Monthly Archives: December 2011

You’re an Idiot and a Genius

Someone recently asked me what I had learned in my 54 years on this earth. I realized that it has come down to this:

If you know that you’re an idiot, you can be a genius.

Human beings are idiots. Our brains are a kludge: layer upon layer of evolutionary adaptations to conditions that vanished millenia ago.

Cognitive biases rule the day. My own afflictions have included  congruence bias, expectation bias and the hostile media effect. Even more virulent have been the just world hypothesis (something I believed even before I believed in God) and confirmation bias (the tendency to embrace evidence that agrees with what I already believe and deflect that which does not).

It’s no wonder that many religions caution us not to trust our own brains.

Yet somehow we have stumbled upon ways to overcome our biases. Sir Karl Popper‘s take on the scientific method is entirely an exercise in bias-fighting: don’t even entertain a hypothesis unless you know how it might be disproven, and continue to be cautious even after the hypothesis has survived many attempts to discredit it.

We have discovered the importance of a skeptical, free press. We know that nothing is more dangerous than the suppression of those who disagree with us and have enshrined an invitation to dissent in the first and most beloved amendment of our constitution.

That is how you become a genius — by refusing to trust even yourself. If your epistemology gets beyond “I have a burning in my bosom” you can learn a lot. We must question and test constantly.

Only by lacking confidence can we gain the right to confidence.

Only by listening to others do we become qualified to listen to ourselves.

Only by admitting that we’re idiots can we become geniuses.