[Paleopsych] Wilson Q.: The Revenge of the Nerds by Steven Lagerfeld

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The Revenge of the Nerds by Steven Lagerfeld 

    When Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein published The Bell Curve:
    Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life 10 years ago, the
    book provoked a more violent response than any other in recent memory.
    Enough heated reviews and articles appeared to fill several
    anthologies. Yet the critics said very little about one of Murray and
    Herrnsteins central contentions: that a high-IQ cognitive elite is
    consolidating a dominant position atop American society.

    Maybe that silence is understandable, given that the two men made
    several far more incendiary argumentsabout IQ as a source of
    intractable forms of social and economic inequality, and about the
    differences in IQ between whites and blacks. Then, in 2002, Richard
    Florida published The Rise of the Creative Class. Florida, a professor
    of economic development at Carnegie Mellon University, came at the
    question from the opposite end of the political spectrum, barely
    breathing the word intelligence while asserting that creative
    professionalsin reality, smart peopleincreasingly dominate American
    society. Florida argued that cities seeking to revive their fortunes
    need to do everything possible to attract his liberal, tolerant
    cultural creatives. Again there was controversy, but again it wasnt
    about one of the books key arguments. To critics in the universities
    and the news media, the notion that people like themselves possess
    extraordinary mental powers must have seemed obvious.

    In fact, the evidence for this view is debatable. But one thing we do
    know conclusively: The smart people who mold opinion in this country
    think its true.

    Its not just the academic and media elite who worship smarts. In this
    nation of casually anti-intellectual pragmatists, where Thomas Edison
    once brushed off the accolades heaped upon him with the observation
    that genius is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration, it
    has become fashionable to be smart. Our books and movies reveal a
    fascination with the intellectually gifted: Einstein in Love, A
    Beautiful Mind, Good Will Hunting. In the highly popular Matrix
    trilogy, the heroes are hypertalented computer geeks chosen for their
    extraordinary ability to manipulate technology. The geek and the wonk,
    once social outcasts, are now cultural heroes. If you cant be smart,
    you can at least look the part by donning a pair of thick-rimmed
    eyeglasses and a shirt with a long, pointy collar, buttoned all the
    way up. The annual announcement of the MacArthur Foundations genius
    grants (a name the foundation disavows) is greeted as eagerly as the
    Queens Honors List in Britain. We have smart cars, smart mobs, and
    smart growth. Thanks to Smarty Jones, even horses appear to be getting

    It may seem implausible to speak of a cult of smarts in the age of
    Paris Hilton and 30-second political attack ads, when it appears that
    America is being relentlessly dumbed down. But dont blame dumb people
    for that. Dumbing down is the idea of film and television executives,
    political consultants, newspaper magnates, and other very intelligent
    people. Its a shrewd moneymaking strategy. It also reveals one of the
    problems of putting too much stock in pure brainpower: Smart people
    are uniquely capable of producing noxious ideas.

    The triumph of these canny operators points to the key reason why
    intelligence has achieved such high status: Its not so much that
    brains have risen in our esteem as that other qualities have declined.
    Intelligence has always been respected and rewarded, but in the past
    it existed in a larger world of shared values that were intensively
    cultivated by social institutions. The consensus that supported this
    system has largely dissolved, and many of the personal and
    institutional virtues it encouraged have been weakened. But theres at
    least one quality about whose goodness we still seem able to agree:
    raw intelligence. It now enjoys a status akin to virtue.

    Why havent intellectuals and nascent philosopher-kings benefited much
    from the new status dispensation? Because Americans prefer their
    smarts in the form of relatively narrow expertise, and all the better
    if ratified by a significant paycheck. Intellectuals and academics win
    time in the sun only when they can convey specialized knowledge about
    subjects such as the economy and the Middle East.

    There are other, more tangible reasons for the elevation of
    intelligence. The transformation of the economy since World War II,
    with the decline of farming and manufacturing and the rise of service
    industries and technology, has put a new premium on education,
    training, and the smarts needed to obtain them. (Ironically, the
    public schools are one of the few institutions that have not come to
    terms with this reality.) Along with economic transformation came
    social change. Beginning in the 1950s, doors that had once been closed
    to the talented were thrown open; the less-than-brilliant son of an
    alumnus was no longer guaranteed admission to Harvardor to the
    American elite. Many bright people have had opportunities they would
    not have had in the past.

    Yet the rising value we attach to smarts exceeds any increase in their
    actual importance. Americas postwar changes are of relatively recent
    vintage, and there are other forms of economic and social inequality
    that still play a role in determining who rises. At the very highest
    levels of society, moreover, its hard to know whether some new
    increment of IQ is really needed. Do todays political and corporate
    leaders need to be smarter than yesterdays? Is there any evidence that
    they are ?

