On a new definition of smartness

Of all the human qualities celebrated by the society, the one quality that excites, attracts and intrigues people the most is mental acumen. No matter what people say, there is something weirdly charming about a person whose brain works faster than the rest of us, who can do calculations and reach at an answer faster than anyone else in the room, who can argue for and defend his/her beliefs and who knows more than most of us. Movies and stories often make a hero out of the odd genius who always gets everything right and who “knew it all along”. Now, I am not saying that a faster mind or a vaster knowledge base is something that I resent. Being a scientist at heart, I have always considered intelligence and intellectualism to be of prime importance to our society. It is especially true in today’s world where a wave of anti-intellectualism and outright dumbassery is taking over the world. But, there is something inherently wrong about the way we define smartness and I wish to make a case for a new, more enlightened definition of smartness.

Francis Harry Compton Crick or Francis Crick is a British molecular biologist who received the Nobel prize in 1953 for discovering the double helix structure of DNA along with James Watson. He was a great scientist. He was also a strong supporter of Eugenics, a set of beliefs that aims to “improve” the quality of human population by eliminating or restricting reproduction among certain sections of the population. Not only is this belief inhuman, it is also grossly unscientific and it can only be considered ironical that the discoverer of the structure of DNA supported it.

Albert Einstein, the man who single handedly revolutionized our understanding of the universe and physics could never wrap his head around some of the implications of quantum mechanics (again an irony considering that he received the Nobel prize for his theory of photoelectric effect which he explained using photos, the quanta of EM wave) and has been known to have refuted them by saying “God does not play dice with the universe”

Kary Mullis is an American biochemist, who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing the polymerase chain reaction (PCR), a technique to amplify a fragment of DNA. PCR is a mainstay of any biology lab and has revolutionized the field of forensics. He is widely infamous for being a AIDS denier (Yup, he believes its all a hoax) and climate change denier.

All the three people mentioned above are no doubt intelligent men, way more intelligent than the average person and have achieved great things in their lives but, despite of all their intelligence they were dead wrong about a number of issues. Why? Because, they are human beings. And our brains have some inherent biases so deeply rooted in our thinking process that even the smartest among us can fall prey to them. Make no mistake though. These biases are very useful. They are shortcuts our brain uses to think faster, they are remnants of our past when acting quickly meant the difference between life and death. But, as our brains developed and our thought process became more complex these artifacts of our brain have become impediments to clear thinking. The biggest and the most well known of these biases is the confirmation bias. We cherry-pick data points that support and strengthen our side of the argument while we merrily turn a blind eye to evidence that points to an alternate narrative of the truth. Our brains are obsessed with creating stories and any evidence that doesn’t fit into a simple straight forward story is gladly overlooked. The fact that our society celebrates cocksureness and “confidence” hasn’t helped much either. In an environment where everyone is forced to have a clear stand on every single issue, it makes little sense to be unsure and wavering even if that comes at the cost of being wrong. We all cover ourselves in a selectively permeable membrane that only lets ideas that confirm to our already held views in.

But, to be able to make right decisions, to be able to choose the right people to elect, we need to shed this membrane. We need to be more curious. Before telling children the things they should know, we need to teach them the pleasure of discovering the unknown. We need to teach them to hold two opposing thoughts in their head simultaneously while, believing in only one of them, on the off chance that the other might turn out be true, in light of new evidence. And most importantly, we all need to learn to be okay with being wrong. We need to stop associating our worth and pride with being right about an issue. If the facts compel, we should be flexible enough to shed our earlier held beliefs and adopt the new, more correct ones. Our species has been so successful only because of those brief moments of genius when someone decided to challenge one of society’s core ideas because evidence pointed in another direction. This is the kind of thinking science is based on.

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On a new definition of smartness

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