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Labour Complications in the Birth of Ideas

February 7, 2012

Reading the abstract for a Canadian study in the Psychological Science Society’s journal (Bright Minds, Dark Attitudes) that states that people with ‘lower cognitive ability’ are more likely to be prejudiced and that it is likely to manifest itself through right wing ideology, has started me thinking about the anti-intellectual trend in the UK and USA. It’s not uncommon to come across attitudes such as: “They may know everything there is to know about existential philosophy / Beethoven’s late string quartets / particle physics / early Etruscan culture (delete as appropriate) but they are a complete idiot when it comes to understanding my emotional problems / the off-side rule / assembling a flat pack wardrobe / buying presents (also delete as appropriate)”. And this does suggest that there is something along the lines of ‘common sense’ that most people have and that intellectuals don’t. I would say probably that I only have any significant skill in one of the above eight areas of knowledge but that if I work hard I can / could get by in the other seven. I also recognise that expertise in any or all of these areas is unlikely to make me rich or successful. I’ll return to that later though – firstly: the problem with the above statement is that knowing all there is to know about a subject does not make you intelligent, it makes you knowledgeable. Intelligence is about putting together connections between knowledge and one of the fundamental requirements for that is the recognition that everything is much more complicated than it seems. And that’s where the problems lie – recognising how complex things are makes someone much less likely to act. See, for example, this article by George Mombiot in the Guardian about the ‘Bright Minds, Dark Attitudes’ study. I disagree that the liberal inertia he describes is entirely due to timidity. The problem is that left wing ‘intellectuals’ are more likely to see the complexity of a subject and, whilst they may reject a simplistic right wing solution, they don’t want to propose an equally simplistic left wing solution.

However, it does make me wonder if these Canadian psychologists might not also undertake a study about the cognitive ability of people who do become rich and successful and a companion project about the cognitive ability of people who develop ideas that change the world.

And it is a very difficult message to sell to people: life is very complicated and it’s better to develop policy through slow deliberation and a thorough examination of the issue. Especially when politicians and civil servants tend to ignore the bits of any such process that they don’t like and say – well we did implement 70% of the proposals – but of course in way that does what we wanted to do in the first place…

…and of course, it’s complicated because…

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