Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In Love with Their Own Genius

Agree or disagree you will always learn something from Thomas Sowell.

Yesterday Sowell tackled a topic that deserves more attention. He called out those who believe that intelligence is a substitute for experience. Link here.

As Sowell knows, the prejudice in favor of great minds goes back to Plato. Plato believed that great thinkers could see Ideas more clearly, and thus, that they should rule rule as enlightened philosopher-kings.

As you may know, philosophers from Aristotle to David Hume took the other side of the argument.

Fortunately, this is not just another sterile philosophical debate. Many people voted for Barack Obama in the last election because they felt that he was the most intelligent candidate. Most of them ignored his inexperience, because they imagined that a really smart person could see things more clearly than someone who was dense.

To this Sowell offered a useful corrective: "There is usually only a minimal amount of damage that can be done by dull or stupid people. For creating a truly monumental disaster you need people with high IQs."

Brilliant people suffer because their egos have been stroked so often. They "... not only tend to overestimate their own intelligence, more importantly they tend to overestimate how important individual brilliance is when dealing with real world problems."

I would take it a step further and say that people who are in love with their own genius are more apt to ignore reality. They consider reality a vulgar thing that has no right to judge their ideas.

If the evidence suggests that they are wrong, they assume that the evidence is mistaken. They are so arrogant about their intelligence that they cannot admit making errors.

Such a mix, Sowell argues, is a formula for disaster. Great calamities derive from great minds who persevere when the evidence tells them to stop.

It is also a mistake, Sowell continues, to believe that knowledge is merely acquired from books. "Many crucial things in life are learned from experience, rather than from clever thoughts or clever words. Indeed, a gift for clever phrasing so admired by the media can be a fatal talent, especially for someone chosen to lead a government."

Of course, Sowell is warning us against placing too much faith and hope in a leader like Barack Obama whose claim to power is his superior brain power.

While Sowell's views would never be congenial to a far left radical like Gore Vidal, today's London Times offers some remarks by Vidal that bear an uncanny similarity to Sowell's.

When asked how Obama has been doing, Vidal responds: "dreadfully." He adds that Obama: "... was the most intelligent person we've had in that position for a long time. But he's inexperienced. He has a total inability to understand military matters." Link here.

Yes, Obama is inexperienced. More importantly, he does not believe in the value of experience, either as a teacher or a judge. Thus, Obama has appointed far too many people who suffer the same experience deficit.

Take Hillary Clinton. Precious few people have noticed that Hillary Clinton is not an experienced foreign-policy hand.

Neo-neocon has an extensive and excellent analysis of the Clinton appointment. Her conclusion: Obama's appointment of Hillary Clinton "shows his utter disdain for the need for expertise in the field."

And she added: "Obama's lack of interest in conventional expertise is reflected in his boundless confidence in his own knowledge of foreign affairs, despite his own extreme inexperience." Link here.

As though to prove the point, Hillary Clinton nominated Christopher Hill to be ambassador to Iraq. Hill has no knowledge and no experience with Iraq, so it should not be surprising that he has developed a poor relationship with the military commander, Ray Odierno.

Evidence is provided by veteran journalist Thomas Ricks. After describing how well Odierno has adapted to the shifting situation in Iraq, Ricks says: "I've never understood the selection of Hill for Iraq. I met him in the Balkans and thought him a pleasant and smart guy who speaks Serbo-Croatian and Polish, but from what I can tell, he doesn't know much about the Middle East." Link here.

Ricks' sources are telling him this: "What I am hearing is that Odierno is profoundly frustrated with Hill, who despite knowing almost nothing about Iraq, has decided after a short time that it is time to stand back and stop influencing the behavior of Iraqi officials on a daily basis."

If the situation in Iraq goes south there will be plenty of blame to spread around. Hopefully, the lion's share will be reserved for an inexperienced foreign policy team.

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