Obama and the “Is Really Smart Meme”

The discussion of whether or not Mr Obama is “smart” came up again in a conversation. I thought I’d lay out a few thoughts on that. Before I begin I want to emphasize that I don’t know whether or not he is smart or not. People say he is … and I think they have no real good way of knowing that. The reason I say I don’t know is that I don’t have the background or experience to judge whether or not largely because I really have no instincts or experience of lawyers who are or are not considered, in their field, smart. 

First of, let’s set some groundwork. When people are talking about Mr Obama being smart, what they are not talking about is that he is in the upper 50 percentile of intelligence in the US. Or at the very least that’s certainly not what I understand the term to mean. Some people who offer that Mr Obama is smart, point to academic credentials … attending Columbia, Harvard law, Harvard Law review chair and so on. Yet they also contend without torquing their brains with dissonance that Mr Bush (Yale, Harvard MBA, F-104 fighter pilot) is not. Now, I’ve attended the “Harvard of the Mid-West” (U of Chicago) and in my field there were fellow students who I felt at the time were not, well, very sharp. So mere attendance at a good school does not qualify one automatically as either smart or dumb. Regarding the Law review, I have no idea how one serves on that editorial board or chairs it … but it seems more akin to winning an election to class President than anything writing a brilliant paper or giving a talk like that noted in the next chapter. 

20+ years ago, when I was in graduate school I attended a lecture at the U of Chicago Maths department by Edward Witten. Mr Witten is considered, almost universally, in the Physics (and mathematical Physics community) to be if not the very brightest then on the very short list of the brightest theoretical Physicists alive today. Now, I as a grad student was blown away by his talk … but the interesting thing was that my reading of the reaction by the math department reaction was that they had just witnessed a historic lecture, of the category of Riemann’s famous habilitation (Doctoral defense) lecture in which geometry was completely re-written as a theory of manifolds. This is what I mean by “recognizing” smart. Now Mr Witten is a special (easy) case, for he is on the upper/outer boundary. But the point of this little recollection is to offer that in Maths, Physics, and (as I noted in our conversation) in computer programming I feel qualified to judge “smart.” Now a person who does not know any higher mathematics, when they see a paper or talk by Mr Witten really has no way of judging whether he is smart or just confidently talking nonsensical jargon. In the same manner, I feel no expertise to judge whether a lawyer “doing his thing” is smart or just confidently spouting jargon. But the point is, in the Physics or Maths community there is a sense of who the “smart” people are and people within the field can judge that from their scholarly work. I would expect that much the same is true in the Constitutional law. 

So, when someone opines that Mr Obama is “smart” what that means for me is not that he is in the 60th IQ percentile in the US or some such twaddle (for then the Mr Bush/Ms Palin is dumb argument fails as well),  but that he, who was trained as a Constitutional lawyer, is or was regarded as one of the best and brightest in that field. Was he. I don’t think  that’s the case. Do I think he is smart. I don’t know, but I suspect …. that he is not or that he is now and has always been contending in a field (Politics) where such assessments are really quite meaningless.

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23 comments

  1. I meant smart as in raw intelligence, the kind of thing that is measured imperfectly by IQ and other tests, not as in expertise in a particular field. I agree that neither of us can judge how good a lawyer Obama is, but I think that

    (1) The overwhelming majority of people who have academic resumes similar to Obama’s are very smart (IQ >=130ish?) The issue with Bush is that because of who his father was and because of their wealth, he could have achieved his resume without much personal merit.

    (2) Relatively smart people can judge whether other people are smart based on listening to them talk extemporaneously with some reasonable degree of confidence. You can’t pick an outstanding lawyer from a competent one if you’re not a legal expert, but you can pick a smart lawyer from an average American. And I think there are more false negatives (assuming someone is dumb because of an accent or dialect) than false positives (assuming someone is smart because he wears glasses and throws in a big word every now and then.)

    As for Bush and Palin, I don’t think they are in the same category. I would guess Bush is significantly above-average (IQ 120ish?) while Palin is probably pretty close to average (for a person/American, not for a governor/VP!) Both suffer from a lack of curiosity about matters relevant to their jobs, which leads to ignorance, a separate problem that is easily confused with lack of intelligence because it is often but not always caused by it. Bush also suffers from being terrible at speaking extemporaneously, which people confuse with stupidity.

