Is intelligence a tool for propaganda or truth-seeking?: An excerpt from “The Intelligence Trap”

07 July 2019

In his debut book, The Intelligence Trap, the author David Robson explains why smart people are vulnerable to foolish thinking. Robson writes in the introduction to the book that before beginning his career as a science journalist, he thought that intelligence was synonymous with good thinking. But later, he found serious problems with this premise and arrived at the conclusion that “general intelligence fails to protect us from various cognitive errors.”

In the following excerpt from the book, Robson argues that “smart people do not apply their superior intelligence fairly, but instead use it ‘opportunistically’ to promote their own interests and protect the beliefs that are most important to their identities.” He substantiates this by narrating an anecdote about Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of the fictional character Sherlock Holmes, and by citing research demonstrating that smart people merely use their intelligence to rationalise their opinions. “… an intelligent person with an inaccurate belief system may become more ignorant after having heard the actual facts,” he writes. “Intelligence can be a tool for propaganda rather than truth-seeking.”

Consider how Conan Doyle was once infamously fooled by two schoolgirls. In 1917—a few years before he met Houdini—16-year-old Elsie Wright and nine-year-old Frances Griffith claimed to have photographed a population of fairies frolicking around a stream in Cottingley, West Yorkshire. Through a contact at the local Theosophical Society, the pictures eventually landed in Conan Doyle’s hands.

David Robson is the author of The Intelligence Trap.

Keywords: science propaganda politics intelligence