Genius and Dumbness

Watching The Theory of Everything, the biographical film about Stephen Hawking, one wonders: why do geniuses behave like jerks?

There is the jerkiness portrayed in the movie. In 1990, after 25 years of marriage to the devoted Jane Wilde, Hawking informed her that he was flying to America with Elaine Mason, his therapist. He has long since left the therapist for whom he left his wife.

There is also jerkiness unmentioned in the film, but widely known. In May 2013, Hawking, after initially accepting an invitation to speak at the President’s Conference organized to mark the 90th birthday of Shimon Peres, changed his mind and declared that he would not participate in any academic or cultural exchanges with Israel. He announced his support for the BDS – boycott, divestment, and sanctions – movement.

Now there are many reasons why ordinary people should oppose BDS. First, Israel, whatever its faults, is the lone democracy committed to individual rights in the Middle East, and therefore deserves support, not isolation. Second, Israeli Arabs and Palestinians have  greater freedom to protest and greater access to independent courts than any other Muslims in the Middle East. It makes no sense to boycott Israel and give a pass to the oppressive regimes ruling Syria, Iran, or Turkey, to name a few. Third, those attending international cultural and academic events tend to be the very Israelis most opposed to their government’s policies. BDS, ironically, undermines the Israelis most committed to change and entrenches those most resistant.Genius

But these are reasons for ordinary people. Stephen Hawking is not an ordinary person. He has an added reason to oppose BDS. Hawking suffers from ALS, which has left him unable to utilize any muscles functions except for his cheeks, whose movement is monitored by a sensor attached to his spectacles. He sole means of communication is through a computer Intel Core  i7-based communication system, which runs on a chip designed in Israel.

If BDS were universally adopted, as Hawking wishes, the very technology he  relies upon to communicate would be unavailable to him. Hawking, a supposed champion of logic, thus takes the absurdly illogical position of opposing the same kind of exchange that allows him to communicate his opposition in the first place.

A first grader would blush at the internal inconsistency of such a position.

Hawking, of course, is not a first grader.  He  reportedly has an IQ of 160, and regularly appears on internet lists of the world’s smartest people.  As a specialist in quantum gravity and cosmology, Hawking authored theorems on black holes and singularities in the context of general relativity. He predicted that black holes should emit radiation, which is now known as Hawking radiation.

That’s what makes Hawking’s stand on BDS so interesting. It is not just an example of an ordinary person acting dumb. It is an example of a genius acting dumb — a phenomenon that turns out to be surprisingly common.

Let’s define our terms precisely. Dumb does not mean absent-minded. Albert Einstein, probably the greatest genius of all time, frequently found himself in dumb situations. For example, when a train conductor asked Einstein to produce his ticket, the physicist could not find it. The conductor assured him that he knew who he was, that it was all right, and that he could ride without one. After moving through the car to punch the other passengers’ tickets, the conductor turned and noticed Einstein on his hands and knees, searching under the seat. “Dr. Einstein,” the conductor said, rushing back to him, “I told you. You don’t have to worry about your ticket. I know who you are.” “Young man, I know who I am too,” Einstein replied, “What I don’t know is where I’m going. That’s why I must find my ticket.”

The dumbness which we explore here in this essay is not that kind of Einsteinian absent-mindedness.  It is a much different thing. It is the kind of mental inanity that causes the average fan of professional wrestling to sit up and observe: “My, but that is dumb.”

Hawking utilizing an Israeli-designed chip to tell people that they should not deal with Israel represents that kind of dumbness.  Noam Chomsky, the MIT professor who lobbied Hawking to support BDS, exhibits more of the same.

Known as “the father of modern linguistics,” Chomsky is another recognized genius. The same SuperScholar website, which lists Hawking as No. 1 among the thirty smartest people in the world, pegs Chomsky at No. 11.

Genius or not, Chomsky yields no ground to Hawking when it comes to acting like a jerk. He has denied that the Cambodian genocide, which wiped out nearly 2 million people, occurred. Instead, he insists that the death toll of the Khmer Rouge massacres amounted to “at most in the thousands.” Those few victims, Chomksy maintains, were comparable to the Nazi collaborators executed at the end of World War II.

He is skeptical of Osama Bin Laden’s responsibility for 9/11, and insists on referring to the Al Qeda mastermind only as a “suspect.” What about bin Laden’s confession that he actually planned the attacks? Not conclusive, says this genius.