    Both Bush and Palin also have the horrendous flaw of having confidence far beyond their competence. Here’s my most controversial opinion of this comment: In my personal experience, this is a common flaw of right-wing people — a confidence utterly without merit. That’s what lets them confidently assume that all the experts — people smarter AND more knowledgeable with them — are not just wrong but obviously wrong. They seem to experience less self-doubt, which allows them to have less anxiety and neurosis and to be “deciders” but causes them to be WRONG very often.

  2. Boonton says:

    I think you’re trying to measure the question of his being smart by looking at his college major and asking if he climbed to the top of that field. That’s an odd way of looking at things for no other reason than it would seem to imply that no smart person could ever become President (unless some college starts to offer ‘being President’ as a degree major or unless he first climbs to the top of whatever major he has and then runs for President….like majoring in biology, winning a Nobel and then going into politics).

    Politics is a bit like a combination of chess and poker and in this regard I don’t think anyone can seriously say Obama isn’t smart. He came almost from nowhere out flanking Hillary Clinton (and both Bill and Hillary are themselves pretty smart politicians). Likewise multiple times both running and as President (the most recent I think is the tax cut deal) he has a cany knack for taking the thrusts against him and flipping them around. He’s a man who knows what he’s doing and does it with a great amount of discipline.

    Now I can’t speak for the Harvard Law Review. My impression is that it’s not quite like getting elected ‘class president’. From what I recall reading about it during the election it’s quite influential and considering that most law students who want a career in law would love to put it on their resume it’s kind of impressive that someone who wasn’t going after a law career was able to snag the role.

  3. Mark says:

    JA,
    It seems to me that colleges like Yale and Harvard are less, not more susceptible to parental status and playing the “parent’s status” card is just as applicable to the aff. action card regarding Obama.

    Both Bush and Palin also have the horrendous flaw of having confidence far beyond their competence.

    A feature Obama shares in spades … as does his admin.

    It also seems to me that you are running a tightrope here. When pressed on what you mean by smart, it seems to me you’re watering down what might be interpreted by smart … to a point where you can no hold the “Bush is dumb” part. That is you’ve watered down “Obama is smart” to a point where “Bush/Palin” are also smart or if Bush is dumb then you have no longer any reliable way to judge the smartness of Obama.

    For myself, I hold the smart label to a higher standard. If you want to be smart, you have to be in the elite in your chosen profession … and its hard to judge that from the outside.

  4. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    He continued his academic career for a short time (U of C adjunct … which in turn was nothing remarkable).

    My impression is that it’s not quite like getting elected ‘class president’. From what I recall reading about it during the election it’s quite influential and considering that most law students who want a career in law would love to put it on their resume it’s kind of impressive that someone who wasn’t going after a law career was able to snag the role.

    Hmm. Those sentences don’t agree with each other. First you say it’s “not like class president” and then that it’s a desired post but requires politicking to snag.

  5. Mike T says:

    All that outmaneuvering Clinton proved was that he is a good politician. In terms of statecraft, the man has shown himself to be utterly incompetent.

  6. Mark,

    Ah yes, Mark’s “redefine common terms in an idiosyncratic way” game. Okay Mark, let’s make it simple and use a term you can’t redefine. Do you think Obama likely has a high (130+) IQ? Where you would estimate Bush’s and Palin’s?

  7. Boonton says:

    Hmm. Those sentences don’t agree with each other. First you say it’s “not like class president” and then that it’s a desired post but requires politicking to snag.

    Not what I said, I said the position probably has a lot of competition from very bright law students who would want it.

    He continued his academic career for a short time (U of C adjunct … which in turn was nothing remarkable).

    Indeed, however you’ve presented no evidence that this has anything to do with a lack of intelligence as opposed to applying his intelligence in directions other than an academic career.

    It seems to me that colleges like Yale and Harvard are less, not more susceptible to parental status and playing the “parent’s status” card is just as applicable to the aff. action card regarding Obama.

    Speaking of ‘parents status’, I don’t think anyone can honestly believe Bush could have ended up President if he came from Obama’s background rather than the background of a long time political family that had already produced a President. I esp. don’t think Bush could have pulled that off if he opted to ‘drop out of life’ until his 40’s before ‘getting serious’.

