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Helen Smith

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February 24, 2012 - 5:14 am

I am reading Thomas Sowell’s new updated and expanded book Intellectuals and Society that includes new chapters on intellectuals and race, and other revisions that make the updated book extremely easy to read and understand. His first chapter on “Intellect and Intellectuals” got me thinking about how we define intellectuals in our society.

Sowell points out that intellect is not wisdom; there can be “unwise intellect:”

Brilliance–even genius–is no guarantee that consequential factors have not been left out or misconceived.   Intelligence minus judgment equals intellect. Wisdom is the rarest quality of all–the ability to combine intellect,  knowledge, experience, and judgment in a way to produce a coherent understanding…Wisdom requires self-discipline and an understanding of the realities of the world, including the limitations of one’s own experience and of reason itself. The opposite of high intellect is dullness or slowness, but the opposite of wisdom is foolishness, which is far more dangerous.

One of the interesting things that Sowell discusses is the tendency for intellectuals to think that because they are brilliant in one area, that they are brilliant in all areas. They make asinine predictions–think global warming etc.–and are ultimately unaccountable to the external world should their ideas be found to be wrong.

If an engineer or surgeon made a similar mistake, there would be hell to pay. For today’s intellectuals, there is a shrug of the shoulders and they continue without repercussions in their ivory towers while being awarded grants and honors. Without consequences, it’s no wonder they rarely think about what they say, or the effect it has on the public.

However, the public has started to discount what they say and with the internet and other technology, has started to understand that without judgment and wisdom, the intellectuals are often not so smart after all. Of course, they are called rubes for their understanding, but the more I hear that word, the more I realize that the masses are waking up to the stupidity of those who mistakenly think of themselves as wise.

Helen Smith is a psychologist specializing in forensic issues in Knoxville, Tennessee, and blogs at Dr. Helen.
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