Why Smart People Get Stupid Ideas

Written by: N.S. Palmer | Posted on: | Category:

If you want to hear stupid ideas, talk to a stupid person. But if you want to hear incredibly, mind-bogglingly stupid ideas, talk to a smart person.

It's not a new insight. Political pundit William F. Buckley once said that he "would rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University."1

In 1787, American Founder Thomas Jefferson wrote to the son of a close friend. Among other things, Jefferson advised that it was a waste of time to study moral philosophy:

"State a moral case to a [farmer] and a professor. The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules."

Smart people often get things right. When they get things wrong, they often get them spectacularly wrong. Why?

They over-estimate how much they know

Smart people are often successful. They got good grades in school. They're highly skilled in their fields. They usually know a lot of things, which leads them to think that they're experts about everything.

One of the funniest examples shows Harvard University graduates explaining the seasons. Why does it get cold in the winter and hot in the summer? Their explanations are both ludicrously inaccurate and stated with absolute confidence. These ignorant people aspire to run American society.

Another example is "the dartboard fund." Professional investors devote their time to studying the stock and bond markets. They know a lot, and they believe it helps them predict which investments will make money. But their predictions seem less reliable than just throwing darts at a list of stocks:

"[The Wall Street Journal] writers threw darts at a stock list in the newspaper. From those random hits they built a portfolio to stack up against highflying financial elites ... So how did the dart-throwing journalists do this year? 'The results were brutal,' recounts Spencer Jakab of The Journal. The random writer picks beat the pros by 27 percentage points in the year through April 22."

And it's not just stocks. In politics and diplomacy, the same applies.2

Smart people also assume that their expertise in one area of knowledge automatically makes them experts in other areas. Richard Dawkins is a superstar in biology, but considerably less competent in philosophy and theology. Sean Carroll is a superstar in physics, but his political ideas are boringly trite and predictable.

They use the wrong tool

If your favorite tool is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail.

Smart people really are smart -- i.e., they are usually good at remembering facts, seeing patterns, doing calculations, and using language. As a result, thinking is their favorite tool. They try to think their way through problems that were solved long ago (and better) by our biological and cultural evolution. The solutions they find are often plausible in theory but disastrous in practice.

Psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa argues that the disconnect comes from the environment in which human brains evolved:

"Evolutionary adaptations, whether physical or psychological, are designed for and adapted to the conditions of the ancestral environment when they evolved, not necessarily to the conditions of the current environment. Evolution cannot anticipate or foresee the future; it can only respond to conditions in the past."3

Our pre-human ancestors had no books, science, technology, or mathematics. Language was barely more than grunts and growls. In other words, there were few of the kinds of problems at which smart people excel:

"Intelligent people are only good at doing things that are relatively new in the course of human evolution. They are not necessarily good at doing things that our ancestors have always done, like finding and keeping a mate, being a parent, and making friends. Intelligent people tend not to be good at doing things that are most important in life."4

In other words, smart people are bad at understanding human life, how human beings feel, and how to solve normal human problems. Their favorite tool, thinking, is a much less reliable guide than history and human experience. As a result, they think their way into errors.

That's why Jefferson said that a farmer could decide moral issues better than a professor. A professor tries to think of the solution. He applies abstract concepts from books he's read. On the other hand, a farmer often knows the solution intuitively. The farmer applies concrete lessons from real life. And for moral questions, real life is what counts -- so the farmer is more likely to be right.


  1. Telephone directories were books that listed the phone numbers of people in each town or city. Before the 1990s, most people had home telephones whose numbers seldom changed.
  2. Smart people make more reliable predictions when the relevant factors are quantifiable and governed by physical laws. But if the situation involves human behavior, then predictions by smart people are often less reliable than the dartboard fund.
  3. Satoshi Kanazawa, The Intelligence Paradox: Why the Intelligent Choice Isn't Always the Smart One, Kindle ebook loc. 610.
  4. Ibid, loc. 208.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an "impressively nuanced analysis."