Shuggy asks: how it is possible for supposedly intelligent men to be that stupid? He’s speaking of Tommy Sheridan, but the question has been posed so many times of so many people that there must be some widespread mechanisms which cause intelligent people to act stupidly. Here are a few:
1. Over-confidence. Intelligent people are often surrounded by others who tell them how intelligent they are, and who reward them (though not in Sheridan's case) with prestigious jobs and big money. This can cause confidence in one’s ability to exceed the reality of that ability. Worse still, a high regard for one’s own intelligence is often matched by a low regard for others’, which can cause smart people to over-rate their chances of pulling the wool over others’ eyes. Mr Sheridan follows Oscar Wilde and Lord Browne in thinking he could win a legal action against the facts.
2. A form of category error. Intelligent people can fail to see that just because you are intelligent relative to others does not mean that you are intelligent enough to solve complex problems.
3. A failure to see that intelligence is context-specific: there are no general purpose experts. A good example of this fact comes from chess. Grandmasters tend to be no smarter than ordinary players. Instead, what they have is a superior ability to recognise chess patterns. But such a skill is not transferable outside of chess.
This sort of problem explains why people who are successful in particular domains look like asses when they step out of that domain, as when scientists, businessmen or artists enter politics.
4. Some mix of the endowment effect and deformation professionnelle causes intelligent people to over-rate wit, originality and bold hypotheses, and to underweight other virtues, such as accuracy or mollifying others’ sensibilities. This is what got Stephen Fry into trouble when he claimed that women don’t like sex. Larry Summers and James Watson have devoted their lives to doing such things.