There is much talk of bin Laden’s “confession,” but that was a boast, not a confession, with as much credibility as my “confession” that I won the Boston marathon. The boast tells us a lot about his character, but nothing about his responsibility for what he regarded as a great achievement, for which he wanted to take credit.

As dumb as Hawking and Chomsky have acted, if there were a Nobel Prize for genius-generated jerkiness, it would be awarded posthumously to Bobby Fischer. A chess prodigy at age 6, Fischer became the U.S. champion at the age of fourteen, on his way to defeating Soviet chess champion Boris Spaasky and becoming world champion in 1972.  No doubt a genius.

But a genius with a prodigious penchant for dumbness. Just as Chomsky denied that the Cambodian genocide occurred, Fischer denied that the Holocaust happened. An ardent admirer of the Nazis, he adorned his room with photographs of Hitler. He believed that the “stinking Jews” controlled the United States, and declared the 9/11 attacks “wonderful news.” He had his fillings removed from his teeth because he believed that they were used to emit dangerous radiation, possibly by his American or Russian enemies. He rarely changed his clothes or took off his hat.

One can find other, more benign examples in history. Isaac Newton discovered the laws of optics, mapped out the three laws of motion and the universal laws of gravitation, and invented differential and integral calculus – all before he turned 26. Yet he also devoted himself to the study of alchemy, searched for hidden codes in the Bible, and predicted that the world would end in 2060. Arthur Conan Doyle created Sherlock Holmes, the epitome of rationality. Yet he sincerely believed in fairies, and wrote two pamphlets and a book defending their reality.

So what gives? Are Hawking and the others just curious ironies, smart people mouthing dumb stuff? Or is there a causal connection between genius and jerkiness?

Last month, in an essay in Scientific American, University of Toronto Professor Emeritus Keith Stanovich wrote about a logical-thought defect which he terms “dysrationalia.” People, even those blessed with more than ample intelligence, tend to be “cognitive misers,” tempted to solve problems using the least amount of computational power. He provides this example:

A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Many ordinary people get this wrong, and immediately guess that the ball costs 10 cents. Of course, with a bit more thought, it becomes clear that the correct answer is that the ball costs 5 cents and the bat costs $1 more, or $1.05. Interestingly, this same question was posed to students at MIT, Harvard, and Princeton – and more than half got it wrong. To Stanovich, the reason for this kind of dystrationalia is basic laziness: smart people, including geniuses, are disinclined to think too much.

Stanovich may be on to something, but “dysrationalia” cannot fully explain the kind of monumental stupidity mouthed by Hawking, Chomsky, Fischer, and other recognized geniuses. The bat and ball example shows that highly intelligent people are sometimes no smarter than ordinary people. Hawking using Israeli technology to tell people not to deal with Israel, Chomsky denying that 2 million Cambodian were massacred, Fischer idolizing Hitler – these examples show that geniuses are sometimes far stupider than ordinary people.

The answer may lie in the nature of genius, and the burdens that accompany it. Genius is not just a matter of coming up with answers faster than others can. It is a matter of seeing the world in ways that others have not or cannot. It is not just better eyesight, it is different vision. And once crowned – or cursed – with the epithet of “genius,” it is difficult to encounter a new problem, and to tamely announce: “Well, I’m not really sure, but it’s likely that the majority have already got it right.”

The difficulty becomes acute when the genius encounters a problem outside his ken. Hawking never acted like a jerk when he was dealing with physics, just as Chomsky was sensible when the topic was linguistics, and Fischer was sane when the arena was chess. Once outside their zones of expertise, they could have and should have assumed an air of modest ignorance.

But no. For them, a genius must always be a genius. He must swing for the fences, rather than hit to get on base.  And when one swings for the fences, one is more likely to strike out. And the harder the swing, the more ridiculous the batter – or thinker – looks when his bat hits nothing but empty air.

Albert Einstein may have been absent-minded on occasion, but he was focused and attentive in 1952, when he received a letter from Abba Eban, written on behalf of David Ben-Gurion, offering him the presidency of the State of Israel. Einstein replied:

I am deeply moved by the offer from the State of Israel to serve as President, and at once saddened and ashamed that I cannot accept it. All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and and to exercise official functions.

In recognizing both his cognitive limitations and the boundaries of his expertise, Einstein proved that he was more than merely a genius. He proved that he was not dumb.

About the Author
Lawrence J. Siskind is an attorney practicing law in San Francisco, California. He blogs at
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