People can be individually smart and collectively dumb. Or some may argue that people can be individually dumb yet collectively smart. When it comes to plotting a future path, I think we often get the worst of both worlds. In this post, I’ll look at the role that mental horsepower plays in our societal narratives, for better or for worse. We’ll explore two aspects to the problem: people who are so smart that they have dumb ideas; and smart people who are held captive by the manufactured “dumb” of society.

A word of warning: “smart” and “dumb” are loaded words, and even impolite. We place so much value on intelligence in our society that being called smart can make a person’s day, while being called dumb can cut to the core. We’re very sensitive to people’s perceptions of our intellectual standing, and some of the choicest insecurities are laid upon this foundation. I use “smart” and “dumb” as blunt instruments in this post, so if you’re particularly touchy on the topic, either steel yourself or skip the post and call it the smartest thing you did all day.

Let me preface what I am about to say by the disclaimer that most of this is conjecture. I have little data, relying instead on hunches about what makes people tick based on personal observations.

One other disclaimer: this isn’t a post whose veiled message is how smart I am. I might once have thought so, but then I met bona-fide geniuses when I was in grad school at Caltech. Fortunately, I was mature enough at that point for it not to cause a crisis of confidence or identity, and rather enjoyed the window I had into the off-scale brilliance of some individuals. So let’s go ahead and put me in the dumb box so we can move on to what I want to say.


The Smart Handicap

Some people are so freakishly smart that they have little insight into the minds of us mere mortals. It can therefore be hard for these individuals to navigate the world of ordinary people; like trying to get somewhere fast on a bicycle, hemmed in by throngs of sluggish pedestrians on the sidewalk. In theory, the bike is fast. In the real world, it has limited effect. It is, of course, possible to build a model for how people are likely to behave, and cope with the result. But I imagine smart people still often get caught off guard when someone stubbornly fails to understand what is obvious to them.

This is similar to a condition that I call the libertarian fallacy: “I can imagine a world working almost entirely on a market system, with very little role for government aside from defense, police, punitive services, etc. I don’t personally need a lot of rules or structure to stay in line, so nor should anyone else—so let’s back off on the governmental grip, huh?” It’s pretty similar to the line of thinking that “if everyone were as centered as me, the world would be a better place.” Next step: wish that world into existence. What I think is missing is that most of what government provides is so effectively accomplished as to be practically invisible, so that it becomes easier to envision a world without the bloated, obstructive government. Lost is the fact that successful countries with good jobs, social mobility, a well-functioning infrastructure, and humming economies all have substantial governments. No accident. Taxes (government) or warlords, I like to say: you pick. But I have veered into the political, albeit in a way tied to my overall point.

I got some personal insight into the “smart handicap” when I was a grad student. A friend and I were interested in taking an introductory course on the environment. What the heck: it would be a nice break from all-physics, all-the-time. Only we found out just before the beginning of the first class that it had been cancelled for the quarter. So we popped open the catalog, shopping for something else with which to entertain ourselves for the next hour, having already cleared the time. We spotted a course on Game Theory in the economics department, and minutes later walked into a dimly lit classroom of maybe 15 students sitting around a large U-shaped table. To illustrate one of the motivations for game theory, the professor pulled out a $20 bill and proposed a game to select a winner.

The game went like this: “Pick a number between 0 and 100. You’ll write down the answer on a sheet of paper and pass it forward. After you do so, I’ll take the average of the numbers and give the $20 bill to the person whose number is closest to one-half the average, so chose your number accordingly. Now go.”

I set about working my way through what would happen if people chose numbers randomly between 0 and 100, deciding that 25 would be the right answer in such a case. But wait, everybody’s probably thinking similar things. What if they all pick 25. Then 12 or 13 would be a good pick. But they’re right there with me, aren’t they? I should just go lower and lower. But wait, is everybody really pursuing this same line of thought? Are they second-guessing like I am? This is really a game about guessing how deeply others are thinking about it, or how deeply they judge the rest to be thinking about it. Oh heck; I’ll just put down 11 and be done with it.

There were some ridiculous guesses in the class. I recall that someone—no joke—picked 50. There might have even been a higher guess than this, but now it seems impossible that such a memory could be correct. There were a few 25′s and other guesses in that range. A few individuals picked zero, figuring that everyone would catch onto the downward convergence, and we could all split the money. They were incredulous when I won the $20 with my guess (and an outcome around 9, I believe). I recall that someone voiced utter disbelief that his zero wasn’t the correct answer.

Actually, I must admit that while I quickly understood the downward tug, I did not recognize until the game was over the beauty and perfection of zero as the only “right” answer. Lower numbers made me nervous, short-circuiting the theoretical pull to take the game to the extreme. This corrective impulse was apparently missing in the “smartest” students in the room, attracted as they were to the “perfect” answer.