  8. Mark says:

    JA,
    I disagree. “Smart lawyer”, “Smart Physicist”, and just “smart” with no career/professional referent have different meanings and I think that is common in the vernacular. The trick y’all are playing is that you want to parlay “smart” with no referent to “Smart lawyer/politician” without change.

    As for how Obama, Bush, and/or Palin would score on a standardized IQ test, I will not venture to guess.

  9. ““smart” with no career/professional referent” is the smart I was talking about. Whether he’s a “smart president” or “smart lawyer” is a different question.

    As for how Obama, Bush, and/or Palin would score on a standardized IQ test, I will not venture to guess.

    Of course not. Because then you’d have to admit that Obama likely blows them out of the water.

  10. Mark says:

    JA,

    Of course not. Because then you’d have to admit that Obama likely blows them out of the water.

    No. It’s because I really have no idea.

  11. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Indeed, however you’ve presented no evidence that this has anything to do with a lack of intelligence as opposed to applying his intelligence in directions other than an academic career.

    Which is why I’ve (repeatedly) said I’m not qualified to judge him in this regard.

    Not what I said, I said the position probably has a lot of competition from very bright law students who would want it.

    Some of them are bright, some not so bright. But the point is the competitions is then not about smarts but politics … yet the prize is one that is then regarded as an indicator of legal “smarts” which it isn’t.

  12. Mark says:

    JA,
    I should add that most of the time people use “smart” it is in the context of profession not some the bare “IQ” type measure and/or at the very least that is the yardstick they are using to judge the same.

  13. Mark says:

    JA,
    Do you think Mr Biden is smart? Is he smarter than Ms Palin?

  14. 120ish? Bush range, much smarter than Palin, less smart than Obama.

    Can you see Palin graduating law school?

  15. Boonton says:

    Some of them are bright, some not so bright. But the point is the competitions is then not about smarts but politics … yet the prize is one that is then regarded as an indicator of legal “smarts” which it isn’t.

    Leave aside the implication that political skill does not require intelligence. I don’t believe the editor of the Law Review is an elected position. I think it’s fair to assume it is an indicator of ‘legal smarts’.

    Do you think Mr Biden is smart? Is he smarter than Ms Palin?

    I do.

    In other news…..Einstein was highly overrated in terms of intelligence. I mean look the man contributed practically nothing to the field of patent law!

  16. Mark says:

    JA,

    Can you see Palin graduating law school?

    Sure. I think just about any bloke can graduate from Law school if they have average intelligence and a reasonable work ethic. I don’t think Law school requires much more than memory and some writing skills. But, again, I’m an outsider … but from my college years the pre-law crowd, like the pre-med, didn’t impress me with their intelligence like the hard science bunch. Typically they went for easier courses/course loads because admissions competitions meant that they GPA was more important than learning and pushing their cognitive envelope.

  17. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    How is the editor selected? By peers or professors? Do you think race/reverse racism played a factor?

  18. Mark says:

    Boonton,

    Leave aside the implication that political skill does not require intelligence.

    You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t on that. If you don’t … why pretend Mr Palin is stupid?

    But more seriously, the standard Stanford/Binnet IQ tests to which JA is trying to push us … tests none of the skills related to making friends and influencing people, i.e., personal magnetism and charisma.

  19. But more seriously, the standard Stanford/Binnet IQ tests to which JA is trying to push us … tests none of the skills related to making friends and influencing people, i.e., personal magnetism and charisma.

    For the record, I agree completely, and I think Palin is extraordinary in those traits. Also way above average in looks for her age. And I gather that she was a good basketball player, too. I just don’t think she’s smart in the IQ sense, and I think that matters. (In kind of a mirror view, Gore and Kerry probably have reasonably good, not great, IQs but lack those other traits. It’d be interesting to see if there’s a pattern there.)

    I think a president should have high IQ and have those other skills too, like Obama and B. Clinton. Too little IQ and you end up believing the propaganda or otherwise making bad decisions. Too little other skills and you can’t win or accomplish much if you do. Of course it’s possible to have an “other skills” puppet and someone with an IQ pulling the strings, but that’s kind of scary since we’re voting for the puppet, not the puppetmaster.

  20. Boonton says:

    Do you think race/reverse racism played a factor?

    Possibly, as you know Harvard only admits one black guy at a time.

    You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t on that. If you don’t … why pretend Mr Palin is stupid?