    Nowhere is the trend toward the worship of smartsand both its positive
    and negative consequencesmore apparent than in the business world. The
    corporate titan as cultural hero pretty much vanished from the
    American scene in the 1960s, and when he reappeared a couple of
    decades later, he had shed his sober, Ike-like mien and gray flannel
    suit and become a dazzling, iconoclastic genius in a polo shirt.
    Instead of drearily working their way to the top, todays exalted
    executives travel a route more like something out of a Harry Potter
    novel. Initially, the wunderkind finds his way to one of our most
    elite universities, which still proves inadequate to contain his
    prodigious mental energies, as in the case of Harvard dropout Bill
    Gates and the two founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, who
    abandoned a Stanford Ph.D. program. Then he retreats to a holy site
    (often a Silicon Valley garage), where theres a period of mysterious
    wizardry involving smoke and flashes of light before our hero emerges
    with his Creation. More years of struggle follow, and then comes the
    magical ceremony that finally earns him the mantle of true genius: the
    initial public offering.

    Turn the pages of a Fortune magazine from 50 years ago and you will
    encounter an entirely different kind of business leader. It was the
    world of Organization Men and team players. The first line of a
    profile of construction magnate Steve Bechtel describes him as a man
    who works himself to the bone. He has some of the old-time
    construction mans swagger and knows how to exert a certain force on
    other men. He is surrounded by tough, well-schooled engineers and
    executives. Sam Mosher, the head of Signal Oil & Gas, has five hard
    years of farming behind him and works very hard and seriously. Of
    course these men were smart, but in 1954 that was not a fact
    Fortune thought worth emphasizing. Successful business leaders were
    hard working, seasoned by experience, a bit macho.

    Brains can produce wonderful things. They gave us Google and cracked
    the human genetic code. But we tend to forget that big brains also ran
    Enron, MCI, and scores of short-lived technology company skyrockets.
    (One account of the Enron debacle is called The Smartest Guys in the
    Room.) During the mid-1990s, investors sank a fortune into Long-Term
    Capital Management, the now-infamous hedge fund, trusting in the
    scintillating brains of its two economists, Myron Scholes of Stanford
    University and Robert C. Merton of Harvard University, who had done
    pioneering work on the modeling of stock-price movements. For a time,
    the firm was fabulously successful. In 1997, Scholes and Merton won
    the Nobel Prize in economics. A year later, when the Russian bond
    market collapsed, Long-Term Capital Management lost $2 billion in the
    space of weeks and teetered on the edge of a collapse which, thanks to
    its intricate deals with Wall Street institutions, threatened to wipe
    out billions more in assets and trigger a global financial crisis.
    Only the intervention of the Federal Reserve saved the day.

    How could high intellect go so wrong? asked Edward Tenner, the author
    of Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended
    Consequences (1996). Easy. Brilliance is dangerous. It tempts those
    who have it to pronouncements that outrun experience and even common

    Still, the hot pursuit of business genius goes on. Its seen in Wall
    Streets continuing quest for the next big idea. Its seen in the
    incredible increase in the pay of corporate CEOs. In the early 1970s,
    CEOs earned 30 to 35 times as much as the average corporate employee.
    Today the multiple is about 300, or $150,000 per week. Thats a
    paycheck only a superhuman could deserve.

    It ought to be clear that high intelligence is no guarantee of good
    political leadership, yet we incessantly discuss the raw intelligence
    of our leaders as if it would determine the quality of their
    performance in office. Journalist Daniel Seligman, who gathered
    information on U.S. presidents IQs from their biographies, reports
    that John F. Kennedy scored 119on the upper end of the normal range on
    the IQ scalebefore he entered Choate Academy, while the young Richard
    Nixon recorded an impressive 143. How many people now wish the smarter
    man had won the election of 1960? Before they went on trial at
    Nuremberg, the Nazi war criminals were given IQ tests that turned up
    uniformly high levels of intelligence: Albert Speer had an IQ of 128,
    Hermann Goering 138. In fact, research suggests that JFKs relatively
    modest IQ was just about perfect for the presidency, or most other
    leadership positions. Above that level, a persons ideas and language
    may become too complex for a mass audience, according to Dean Keith
    Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis.
    Other traits matter more. Many empirical studies confirm the central
    prediction that an IQ near 119 is the prescription for leader success,
    Simonton writes in Greatness: Who Makes History and Why (1994).

