Afternoon Inquisition

AI: me genius cuz me dunno

Spent the weekend at SkepchickCon/CONvergence… as you may have heard.

I am exhausted from head to soul. There is not a part of my being that isn’t close to maxed out (and most of me is now paying crazy fees for being over the limit.) I am officially dubbing myself a skeptical lightweight. I could barely keep up mentally this weekend and this was just the TAM warm-up! I mean, sure, I can drink with the best of them… but thinking is hard work (especially when you spend several consecutive nights doing both until 4am.)

The truth is, I’ve always been insecure about my smartiness. Most of the time, the thing that keeps me from totally hating myself for being stupid is something my dad once said to me. He told me that the smarter you are, the dumber you feel because the smarter you are, the more you realize how much you don’t know (and my dad is one of the smartest people I know.) I’m pretty sure that makes me WAY more brilliant than Einstein… especially after this weekend.

Do you think that’s true? Do smarter people feel dumber because they know how much they don’t know?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. I can relate to this whole heartedly. I think that smart people who are willing to further their knowledge in various subjects for the sake of education do realize that there is a lot left to learn and even more information that has yet to be breeched. I’m not a scholar by any means, but I do pride myself in my knowledge and education, but when I went to see Richard Dawkins in Oklahoma, I was completely lost the entire time. I have a hard time keeping up with philosophy discussions, and can barely follow anything that anyone says on the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe. However, I will continue to listen and continue to search because it is pivotal to our exsistence. And *that* realization is what makes me stand out.

  2. I’m not sure that’s true, but it’s all gonna depend on your definition of intelligence.

    There are plenty of intelligent, capable people who know just what they are doing, are fully confident in their knowledge of their own subject area, and don’t trouble overly about all of the things they don’t know outside of their purview.

    Then again, there is definitely a tendency towards depression and insecurity in highly intelligent people. I know (all too well) that “intelligent” people often feel like they’re getting away with something… that they’ve tricked people into thinking they’re smarter than they actually are, but that anyone at least as bright as them would see through the ruse.

    I know that that’s how I feel most of the time… that somehow I conned my way through school, and continue to trick people still because I’m good at remembering facts… but that when it comes to practical matters of intelligence, my phoniness would be laid bare.

  3. If that is true, I must be incredibly smart, because I feel really dumb most of the time.

    In all seriousness, I think that is true. The stupidest people I have ever met are the ones who are the most confident of their superior intelligence/ability/knowledge. Politicians, reporters and religious leaders are the most prominent examples. Any of them can be wrong with such confidence that it is awe-inspiring.

  4. Logically, the whole “the more you know, the more you know you don’t know” only works until you know half of everything. Personally, I no longer feel dumber when I learn something new.

  5. I don’t buy it. In the real world you get to constantly reevaluate your smartness based on how fast you solve problems compared to other people and how elegant your solutions are. I think smart people may be more aware of how much they don’t know, but to me this is a very different thing than feeling dumb. I have also met smart people whose complete lack of self confidence kept them from perceiving themselves as smart, but this too is different.

  6. The more I know I don’t know, the smarter I feel, at least in a way. Knowing the limits of my knowledge lets me carry on conversations with experts in a field without making dumb assumptions or logical leaps. I have a few good friends that are post-docs in math and physics, yet I can keep up with their conversations because I know what I don’t know and ask the right questions. I never feel phony because I have to ask questions, nor do I ever feel that they perceive me as dumb because I don’t have their expertise. Often asking the right questions is more important that having the right answers.

    Also, applying the skepti-skills helps immensely in any situation. Knowing how anyone knows anything is always a good place to start.

  7. I guess it depends on whether you’re talking about being smart or knowing stuff. You can fix ignorance my educating yourself and learning. I haven’t found a way to fix stupidity except by limiting the actions of the people who suffer from it.

    Being smart or dumb relates to what you do with information, not how much you have. I’ve seen some very well educated morons, and some pretty ignorant geniuses. Generally speaking, being self-aware is a byproduct of being intelligent, but maybe learning for the first time how much you don’t know is humbling, which can make one feel dumb. I don’t believe it is the same for everyone regardless. Obviously people who grew up more self-aware have gotten used to it and don’t “feel dumb” as much as they just know their limits.

