Smart versus Knowledgeable

“Trust me, I’m like a smart person.” That is just one of the many amazing things that President Donald J. Trump uttered in front of the memorial wall at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia on 21 January 2017. Trump’s intelligence is one of his favorite personality traits to emphasize, and he has several. He is smarter than so many other people, so his logic goes, that nobody is more qualified at anything than him. Let us put aside all contention as to the President’s intelligence, because such debate will get us nowhere. Let us instead address the key concept he is getting at, which I’ve represented mathematically as follows:

(being smart) = (being qualified)

On the surface this feels true. “Smart people are smart, and smart people do hard things,” but what exactly does it mean to be “smart?” We could go to the dictionary, but what we’re talking about here is what we feel defines smartness, rather than a specific definition. I contend that for most of us, we identify someone as smart if they have demonstrated knowledge of a seemingly complicated subject. Most would agree that Ken Jennings, the record holder for the longest winning streak on Jeopardy!, is smart because he knows a lot about a lot of different things. Of course nobody would argue that Albert Einstein was smart, he’s quite literally the poster child for intelligence. In 1952, Albert Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel. He turned it down, saying “I am deeply moved by the offer from our State of Israel, 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 to exercise official functions.”

Why would Einstein, a universally acknowledged “smart person,” turn down such a prestigious office? Honestly, I think he didn’t want it, but beyond that, there’s insight in his reply. Einstein says that his entire life – or more accurately, his entire professional career – has been spent dealing with objective Truth, and that politics is outside his “natural aptitude.” Essentially, Einstein is saying that although he’s smart, he’s not an expert in dealing with people or official State business, thus would not make a good president. Over sixty years ago Einstein cut to the heart of the matter we’re discussing now, and that is the difference between being smart and being knowledgeable.

Scientists are naturally aware of this difference because it is key to their ability to function professionally in almost every capacity. Here I will use myself as the punching bag, because if I’m going to question a person’s knowledge then I should at least have the decency to do it to myself. I have a PhD in aerospace science and have from time to time been called smart by people. I’ve also been called an idiot countless times, but if we discount my wife then we aren’t generally referring to the same groups of people. In practice I am a physicist and my primary specialty in physics is electromagnetics. Now what that means specifically isn’t relevant, all that is relevant is that my specialty has essentially nothing to do with biology. If you want to know how cells divide to reproduce, or how retroviral treatments work then I’m no expert. I am however a trained scientist, so I can read up on the subject and work my way through it, but it would take years of work for me to become familiar enough with the subject to intelligently contradict established theories and conclusions in biology.

What I’ve just stated will seem obvious to a scientist, but may raise questions of my credibility from non-scientists. Why should you read an article that I write about some aspect of biology when I’ve just admitted that I am not an expert on the subject? The distinction is in restating accepted scientific fact and drawing new conclusions from other people’s data. If I write a plain english summary of a published scientific study then what is on the line is not my credibility on the subject matter, but my ability to understand and translate their findings into plain english; I did not come to the conclusions, I’m merely relating them to you with no judgment on their accuracy. This last point is key: I am not qualified to contradict these theories because I’m not an expert in that field. This is how science journalism works. The science writer for The New York Times or the BBC is not an expert in all fields of science, he or she (ideally) has some science training and is adept at converting scientific jargon into common terms, usually with the help of the scientists that wrote the study.

Any time a non-expert in a specific field contradicts commonly accepted conclusions of that field we must be inherently skeptical. This is the exact situation we find ourselves in when it comes to climate change denial. The overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change is that changes to Earth’s weather patterns observed in the last hundred years are a result of human pollution, particularly due to carbon emission coming from the burning of fossil fuels. Often times, the “authorities” that oppose this consensus and expound alternative theories are not scientific experts in the field of climate change, and often they have clear ulterior motives for promoting such theories. Politicians have financial backers that represent the fossil fuel industry, or represent districts where the mining or drilling for fossil fuels is a significant economic boon to their constituency. Their arguments will often begin with “I’m not a scientist, but it seems to me that…” and degenerate from there. Why does anyone listen to them? Simply because they are authorities, not scientific authorities, but authorities in that they have power and a platform that grants them the ability to reach a large audience easily.

In science we call a problem like climate change a “multi-disciplinary field” because there is no one school of study that can address the whole problem. How carbon interacts with Earth’s atmosphere to cause global temperatures to rise requires chemists to understand how light from the Sun interacts with carbon-rich molecules. How higher temperatures affect weather patterns, including causing some parts of the Earth to – seemingly paradoxically – get colder, requires meteorologists who can only analyze such patterns with the help of powerful computer models, which require computer scientists to program. How these shifting weather patterns affect different species requires ecologists working in many different ecosystems across the planet, making observations and comparing them to historical data. It takes paleontologists to gain perspective on how climate shifts in the last hundred years compare to the last few million years of Earth’s history, showing that we are experiencing unprecedented climate heating. The scientific consensus on climate change is built upon thousands of scientist’s work and an equal number of published reports for others to scrutinize.

When a scientist does contradict this consensus they are not automatically wrong, however they have a great weight of evidence to overcome. At one point “climate change” was referred to as “global warming,” because that was the overall planetary trend that was observed: the Earth’s average surface temperature was rising. As time went on and more data was collected and analyzed, scientists realized that heating the atmosphere could cause jet streams to shift, actually cooling some parts of the planet, thus the term “climate change” was adopted. Today climate change deniers use this shift in terminology as a perceived weakness of the theory, literally throwing snowballs at their opponents when record cold temperatures are measured to shouts of “I thought the planet was getting hotter!”

Climate change involves the complex interplay of a wide range of scientific fields to understand, fields so diverse that no one person can be an expert in all of them. It takes more than just being a “smart person” to understand, and far more to contradict. Often times climate change denial is not malicious, it is based on lack of knowledge, and with a problem so complex I hesitate to blame anyone without a scientific background for not believing the data.

Nobody is qualified to do everything, the world is too complex. Specialization is required to be even modestly good at something. The next time someone tells you that they know more than the “experts” or the “elites” because they are a “really smart person,” ask yourself why they believe they are smart. Is it because they went to the best law school? Is it because they have a successful business empire? You probably have to be smart to do those things, but ask yourself how knowledge of business or law translates into knowledge of science, trade policies, military strategy, policing, or international diplomacy. How confident are you of their knowledge in these fields when they contradict the conclusions of experts?

Let me tell you, I’m like a really smart person and I stink out loud at chess.

About Andrew Porwitzky

Dr Andrew Porwitzky is a professional scientist, comic book junkie, and freelance writer. He is also on Twitter way too much.

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