July 06, 2008

Trusting Smart People

Nikki and I missed the fireworks because Wisconsin and Illinois all have their fireworks on July 3 ... a fact we did not discover until July 4. There's got to be something unpatriotic about not having fireworks on the 4th. :) Instead, we went to see Wanted. I didn't like it and advise you not to see it if you haven't already. It was rather good in a technical sense, had some interesting plot twists, and did some daring things as a story ... but I didn't like it. I think it's fair to say this film deserved an R rating, and it's a film that should be avoided on those grounds.

However, watching it was useful in one respect: it led to a really good conversation between Nikki and I me as I mused about the thoughts and feelings we had about the film and explored the rabbit trails that discussion turned up.

Nikki chanced to say something that really caught my attention. We were discussing the attitude I take toward some of my friends; how much I trust and value their opinion (don't ask me how we got here from Wanted: I have no idea). Nikki pointed out that a great deal of the reason I trust and value these people is because they're really smart.

I place an enormous value on intelligence. Perhaps because I place fairly well on that scale. I have a healthy skepticism about my own infallibility, but Nikki pointed out that I have no such skepticism about people I consider smarter than me. I suppose my underlying belief is that my fallibility is a result of not being smart enough: if I was smarter, I wouldn't be as fallible.

This also leads me to great distress, because smart people disagree. All the time. They like it! I seem to have acquired the idea somehow that smart people are supposed to be right, and therefore they're supposed to agree. This is not the case. As a simple example, in companies that attempt to mandate coding standards there are wars fought over whether a tab in text files should be 8 characters, 4, or 2, and if it should be represented by a tab character or spaces (for the record, I waver between 2 and 4 spaces and would prefer tabs, in case somebody cares). Most of the people doing this fighting are fellow nerds, likely among the smarter half of the population. And they still can't agree.

A closer look at my feelings on that turned up a number of interesting things:

  • I have a tendency to think that failure to agree is failure to understand, and that failure to understand is due to a failure of intelligence (if not adequately explaned by differences in background, training, or communication.)
  • I have a tendency to put people I consider smarter than me on pedestals, constantly comparing my own opinions to theirs and often modifying mine to more closely fit theirs (I seldom carry this to ridiculous extremes, or it would be more obvious).
  • Disagreeing with someone I consider smarter than me is painful until I can find an alternative "expert" who agrees with me. (Not generally a difficult thing to do).

I'm not sure of what to do about this. The problem of knowing truth is an old one, and is intractable from a human standpoint. Smart people are valuable allies in a search for truth ... but every idea under the sun has smart people defending it. And it is perilous to forget this: "In that same hour he [Christ] rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.’" (Luke 10:21, ESV) And even further:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men."

(1 Corinthians 1:18-25, ESV, emphasis mine)

And further: "Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and do not lean on your own understanding." Or that of someone else.

It is perilous to trust smart people. It gives you an excuse to avoid doing your own thinking. As they go astray they lead you astray. Do not set up smart people as little gods in your life.

Posted by Leatherwood on July 06, 2008 at 04:30 PM