Why are smart people so dumb?

“I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the telephone directory than by the Harvard University faculty.”

This quote from William F. Buckley summarises an interesting paradox which has been a recurring point of tension in modern Western culture:

How can academia be so smart, and yet also so dumb at the same time?

We are all instinctively familiar with this idea. The idea that although undoubtedly a great deal of clever thinking happens in those credentialed halls, it doesn’t necessarily follow that academics are well placed to produce positive results in “the real world”. Typically people wouldn’t trust a group of academics to run a company, or to hold political office – even (or perhaps especially) when it’s their field of expertise. No, instead we prefer academia to be incubated; churning out ideas which might be useful in the real world, but which, crucially, the real world has the option to take or leave.

So why is this? Why are “the world’s smartest people” not necessarily the world’s most effective people?

The answer normally given is typically something to do with personality – drive, leadership skills, what have you – but I would suggest it’s something different. A quirk of thinking which is highly instructive for anyone trying to take effective action (i.e. implement strategy).

The key lies in the asymmetry between our abilities to deconstruct things, and reconstruct them.

Deconstruction vs. reconstruction

In essence, a lot of academic theory is built around deconstructing – ideas, systems, theories, norms, institutions, etc. In this respect they are brilliant, able to trenchantly dissect stuff we take for granted and point out their flaws and contradictions.

Where things become trickier is when it comes reconstructing them. After you’ve torn an idea apart – in all probability quite accurately – you are then left with the responsibility of putting it back together in an improved way; or suggesting a workable alternative. In this area not only academics, but human beings in general, are completely hopeless. The proposed solution, historically speaking, is often so bad that even though the initial critique might have been brilliant, you end up wishing it hadn’t been made at all.

The most obvious examples of this process historically were recorded in communist revolutions such as the formation of the USSR – events which were indeed attempts to apply academic ideas to statecraft. Their initial analysis of the flaws that preceded them were truly insightful – but that did not automatically confer the ability to replace the old systems with something better.

This is hard for us to swallow, because we instinctively feel like the ability to critique something should be matched by the ability to fix it. Critics are the experts. But annoyingly in reality the reverse might be true.

This is because the things you are critiquing will often have been built emergently, rather than via the process of human design. When something is emergent, that means that:

  1. It is highly complex, with more moving parts than we can unpack
  2. It is extremely interwoven with its context, meaning that you can’t change it without changing everything else

Examples of two emergent ideas like this are a mouse, and marriage.

Why a marriage is like a mouse

In both cases here we have things which emerged organically from their environments, gradually, and over a long span of time. Nobody “invented” a mouse in the way they invented the food processor, and as an institution nobody specifically “invented” marriage; being as it is a cross cultural idea, present in almost every human culture historically (albeit with various local quirks).

When it comes to deconstructing these ideas, that’s quite easy. We can dissect a mouse and see how it works, to a great level of detail. And we can also dissect the institution of marriage, breaking it down into various social dynamics and – if we choose – offering a withering critique of it, and what we might feel to be its malign influence on society.

However we are not able to reconstruct these things. We cannot “make” a mouse, in any true sense, and nor can we improve it. Any tweak we were to apply to it via genetic engineering (e.g. making it bigger or faster or hairier or whatever) would result in a mismatch to its environment in a natural context – either damaging the mouse or the ecosystem around it. Equally we cannot propose, via deductive reasoning alone, an equally effective (i.e. long term resilient) social replacement for marriage. Certainly we try – polyamory, polygamy, commune living etc. – but all fail to supersede the emergent convention, and come with even more glaring flaws.

This is why, obtuse as it sounds, most of us would instinctively prefer leadership which doesn’t even bother to deconstruct in the first place. Leadership which is “blindly accepting” of much of the status quo – at least the parts beyond its purview. Because with that acceptance comes a huge mitigation of risk; the risk of being another USSR, or another doomsday cult, or another ambitious social experiment.

Blind acceptance certainly makes for a terrible academic – but often a very good strategist.

Moral of the story

What is the relevance of this in our own decision making?

Well contrary to assumptions, these principles demonstrate that very often a good strategy is something you find, rather than something you create.

In other words, you can use your naturally brilliant deconstruction abilities to determine what’s going on – but then rather than trying to change what you’ve discovered, you can try to work with it and strengthen it.

In a business context this might mean deconstructing your business to learn how it truly sits and operates within the market, and then rather than questioning it, working in harmony with it – accepting it as the best possible path.

It’s like that perfect Dolly Parton quote I’ve mentioned before – “Find out who you are, and then do it on purpose”. You’ll notice she didn’t say “find out who you are, and then fix it”. She said “do it on purpose”. That is an extremely wise and meaningful distinction – recognising both our abilities as a species, and our limitations.

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