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The Fallacy and Consequences of Conflating IQ, Education, or a Nice Resume with Sagacity: The Peter Principle, and The Tyranny of “Experts”

Sagacity is the subject of books like Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking and Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell, Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman, and Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant.

Sagacity is acuteness of mental discernment and soundness of judgment.  It is having or showing an ability to understand difficult ideas and situations and to make good decisions.

It is rare among humans. Adam Grant’s point in Originals is that people who posses the rare trait of sagacity are the ones who actually expand the envelop of ideas, knowledge, and even consumer products.  These people are Grant’s “Originals,” and Gladwell’s “Outliers.”  They are few and far between.

The Problem

Our WEIRD culture makes the mistake of conflating education, IQ, or a nice resume with sagacity.  We assume that highly educated “experts” or those with high IQs or those who’ve held highly regarded jobs are also sagacious.  We assume they have the ability to see through all the distractions to the real root causes of problems.  We assume they “get it” in ways we mere mortals do not.  And based on that assumption we hand over much of day-to-day decision making, and thus many of our freedoms, to them, trusting that they’ll do the right thing on our behalf.    

But the assumption is false.  The reality is there’s little connection between education and sagacity.  We all know people who did great in school or who have high IQs or whose resumes include an impressive sounding list of highly regarded positions, but who are in fact socially clueless and inept.  These are the Sheldon Coopers of the world. 

Books smarts do not translate to street smarts.

Technical knowledge does not magically morph into practical knowledge

Book smarts and technical knowledge are great for analytical jobs like the financial analyst character played by Christian Bale in The Big Short, or like computer programmers, or rocket scientists.  But street smarts and practical knowledge are what matters in the social realm. 

But because of our tendency to conflate book smarts with street smarts we have a maddening tendency to put an almost religion-like faith in the wrong sorts of people; highly intelligent or educated types who just don’t get it socially.  In a very real way Western Culture, and especially government, is a real world, living, breathing, demonstration of The Peter Principle; we keep promoting people up the social or political ladder until they reach the level at which they are incompetent.  We put the people with the weakest social acumen into positions that require the highest. 

We are so enamored of “science,” we are so completely under the thrall of the rationalist delusion, that we don’t even see the problem, and away we go, following socially inept but supposedly highly qualified leaders off the cliff like lemmings.  


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