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Education Science

Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas 828

CHESTER COPPERPOT writes "Scott Berkun writes an interesting essay on 'Why smart people defend bad ideas'. He states a number of interesting highlights on smart people and dumb ideas. From the article: 'In the software industry, the common example of thinking at the wrong level is a team of rock star programmers who can make anything, but don't really know what to make: so they tend to build whatever things come to mind, never stopping to find someone who might not be adept at writing code, but can see where the value of their programming skills would be best applied.'."
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Why Smart People Defend Bad Ideas

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 28, 2005 @10:54PM (#12667620)
    Why smart people defend bad ideas

    By Scott Berkun, April 2005

    We all know someone that's intelligent, but who occasionally defends obviously bad ideas. Why does this happen? How can smart people take up positions that defy any reasonable logic? Having spent many years working with smart people I've catalogued many of the ways this happens, and I have advice on what to do about it. I feel qualified to write this essay as I'm a recovering smart person myself and I've defended several very bad ideas. So if nothing else this essay serves as a kind of personal therapy session. However, I fully suspect you'll get more than just entertainment value (Look, Scott is stupider than we thought!) out of what I have to say on this topic.
    Success at defending bad ideas

    The monty python argument sketchI'm not proud to admit that I have a degree in Logic and Computation from Carnegie Mellon University. Majoring in logic is not the kind of thing that makes people want to talk to you at parties, or read your essays. But one thing I did learn after years of studying advanced logic theory is that proficiency in argument can easily be used to overpower others, even when you are dead wrong. If you learn a few tricks of logic and debate, you can refute the obvious, and defend the ridiculous. If the people you're arguing with aren't as comfortable in the tactics of argument, or aren't as arrogant as you are, they may even give in and agree with you.

    The problem with smart people is that they like to be right and sometimes will defend ideas to the death rather than admit they're wrong. This is bad. Worse, if they got away with it when they were young (say, because they were smarter than their parents, their friends, and their parent's friends) they've probably built an ego around being right, and will therefore defend their perfect record of invented righteousness to the death. Smart people often fall into the trap of preferring to be right even if it's based in delusion, or results in them, or their loved ones, becoming miserable. (Somewhere in your town there is a row of graves at the cemetery, called smartypants lane, filled with people who were buried at poorly attended funerals, whose headstones say Well, at least I was right.)

    Until they come face to face with someone who is tenacious enough to dissect their logic, and resilient enough to endure the thinly veiled intellectual abuse they dish out during debate (e.g. You don't really think that do you? or Well if you knew the rule/law/corollary you wouldn't say such things), they're never forced to question their ability to defend bad ideas. Opportunities for this are rare: a new boss, a new co-worker, a new spouse. But if their obsessive-ness about being right is strong enough, they'll reject those people out of hand before they question their own biases and self-manipulations. It can be easier for smart people who have a habit of defending bad ideas to change jobs, spouses, or cities rather than honestly examine what is at the core of their psyche (and often, their misery).

    Short of obtaining a degree in logic, or studying the nuances of debate, remember this one simple rule for defusing those who are skilled at defending bad ideas: Simply because they cannot be proven wrong, does not make them right. Most of the tricks of logic and debate refute questions and attacks, but fail to establish any true justification for a given idea.

    For example, just because you can't prove that I'm not the king of France reincarnated doesn't make it so. So when someone tells you "My plan A is the best because no one has explained how it will fail" know that there is a logical gap in this argument. Simply because no one has described how it will fail, doesn't necessarily make it the best plan. It's possible than plans B, C, D and E all have the same quality, or that the reason no one has described how A will fail is that no one has had more than 30 seconds to scrutinize the plan. As we'll discuss later, diffusing bad thinking requires someone (probab
  • INTP (Score:3, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 28, 2005 @11:00PM (#12667653)
    IMO people that can do ANYTHING are likely
    an INTP [] personality type. This would explain why they don't always produce much. Merely proving to themselves that they CAN do it is quite enough.
  • References (Score:4, Informative)

    by Thu25245 ( 801369 ) on Saturday May 28, 2005 @11:01PM (#12667660)

    - Difficult conversations, a book about confronting people in tough situations.
    - The argument clinic, Monty Python (If you've never seen it, watch it before reading this script. It's in the 3rd season, disc 9 of the boxed set). Also see the splunge scene in episode 6.
    - Games people play, Eric Byrne. A book on transactional analyis: a model for why people behave as they do in certain situations.
    - The informed argument, Robert Miller. Textbook style coverage of both proper and unfair argument tactics.
    - With good reason, Morris Engel. a short summary of common logic manipulations, explained with a sense of humor (over a dozen cartoons).
    - Why smart people can be so stupid,

    Best. Citation. Ever.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday May 28, 2005 @11:09PM (#12667702)
    For anyone who cares, and if the article gets totally /.ed, here are the reference links at the end of the article, that the other AC was too lazy to put in:

  • by Quirk ( 36086 ) on Saturday May 28, 2005 @11:11PM (#12667712) Homepage Journal
    That would be Buridan's Ass [] between two piles of hay.
  • Paul Graham (Score:4, Informative)

    by Psionicist ( 561330 ) on Saturday May 28, 2005 @11:43PM (#12667876)
    The essay's title is probably derived from Paul Graham's essay Why Smart People Have Bad Ideas []. Recommended read by the way, that man has insight.
  • by Ben Jackson ( 30284 ) on Sunday May 29, 2005 @12:46AM (#12668176) Homepage
    In part the article talks about how to handle yourself in a conversation with a someone who is wrong but (successfully) verbally agressive. This reminds me of a great book called _The Gentle Art of Verbal Self Defense_ [insert your own Amazon affiliate link here...] which discusses all kinds of conversation techniques for dealing with people who have mastered various annoying habits that seem to keep you from making your point. And if you don't think you need this book to help yourself then you should read it to learn about all the unfair, annoying and childish ways you can dominate a conversation. Just in case...
  • by NevermindPhreak ( 568683 ) on Sunday May 29, 2005 @03:45AM (#12668667)
    Why no last name for Samir. Its so easy to remember. Na, yeen, a, na, jar. Nayeenanajar.
  • by Twisted64 ( 837490 ) on Sunday May 29, 2005 @04:57AM (#12668802) Homepage
    "The average score of a Chinese on a calculus/trigonometry test is significantly above average..."

    Obviously the parent is not Chinese. Nah, just kidding. You could've said "...above the global average..." to make it clearer, though.
  • Begging the question (Score:3, Informative)

    by TuringTest ( 533084 ) on Sunday May 29, 2005 @05:56PM (#12672181) Journal
    But if you do that in this context then you're falling to the "begging the question" fallacy (the "What created God" is relevant in terms of the Thomas Aquinas demonstration of the existence of God, explained in the GP's post).

    If you state that God exists by definition, then you can't use their properties to demonstrate the existence of God. Either you accept (as you do) that God is a definition and not a proven fact, or you admit that Aquinas' logic is not sound because God fails to conform to the laws of physics (and thus a physical reasoning can't prove its existence).

Executive ability is deciding quickly and getting somebody else to do the work. -- John G. Pollard