Five Public Cases on Intelligence


Our Correspondents


Occasionally, our correspondent Anthony Madrid composes a set of quasi-koans; these are his latest. (Read his previous “public cases” here and here.)


Public Case 1: Anxieties

Our teacher said: “Anxieties about one’s intelligence are never anxieties about one’s intelligence. What’s actually at issue is whether we inspire envy in others (very acceptable), or whether we are ourselves obliged to feel envy (unacceptable). Those are the actual stakes. No one frets about whether her brain is adequate to the tasks of her life.”

Comment. An old trick. Teacher boldly admits he is mean and vain; therefore he may call you mean and vain. But how much does he really want to enlighten his students, if his method for combating vanity is to humiliate it? He says, in effect: “You are conning yourself. You pretend to worry about how smart you are, so you may seem—to yourself—to be honest and humble. You know for a fact people think you’re smart, but that’s not good enough; you want ’em to suffer … ” Upshot: everyone walks away having exempted themselves from the criticism, and firmly identifying with the authority figure. In short, meaner and vainer than ever. 


Public Case 2: Properly Trained Prevails

An obnoxious, self-righteous, virginal male nerd in our class said: “Suppose you tell me to change the oil in my car and I do it wrong. Then you take the car to a mechanic and he changes the oil properly. Does this show the mechanic has a higher IQ than I have? Not at all. It only shows that a trained person can do well what an untrained person cannot. It is the same with all tests, all school, all tasks. Properly Trained prevails—that’s all.”

Somebody said: “But what if we give two people the exact same training … ”

The nerd interrupted: “Never happens! You would have to give them identical lives, down to the smallest detail, so their personalities were equally open—or closed, for that matter—to the thing you’re trying to teach them.”

Comment. The exciting thing about this nerd is not that he’s in the right but that his conclusion does not appear to serve his own interests. Consequently, in handling the present case, people always end up trying to unmask the nerd, for they take it as axiomatic that nerds are incapable of drawing conclusions that would tend to banish the concept of “genius”—or indeed to demystify intelligence in any way. So either he wasn’t really a nerd or he did not mean what he said. But I see another possibility.


Public Case 3: The Issue Is Whether I’m Wise

—“One of the great experiences of my life happened one day when I was nineteen or twenty, walking on campus at my school. I was going over the evidence as to whether or not I was especially intelligent when suddenly I realized it didn’t even matter. No one else was going to get any better grip on the issue of my intelligence than I was myself, and if I couldn’t decide my own case, then nobody else could decide it either. Moreover, the only way the truth would do me any good would be if there were some outward and unambiguous sign—and such signs do not exist.”

—“Hmm! That’s funny, I had the exact same experience, only I thought: Eh, who cares if I’m smart or not? The issue is whether I am wise. And since I was nineteen, I was very content with this conclusion, for I judged myself to be very wise … ”

Comment. The second person is mocking the first, but not wickedly. She’s quite gentle. I doubt the gently mocked person got the point.


Public Case 4: Three Chili Peppers

Our charismatic, unshaven, three-chili-pepper–hot instructor said: “All IQ-mongers are fools. There is no way to differentiate native brain power beyond three levels: Specially Good, Pretty Much Normal, and Not So Good. Anyone who thinks they can subdivide those categories any further is mistaking knowledge or curiosity or cocksureness for intelligence. I can’t even tell the difference between Good and Normal half the time!”

One of the hostile students said: “But I take it you are confident you can tell Good from Not So Good?”

Our instructor responded: “Ah, I see where you’re going with this. I see what you did there … ”

Comment. Where was the hostile student going? What did she “do” there? If you can answer these questions promptly, does that mean you cannot possibly be in the third category yourself?

At our school, there was a trend among the students of claiming to be fools, blockheads, or incompetents. I remember no case where I thought: Ah, but here is an actual blockhead pretending to be a blockhead. It always seemed to me that she who pretends cannot have a low rank.


Public Case 5: We Mutter to Dissect

One of the students said: “Given the nature of human vanity, doesn’t it stand to reason that everyone thinks they’re smarter than they really are?”

Somebody muttered: “Nice try.”

The first person said: “Why do you say that?”

The mutterer said: “Well, do you also believe people think they’re taller than they really are? Does that, too, stand to reason, given the nature of human vanity?”

Comment. Mutterers are a remarkable lot. Sometimes, as here, they bait a hook with a mutter, hoping to land a fish. They long to be challenged; it’s then that they set to work. Such mutterers are cunning rhetoricians.

By contrast, the honest mutterer does not design to be heard by others. Words escape her lips more or less involuntarily, simply because an illegal thought must use some force to break free from its bonds, and so will sometimes throw itself through the wall of the face, by a kind of overshooting. So, for such mutterers, muttering provides a chance to find out what they themselves think, which is honorable enough. Probably all of Rochefoucauld’s maxims started as mutterings in this way.


Anthony Madrid lives in Victoria, Texas. His second book of poems is called Try Never (Canarium Books, 2017). He is a correspondent for the Daily.