A Short Piece

None of Us Are Very Smart

Should we focus on “being logical” more than “being intelligent?”

Photo by Kirsten Drew

What does it mean to call someone “smart” if at best all we ever know is maybe 1% of all there is to know? Okay, let’s be generous: let’s say we can know 10%. What was failing in High School? 69%? Yea, I don’t think any of us are very smart.

Thinking there are “smart people” out there, we come to overestimate how much people know. We need to get it deep in our bones: we don’t really know anything. We know a sliver of a sliver of a sliver of a sliver…of what this universe holds. Our smartness is maybe the size of a gnat, so what does it mean to say someone is “smart?” Not much.

However, we can be logical (and perhaps this is what we mean when we say “that person is intelligent”). We don’t know everything, but we can be logical about what we do know. For me, this means we need to shift our focus to “being logical” from “being smart.”

(Yes, I understand some people might prefer using the word “rational” instead of “logical” — or some other term — but you get the point.)

We should primarily aim to be “a logical person,” someone who is talented at thinking about what we don’t know about when we encounter it. Being “smart” could be a secondary goal, seeing as we can’t know everything. A far more important skill is learning how to think about stuff we just encountered or never thought about before, and how to think based on incomplete information. A focus on “smartness” suggests we need to store up all the answers so that we’re ready for whatever comes our way — and yet it’s not possible to prepare for any more than maybe 1% of what’s out there.

Yes, “smart” can be a simile for “logical,” but I think noting a distinction is useful (as it’s useful to define “love” from “like”). Personally, I just think “smart” is more likely to generate overconfidence and “true ignorance” than the word “logical.” There’s something in “logical” that doesn’t suggest we know a lot about everything there is to know, while “smart” connotes a strong grasp on the universe. No one has that strong of a grasp, hence my aversion to the term.

Also, there are problems with getting this backward. If we think “being logical” is the same as “being smart,” we can assume logical people always know what they are doing, which could lead to severe disillusionment when they make mistakes. Conflating “logical” and “smart,” we can be overly optimistic and/or overly cynical about our elites and experts. Sure, maybe logical people know more than average people, but they can make mistakes just like us. Even if they are perfectly logical about x, since x will probably entail a lot of “incomplete data,” they can still make plenty of mistakes. When those mistakes happen, conflating “logical” with “smart,” disillusionment can set in severely.

How do we cultivate logic versus smartness? Well, that’s a focus of countless papers by O.G. Rose

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