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Why do so many academics espouse such silly ideas?

A theory of the ‘clever sillies’.


The Noble Lie, claimed Socrates, was a falsehood perpetuated to keep the elite in power. Insecure members of the elite will outdo each other in how fervently they accept this Noble Lie or “dogma” because their acceptance of it makes them seem attractive and thus secures a following.

Far-right nationalism, insisting that “we are superior,” means you’re loyal and fearless. Postmodernism, arguing that the disadvantaged are somehow enlightened and that a better world can be created because all differences are cultural, makes you seem altruistic and positive. These are desirable qualities that allow you to play for or maintain status.

But conservative nationalism, in the West of 2015, doesn’t make you seem original and so is not especially fashionable. Postmodernism, in being relatively novel and claiming there’s no truth, can make you appear deeply philosophical. It is a “clever silly” idea, one based around an unprovable or disproven dogma which nevertheless permits you to showcase your intelligence.

You would think that academics would be the first to dismiss systems of thought based on unprovable or obviously wrong dogmas. After all, PhD holders have an average IQ of 123.

My research with Dimitri van der Linden, recently published in the journal Intelligence, shows that academics are actually more likely than the general population to fervently advocate the fashionable “clever silly” ideology. The modal academic disposition renders these ideas intensely attractive. But there are two kinds of clever-silly academic: the originators and the followers. They have very different personalities.

The followers are the average academics. They accept the dominant ideology once it is relatively widely adhered to, because academic success is predicted by three key personality traits: impulse control, cooperativeness and empathy, as well as mild mental instability (which predicts, for example, worrying enough to revise for an exam). However, these traits also mean that you don’t want to cause offence, have difficulty thinking outside the box, and fear social ostracism. These ideas are least influential in hard science because scientists are higher on Asperger’s traits, more mentally stable, and have much higher IQs (average physics PhD = 150) meaning they are less susceptible to fallacious arguments.

In order to be successful academics the followers must exhibit their intelligence. Advocating the most logical position does not really allow them to do this, as the most logical idea is often the simplest idea and the truth will almost certainly question aspects of the dominant ideology. Accordingly, the best course of action is to accept the overly complex, dogmatic ideology and to critique it slightly. This allows the academic to play for status because, even if his idea is wrong, he shows the intelligence to entertain a complex, relatively novel idea and the intelligence to originally critique it but this is balanced with all the benefits of essentially conforming and showing that he is cooperative.

The originators of clever-silly ideas – Nietzsche, Marx, Franz Boas – are psychologically very different. Geniuses in the arts, and to a lesser extent in the social sciences, combine extremely high intelligence with low impulse-control, low cooperativeness (though high empathy) and very high mental instability. These traits are true of all of the originators of such clever silly ideas as postmodernism, cultural determinism and others. They don’t care if their original, counter-cultural idea causes offence; they absolutely think outside the box, and they are so mentally unstable that they may act in bouts of anger.

Their ideas are wrong, but they are highly original and highly complex, meaning that they display, to a far greater extent than their eventual followers, their extremely high intelligence and, accordingly, play for very high status. They take a much bigger risk than the followers – braving pariah status and even physical violence – for a much bigger payoff: the possibility of being an academic megastar. Sometimes they are unsuccessful, sometimes partially so (their work might be recognized but only after their death) and sometimes, epitomized by Boas who gained star status and a senior academic position, the gamble pays off entirely.

The very personality profile that makes people academics also makes them ideologically conformist. Only a tiny minority, the artistic geniuses, will break the mould with original clever silly ideas, and these people tend to be selfish, impulsive and mentally unstable.

Another minority will develop empirically accurate, original ideas. They differ from clever-silly originators in having even higher intelligence, higher Asperger’s traits, lower mental instability, and higher extraversion, making them utterly thrilled by new discoveries.

Edward Dutton is an adjunct professor of the anthropology of religion at Oulu University in Finland. The study he co-authored with Dimitri van der Linden, “Who are the ‘Clever Sillies’? The intelligence, personality, and motives of clever silly originators and those who follow them” (2015) was published by Intelligence, 49, 57-65 is available free until March 7, 2015.

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  1. Bruce Hiebert / February 25, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    Fascinating! The underlying research also makes a point I have long suspected, that academics are more likely than most to be somewhere out toward psychopathy. Otherwise the average faculty meeting makes no sense.

  2. Patrick McLane / February 25, 2015 at 1:28 pm

    This post offers unsubstantiated comments on the personalities of the originators of ideas as a way of refuting those ideas. This is an ad hominum attack. If you believe post-modernism (for example) is wrong, you should demonstrate this.

  3. P / February 25, 2015 at 1:48 pm

    Since, according to the text, originators of clever-silly ideas are the likes of Nietzsche, Marx, and Franz Boas, unqualifiedly characterising the intellectual edifice each one of them built as plain wrong (beginning of the ninth paragraph) strikes me as utter nonsense. Unless, proving them wrong is the major breakthrough of the research underlying the article. Their theories cannot even claim the status of plausible narratives if they are plain wrong. I would love to be enlightened regarding the falsehood of, e.g., reverse platonism as a philosophical stance or class warfare as part of historical progression. I cannot fathom even the framework in which they are proven plain wrong; let alone the arguments involved.

    My enthusiasm about having such an article on UA was completely shattered by this single phrase that opens the ninth paragraph.

    Also, how does far-right nationalism relate to the surrounding text? Is it an example of mental instability?

  4. Nicholas Stix / April 14, 2016 at 10:29 pm

    One of the unspoken implications of this article, which I happen to agree with, is that where the humanities and social BS are concerned, academia is a complete waste of money. The group that “will develop empirically accurate, original ideas” in the social sciences and humanities is so tiny that it will always be overwhelmed by the Silly Party.

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