    Whose pretending. Objectively how has Sarah Palin demonstrated superior intelligence in applied politics? By maintaining a 60% disapproval rating from roughly a week after she secured fame until today?

  21. Boonton says:

    More importantly, why do discussions of Sarah Palin always seem to follow this script. You ask for evidence that Obama is smart. Evidence is provided. The evidence is nitpicked. Then though there’s no request for evidence that Sarah Palin is smart, instead the demand is to prove she is stupid.

    This shifting goal post betrays a clear double standard. If I said person X was once editor of the Harvard Law Review, that would clearly be evidence of intelligence. Yes it’s possible if we could study the biographies of all the editors of the Law Review, we may find some pepole who were kind of dim, but on average we’d find pretty smart people. The same can be said of your of winning a Nobel in one of the Sciences. No doubt there are some professors of physics who are smarter than many winners of the Nobel in Physics. But on average a winner of a Nobel in Physics is likely to be more intelligent than the average professor or teacher of physics.

    But in Obama’s case averages aren’t enough, the case must be proven. Maybe Obama was the one stupid guy to be an editor of the Review or maybe ‘reverse racism’ got him the post. I don’t know much about the Review or it’s selection criteria and for purposes of this discussion I WILL NOT reserach it.

    In Palin’s case, though, the opposite case must be proven. It must be proven that she is stupid. Why the double standard? Why not defend the case that Palin is herself pretty smart? What are some examples of her intelligence?

  22. Mark says:

    JA,
    I know you think high “standard” IQ is important for a President. I just don’t think that matches well with a list of successful vs unsuccessful Presidents (or in the larger sense, great or highly successful rulers in history). There are a lot of sections of the standard test (spatial recognition) which have no bearing at all on Presidential acumen (or for that matter your puppetry charge).

    IQ doesn’t help you “not believe” propaganda … or is that your conceit. That you think skepticism requires high intelligence which in turn makes continual skepticism an attractive way of looking at the world? Discernment is not a quality singled out in the IQ test. I’d offer that is a skill or ability not tested at all by that test.

    Bertrand de Jouvenal, political philosopher, suggested that there were two types of rulers the inspirational one (Napoleon rallying troops) and ones which can ease tensions between groups, as a judge or mediator. Different times and events require these talents in different measures … however the success at neither depends on IQ.

    Boonton,

    More importantly, why do discussions of Sarah Palin always seem to follow this script.

    Who’s talking about Ms Palin? This was a post about Mr Obama and judging intelligence in fields not your own. JA was unsatisfied with my fence sitting regarding Mr Obama’s intelligence, which he holds in high regard (with little basis in my opinion). GOP candidates as “dumb” is a common Democrat meme.

    You want evidence of Ms Palin’s political intelligence. Examine her pre-McCain selection political career and campaigns.

    Why does reverse racism imply “one Black guy at a time.”

    Regarding the Law Review. As I’ve said before, I don’t know how to judge the intelligence of lawyers. Is the HLR a good indicator. I don’t know.

    What examples of Mr Obama’s intelligence do you have that are not based on accolades.

  23. Boonton says:

    Why does reverse racism imply “one Black guy at a time.”

    Being a bit snarky. Even if there was a reverse racism meme going on in Harvard, the Obama’s race would have only helped him in competition with whites for the position. If he wasn’t intelligent ‘reverse racism’ wouldn’t help him against intelligent blacks at Harvard who would have presumably wanted the position.

    You want evidence of Ms Palin’s political intelligence. Examine her pre-McCain selection political career and campaigns.

    Haven’t seen any but you’re the one that brought up the question of ‘why assume she is stupid’? My answer is simply why not? And why do we have to examine evidence of Obama’s intelligence with such great skepticism (maybe he achieved X out of ‘reverse racism’ rather than merit?) while the same crowd seems to feel no need to present any evidence that Palin is intelligent.

    I know you think high “standard” IQ is important for a President. I just don’t think that matches well with a list of successful vs unsuccessful Presidents (or in the larger sense, great or highly successful rulers in history).

    There’s merit to this argument and some have defended Bush on the grounds that his unintelligence is actually a feature, not a bug. I think you’re correct that leadership skills may not require great intelligence per sea, but at a mundane level the president is not just about ‘rallying’ or ‘mediating’ but making decisions and that requires intelligence.