Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 31, 2016

When Smart People Say Stupid Things

Wittgenstein

“It isn’t possible to get to the moon.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein, September 1950 (On Certainty #286)

“It isn’t possible to get to the moon without a rocket.”
— Ludwig Wittgenstein, July 1969 (probably apocryphal)

Sometimes, people who I respect say things that seem stupid. It’s disquieting but it’s actually helpful.

If stupid people say stupid things, it’s expected. That’s their job. However, if smart people say “stupid things,” it forces us to re-examine the issues. That applies especially when the people are every bit as smart as we are, and then some.

Are their ideas really as stupid as we thought? What’s the evidence?

When the evidence is open to multiple interpretations, what “judgment calls” do they make differently from us, and why?

What’s the role of life experience? Of emotional sympathy? Of their intellectual environment?

No two thinking people always agree, and if they did, it would be intolerably boring. I hate being bored.

In the current case, I think I understand the disagreement. It’s mainly a matter of life experience, generosity of spirit, moral courage, and judgment calls that reasonable people can make differently. We are the people we are — virtues, flaws, blind spots, and all.

Understanding the reasons for disagreement doesn’t eliminate it, but it helps us see the issues in a wider and more tolerant perspective. It helps me, at least.


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