Tuesday, December 30, 2014


Someone on Quora asked "How do people know who is intelligent?", and I answered as follows:

Well, the first thing to recognize is that people are quite bad at making that determination. They're impressed by the apparent intelligence of people who project confidence, or by their qualifications. They're impressed by educated people who use fancy words and have lots of information stored in their heads. They're super impressed by arrogance. And, most of all, people are impressed by the apparent intelligence of people who agree with them (look up "confirmation bias"). Tell someone something they already believe, and they'll think you're smart! On the other hand, say something surprising, which doesn't mesh with their prior assumptions (as truly intelligent people often do), and they'll think there's something "off" about you. Most people really don't like to be surprised, but intelligent people are often surprising.

The thing is, you've got to be smart, yourself, to recognize the intelligence of a surprising insight which doesn't line up with your previous assumptions; to distinguish between knowledge (mere data) and intelligence (clever use of data); and to see through arrogance. It takes wisdom to recognize wisdom - and to differentiate it from glibness. If you can't clear-headedly analyze arguments, it's hard to know when confidence is bluffed and qualifications are empty.

You also need to look past appearances. I know very smart people who are uneducated, inarticulate, barely literate, and who need to be explained complicated ideas over and over before they understand - who are what you'd call slow-thinking. They'll ponder stuff practically forever - long after the educated, snappy people in the room have given their opinions....perhaps days or weeks after. And then they'll cough up a conclusion that's so clever, so surprising, so creative that your head wants to explode. Fast thinkers aren't necessarily smarter, nor are slow thinkers necessarily dumber.

The most impressive intellects are not always fast or flashy. Not, in other words, impressive-seeming. In fact, most truly intelligent people I've met haven't been very impressive-seeming, because if you've got the goods, you tend not to waste effort on the "seeming" end of it. Watch out for seemers!.

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