  8. I’ve known very intelligent people who knew they were very intelligent. Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory, anyone? I’ve known people like that.

    Notice that he and many like him aren’t that self-aware–or rather, all that aware of how THEY affect other people.

    To be honest, I think people who are self-aware tend to worry the most about how smart they are or aren’t, because they are more aware of themselves and their surroundings.

  9. Choosing to educate yourself shows a desire to be smarter… and I think that counts for a lot. Saying “wow, there are things I don’t know” and then working to change that automatically puts you on a higher brain level than the people who say “I don’t know, but I don’t care.” Or who are satisfied with their lack of knowledge.

    I don’t consider myself smart, but that’s because I tend to hang out with people who are REALLY REALLY smart and thus even if I am pretty darn bright, I can’t compare.

    And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

  10. Kaylia_Marie: Then you’re better than most. Many people can’t stand to surround themselves with people smarter than they are. Happily, I’m not part of that crowd. I’m part of the crowd that believes that when I’m done learning, I’m done living.

    Elyse: Well, maybe not used to it in an absolute sense, but “more” used to it. Consider someone who’s gone most of their life believing something to be true, then comes to find out that it’s not. I bet they feel dumber than you do on average.

  11. I’m very smart about the things that I know, very dumb about the things I don’t know, and am usually very aware about which topics belong to which category, though I’ll admit to sometimes being confused.

  12. @faith: If you know that you know nothing, then you know at least one thing, which isn’t nothing, which means you were wrong about knowing nothing, which means that you really do know nothing, which means I need a time machine so I can go back in time and chuck a water balloon at Socrates.

  13. SJBG: I have carefully cultivated an ability to sound like I know what I’m talking about when I find myself in a conversation about something I know very little about. I believe that most people with more knowledge about the subject call that “being annoying” so I don’t practice that ability much unless dealing with someone even more annoying. It also doesn’t work if my knowledge of the subject is below a certain level or when talking to people who’s knowledge is above a certain level.

    It’s also fun when you have one person in a conversation who knows a lot about a subject and another who doesn’t. Trying to convince someone of something diametrically opposed to what someone else is saying is a bit like playing ping-pong with a misshapen ball, and just as challenging.

    Not that I would stoop to such childish games…… these days….. without a good reason…. or a few drinks….

  14. @Kaylia_Marie: Something like: “Brain, grant me the ability to be smart about the things I know, dumb about the things I don’t and just smart enough to tell the difference.”?

  15. Every degree/diploma I’ve gotten has made me feel stupider.

    I felt like I knew everything in the world in high school, got my diploma, went on for a two year AA at community college, which made me feel I was brilliant but behind the curve on genius, went on to complete a BS which made me feel like I’m just average at best and struggling for that…

    I’m going to be brain dead by the time I have a Ph.d.

  16. @swordsbane:

    This weekend I was sitting in our party suite listening to some random dude try to educate Pamela Gay about the things that NASA has and has not done (not moon hoax stuff… but research and whatnot). Pamela politely responded, “no, that’s not quite true…” several times. And while he accepted her arguments, he kept going on and on, hoping to educate her further. Even after she explains that she works for NASA and that she’s a rocket scientist.

    Eventually I think he ran out of random shit to spew at her. It was fantastic.

  17. @Kaylia_Marie: That’s my story, too. In high school I thought I was pretty smart because I was better at school and more into learning than most of my peers. That even worked in college, but in grad school I was surrounded by people who were as smart as me or smarter, and all of us were into learning. That’s when I started feeling dumb. In HS and college I knew intellectually that there was a lot that was out there to learn, but it was when I saw peers who had already learned it that it sank in how much I didn’t know.

    I’m not sure that smarter people always realize how much they don’t know. I know some otherwise smart people who say “Goddidit” to explain phenomena that they can’t explain, and they’re satisfied with that, not seeking to understand.

  18. @swordsbane:

    I do this too!! I tend to be very dry and sarcastic to the point where people don’t know that I’m kidding, and when asked a question, I have an ability to come up with what seems like a super intelligent, knowledgeable answer that is usually completely false. Of course, after they’ve respsonded with how they didn’t know that, or how I must be a genius, I have to come clean and tell them I made it up… but it’s fun while it lasts.

