I’ve been listening to music lately while driving (instead of audiobooks). Somehow my player ended up without a CD and so I grabbed the first one out of my case. It’s an independent artist from Deltona who you’ve never heard of and, as far as I know, stopped making music years ago. His band at the time followed a pattern I’d seen many times: A little rocky at first, getting progressively better, then right when they’ve gotten really good and people see me singing along with the lyrics are asking me questions about the band… they break up and go their separate ways. He rebounded a couple times with other bands, but never really recaptured the magic.

Part of what made me think that Todd might “make it” is that he is a really good looking guy. I mean really, really good looking guy. He started off singing country and my then-girlfriend’s friends would come to shows with us even if they didn’t like country music because they liked to watch him sing. His looks would stand out in a Hollywood film. He was a good singer, a better-than-decent songwriter, and an improving performer, but all he really had to do for the female contingent of his fan-base was stand there and smile winsomely.

One of the themes of his music has to do with his struggles with the ladies. More specifically, the lack of leverage he often feels he has in his relationships, former relationships, and near relationships. It’s not an uncommon theme, but it’s a weird theme coming from him. How can a guy like that have difficulty with the ladies? Which is not entirely fair, because the better looking a man or woman is, the higher the standards they have for a potential partner, and the less leverage their looks buy them. It’s also the case, if his music is any indication, that he may not be the best boyfriend. One of his woe-is-me songs involved infidelity.

The other thought I had was that he could have difficulty with the ladies despite his looks and charisma because he’s not exactly the sharpest tool in the shed.

Then I realized that wasn’t true at all. At least, I had no particular reason to believe it’s true. He had a college degree and his day job at the time was as a mortgage accountant. I don’t know that such a job requires genius, but it almost certainly requires more than being a dull tool in any objective sense. He may be dimmer than the average mortgage accountant, or dimmer than the average college graduate (though I have no particular reason to believe that either is true), but his general level of intelligence is likely to be no less than average and probably higher.

Why did I think otherwise? The comparative lack of depth of his music? Maybe. His friendly manner making him seem dim? Or do I have a bias against good looking men? The latter is a female stereotype, but that’s only because it’s under-observed in men and not because it’s absent. I’ve found myself on at least a couple of occasions coming to a quick, and wrong, conclusion about attractive guys.

It’s also likely the case that my estimate of average is revised upwards by virtue of the fact that most of the people that I communicate with non-superficially most of the time are of higher intelligence. On Ordinary Times, at Hit Coffee, and in meatworld. Throw in Facebook and Twitter, while we’re at it. This says nothing special about myself and more about how we tend to organize along these lines. It correllates genetically with our families, our jobs, and society more generally.

This leads to some skewed perceptions generally. You see this especially in the political world, where obviously intelligent people are dismissed as unintelligent when that’s almost certainly not the case. The dismissal can come from partisan instincts: This person takes political stands I believe are stupid so they must be stupid. You see this applied in some of the oddest places to obviously intelligent individuals from Barack Obama to Ted Cruz.

Beyond that, though, it tends to attract to people who display a seeming lack of intellectual curiosity, such as George W Bush and Sarah Palin. There is no real reason to believe that GWB is not intelligent. It was taken for granted by some that between Bush and Kerry it was obvious the latter had an intellect the former lacked, but there was never much basis for believing that and there was a little bit of basis for believing it was not the case. Kerry got points for his affectations, while Bush lost them for the same reason as well as the “lack of intellectual curiosity” thing. The latter of which can be associated with intelligence, but it’s rather tricky to do so.

Then there’s Sarah Palin. Good ole’ Sarah Palin. Not only was she tagged dumb, but this view has largely been considered vindicated by almost all of the left, most of the center, and a good chunk of the right. Except that it probably isn’t so. The assessment of Palin’s intelligence is probably informed most of all by her surroundings. Specifically, that she is surrounded by people who are more intelligent than she is. Her IQ is probably about average. It just looks low by comparison. Her failures are the product of being in an environment where average simply won’t cut it. And so she is considered dumb. It’s no mistake that she managed Wasilla and Alaska with a degree of adeptness, but then flopped so badly at the national level. The jobs got harder, and she didn’t have the reserves. Most people would probably handle it worse than she did, as hard as that may be to imagine.

