Friday, August 31, 2007

Arrogance and Multiple Intelligences


It bugs me that many people just don't get science. In my weaker moments, when I want the world to be radically other than it is, I want everyone to understand science. Not just to know scientific fact, but to understand scientific reasoning. But what bugs me more -- much more -- than the simple fact not everyone understands science is the horrible fact some people will consider you stupid if you don't understand science.

Thirty or so years ago when I was in college, I tutored logic for the Philosophy Department. It was while tutoring students in logic that I began to suspect there was more to "intelligence" than I had been taught.

At that time, thirty years ago, Howard Gardner had not yet invented the theory of multiple intelligences, and no one else was seriously entertaining the notion that intelligence might have more than one axis. The IQ test ruled the day: intelligence, everyone thought, could be summed up as a single thing.

Yet, when tutoring logic, I discovered people who were amazingly bright in some ways, but who just could not for the life of them grasp logic. It perplexed me no end. Until I actually sat down to work with such people, I had always assumed anyone who was bright was bright in everything. And anyone who was dull was dull in everything. But now I was confronted with people who needed exceptional help just to pass an introductory course in logic, but who excelled in other ways -- I could not deny they were in those ways bright people.

The question never went away. Over the following years, I was always alert to noticing how people could be bright in some ways and not so bright in others. Eventually, I came to think, "There are many different kinds of human intelligence", and I tried to categorize the different kinds based on my own experience of people. Then one day, after several years thinking I was alone in my heresy, it occurred to me others too might be thinking along the same lines as I was. So, I Googled several search terms until I hit the key one, "multiple intelligences". Up popped Howard Gardner's work, and I became as excited as a boy who has just discovered his first real friend.

Today, there is a movement among people to label themselves "Brights". The people who like to do that largely seem frustrated with the fact not everyone gets science as well as they do. I find the movement unsettling. "Bright" is not a term that should be reserved only for people who get science. There are at least eight distinct kinds of intelligence, according to Gardner, and so there are at least eight distinct ways to be bright. Moreover, even if one is not especially bright in any of those eight ways, perhaps one has a mix of intelligences that allows one to see certain things more surefooted than other people see those things.

Of course, the temptation to see our own kinds of intelligence as superior to any other kind is not limited to people who like to call themselves "Brights". It's done all the time -- even by people who are not "Brights". For instance: Many people who have a great deal of interpersonal intelligence tend to see others who lack such "people smarts" as inferior to them. And many people who are exceptional athletes.... I could go on, but every example is at heart the same: Many people think their own brand of intelligence makes them decisively superior to everyone else. That, my friends, is not too smart.

It is also arrogant. I do not mean to mean to imply any moral condemnation of arrogance here. I mean only to be descriptive -- not prescriptive. The essence of arrogance is a lack of realism or proper perspective about how our own talents, abilities and skills compare to the talents, abilities and skills of others. To be arrogant, you must be to some extent deluded.

Life presents us with many challenges and not one of us is equally adept at meeting each and everyone of those challenges. Humans have the great advantage, though, of being able to communicate exceptionally well with each other (when compared to other species). In practice, that means we can seek advice on how to handle challenges that play to our weaknesses, rather than our strengths. Suppose I don't understand politics as well as you do. If that's the case, then it would be wise of me to ask for your advice about politics when I have need to -- so long as you yourself are honest in giving advice. In that way, I combine your strengths with mine.

On the other hand, if I am arrogant, I believe that your knowledge of politics is inferior to my own because -- at least in part because -- I have no real grasp of my own limits. Most likely, I see myself as intelligent in every way that really matters. Why then should I seek out anyone else? Why should I look for opinions that are fundamentally different from my own? In my delusion of across the board superiority, I merely consider any fundamental difference in opinion to be the proof you are wrong and I am right. Worse, I probably don't even understand your point of view.

When we are too arrogant to consider any views but our own, we cease to take advantage of one of our species greatest strengths -- the ability to draw on the strengths of others to meet the many challenges of life that play to our own weaknesses. That strength is nowhere more highly developed than in humans. It's almost inhuman not to use it.

8 comments:

Loren said...

Reminds me of a fellow INTP who after taking the Briggs-Meyers test thought it should be the goal of everyone to be an INTP, and I, being an INTP, had to agree with him.

