Bane of intelligence

Author David Robson plays explains how high IQ, education and expertise could fuel stupidity  

Published a year ago on Aug 30, 2019 3 minutes Read

Venture into the darker recesses of the internet, and you may come across the views of a man named Kary. If he is to be believed, he has some unique insights that could change the world order.

He suspects he was abducted by an alien near the Navarro River, California, for instance, after encountering a strange being who took the form of a glowing raccoon with 'shifty black eyes'. He can't actually remember what happened ‘after the little bastard' gave him a 'courteous greeting'; the rest of the night is a complete blank. But he strongly suspects it involved extraterrestrial life. 'There are a lot of mysteries in the valley', he writes, cryptically.

He's also a devoted follower of astrology. 'Most [scientists] are under the false impression that it is non-scientific and not a fit subject for their serious study', he huffs in a long rant. 'They are dead wrong. He thinks it's the key to better mental health treatment and everyone who disagrees has 'their heads firmly inserted in their asses'. Besides these beliefs in ET and star signs, Kary also thinks that people can travel through the ether on the astral plane.

Things take a darker turn when Kary starts talking about politics. ‘Some of the big truths voters have accepted have little or no scientific basis', he claims. This includes the belief that AIDS is caused by HIV virus' and 'the belief that the release of CFCs into the atmosphere has created a hole in the ozone layer'.

Needless to say, these ideas are almost universally accepted by scientists - but Kary tells his readers that they are just out for money. 'Turn off your TV. Read your elementary science textbooks', he implores. You need to know what they are up to.’

I hope I don't have to tell you that Kary is wrong.

The web is full of people with groundless opinions, of course - but we don't expect astrologers and AIDS denialists to represent the pinnacle of intellectual achievement.

Yet Kary's full name is Kary Mullis, and far from being your stereotypically ill-informed conspiracy theorist, he is a Nobel Prize-winning scientist - placing him alongside the likes of Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Francis Crick.

Mullis was awarded the prize for his invention of the polymerase chain reaction - a tool that allows scientists to clone DNA in large quantities. The idea apparently came to him during a flash of inspiration on the road in Mendocino County, California, and many of the greatest achievements of the last few decades - including the Human Genome Project - hinged on that one moment of pure brilliance. The discovery is so important that some scientists even divide biological research into two eras - before and after Mullis.

There can be little doubt that Mullis, who holds a PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, is incredibly intelligent; his invention can have only come from a lifetime dedicated to understanding the extraordinarily complex processes inside our cells.

But could the same genius that allowed Mullis to make that astonishing discovery also explain his beliefs in aliens and his AIDS denialism? Could his great intellect have also made him incredibly stupid?

This book is about why intelligent people act stupidly - and why in some cases they are even more prone to error than the average person. It is also about the strategies that we can all employ to avoid the same mistakes: lessons that will help anyone to think more wisely and rationally in this post-truth world.

This is an extract from David Robson's The Intelligence Trap published by W.W. Norton & Company