When it Comes to the Energy Challenge

So how does the “smart handicap” play out on the biggest challenges we face? Or asked another way, what do really smart people think is going to happen? I can report that many of them are not nearly as worried as I am. That said, a number of my colleagues (10–20% if I had to make a crude guess) do share my concerns—and the ones that don’t are frequently immersed in unrelated research anyway.

One characteristic of luminaries (at least in physics) is an ability to see some fundamental, unifying truth that—once understood—casts everything else into sharp relief. So powerfully successful is this line of reasoning (e.g., in physics: conservation laws, symmetries, group theory), that there is a temptation to apply similar tools to our messy world. Thus often a single principle is seized upon: market forces; transformative technologies; the simple truth that we have more hydrocarbons in the ground than the atmosphere can take, if burned (therefore we don’t face energy supply problems as much as we do CO2 problems); shale gas; thorium breeder reactors; fusion; abundant solar energy.

The incisive power of these truths are very attractive. Sometimes, the more subtle or mind-bending the notion, the tighter a grip it has on the brainiac. Market forces are a good example of this. The mechanism is dashed-clever, exercised by a host of independent operators, effectively trying every solution to a problem and letting a natural selection process determine the optimal solution. It’s beautiful. I get it. But there are a couple of gotchas.

First, psychology plays a role. These people are smart, but also have emotional needs like every other human on the planet. For many truly exceptional, brilliant, admirable, amazing people, the best succor in life is reflected appreciation for their smarts. This is not to be taken as a negative. A good bowler likes to see a high score reaffirm his or her capability, and doesn’t mind when other people notice the score as well. A talented mother likes to know that her efforts are appreciated and reflected in the quality of her children’s behavior. A crafty individual is likely to have choice creations on display. It may not be shameless or overtly self-promoting, but rarely do individuals completely conceal their finest attributes. Praise makes us feel good.

For smart folks, this can manifest itself by putting on display a command of intricate concepts, in a way that few around them could manage to do. I have already mentioned market subtleties as one example. Another is turning loose a powerful intellect on envisioning the unimaginable amazingness of life in the far future. Recognizing that only the most extreme visionaries of centuries past could possibly have had the foresight to anticipate key aspects of the world we live in today, the challenge appeals. The result is that some searingly bright individuals tend to wow us with their ability to envision otherwise unappreciated future possibilities. Freeman Dyson epitomizes this mode. There is method to the madness, resulting in some amazing insights wrapped in the crazy. Detractors can easily be characterized as dull and unimaginative next to the intellectual giant. Another way to get kicks.

[Wait, let me try! 200 years hence, most humans will: sleep through nights; enjoy eating (and discussing food); still be "using the bathroom;" experience love, anger, jealousy, and laughter; enjoy colorful things; craft, trade, and innovate. How’d I do?]

The second gotcha is that the attraction of a single key insight may overshadow a host of more mundane—but no less real—concerns. Like a raccoon pleased to be grasping a shiny object, the nails driven into the side of the knothole are of secondary concern, even if they mean that the raccoon is ill-served by continuing to hold onto the trinket for its isolated pleasure (see here if I lost you with this reference). Once you’ve got-hold of an insightful thought relevant to the situation, it is hard to abandon it as only partly valid or even rendered irrelevant in the face of real-world crud. Wishing that the world would follow pristine, elegant logic is insufficient to make it so.

Thus, while the efficient market hypothesis may be a lovely thing, and a joy to comprehend, other factors get in the way and sometimes cause market failure. If no one on the planet wants a recession (or worse), and the market is efficient enough to anticipate looming problems and deftly side-step, then why are recessions, bubbles, and other failures ubiquitous features of our economic landscape? What happens when the resource landscape shifts underneath the comparatively transient growth-based economic worldview?

Likewise, while it’s true that we have more hydrocarbons in the ground than we have atmosphere to accommodate the combustion products, this insight does not constitute a reason to dismiss peak oil or related concerns, since layers of complexity (viscous fluid in porous rock; declining energy return; best sites exploited first; geopolitical factors) collectively impose a practical rate limit on resource extraction, so that the amount of resource in the ground is not the primary metric (see earlier post).

Not all “smart” people are handicapped by attraction to singularly clever ideas, obviously, and some are exceptionally talented at managing uncertainty and complexity. Even so, I believe the fixation on gnarly concepts to be a real phenomenon, and suspect that many of us share similar attractions to ideas that just fit in our minds.

Politicians are Victims to Us Idiots

Leaving aside the prodigies among us, everyday people make choices and decisions based on personal needs and local conditions—without investing much time into researching the state of the world and future prospects as they relate to those same choices. In an ideal world, those whose attentions are focused on long-term challenges would help to chart a course for the rest of us to follow. These “smart” people—even if individually focused on an incomplete picture—would presumably collectively make some good decisions on behalf of society.

