Monday, April 22, 2013

Let's Re-Think "Smart"

"This one isn't dumb, by the way. She went to Stanford."

That's Althouse on one of those rare "celebrity versus cop" stories. The comment and the story sparked some thoughts on what we mean when we say someone is smart. We know that even the brightest among us are capable of dumb behavior, especially when outside of main skill areas. 

Einstein may have been a complete bumbler if asked to fix a transmission, write a poem or bake lasagna. When we say that someone is smart, there are always some unspoken qualifiers. They are not spoken because inserting them would dilute the description. "Jack is usually very smart" would not strike anyone as high praise. People would immediately wonder about those times when Jack is not that smart.

But what about the Stanford remark? Consider the qualifiers we'd have to add to that. Stanford is a great university and yet does Professor Althouse really believe that no one who went to Stanford is dumb? Probably not. My guess is she meant to say that the odds are in favor of a Stanford grad being smart.

And this leads to a translation divide: 

"Stanford grads are smart."

Person A: "You're saying all Stanford grads are smart."
Person B: "You're saying most Stanford grads are smart."

No wonder we have problems communicating.

1 comment:

LA Grant said...

It's what we do when we have to reason from incomplete data. Our acceptance of such a point, weighting it as the major character indicator may change significantly with more information. For example, Theodore J Kaczynski, PhD, a mathematician and graduate of Harvard. Of course, he's also a terrorist bomber and murderer, which somewhat overwhelms his time in Cambridge.