Not surprisingly, not a single administrator was an INTP.

Braveheart ( Ela) said...

Interesting article. I have not much to say about it, but it was a good read.

I only hope we can respect one another, because without a janitor there is no school, there is a pig style.
Logically thinking, whoever think is above others because of years of studies, is a moron in a way.

After all, we must play various roles in this world.

I think there is not much difference between science and religion, at the end, both come up with the unexplainable higher power.

Guitar's Cry said...

Excellent post, Paul! I am quite a fan of Gardner's work as well. To me, it seems ridiculous to uphold only logic and linguistics when the other intelligences play such important roles in our lives.

Each person has something to offer as long as communication and understanding are allowed to take place.

decrepitoldfool said...

It's a good explanation and thought-provoking.

Many years ago my dad told me that he was "pretty dumb in some ways". I thought he was being modest, but as time (and my father) passed I began to realize that despite his polymath intelligence, he still was quite slow, in some ways. Lacking anything like his range of skills I am learning the same thing about myself.

And the thoughts this article provokes are that that we would be happier cultivating a sense of detachment from valuations of our own and others' intelligence. Most importantly, our strengths and their strengths are the most free when we don't anguish excessively about weaknesses. A difficult discipline given how our school systems work (making weaknesses of intelligence tantamount to a character flaw) but worth the effort.

David Rochester said...

I love anything that makes me feel better about my inability to understand any form of advanced mathematics.

Another thought -- I've wondered, sometimes, whether all arrogance is a hyperdeveloped form of low self-esteem. It seems to me that one wouldn't need to remain arrogant if one weren't afraid of the results of being more open-minded or tolerant. I think that in terms of simple use of language, people often confuse arrogance with assertiveness. I appreciated your careful definition of it here.

I would also like to say that it is, in fact, very easy to become arrogant about one's own strengths because it's so frustrating, at times, to deal with someone who lacks one's own type of intelligence.

Loren's comment gave me a chuckle; I recently dated an INTP and came to the conclusion, after knowing her for a week, that she was remarkably delusional. She saw herself as arrogant, but not as delusional . . . although after knowing me for a while, she also started seeing herself as delusional, probably because my particular kind of intelligence involves talking people into seeing things my way. Handy, that.

Paul Geisert said...

Re: "Today, there is a movement among people to label themselves "Brights". The people who like to do that largely seem frustrated with the fact not everyone gets science as well as they do. I find the movement unsettling. "Bright" is not a term that should be reserved only for people who get science."

A Bright is an individual who has a naturalistic worldview, free from supernatural and mystical elements.

From day one, the word Bright has referred to the Enlightenment, a time when reason and science offered a hope for humanity to move toward a better world.

Never have the Brights claimed superior intelligence to supers (a supernatural worldview), and the term certainly has no exclusive link to science.

“Bright” refers to a worldview, not to the intelligence of individuals who hold that worldview.

We invite you to more fully explore the nature of The Brights' Net.

Paul Geisert
Co-director of The Brights' Net
http://www.the-brights.net

Paul said...

Hi Loren! I have great respect for the Briggs-Meyers test. It has taught me a lot about myself and others and how to understand people.


Hi Braveheart! That's a very good insight that each of us depends on others to have a good life.


I think you're right, Guitar's Cry, that communication is the key. Unfortunately, so much discourse these days is based not on communicating with others, but on demonizing others.


Hi DOF! I think we set ourselves up for confusion and loss of insight when we anguish about our weaknesses and the weaknesses of others. After all, nothing is accomplished through our weaknesses. It is through our strengths that we accomplish things.


Hi Paul! Welcome to the blog! Thank you for clarifying the origin of the word "Bright". I have checked out your site and will within a few days post a short essay on the subject -- hopefully that will help correct my mistake here.

Nita said...

I am a fan of Gardner's and infact a very long article of mine on this subject was published in Deccan Herald, which I have published on my blog as well. It wasn't exactly a review, but it was a take-off from Gardner's work. Yes, there are many kinds of intelligence and I respect all of them. Logic to my mind is not always present...logic often has to be learnt. In fact the most creative people are not always logical! But they are brilliant all the same!