Fortunately [sarcasm alert], we live in a democracy that protects us against the tyranny of pencilheads. People vote based on common sense, political/cultural identity, and/or maximizing personal financial benefit. Long term concerns have difficulty competing for attention, not least of which because distant realities are obscured by uncertainty. Look how hard it has been to accept climate change as a no-brainer consequence of prodigious combustion of fossil fuels.

On the topic of climate change, Bill McKibben brought up some interesting points in his excellent global warming article on the subject of peoples’ political decisions (emphasis mine):

Green groups […] have spent a lot of time trying to change individual lifestyles: the iconic twisty light bulb has been installed by the millions, but so have a new generation of energy-sucking flatscreen TVs. Most of us are fundamentally ambivalent about going green: We like cheap flights to warm places, and we’re certainly not going to give them up if everyone else is still taking them. Since all of us are in some way the beneficiaries of cheap fossil fuel, tackling climate change has been like trying to build a movement against yourself—it’s as if the gay-rights movement had to be constructed entirely from evangelical preachers, or the abolition movement from slaveholders.

The result is that it does not matter whether the President, our Senators, or our Representatives personally accept and understand climate change or any other long-term threat to the status quo. Let’s pretend they are “smart” in this context. As long as giant buckets full of voters oppose action that would increase energy costs, require reductions of energy usage, or mandate greater efficiency, the (vote-conscious) politicians have their hands tied and their feet in a sack. So here’s our companion to the smart handicap: we get a dumb handicap too, keeping smart ideas from being implemented.

Political Paralysis

I am at least as worried by this paralysis as I am about the path the future will take. I believe that an economy based on growth is on a collision course, being set on the stage of a finite and filling Earth. I believe this will manifest most sharply in the oil (liquid fuel; transportation) domain, but fossil fuels in general are also on the hook. And we face no shortage of other existential challenges associated with a growing population exerting pressure on atmospheric quality, water, agriculture, fish and species survival, etc.

Yet these are beliefs. I can’t prove to anyone that this is our path: just (hopefully) that it’s a legitimate set of concerns. What I am more certain about is that if my concerns are validated in the coming decades, our political system is woefully ill-equipped to respond appropriately. If resource-imposed reductions are part of our objective future, our citizens will not go down that road quietly. Unless a majority of people understand the inevitability of downward adaptations, any politician vowing to save us from that defeatist path will rise to power on the backs of those who either refuse to—or simply do not—comprehend the physical impositions we face.

Moreover, the recognition that a politician only needs to stoke the denial and lambast the “responsible” path to gain popular support will surely incentivize deliberate misinformation campaigns and stirring of uncertainty. Gee—where have we ever seen this before? A recent book by a UCSD colleague, Merchants of Doubt, details high-profile instances of this old saw.

When we combine physical limitations with political ambition, natural aversion to a reduced standard of living, and a population insufficiently prepared to evaluate the fundamental problem, I can predict an unfortunate outcome.

Hobbled Reaction

A unifying theme here is that people across the intellectual spectrum exert influence on our future. No one is smart enough to see all ends or anticipate the path to the future. Very smart people often disagree on fundamental issues, may get trapped into narrow yet compelling lines of argument, or refrain from prognosticating on account of a high degree of uncertainty. Meanwhile, ambitious people find it easy to manipulate public opinion to stymie action—especially when such action brings easily exposed short-term sacrifices.

So we’re caught between not knowing which smart people to believe (they can’t all be right), and a population predisposed to being misled by intellectual “superiors.” In the post, I offered some speculative psychological mechanisms by which smart people can miss the boat.

My reaction is to be skeptical of anyone who expresses certainty about our future, whether it’s on the doom side or the “infinity and beyond” side. Meanwhile, I see a plausible reason to worry about the pitfalls accompanying the decline of the fossil fuel age, and sense a reality disconnect in those who see our upward march continuing indefinitely. Given the structural challenges stacked against an effective reaction to the doom side of the divide, I tend to take this one more seriously, due to the asymmetric risk associated with it. If I am wrong to worry about the doom option, but in the process encourage urgent transition to renewable resources and reduced personal energy usage, where’s the harm in that? It seems much worse to deny the doom and be wrong, having advocated practices that only accelerate and amplify an eventual decline.

In truth, we may well hit somewhere in between: a trajectory that pulls up short of collapse, but not without some painful loss—possibly failing to regain the pinnacle we now enjoy. But who am I to say?! I just have to see it unfold like everyone else, while advocating that we play it safe, heed plausible warnings, and re-frame our expectations for the future. It may not be smart, but perhaps it’s as close as I can come.