    Yet the reigning assumption in the world of opinion makers is that
    high intelligence is a singular qualification for leadership.
    Political parties, which were once reasonably effective at vetting
    politicians on the basis of other qualities, such as their judgment,
    loyalty, and character, are no longer strong enough to do that job. We
    are left instead to rely on other, more limited standards.

    If there were any doubt that intellectual brilliance is not the sine
    qua non of effective leadership, the case of former president Ronald
    Reagan should have put an end to it. Amid the remarkable bipartisan
    outpouring of admiration for Reagan during the week surrounding his
    funeral, a few critics dredged up the failings of the Reagan yearsthe
    budget deficits, the rise in poverty, Iran-contrabut hardly anybody
    seemed to recall one of the most damning charges the cognitive elite
    lodged against him in his day: that he was a simpleton, slow, a man
    who needed to have the world reduced to 3x5 index cards, a movie
    actor. Even some of Reagans friends and supporters on the right had
    their doubts about his intellectual candlepower, writes biographer Lou
    Cannon in President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime (1991). (Cannon,
    who covered Reagan for many years as a reporter, doesnt share those
    doubts, and offers an interesting portrait of Reagans brand of
    nonanalytic intelligence.)

    Now Reagan is hailed for his vision, his decisiveness and
    determination, his modesty and civility, his self-deprecating sense of
    humor. Some of these are traits that cant be taught, but the
    othersalong with still more that arent ordinarily attached to the 40th
    presidentare qualities American society once recognized as virtues and
    labored to cultivate and reward. The virtues went by names such as
    loyalty, fairness, discipline, hard work, and balanced judgment, and
    they were learned in school, in church, at the university, and in the
    wider world.

    In higher education, for example, the goal once was to mold a
    well-rounded person, grounded in many areas of learning and closely
    acquainted with the ideas and forces that had shaped the past. The
    modern university aims, reasonably enough, to create well-rounded
    classes, with the proper complement of violinists, designated ethnic
    groups, and lacrosse players. But it leaves individual students to
    look for meaning and direction on their own, or to burrow into the
    increasingly narrow and specialized disciplines that dominate the
    campus. Survive by your wits, they are told.

    At some level, we all seem to recognize that a world in which only
    wits matter is impossible. Far from the heights of the American
    corporation, for example, the people who search for talent administer
    batteries of personality tests and pray for job candidates with
    emotional intelligencea useful quality, perhaps, but in the end nearly
    as morally neutral as brainpower.

    Intelligence researchers themselves often say that smarts are an
    overrated quality, but the conversation then quickly moves on. We
    agree emphatically. . . , Herrnstein and Murray write in The Bell
    Curve, that the concept of intelligence has taken on a much higher
    place in the pantheon of human virtues than it deserves. Men and women
    of high
    intelligence certainly deserve our admiration, but our greatest
    admiration ought to be reserved for those who combine whatever mental
    gifts they have with virtues such as humanity, prudence, and wisdom.
    Ironically, it was left to a genius, Albert Einstein, to say it best:
    We should take care not to make the intellect our god; it has, of
    course, powerful muscles, but no personality.

    Steven Lagerfeld is editor of The Wilson Quarterly.

    Total messages: 1    |   Started: 01/31/2005
    The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and in no
    way represent the views or opinions of the Woodrow Wilson
    International Center for Scholars.

    Wither egalitarianism?
    It is interesting that it is 'intelligence', rather than, say,
    learnedness or education that is the focus of attention. There is
    something anti-egalitarian in this; anyone (given opportunities) can
    become educated; intelligence, especially of the 'genius' and
    'brillance' variety would seem to be pretty much innate, or is
    certainly viewed as such; if there is any doubt about the centrality
    of this latter value the tales above about Gates, Brin and Page should
    make this clear - schooling didn't make them; if anything, it stood in
    their way.
    Those qualities mentioned in Fortune magazine from fifty years ago,
    such as hard-work, experience, seriousness, and interestingly enough,
    being 'well-schooled', are different in the sense that they would seem
    to be more easily obtainable by someone who doesn't have them, than an
    innate quality like intelligence is. If you just aren't all that
    bright, there's not much that any amount of effort on your part or
    from others (such as increased spending on public education) is going
    to do for you. But anyone can work harder, gain experience, adopt a
    serious outlook, and, most tellingly, become well-schooled, (the
    smarts of yore) with enough opportunity, desire and determination.
    Does this mean that social mobility in North-America is
    half-acknowledged as being on the wane, and that it has become
    fashionable to celebrate qualties that would seem to embody its
    Posted by: Paul Taborsky 01/31/2005

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