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.
Many of his acquaintances were highly sceptical, but he fell for the girls’ story hook, line and sinker. “It is hard for the mind to grasp what the ultimate results may be if we have actually proved the existence upon the surface of this planet of a population which may be as numerous as the human race,” he wrote in The Coming of Fairies. In reality, they were cardboard cut-outs, taken from Princess Mary’s Giftbook—a volume that had also included some of Conan Doyle’s own writing.
What’s fascinating is not so much the fact that he fell for the fairies in the first place, but the extraordinary lengths that he went to in order to explain away any doubts. If you look at the photographs carefully, you can even see hatpins holding one of the cut-outs together. But where others saw pins, he saw the gnome’s belly button—proof that fairies are linked to their mothers in the womb with an umbilical cord. Conan Doyle even tried to draw on modern scientific discoveries to explain the fairies’ existence, turning to electromagnetic theory to claim that they were “constructed in material which threw out shorter or longer vibrations,” rendering them invisible to humans.