all for humility, for this was a bit too much coming from a sitting president asking us for his vote.

Obama’s self-deprecation aside, most of us, not only those on the lower end of the intelligence scale, have a tendency to be a little too sure of ourselves. The condition might be more of a Republican problem, as Chris Mooney has argued, but irrationality is a non-partisan condition. In my next Praxis post, I’ll discuss a concept from the philosophers’ toolbox that can help all of us develop sounder, more justifiable views.

Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
Keep reading Show less

Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

Keep reading Show less

The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
  • Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
  • The global antidepressant market is expected to reach $28.6 billion this year.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…