The intelligence fallacy

I had a discussion with someone about a political matter the other day (the exact subject doesn’t matter) that made me realize that there’s a bias out there, a rhetorical condition that plagues many people in this country. I’ve dubbed this, “The intelligence fallacy.” Allow me to set the scene for you.

First of all, I don’t consider myself to be political. That is to say, I don’t subscribe to any one philosophy. My voting is dictated by logic and common sense–not partisan lines. My philosophy and voting record is subject to change to new information and new arguments. The person I entered into a debate with, however, subscribed to one specific political philosophy. This person was also an engineer by trade. And here is where the intelligence fallacy comes into play. It’s a fallacy to assume that because one has completed X degree of higher education, that they are in fact intelligent or that they are putting forth the most cogent argument possible.

There is a statistical correlation between intelligence and higher education, but as everyone knows correlation does not imply causation. There’s an old saying, “C’s earn degrees.” Attaining a college level education is not necessarily an indicator of intellectual prowess. All it proves, quite frankly, is that you’re capable of regurgitating information and completing paperwork–not that you are capable of original, constructive, abstract, or intelligent thought. You could make an argument about people who have doctoral degrees, since they do require an ability for abstract, original thought and the ability to defend it, but the amount of people in the population with a PhD is so small that you’re not likely to be debating one very often.

The second part of this fallacy assumes that because someone is intelligent, their reasoning is automatically air tight, or better than other reasoning. “Intelligent” people can be incorrect or put forth a flawed argument for a variety of reasons: bad information, a faulty assumption, flawed reasoning, letting emotion dictate an argument, etc. The bottom line is that even “intelligent” people are capable of making mistakes.

So, to recap, the intelligence fallacy is predicated on the false assumptions that, a) education is always a marker of intellectual ability, and that b) intellectual ability will always create a cogent argument.

The main reason that this is a problem is because it gives people who fall prey to the fallacy a belief that they have an upper hand before even going into the argument. It creates people who are so narrowly focused on worshiping their own ideas that they are unable to or flat out refuse to entertain the validity of other arguments–even if the other arguments are more logical. No matter how much information to the contrary you throw at them they refuse to believe it or acknowledge it because of the intelligence fallacy. I’m sure everyone knows a person like this. I’m not exactly sure what to do about this situation. If anyone has any rhetorical strategies for dealing with it, I’d be happy to hear them.


7 thoughts on “The intelligence fallacy

  1. I could answer your problem, but you’re too stoopid to get it 😉 (just in case the winking smiley there does not get the message across, that was a stupid joke)

    Sounds like the typical creationist mind, impervious to evidence, reason, or accepting the notion they could be wrong about anything. There is no solution to this phenomena, it is an exercise in futility. All you can do is walk away, probably muttering something to yourself, and wondering how in the world can anyone be so dense…

    CD, Dunning Kruger, can turn an otherwise intelligent mind into a waste bin.

    1. Creationists have a very similar problem because now there’s “creation science” which, to them, has scientific validity, and therefore puts creationism on par with evolution on an intellectual level. It’s maddening.

      And don’t be afraid to make stupid jokes! I’m a big fan of corny or sarcastic 🙂

  2. I think about this often myself and I think the problem lies with how we perceive as the definition of intelligent. If intelligent simply means “knowing a lot” then this is very different from someone who may know a little but has excellent critical thinking skills. As a university educator this is one of the most important things we try to make a part of our classroom. There are many things that are already known in this world, teaching those things, without making a student completely reinvent the wheel and still trying to get them to think critically is challenging. Much of the education system, therefore focuses on the rote memorization of facts which doesn’t necessarily teach someone to reflect or make connections amongst the different things they are learning. Some people can do this on their own, most have more difficulty and need to have parents or teachers that are getting them to think and not just memorize. Engineers are an excellent example of a 4 year degree, which is actually really hard, but for which theory is not part of the education. It’s all application based and so they learn the “what” and seldom the “why”. I realize I am generalizing here as I am sure there are more progressive engineering programs out there. There are a lot of bad programs out there that simply continue the same memorization based pedagogy students get K-12. In many ways I don’t consider engineers to truly be scientists because they are trained to utilize the scientific method unless they choose to go for a graduate degree. The learning of theory which teaches you the roots of your applications, and then being steeped into the methods of scientific inquiry and inductive reasoning ultimately is more useful for continuing to learn, because it keeps you asking questions. The scientific method gives you a tool for how to think, and so when you have questions, you know how to investigate the answer in a meaningful way.