    Also, no one trusts me because of that. And I get asked “are you being serious?” an uncommon amount of times.

  19. @swordsbane: “Trying to convince someone of something diametrically opposed to what someone else is saying is a bit like playing ping-pong with a misshapen ball, and just as challenging.”

    This is why I don’t discuss politics at work (sex seems to be an acceptable subject, though lol. Religion doesn’t come up much). I’m surrounded by conservatives and Rush Limbaugh fans who filter their information through their ideology.

  20. ltStorm: don’t mistake getting and “education” with becoming educated, or being smart, or even learning.

    AA = Academic Asshole
    BS = BullShit expert
    PhD = PinHead’s disease.

    They qualify you to get a job, but don’t prove you know your ass from a gopher’s ear.

    Elyse: I know people like that too. Ever seen someone hit their mental ‘reset’ button? You carefully argue them to your point of view, but if you come back to the subject at a later date, they have completely tossed out everything you said and replaced it with the exact same argument they were using before, like the previous conversation had been erased.

    It highlights the difference between ignorance and stupidity.

  21. People I trust to call out stupidity tell me that I am smart, even intelligent and clever. However I easily feel overwhelmed when I think about how many things there are in the world that I want to stuff into my brain (experience/read/watch) and realize that it would be impossible. I find myself feeling inadequate in my knowledge of things and rely on people who have synthesized broad topics into relatively tiny tidbits for me to digest and then regurgitate later in conversation where the context calls for it.

  22. Deep down, I don’t think I’m really that smart. Unfortunately, other people think I’m really smart. My last friend/girl suggested that I need to hang out with smarter people. The one before her was insulted when I used words longer than 3 syllables.

    So my answer to your question is: I don’t know if I feel dumb because I know stuff but I do know that most people I know, know a lot less stuff. ;-)

  23. Kaylia Marie: I spent two years majoring in Astronomy, and that set me up just perfectly to get my AA degree in Pilot Training, which naturally qualified me to do what I do now; trading stocks for a living and write short stories. All hail public education!

  24. What I would really like to hear from people is how they judge other people based on their perceptions of other people’s intelligence. In other words, when you run into somebody who you perceive as being not very bright, do you arrogantly hold it against them (e.g. “there goes another piece of brain lazy piece trailer trash”) , do you feel compassion for them (e.g. “glad I wasn’t born with those sorts of intellectual limitations”), or some mixture of the two?


  25. oops!! I should have done a preview

    (e.g. “there goes another piece of brain lazy piece trailer trash”)

    (e.g. “there goes another piece of brain lazy trailer trash”)

    I hope this doesn’t make me proofread lazy trailer trash.


  26. BCT: I don’t judge people on what they know (or don’t know). It is really hard to tell right away whether someone is stupid or just ignorant, and even if they are stupid, it is rarely their own fault. I judge people based on how they act and what they do. That’s why I get along with everyone right away; because I have no history with them….. yet.

    At least I like to think that I do it this way, and it’s what I try to do.

    That being said, I usually get a ‘vibe’ from someone early on that turns out to be right, one way or the other.

  27. @Billy Clyde Tuggle: “What I would really like to hear from people is how they judge other people based on their perceptions of other people’s intelligence.”

    This is have learned to avoid as much as possible. For one thing it is very difficult to accurately judge someone’s abilities before you have spent a lot of time with them. My first job out of college was in Alabama. My biases led to me to believe that people who talk with a southern accent aren’t all that bright. People who talk slowly also aren’t all that bright. I rapidly learned that some of my slow-talking coworkers with deep southern drawls were amazingly smart and I needed to rethink my biases. I also learned to stop interrupting them. Mostly.

    There are also many different types of intelligence. I try to learn what other people’s strengths and weaknesses are and play to their strengths. For example I have met many devastatingly smart PhD types that I’d want on my trivial team any day who I wouldn’t choose to do real work with on a bet.

    (I’m not saying all PhD types are useless in a business setting. I’m just saying I’ve run across 3 or 4 who are.)

