Thursday, November 19, 2009

Society — Not Just a Few Individuals —Needs to "Get Smarter"

In the a recent Atlantic magazine (July / August, 2009) Jamais Cascio spins an entertaining but ultimately depressing variation on the enduring American myth of unbounded future greatness based on technological achievement.

The core of the idea is that people (some) will get smarter and smarter in the future and because of that, things will get better and better. Seemingly unassailable problems related to fossil fuel depletion global warming may vanish against the people who outsmart them.

I have nothing against smart people. Some of my best friends are smart. But smart people created the latest financial crisis and are probably cooking up the next catastrophe right now. Maybe they're so smart that they'd trick us out of our money (again). And why should these new savants deign to help those with lesser IQs? Orthodox economics assures us that it is rationale to maximize your return on investment. W. C. Fields echoed this sentiment when he advised us to "Never give a sucker an even break."

Research on intelligence doesn't support the claim that the great unsmartened mass of us will benefit from the accelerated smartness of the few. Raymond S. Nickerson in his chapter "Teaching Reasoning" reminds us that "Although high intelligence is an asset for good reasoning, it is not a guarantee of it. It does not, for example, ensure that those who have it will be immune to the foibles, such as a my-side bias in argument production, that afflict less gifted mortals (Perkins, Farady, & Bushey, 1991). More generally, high intelligence does not ensure that those who have it will hold only well-justified beliefs (Sokal & Bricmont, 1998)." And in a recent New Scientist article (October 31, 2009), "It's How You Use it That Counts" by Michael Bond, high IQ doesn't correlate with the ability to avoid "some common traps of intuitive thinking" or the ability to make good decisions. Bond also points out that IQ tells us nothing about what a person chooses to focus his or her sharper intellect on.

Unfortunately Cascio's paean to smartness diverts society's attention from our deepest problems and how to address them effectively. That we can make little headway against shared problems without broad social deliberation and collaboration. Although alleviating our problems may require smart people (probably lots of them), our problems won't be solved solely by them. Societal problems must be acknowledged by all of society or at least big portions of it. This is the promise — that we ignore at our own peril — of democracy.

I'd love to see Cascio turn his attention to the more interesting, more challenging, and more useful task, of building collective intelligence. To continue to celebrate and focus our attention on building the resources and capabilities of the privileged few at the expense of the many is folly.

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