July 21, 2002
Intellectual Arrogance

It may be surprising to those who know me, or who read this site a lot, but I really don't think I know everything. I would at least like to think I'm conscious of the boundaries of my own knowledge, and will quite readily admit when I don't know the answer to a question. This leads to very amusing looks from people who work with me, I guess because they're so used to me knowing the answer. More frequently than I'd like to admit a person will walk into my office with some obscure or bizarre question. When I say "I'm sorry, I just don't know" I get this look like I've hit them with a brick between the eyes. One executive was so disturbed by it she sat down and rehearsed a "proper" answer before a big conference. Apparently, "I don't know" is not acceptable in certain political situations.

Oh, I used to think I knew a lot of stuff. Certainly my head is stuffed full of completely useless crap about any number of obscure things. But it took reading Plato's Dialogues (or at least trying to... I've lost both copies before finishing them) before I really understood the difference between knowledge and smarts.

The Dialogues are Plato's tribute to his master Socrates. Written between 390 and 347 BC, they are easily the most accessible of Plato's works1. Socrates was the original gadfly. Were he alive in the United States today, he would probably be an extremely effective lawyer for, say, the ACLU, and would think nothing of defending even Osama in court. He was brilliant, abrasive, argumentative, ugly, and almost rabidly a-political. It eventually killed him.

Unfortunately nothing Socrates himself wrote has made it down through history to us. All we have are what Plato, his most brilliant student, chose to record for us. Because of the ancient's ambiguous sense of "the truth" and their tendency to fabricate dialogue if it suited the spirit, if not the letter, of the character in question, we cannot be completely sure if Socrates actually said the things Plato puts in his mouth. But even if the words are not "jot-and-tittle" correct, the spirit certainly is.

One of Socrates' main points was, in spite of common perception, he knew nothing. He could talk at length about pretty much anything that concerned men. He could, and regularly did, embarrass contemporary self-styled "intellectuals" with his logical constructs and philosophical arguments. But he maintained that when confronted with something as vast as the cosmos, his knowledge was infinitesimally small. Further, he argued quite persuasively on more than one occasion the only true sign of intelligence ("smarts") was the admission that one knows nothing. Even 2500 years later you can feel the consternation of his intellectual foes when they are beaten by a cranky, smelly old man who claimed to know less than a beggar on the street.

I took this argument to heart, and have kept it as a guardian ever since. Before, if confronted with a question on a topic I knew little or nothing about I would pontificate at length by pretty much making it up as I went along (having a large vocabulary and a quick wit can make you sound intelligent about any damned thing). Today, however, I will quite readily admit I know absolutely nothing about, say, CPU micro code or Sri Lankan history or differential equations or any other thing under the sun. It was not an easy habit to break, the "faking" of knowledge, and I have to keep close watch on myself to this day.

Now, I'm not completely inside the Socratic ideal. When I do know something, I'm not at all shy about pointing it out. And I know a lot of stuff. I would like to take pains to point out that in no way does this make me smarter than anyone else. My wife for one will very quickly point out that I quite regularly do things that even six year olds know not to.

But growing up with a brother who is easily as, if not more, intelligent than I am taught me again and again to only argue from absolute authority. He has probably forgotten it, but I learned a deep, hard lesson one day arguing over the performance of WWII aircraft2. Every single statement I made with incontestable older-brother authority was refuted in that oh-so-subtle "you're wrong and you suck neener-neener" 10-year old style. And the little squeaker quite gleefully pulled the books out he needed to back him up.

So I was fortunate enough to grow up with someone who was different, but equal, and wouldn't let me get away with anything intellectually just on principle. Combined with my own later learning of the great philosophers and religious thinkers, it trained me to become a kind of argumentative ninja, striking only when absolutely certain of victory, and retiring instantly when proven weaker.

But there are a lot... a lot of "smart" people out there who haven't learned the hard intellectual lessons I have. I can spot them instantly in a crowd. Large (even when physically small), loud, arrogant, and typically pontificating nonstop, they stand out like Springer guests at a MENSA meeting. The funnest thing about these people is they think just because they know a lot about one, or even a few, things, they know a lot about everything. It's usually trivial to manipulate them into stepping out of the narrow bounds of their real knowledge into the vast desert of ignorance that surrounds it.

I live for these moments, and have ruined more than one dinner party swooping in for the kill. Because these people think they're better than you and me. Because they have a degree in Computer Science, Psychology, Electrical Engineering, or run their own successful business, or make a million dollars a year, they think they've given themselves the right to judge who in this world has value, and who doesn't, in their own mind or in the minds of others.

There's nothing more savory than to publicly, either in person or via the internet, take these people down a notch or two, to expose the crosses burning behind the lofty rhetoric, the brittle crystal fanaticism behind the loving words, the reactionary goals behind the conciliatory gestures.

I know it is very bad karma to take glee in watching these people squirm impaled on pikes of argument they know nothing about. I know I should feel compassion for the most gibbering demon of belief, even when its ugliness is exposed to the light in front of friends. I know it is a faux-pas at least to hold those appointed to be our leaders and elders in front of the on-coming steam locomotive of real life. But I do it anyway. I enjoy it.

Because I may not know much, but I do know the difference between intelligence and knowledge.

Posted by scott at July 21, 2002 07:06 PM

eMail this entry!

and for that, you kick ass.

Posted by: mod on March 19, 2006 05:04 PM
Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember info?