    1. So…an engineering degree is a sieve with a rather large screen then, for letting some through, who have yet to develop critical thinking skills. I see a lot of good reasoning in your presentation, but the unfortunate fact remains, there are many, even if you are using a sledgehammer, you could not drive a 10 penny nail of reason into their thick heads.

      So, don’t blame yourself when they get through the cracks. But, please do continue trying. I love those last two sentences BTW. Nice.

    2. I very much appreciate having a university level educator responding here, so thank you! I think that, in our present day and age, “intelligent” is sadly equivalent to “knowing a lot.” And it’s exactly because of that pedagogy that you mentioned, which starts at such an early day. I do appreciate your point about the difficulty surrounding learning and education. I mean, ultimately, what’s the best way to teach someone how to be a critical thinker? I consider myself an intelligent person, but I can’t point to one thing and definitively say, “THIS is what turned me into someone who uses reason and analysis.” And I feel very reluctant to ascribe intellect solely to genetics. Yes, obviously there is a genetic component to intelligence and learning ability. But ultimately, I don’t think that it takes a genius to simply question things or to understand logic and reason.

      So I’m unsure from where our current paradigm originated and how to fix it. On one hand, I believe that almost everyone is capable of intelligent thought. But on the other hand, I don’t know what the best way to teach it is. Clearly there are people who take to it faster than others. Is it because of parental influence during childhood? Cultural influence? Some teachers and schools are just better than others? Or is it really that some people just aren’t capable of ever grasping the concepts?

      1. Sadly the I think all the things you mention are relevant. Like any complex problem there are multiple things that needs to happen to fix it and this also makes it hard to change, because no one study is going to find all the answers. I think a cultural shift has to happen and I am not sure how that comes about. When you compare ourselves to other countries, our education is a much smaller portion of the budget. We’ve always sort of taken it for granted that whatever you pay in tuition will be returned to you rather quickly when you find a job. When the economy starts to flat line though, that is no longer the case. Tuition costs no longer support the wage in most fields. Many students are coming out of college with the debt equivalent to a mortgage. The model that we use here is clearly a business one, and one that doesn’t place value on education in of itself. Education is seen as only valuable as a means to an end. A career. Counselors in high schools tell every kid they need to go to college, and then they go to college drink away a good portion of their tuition money and come out with a degree they don’t know what to do with or really want. Many students would clearly be better off working at a low level job, or going to a trade school than going to university. At the very least taking some time to think about whether the costly investment of tuition is worth it. But if a cultural shift happens where we give education what it needs…small classes, well trained teachers who aren’t paying huge tuition costs to get their degree, better subsidized tuition and state universities, then we would see a lot better results. But yes there are problems with the attitudes of parents these days towards education, class sizes get bigger as funding gets less. And schools have less money for resources such as textbooks and up-to-date equipment. Because of the competition among schools there is little sharing of best practices, because schools are better off keeping programs or pedagogical practices to themselves that work better, because it means their school gets better funding. Funding often depends on test scores and so grade inflation becomes common as well. And then there is the disparity in school quality and teacher salary among economically disparate communities. And then finally there are often the administrators making decisions about education when many of them have never been inside a classroom.

        There is genetic predisposition towards logic and scientific thinking, but it is not so strong that a good teacher can’t help one overcome the genetics. However it is also true that poor pedagogy can limit this genetic predisposition as well. Thus good educational practices become so important especially at a young age.

        Intelligence too is

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