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Beware of clever fools

Cleverness is not wisdom.” - Euripides


This short blog (#80!!) is an important one if you are keen to weed out pretenders and avoid being a clever fool yourself. Today's post was inspired by an article by Janan Ganesh (The age of the clever fool | Financial Times).


Clever fools are everywhere. Sometimes they have a long raft of qualifications, millions in their bank accounts or millions of followers. They are self-assured and self-confident. They convince people with their confidence. Today we are going to be dissecting what clever fools are and why they can be dangerous.


What are clever fools?


A clever fool is a person who has built up some credibility in one field that has too much faith in themselves in others. They are often idealists, romantics and theoreticians.


We often see this in academia, where producing theoretical constructs is their stock-in-trade, but find the real world quite annoying with all its nuances and new dimensions that do not seem to agree with their thesis. Would you trust an economist with your portfolio?


We also see this in technology where people who are superb at writing code, try and convince people that suddenly we will all dispense with national currencies and migrate to a system that has no in-built taxation or protection against money laundering.


Finally there are our beloved politicians, superb at organising supper clubs and geeing activists up, who try and convince us that there is some merit in their plans when it is always some recycled version of tax cuts for the rich for the right, and bashing the wealthy and creating more dependents on the state in the left.


Importantly a clever fool rarely admits defeat. Each time their plan doesn’t work they seem to blame circumstances or mitigating factors. Of course, it could not possibly be an error by them.


A model that is (mis)used a lot, is the Dunning-Kruger effect, which I think provides a good framework for the clever fool phenomenon. It highlights that people of less than average competence tend to have poor self-awareness and rate their competence higher than it is. The key take-away is that people are not objective about their level of competence.


The Dunning-Kruger effect


The Dunning-Kruger effect is a bias in which people with limited competence overestimate their abilities. This is somewhat the other direction counter to Imposter Syndrome where people who even with evidence of their capability seem to discount their competence.


As a new learner faces a new subject, competence and confidence rises from a low point. This leads to a point where they feel they understand the subject well enough (often called 'the peak of Mount Stupid'). It is the classic 'a little bit of information is dangerous'. This confidence is misplaced though and as learners try to test their knowledge in the real world they realise their understanding was too simplistic and their confidence takes a hit ('the valley of despair'). As they continue to learn and incorporate their practical findings their confidence grows again. A key take-away is that high confidence is not an indicator of high competence.


What makes the clever fools foolish?


The nub of the point here is: an idea only works if it works in practice. The cardinal sin of a clever fool is their lack of intellectual humility. They have too much faith in their intelligence and do not seek to validate their opinions outside their head or echo chamber. This leads to misplaced confidence and poor outcomes.


I see three roots of clever fools:


1) Intellectual complacency: People assume that because they are expert in one field they have the heft to quickly pick up another. They give themselves a pass on the specific details wallowing in their intellectual superiority.


2) Motivated reasoning: There are incentives to appear confident. Who is going to hire a brain surgeon that is going to 'try their best'. In many environments, confidence is hugely important to 'sell'. You get to make fees or lead teams if you present confidence greater than is justified.


3) Identity: We do not challenge our beliefs because they are convenient and help justify our personal or group identity. They are confidently spouted, but untested ideas. We see this a lot in close-knit communities where convenient beliefs are left unchallenged. They have unearned confidence from hearing it so many times. Having an unchallenged oversimplified viewpoint is comfortable. It allows people to believe in their theory, mathematical model or their broad competence.


Where do we see the Dunning-Kruger effect


We see this effect all around us:


  1. Amateur investors or gamblers who believe they have a system

  2. Start-up founders who think their idea will immediately take off

  3. DIY enthusiasts who think fitting a bathroom is easy

  4. Debates where UK MPs with no European experience think a trade deal with the EU on very favorable terms is highly likely

  5. Discussions where people view everything in terms of a single lens, whether racial, gender, or class divides.

  6. Consultants who have no practical experience in a field, making practical recommendations.


How to protect yourself from clever fools


Firstly, we can protect ourselves from being fooled by clever fools by assessing people's expertise, not relying on their confidence. This is both in their understanding and practical experience. Expertise, preferably with a track record of success is a much more honest measure.


The second is alignment of interests. Experts miraculously seem to believe in things that make them more money. For someone to be truly aligned with you, they have to 'taste their own cooking' and only make excess profits once you do. There is a whole industry of experts who get paid on transactions going ahead rather than on the success of the project and that is a perfect breeding place for confident, clever fools.


How to stop yourself from being a clever fool


  1. Challenge your own understanding with the real world

  2. Invite differing perspectives in, who have more practical experience

  3. Understand that it is intelligent not to form a view where you have insufficient information


In long term relationships, it is better not to be a clever fool where it comes to selling things too.


If you could leave an example of clever foolery that I haven't mentioned I would be very grateful.


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