  28. @Billy Clyde Tuggle: My mother used to say “There’s no excuse for ignorance” but I always thought that you do actually have an excuse of ignorance until you realize you are ignorant…so I would update i=the adage to “There is no excuse for maintained ignorance” Or There is no excuse for chosen ignorance” and that is how I judge people. If you purposely won’t learn something because it is too hard or scary or threatens your world view, well, I have very little patience for that.

    @swordsbane: I also work in stocks… and I also write short stories! We should start a club!

  29. Mully410: “The one before her was insulted when I used words longer than 3 syllables.”

    My ex-wife thought I was being cute when I used the word “obfuscate” around her for the first time, and was really surprised when she found out I knew what it meant. She has an IQ of 184 and went on to marry a handyman who can make a gun out of a bic pen and and a fire-starting kit, but has no formal education beyond high school. Go figure.

    BTW: he collects fireworks and is awesome to hang out with at cookouts…. with the proper protective gear :)

  30. davew: RE: IQ. Oh I know mine too: 144. Knowing it isn’t a problem. Using it as a club on other people… that’s when it starts to get irritating.

    It’s like your credit score, (or a degree for that matter) It means something to other people, and some of those people are unfortunately in positions of authority, so simply knowing it is a good thing and doesn’t make me suspicious. If you’re really anal about it you can do something horribly pretentious with it like join Mensa.

  31. @swordsbane: “It means something to other people, and some of those people are unfortunately in positions of authority, so simply knowing it is a good thing and doesn’t make me suspicious. If you’re really anal about it you can do something horribly pretentious with it like join Mensa..”

    The only people I have met previously who knew their scores or asked about mine were Mensa members. Have you had IQ score come up in any other context?

  32. davew: “Have you had IQ score come up in any other context?”

    Actually, yes. I got a telecommunications job eight years ago largely on my IQ score. I never took a single computer class in any grade or in college (a DBase class I took in HS doesn’t count) yet got a job on the tech-facilities team (hardware troubleshooting) because (quoting my boss at the time) “We usually hire strictly on academics but I figured with your IQ, you already have the stuff I can’t teach you.”

    I already proved I knew my way around a computer, and I’m sure that went a long way, but it was one of those moments where you suddenly get a little more insight into how the world works, and those words stuck with me. I know it’s bullshit, but that won’t keep me from using it :)

    I’ve said from time to time “I wish I had less scruples. Then I’d be rich.”

  33. I don’t think that knowledge is the same thing as intelligience. A computer with a good connection to the internet has more knowledge than I can ever hope to have. Knowledge is an indicator of education. But intelligience is the ability to think. The only way I can think of to prove intelligience is to come up with an original idea. To think of something on your own that you haven’t learned from some other source and for that idea to be true that is itelligience. Also, the ability to spell doesn’t make you smart. It just means you spent a lot of time studying spelling.

  34. Along those lines, I was helping my son with exponents a week ago. I was explaing that 2 to the second power was 2 x 2 and was called 2 squared and that 2 to the third power was 2 x 2 x 2 and was called 2 cubed. We went over it for awhile.

    Then he looked at me and with a perfectly straight faced and asked

    “What is 2 circled?”

    His brother got the joke and explained it to me.

  35. I’ve always felt that I was average in intelligence until I became a doctor, a primary care physician, who has the good fortune to be a part of MANY people’s lives. I think those of us who are “smart” but feel average do so because they have always been surrounded by other smart people – as a kid, in college, grad school perhaps and then in the workplace. We OFTEN do not live amongst those on the other side of the intelligence curve. That’s not meant to be condescending , it’s simply the norm. Many get by in this world with limited foresight and limited intelligence and I have the highest respect for those who get by with hard work and perserverence.

  36. My general philosophy is: Don’t misrepresent yourself. If you’re not smart, don’t act like you are. If you are smart, don’t act like you’re not. If you could have discovered the truth but chose not to, don’t make excuses for not knowing something.

  37. I would say the better critical thinker you are, the more you realize (and are willing to admit to yourself) the limits of your knowledge and intelligence. So loosely correlated with being smart, I suppose, but you can be a good critical thinker without a stratospheric IQ too.

  38. A person could possibly feel both that
    1) they don’t even understand how little they know and that..
    2)knowing the lack of knowledge in them selves is better than filling in that lack with weird bullshit.

