Smart or Intelligent?

October 11, 2014

Feature, Journal

Over the last fifty years, the rhetoric in our culture has been continually ratcheted up until public political discussion has become unrecognizable as civilized discourse. The process designed to solve the many problems that beset a democratic society is so broken that disgust would be a mild description of how I feel. I could say that this is due to failures in education and other glib generalities, but the less polite way of describing the situation would be to say that there are a lot of smart people who aren’t very intelligent.

After all, what is smart and what is intelligent?  For my purposes, I’m going to define smart as the ability to manipulate information effectively and with a logical consistency that arises from reasoned conclusions.  Intelligence is the ability to pose questions that lead to new information. Intelligent is very different from smart, although one must hope that intelligent includes smart as part of a subset of characteristics.

Smart is in, intelligent is out. That this is so painfully obvious could be why a lot of people miss the point entirely. Smart is inherently short term. Smart marketing, smart investing, smart development and a host of smart ideas are all about capturing short term advantage. Asking questions is the last thing anyone wants to consider. We listen to the data that suggests  how fast our return on investment is going to be, but do we ask about the relevance of the product or service next year? Nearly all of us own or have owned an obsolete cell phone…excuse me, personal communications device. Sorry, but I’d prefer to resist a world that demands that I invest significant time and effort in something that will have to be replaced next year.

Why do smart people make really stupid mistakes? Information can be manipulated logically in accord with valid reasoning, but what does this guarantee? That reasoning might project the agenda of an idiopath. The logic could be flawless. The logic of the computer that flew the plane into the side of a mountain followed flawless logic, it just didn’t have all the parameters it needed to deduce that there was a really big wall in front of it.

Smart is cool, smart looks good, smart is rewarded with success, smart doesn’t rock boats. Smart doesn’t take visible risks when someone else is available to take them by proxy. Intelligent is worrysome, intelligent draws new boundaries to accepted logic, intelligent suggests risk where none appeared before. Worst of all, intelligent draws us into contemplating how our present actions will be reflected in future change.

Ideally, we’d like to be both smart and intelligent. It could be that these have competing requirements. History suggests that such events as winning great battles or brilliant discoveries are often achieved by a collaboration. One really smart mind in combination with a wide and deeply intelligent one. It’s hard to tell because the smart one usually gets the credit while the intelligent one accepts the burden of wisdom and steps out of the way so that what happens will have the greatest chance for success.

So, back to the reasons for the failures in the public discourse. Politics certainly attracts smart people. Where else can you find such a rich field of short term objectives and the ripening fruit of the  money tree? Where else is wisdom so denigrated and despised?


About charles frenzel

I've been writing all my life. I've also painted, composed, sculpted, contributed to molecular research, advanced some mathematical concepts, lived on a sailboat, and worked for a Nobel Prize winner. Nothing in my life has pleased me more than to share my life with my wife and friend of over forty years.

View all posts by charles frenzel

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