Why Do Highly Intelligent People Do Extremely Stupid Things?

Academia, those who have spent any time there may have noticed, is a very strange place. Among other things, there is a certain amount of truth to those colorful anecdotes about absent-minded professors who, back in the days when chalkboards existed, would fill their chalkboards with equations, but walk around unkempt with shoes untied, and be likely to have left their watch or wallet somewhere. And many have been prone to alleviate their social awkwardness towards the fairer sex with a “hi cutie” or two, usually privately as they entered class.

Unfortunately, not all such events are mere anecdotes, and not all are funny. Some are career destroying. They raise questions of why obviously intelligent people do the things they do, especially when some of those things are just plain stupid in this day and age.

Several months ago, not long after I first started this blog, I wrote about the now-discredited gang rape allegation at the University of Virginia. It was never my position that unwanted sexual advances and rapes do not take place on campuses. Obviously they do. Not as frequently as feminists say, but my point here is, they do happen, and we critics of political correctness never said otherwise. Cases easily describable as sexual harassment also happen.

Consider the case that seems to have begun back in fall of 2011 between reasonably well-known British philosopher Colin McGinn, then at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla., and a graduate assistant named Monica Morrison. McGinn’s credentials are well known. A prolific writer, he has numerous books in both the philosophy of mind and the philosophy of language as well as dozens of journal articles. He recently pushed a few disciplinary boundaries with his latest book, Prehension: The Hand and the Emergence of Humanity (MIT Press, 2015). He, along with a colleague and his former university, are being sued by Ms. Morrison.

If we can rely on this account, here is what appears to have happened. During academic year 2011-12, Ms. Morrison was assigned to work with McGinn. Right off the bat we have the basis for a major power asymmetry. McGinn is well known, and so working as his grad assistant would be a plumb assignment. Successful work might mean of very positive letter of recommendation later. Such letters are almost essential for finding any decent academic employment at all these days, even for women. Hence a strong motive for subservience.

McGinn began expressing an interest in Ms. Morrison which looks to have gone well beyond the appropriate and professional. As the months ensued they began exchanging emails, with McGinn expressing most of the interest and Ms. Morrison growing increasingly uncomfortable, as the emails had gone from complimenting her legs to comments about erections, hand jobs, and references to her as his “beloved pet.” McGinn, incidentally, was 62 and she was just 26. Huffington Post claims to have reviewed hundreds of pages of emails exchanged between the two.

Ms. