A Change Of Motto; or, Against The Fetish For “Smart”

When I started this blog six years ago, I began with a tagline motto of “If it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.” Its origin was a comment about me from one of the graduate students at the College of Business at the University of Memphis.

I had just finished doing some tech-support work to a ridiculous extreme. The PhD candidate, knowing about my Air Force background, remarked, “All you military guys are the same: if it’s worth doing, it’s worth over-doing.” I recognized it certainly was true for me, and adopted the phrase almost immediately.

While I love the phrase and will continue to use it, I think it’s time for a change.

Over the past couple of years, I have begun to notice what I call a “fetish for ‘smart'” among my peers. It is as if being smart is somehow a good thing all by itself, and that merely being smart is enough to ascertain good will, good intentions, and/or good results. This bothers me.

Merely that you are smart does not mean you know enough to be useful. A lot of the time, smart people think they can solve human problems by reason, formal logic, or rationality alone, without relevant knowledge of historical experience, localized information, dynamic feedback, emergent behaviors, emotional reactions, bad actors, black swans and a host of other similar real-world factors.

There is no amount of “smart” that can replace that kind of knowledge. Without it, the true usefulness of being smart is strictly limited. Often, it is not possible for any one person or group of persons to have enough of that knowledge to use “smart” effectively. (This is the fundamental idea behind Hayek’s “Use of Knowledge In Society.”)

A lack of these kinds of knowledge does not stop smart people from trying use “smart” outside its effective bounds. They are confident being smart is enough, that logic and reason are sufficient tools to solve human problems. Then, when a smart person’s rational and logical plans fail from a lack of relevant knowledge, the refrain from other smart people is “But he’s so smart! It must be the rest of the world that is wrong” — or variations on that theme.

I am very much opposed to that attitude in all its forms. My shorthand for this opposition is taken from a Megan McArdle essay to which I no longer have the link: “It’s not enough to be smart. You have to actually know things.”

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3 thoughts on “A Change Of Motto; or, Against The Fetish For “Smart””

  1. Paul, you’ve been overdoing it since we were in grade school together. I wholeheartedly agree with the subject of this post. My father was an apprentice tool and die maker without a college education who nonetheless taught me all of the basics about how things work to the point that I now feel that I “know that which I do not know”. (Which is wisdom, and not “smart”…but I digress.)

    I recently had a discussion with someone (prior to the midterm elections) who couldn’t fathom the possibility when I said that Obama was “not very bright”. I’ll refrain from making the case here, but I think it is a prime example of someone who is “smart”, but not effective.

    Ideas are a dime a dozen. The only thing that matters is execution.

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