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Saturday, October 10, 2015

That's Debatable

William James Sidis

An odd little item in the news, little noted and no doubt not long remembered: a debate team composed of inmates from the Eastern New York Correctional Facility just defeated the Harvard debate team in a judged contest. The Harvard team had just won the national championship. Apparently, the inmates also did this without having access to the Internet for research—it's against prison rules. Even books for research had to be pre-approved, and such approval could take weeks. Nor, of course, did they have anything like Harvard's library facilities.

There are various possible explanations for this anomaly. Perhaps the Harvard team did not take the competition seriously enough. Then again, the prison team had previously beaten University of New Hampshire and West Point. Perhaps the lack of distractions in a prison is a huge advantage. Perhaps the judges were biased.

But the simplest explanation is this: the smartest people in the US are not in Harvard. They are in the prisons.

And this might well be so.

Consider William James Sidis, the man said to have the highest IQ on record. He did go to Harvard—it was a family tradition. However, he left when the other students threatened violence towards him, and took up a teaching post in math at Rice. Here he was fired. He signed up for law school, but quit. Then he was arrested, and sentenced to eighteen months in prison, for demonstrating against the World War I draft.

He might, in those days, have been enlisted for a prison debate team. Who knows?

Sidis then spent time in a mental asylum, and emerged to a life of low-level clerical work with adding machines. He wrote and published anonymously in his free time.

So much for high intelligence leading to worldly success.

The vast majority of people are, of course, average. There is that bell curve thing. The world and all its systems are therefore built by and for more or less average people. They are not going to function well when they encounter an exceptionally smart person, Firstly, the systems themselves will almost certainly have been designed by people of average intelligence. They will seem pretty dumb and risible to a smart kid. They will not command his respect nor commitment; and they are likely to return the favour. Secondly, these systems and personnel will have had little or no experience dealing with the exceptionally intelligent. Imagine being ten feet tall: everything is built for people six feet or less. Your height will be a major disability. Thirdly, according to those who work with IQ, people are generally incapable of understanding another when their IQs vary by more than about 15 points. A person of average intelligence is not going to be able to understand how a person of really high intelligence thinks. Just as a cat, never able to grasp how a human walks, always seems, with the best intentions, to be underfoot.

It must be maddening to a Sidis.

Public enemy number one.

But there is worse. It is human nature to want to believe we are personally very smart—the smartest person in any group, if not secretly the smartest person who ever lived. As a result, unless we have a keen self-awareness and a healthy conscience, or have experienced enough humbling hard knocks, we are going to resent and envy anyone who makes us feel this is not true. By being smart, they are making us feel very bad. Rather than admit inferiority in this crucial matter, we are going to tell ourselves and anyone else around us that the offending genius is not really smart, but cheating in some way, or arrogant, or impolite, or unbalanced, lacking in some other quality, like empathy, or flat out insane. We are going to want to hurt them, if we can. At a minimum, they must submit to our complete control, to demonstrate to ourselves, to them, and to anyone else looking that we are really the superior party intellectually. They will owe that to us.

Leaving aside the alternative example of the Jews, this is just what obviously happened to William James Sidis. For survival, he was forced to completely estrange himself from his family, who sought to control him, and had locked him in an asylum. His fellow students at Harvard wanted to kill him. His professorial colleagues and students at Rice could not stand him, and drove him out.

Yet, everyone who knew him as a simple clerk, after he in effect went underground, loved him, and testify that he was a great friend.

It makes sense, then, if the most intelligent among us, especially if facing all this trouble already in childhood, before we are likely to be able to figure out for ourselves what is really going on, are going to become deeply alienated from society; perhaps especially from the educational enterprise. The message is clear: the rest of the world is out to get us. Why wouldn't we turn to crime?

Up to about fifteen points smarter than average, granted, we are going to do well. Beyond that, each additional IQ point probably brings with it more social hostility than advantage, so that with each the odds increase that we will end up in prison or in a mental health facility instead of the Ivy League.

Public emeny number two.
Besides the terrible injustice, the cruelty, and the waste of lives, this problem is properly a great problem for every one of us. If this is true, we are imprisoning or drugging into semi-consciousness the majority of people who could further general human well-being. We are punishing and suppressing the very people who could produce a cure to cancer, or end poverty, or compose the next great symphony, and so on.

It seems likely to be so. And, not incidentally, it is one clear message of the New Testament as well.

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