Thursday, 14 July 2011

There is no such thing as intelligence

A major problem in understanding supposedly intelligent politicians is how to explain the apparent stupidity of their actions. How does an intelligent UK energy minister promote windmills as a viable power technology? It isn’t enough to say the minister is stupid or lacks intelligence, because that leaves the explanation with specific individuals. If the problem was down to ministerial stupidity, then a new minister would lead to a sudden burst of rational policy-making. But it rarely does.

In my view, a better way to explain such things is to ditch the idea of intelligence and its antonym – stupidity. I find it is better to understand intelligence as a social notion which evolved to justify roles within a hierarchical society. We all have to play a number of roles in our lives and the notion of intelligence makes it easier to rationalize those roles into numerous hierarchical group structures from families to governments. The further up the hierarchy you are, the more intelligent you are supposed to be. Unfortunately it doesn’t work, it just translates to 'the further up the hierarchy you are, the further up the hierarchy you are'.

For the vast majority of us, it’s the roles we must play and the scripts appropriate to those roles that largely govern our apparent 'intelligence'. Of course we all have a number of roles, employee, family member, best friend, brother, sister, etc etc. This is why we can be a significantly different person at work to the person we are at home. It isn’t that we have two different people inside us, it’s the roles and the scripts we follow that define our personality in two different situations with different pressures.

There are similarities in the way we play our own roles of course, because we bring the same personal history and genetic endowment to them. But we are not intelligent and we are not stupid. We just play our allotted roles and stick to the script, because that's how our complex societies evolved, the way they require us to behave.

So to loop back to the windmill-promoting energy minister. The minister isn’t promoting windmills because he or she stupidly thinks they are a good idea. The minister is playing a role and following a script written by a range of outside pressures, both overt and covert. These pressures, these political influences are the culprits. Or rather, it is the absence of more overt, rational pressures to counteract the covert and irrational. It is the lack of transparency and rational balance we should worry about, because replacing the minister is unlikely to make much difference. Same role same script - intelligence or stupidity don’t come into it. Neither does the minister.


Time Traveller said...

As much as I'd like to make an exception for Huhne in the stupid stakes, you are right about the absence of rational balance driving the political agenda.

Can we still string him up, though?

A K Haart said...

TT - I dislike Huhne too, but I think you have to account for his actions in terms of absurd political pressures rather than the man himself.

Mark Wadsworth said...

AK, fair aummary.

TT, actually it is all perfectly rational, to the extent that corruption, greed and lust for power can be considered rational. If you're lottery ticket came up and you couldn't be bothered to collect your winnings, that's stupid. If you and your mates have access to the taxpayer's wallet, they'd be stupid not to plunder it.

A K Haart said...

MW - indeed, corruption, greed and lust for power are rational if that's what is valued by your peers.