Tag Archives: Terrorism

The peculiar blindness of the highly intelligent

This is not a scientific post. While at Graduate Alumni day last April at Harvard, I listened to the main speaker go on and on about how irrational (translation: stupid) people were when it came to risk, particularly that of flying after 9/11. In terms of miles traversed, flying is far safer than driving. The speaker was Louise Richardson
PhD ’89, government, presently Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of St Andrews. Her topic was “Terrorism: what have we learned?”

Here’s who she is and what she’s done. In the years after 9/11, in addition to her teaching and management roles, Professor Richardson gave over 300 talks and lectures on terrorism and counter-terrorism to educational and private groups as well as policy makers, the military, intelligence, and business communities. She has testified before the United States Senate and has appeared on CNN, NBC, the BBC, PBS, NPR, Fox and a host of other broadcast outlets. Her work has been featured in numerous international periodicals.

Clearly, she’s listened to. As I sat there I wondered how her advice for society could be any good, given her contempt for the way most of its members think. I’m sure in the several hundred of so listeners there were some adamantly opposed nuclear power. Two years previously we heard professor Daniel Schrag talk on a geologist’s perspective on global warming, saying there was no such thing as ‘clean coal’ and how slowly carbon dioxide is cleared from the atmosphere. Clearly, nuclear power is cleanest mode of energy production, with the lowest risk etc. etc. Why are some highly educated (and presumably intelligent) people against it?

Which brings us to the mind set of Professor Gruber. Amazingly, Howard Dean (a man of the left) had the following to say about Professor Gruber and Obamacare on MSNBC

First Gruber: “The problem is not that Gruber said it– the problem is that he thinks it”

Then ObamaCare “The core problem under the damn law is that it was put together by a bunch of elitists who don’t fundamentally understand the American people. That’s what the problem is”

How could free health care be so unpopular.

The common delusion of the highly intelligent is that since they think so well, everyone should think like them, and if they don’t their behavior and institutions should be directed by their intellectual betters. Nothing much has changed in Cambridge in 54 years. This mindset was just as common then as it is now. You can see how well it’s working.

Well, probably most readers of this blog are highly educated (technically at least), and years away from dealing with the mass of humanity. Most doctors in practice see the full spectrum of the populace, because everyone gets sick.

Here’s what’s out there. Part of the neurologic examination is the mental status examination. One assesses a variety of things — orientation, speech, affect, calculation, memory etc. etc. One part often used to assess higher cognitive function is the ability to abstract. People are asked things like, what’s similar about an apple and an orange, a table and a chair. What’s different about a river and a lake. They can be asked for the meaning of familial proverbs “a stitch in time saves nine, people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. The point of the mental status is to separate the normal from the abnormal.

I pretty much had to abandon similarities and differences because so many normally functioning people thought extremely concretely. For the apple/orange similarity I’d get back they’re both round, or (worse) one is red the other is orange (not a similarity), or the proverb would be repeated back verbatim. I’d guess that 1/3 of people think this concretely.That table and chair were both furniture or that apples and oranges were both fruit was only the response about 60% of the time. You can either call the 1/3 abnormal (which means you need to redefine normal) or decide that the test is useless for picking up pathology. I chose the latter.

This is why I’ll only interview high school students for my Ivy league alma mater (Princeton). Princeton needs them as much as they need Princeton. They bring a dose of reality to a very cloistered environment.

At the Alumni Day

‘It’s Complicated’. No this isn’t about the movie where Meryl Streep made a feeble attempt to be a porn star. It’s what I heard from a bunch of Harvard PhD physicists who had listened to John Kovac talk about the BICEP2 experiment a day earlier. I had figured as a humble chemist that if anyone would understand why polarized light from the Cosmic Background Radiation would occur in pinwheels they would. But all the ones I talked to admitted that they didn’t.

The experiment is huge for physics and several articles explain why this is so [ Science vol. 343 pp. 1296 – 1297m vol. 344 pp. 19 – 20 ’14, Nature vol. 507 pp. 281 – 283 ’14 ]. BICEP2 provided strong evidence for gravitational waves, cosmic inflation, and the existence of a quantum theory of gravity (assuming it holds up and something called SPIDER confirms it next year). The nice thing about the experiment is that it found something predicted by theory years ago. This is the way Science is supposed to operate. Contrast this with the climate models which have been totally unable to predict the more than decade of unchanged mean global temperature that we are currently experiencing.

Well we know gravity can affect light — this was the spectacular experimental conformation of General Relativity by Eddington nearly a century ago. But how quantum fluctuations in the gravitational field lead to gravitational waves, and how these waves lead to the polarization of the background electromagnetic radiation occurring in pinwheels is a mystery to me and a bunch of physicists had more high powered than I’ll ever be. If someone can explain this, please write a comment. The articles cited above are very good to explain context and significance, but they don’t even try to explain why the data looks the way it does.

The opening talk was about terrorism, and what had been learned about it by studying worldwide governmental responses to a variety of terrorist organizations (Baader Meinhof, Shining Path, Red Brigades). The speaker thought our response to 9/11 was irrational — refusing to fly when driving is clearly more dangerous etc. etc. It was the typical arrogance of the intelligent, who cannot comprehend why everyone does not think the way they do.

I thought it was remarkable that a sociologist would essentially deprecate the way people think about risk. I’m sure that many in the room were against any form of nuclear power, despite its safety compared to everything else and absent carbon footprint.

Addendum 7 April — The comment by Handles and link he provided is quite helpful, although I still don’t understand it as well as I’d like. Here’s the link https://medium.com/p/25c5d719187b