Isaac Newton would be considered by most to be a pretty clever bloke. He did, however, have some strange habits. He once tried staring at the sun for as long as he could just to see what would happen and spent the next few days in bedridden agony. On another occasion he stuck a wire between his eyeball and his skull as part of some ill-considered experiment. Astonishingly, he escaped both incidents without permanent injury.
John Maynard Keyes bought some of Newton’s papers and was shocked to find that, in between founding modern physics and advancing every area of mathematics, Newton had found time to study the occult. Using the bible, he predicted that the world would end some time before 2060. Newton was also associated with the Rosicrucians, who believed they could talk to angels, live forever, and conjure up both time and gold.
Albert Einstein was a notorious scatterbrain. He needed someone to look after him because he would not wake until woken, would not eat until fed, and would not sleep until put to bed. When one of his wives died he suffered rapid physical decline, unable to even dress himself properly.
A few more quickies:
Pythagorus founded a religion which held that beans were evil.
Michelangelo was infamously reluctant to bathe or change his clothes. He usually walked away without a word mid-conversation.
Nikola Tesla was celibate. He was repulsed by jewelry and, in general, round things. Titties included, I suppose.
All of the above can be put into the category of autism-spectrum or something like it. It seems that by turning off the socially aware part of our brain that prevents us from appearing to others as an obnoxious eccentric, we turn on the parts that think about higher matters.
Another category of smart people being stupid stems from overspecialization. I was once a brainless arts student who found himself in a class with clever business students. Our tutorial group was discussing environmental problems.
A business/economics student, who I am certain is much more intelligent than I am, contributed this: “I know the greenhouse effect is really bad because we’re cutting down all the trees and we’re going to run out of oxygen and we’re all going to suffocate”. Regardless of your view of global warming, her comment showed a shocking ignorance of, probably, anything at all outside her narrow field of study.
We see the same brand of clever stupidity in US presidential candidate Ben Carson, a brain surgeon for heaven’s sake, who bleats that the pyramids were for storing grain.
I remember playing trivial pursuit with some medical students. They’d never heard of Benazir Bhutto. This was back when she was in the news daily. These were medical students, mind you, who are now doctors.
I knew another medical student who used to piss out the kitchen window because he found it more convenient than walking all the way to the toilet, but that’s another story for another day.
A third category of clever stupidity is those people who have a great big brain but who use it inconsistently. For example, I had a housemate whose profession involved analyzing and assessing nutritional research. I asked her what I should do for a cold and she suggested I should eat garlic. Cheekily, I asked for a reference to a peer-reviewed study or to a meta-analysis of such research. She couldn’t provide it. I asked, “Well, is this coming from a medical journal, or did you just read it in Cosmo?” She couldn’t remember.
The fourth category of clever stupidity is those who are brainy enough to fool themselves (and others) into believing things that they themselves want to believe. This hallowed groups includes:
Sigmund Freud, who believed we are messed up because we all want to fuck our mothers.
Jacques Derrida, who talked such rubbish that he gave philosophy a bad name.
With the individuals in this category, it is extraordinarily difficult to detect whether they really believed their own shit. I suspect that most of them believed it most of the time because they argue their case with such passion. This is how cults work: the official cult leader is a true believer, possibly suffering delusions or mental illness. Behind the scenes is the level-headed organizer taking advantage of the situation. The fellows listed above are more like the cult leaders whose zealousness causes their powerful brain to construct convincing sophistry and rationalizations to overcome the more objective part of their mind.
Have a look at this picture:
These people are on a slut walk. They are presumably students and professionals of above-average intelligence. They believe that there is an epidemic of rape. If I were to take a guess, I would image that they also believe gender is a social construct and that men who cut off their dicks, or want to, really are mentally healthy women. They believe that genetics has little or no role in individual or average group differences in intelligence or other personality traits. They believe that white people are responsible for all the world’s problems, and could solve them by abandoning their privilege. They believe that greater welfare would make the world a fairer and better place.
The people illustrated do not hold these beliefs because they are unintelligent. They are able to possess such counterintuitive views only because of their grasp of abstract concepts. They are able to engage in sophistry sufficient to convince themselves of that which is not supported by evidence. A duller individual, confronted with accusations of ‘rape culture’, will gaze around open-mouthed and grunt, “Wha? Where?” No one he knows has raped or been raped, apart from that one mate who did time for burglary. Acceptance of rape? That burglar mate reckoned that the rapists inside copped it worse than he did. Even murderers hate rapists.
The unintelligent are sometimes seduced by simple, irrational explanations for their problems, like witchcraft. Only the clever are able to hold a complex set of beliefs in contradiction to that which is right in front of their noses.
You can trust me on that. I’m an idiot.
For an excellent summary of eccentric genius, see Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.
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