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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 publish “Unskilled 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
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
Got a strange map? Let me know at email@example.com.
The potential of CRISPR technology is incredible, but the threats are too serious to ignore.
- CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats) is a revolutionary technology that gives scientists the ability to alter DNA. On the one hand, this tool could mean the elimination of certain diseases. On the other, there are concerns (both ethical and practical) about its misuse and the yet-unknown consequences of such experimentation.
- "The technique could be misused in horrible ways," says counter-terrorism expert Richard A. Clarke. Clarke lists biological weapons as one of the potential threats, "Threats for which we don't have any known antidote." CRISPR co-inventor, biochemist Jennifer Doudna, echos the concern, recounting a nightmare involving the technology, eugenics, and a meeting with Adolf Hitler.
- Should this kind of tool even exist? Do the positives outweigh the potential dangers? How could something like this ever be regulated, and should it be? These questions and more are considered by Doudna, Clarke, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, psychologist Steven Pinker, and physician Siddhartha Mukherjee.
Measuring a person's movements and poses, smart clothes could be used for athletic training, rehabilitation, or health-monitoring.
In recent years there have been exciting breakthroughs in wearable technologies, like smartwatches that can monitor your breathing and blood oxygen levels.
But what about a wearable that can detect how you move as you do a physical activity or play a sport, and could potentially even offer feedback on how to improve your technique?
And, as a major bonus, what if the wearable were something you'd actually already be wearing, like a shirt of a pair of socks?
That's the idea behind a new set of MIT-designed clothing that use special fibers to sense a person's movement via touch. Among other things, the researchers showed that their clothes can actually determine things like if someone is sitting, walking, or doing particular poses.
The group from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) says that their clothes could be used for athletic training and rehabilitation. With patients' permission, they could even help passively monitor the health of residents in assisted-care facilities and determine if, for example, someone has fallen or is unconscious.
The researchers have developed a range of prototypes, from socks and gloves to a full vest. The team's "tactile electronics" use a mix of more typical textile fibers alongside a small amount of custom-made functional fibers that sense pressure from the person wearing the garment.
According to CSAIL graduate student Yiyue Luo, a key advantage of the team's design is that, unlike many existing wearable electronics, theirs can be incorporated into traditional large-scale clothing production. The machine-knitted tactile textiles are soft, stretchable, breathable, and can take a wide range of forms.
"Traditionally it's been hard to develop a mass-production wearable that provides high-accuracy data across a large number of sensors," says Luo, lead author on a new paper about the project that is appearing in this month's edition of Nature Electronics. "When you manufacture lots of sensor arrays, some of them will not work and some of them will work worse than others, so we developed a self-correcting mechanism that uses a self-supervised machine learning algorithm to recognize and adjust when certain sensors in the design are off-base."
The team's clothes have a range of capabilities. Their socks predict motion by looking at how different sequences of tactile footprints correlate to different poses as the user transitions from one pose to another. The full-sized vest can also detect the wearers' pose, activity, and the texture of the contacted surfaces.
The authors imagine a coach using the sensor to analyze people's postures and give suggestions on improvement. It could also be used by an experienced athlete to record their posture so that beginners can learn from them. In the long term, they even imagine that robots could be trained to learn how to do different activities using data from the wearables.
"Imagine robots that are no longer tactilely blind, and that have 'skins' that can provide tactile sensing just like we have as humans," says corresponding author Wan Shou, a postdoc at CSAIL. "Clothing with high-resolution tactile sensing opens up a lot of exciting new application areas for researchers to explore in the years to come."
The paper was co-written by MIT professors Antonio Torralba, Wojciech Matusik, and Tomás Palacios, alongside PhD students Yunzhu Li, Pratyusha Sharma, and Beichen Li; postdoc Kui Wu; and research engineer Michael Foshey.
The work was partially funded by Toyota Research Institute.