The same could be said for Bush, if we consider him a failure: The presidency requires unusually high intelligence merely to function competently. If it’s a matter of brainpower, though, it seems likely that Kerry would have been just as unsuccessful. Or alternately Bush may have had the intelligence for the job but not the temperament. Or beyond that, the biggest problem was just that he got some bad ideas and ran with them, which is not as good an indicator of a useful definition of intelligence as we might think. A lot of smart people devote themselves to bad ideas – seemingly dumb ones – and to believe otherwise is to be pretty ideologically blinkered (as evidenced by attempts to portray Ben Carson as anything other than exceptionally intelligent).

In all likelihood, most of us have run into this in the office place. Early in the days of Hit Coffee I wrote about a guy named Charlie Belcher. The key primer on him was lost to the sands of WordPress, but the long and short of it is that he was worse than deadweight. Not only did he not actively contribute to the XML programming team, but his presence cost resources even if he’d been there for free because the rest of us had to devote extraordinary amounts of time trying to explain over and over again how to do the job and correcting his innumerable failures. He -along with another coworker named Edgar who was also worse than deadweight – personally did a lot to convince me of the limited potential being able to bring the masses into the knowledge economy. While Edgar’s intelligence very likely was below average, Charlie’s was probably about average. He was just working in a job where that wasn’t enough. Both were very motivated to do well, both had every opportunity to succeed, and both washed out because neither of them could.

PS This post is about intelligence. Not about the comparative failings and virtues of the Republican and Democratic Party. Please comment accordingly.


Category: Coffeehouse

About the Author

Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

6 Responses to Estimated Intelligence

  1. greginak says:

    No disagreement with this. It is possible for people to be really bright in their specialty and really lacking outside of it. Carson is the poster boy for this. He is obviously talented and highly intelligent in his field but also thinks there are special truth drugs that can make people tell the truth against their will.

    There are also different kinds of intelligence. I know in some ways that is controversial. But some people are good with people and lost w/o a clue about anything else.

  2. One thing I’d like to do/see is to decouple judgments about others’ intelligence from judgments about whether they’re a good person or not. I’d also like to separate both of those judgments from whether one has or lacks a formal education, or how much of a formal education one has. Someone can be objectively very intelligent and yet be a horrible person. Someone can have a PHD and be not very intelligent. Maybe, like your mortgage broker friend, they have to have a minmal level of intelligence, but they needn’t have more than that.

    This is all aspirational. In practice, I make judgments along those lines all the time. And in theory, I don’t believe I have the prerogative to judge whether someone else is a good person. Again in theory, I believe I can judge actions, but not the person themselves.

    • fillyjonk says:

      I regularly tell students that “stubbornness” is a more valuable trait in grad school than simple intelligence. I succeeded in part because I didn’t succeed the first time, and the second time, I said, “I’ll be damned if I let this project beat me”

      Also, I’m not particularly *inventive* (I have a hard time developing new research ideas, for example), but I have a phenomenally good memory, which I think was a big part of my success in school. So it’s possible to be “smart” in a pure information-retention sort of way but not be good at making the kind of “leaps” that are required to be truly genius.

      I’ve also known some very smart people who were also spectacularly naive, including someone who almost fell for an early version of the Nigerian scam….they actually thought this random African guy wanted to send them money. (I’m a suspicious wench and even though I had yet to see that scam, I told them I didn’t think it was legit and they should check with IT….)

  3. mike shupp says:

    Hmmm… I’ve seen estimates on the Web that Bush had an IQ of about 130, roughly 2 sigma deviations over the average, and on a par with quite a few past Presidents. I’ve also seen estimates what’s Palin’s IQ was about 115, or one sigma over average — which would make her brighter than 2/3 of the electorate. It seems reasonable, since she is a college grad.

    Sheer stupidity isn’t the issue, in other words.

    But yes, visitors (and proprietors!) at Hit Coffee and Ordinary Gentlemen are among the elite.

    • trumwill says:

      The number I usually hear for W is 125,which seems reasonable. Palin at 115 is a bit harder to believe. I’d guess closer to 105. But I could be wrong. (She did get through college!)

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