  39. “The more you learn, the more you know; but the more you know, the more you know you don’t know.”–Mr. Haville, my high school chemistry and physics teacher. He was known for his Havillisms. He also taught me that BS stands for the obvious, MS is More of the Same, and PhD stands for Piled Higher and Deeper. :)

    Stupidity doesn’t bother me as much as willful ignorance. Crap, that sounds condescending. I admit there are some things that I am “willfully ignorant” about, such as the need to know exactly how some things work. Don’t know, don’t care, and I’m OK with that, tra la, tra la. I suppose it comes down to what specific area is under discussion. Or just an across-the-board lack of curiosity–that’s annoying, too.

  40. CatFurniture: I don’t think that’s willful ignorance. Having to (or wanting to) make a decision about something and refusing to learn about it, or refusing to face the truth about something when you are confronted with it…. that’s willful ignorance.

    Knowing you are ignorant about something but not learning about it is just…. prioritizing. I know I don’t know much about how to fix cars, but that also doesn’t have much to do with me being able to pay my bills. Being aware of weekly market forces, though… that has a lot to do with it. By the same token, I understand my areas of knowledge and don’t try to tell my mechanic how to do his job.

  41. That could simply be wisdom: realizing what one does not know and that what one knows is dwarfed by all there is to know.

    I use “I don’t know, but I can find out” all the time. It’s one of the most useful sentences in the English language.

    Right up there with “I’ll still respect you in the morning.” ;-)

  42. An analogy:

    Intelligence is your house; the more intelligent the larger your house. Knowledge is what you put inside the house; whether you decorate with keystone light cans or personal artwork.

    Just like the amount of stuff you own is limited by the size of your house, how much knowledge and how effectively you use it is limited by your intelligence.

    The problem, of course, is there is little way of knowing how big our houses are from the inside, since we never get to leave them. For me, whether I feel intelligent or not generally depends on how often I’ve had my utter lack of knowledge thrown in my face recently or not.

  43. AgnosticTheocrat: I have to disagree with you on that analogy.

    Your house is your brain
    What you put in your house is knowledge
    How you arrange it is intelligence

    The amount of knowledge you can keep in your head is mostly biology (although there are some meme’s you can use for recall) How you use your knowledge determines how smart you are: Finding unobtrusive links between two pieces of knowledge, for instance…. abstract thought processes.

  44. @davew:

    I have to agree. A real IQ test (Wechsler or Stanford-Binet) takes HOURS and usually a registered psychologist to administer (not to mention a few hundred $$$ at least). And an IQ of 180 is more than 5 standard deviations above the mean… I mean, once you are above 130, does it make any difference whatsoever?

    In terms of the general question posted, I definitely think that the more you learn, the less you know in terms of your knowledge. I think of intelligence(es) as more of a stable trait. And I don’t think we’ll ever have a consensus on exactly what intelligence means. But you can bet it can’t be measured with an IQ test.

  45. @davew: “The only people I have met previously who knew their scores or asked about mine were Mensa members. Have you had IQ score come up in any other context?”

    There are other groups of us out there who know our IQ scores. For instance, I know mine, (enough), and know what it’s worth as a number, (depends on who’s looking at it), because there was a point in my past where I was subject to a very wide battery of psychological and psychiatric testing, (also known as doing undergraduate courses in psychology and psychological testing).

    Additionally, I’ve been in several conversations where people did bring up the topic of IQ’s, (none of us mentioned ours. We were discussing the observed social impacts of being various standard deviations off the norm for IQ).

    @davey: “And I don’t think we’ll ever have a consensus on exactly what intelligence means. But you can bet it can’t be measured with an IQ test.”

    This statement is based upon a common, but incorrect, assumption about what IQ test are actually designed to do. I’m also not sure I agree that we will never have consensus on what ‘intelligence’ means.

    I will agree that we are not likely to successfully define intelligence in any truly meaningful way in the next 40 years or so, but past that advances in neuroscience and cognitive research are not something I’m going to try and predict.

  46. Elyse, sorry to point this out, but I think a contributing factor here is that you are a girl. I’ve met lots of smart chicks and most if not all of them had underinflated opinions about their own intelligence. That problem could also be found among their male peers, but much less frequently.

    Cheer up, at least you are not alone. ;-)

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