The wonderful comedian George Carlin once quipped to an enraptured audience a rather astute but highly derogatory comment: “Think how stupid the average person is, and then realise that half of them are stupider than that.” What made the remark funny was that Carlin often unapologetically made fun of religion and was unreserved in his scorn of people who couldn’t think for themselves – the implication here being that the average person never gave much thought to their beliefs and despite being insufficiently knowledgeable in many important issues, were quick to insist on their views. And have we not met such people? They are like human mouthpieces, insisting that perhaps you must serve your country unconditionally, or that this rule of relationship / love must be followed, or maybe how this particular religion is the only true faith.
Carlin never really clarified the point on intelligence further, but it is safe to assume that he, similar to most of us, would not believe academic qualifications to be a suitable benchmark. As Michael Shermer observed through his psychological research, intelligent people can believe some really weird stuff. And ironically, such educated people are also the least likely to change their minds. Intelligence fosters over-confidence, and the result is that we end up thinking that our own opinions have a greater pound of truth than others. Ben Carson, who ran in the recent US election, is probably the most readily recognised face of being a ‘smart stupid person’. Despite being a neuroscientist, he rejects evolution and climate change in favour of his religious nonsense, and when pressed on many important political issues, he is often a garbled mix of incoherent sentences and bad religious appeals.
And well-known celebrities do not perform better. Despite their immense fame, skill and dedication, many of them follow very bizarre beliefs. For instance, Rafa Nadal who plays competitive tennis, believes he should only cross the lines with his right foot and insists that his opponent should approach the umpire first. This isn’t any different from Chinese stupidity with Feng shui (of which its many adherents claim to have ‘proof’) or various superstitious nonsense about black cats, holy water and walking under a ladder. Whatever it is, the minds of these prominent people are woefully depressing. And sadly, the vast majority of people are not put off by it, nor do they really care. Yet, such unthinking behaviour and bad assumptions surely is an indication of low intelligence – assuming one can look past the typical celebrity veneer.
So then, what is the best indicator that someone is smart? Perhaps only three key attributes need to be present together: Curiosity, skepticism and humility. With curiosity, it is a recognition that you do not have enough knowledge but you must seek out more. The smartest people always know that there’s something left to learn, and they must make learning a lifelong process. Skepticism then is the understanding that it’s extremely easy to fool the mind, and that our beliefs need to be scrutinised.For example, religion and superstition have no compatibility with science and logic and it’s an answer one must arrive at by sheer effort and necessary doubt. Humility then, is the willingness to admit that we will always be vulnerable to thinking errors no matter how much we know, and that questions only lead to more questions. There may not be any answers to be had except to accept our powerlessness.
The rare existence of these combined qualities in an individual should be an extremely important consideration for any relationship. But because most of us are (as Carlin often liked to joke) part of the average, we simply do not have ability to see nor value such characteristics in friends or romantic partners. How can you look for something when you can’t even recognise them? In the end, the aforementioned attributes might not have anything to do with being smart at all, but merely what you need to be a fully realised human. For such uncommon people, making their acquaintances and being able to grow alongside them will always be a necessarily difficult but endless learning journey.
So, have you thought about (HYTA) what truly defines intelligence?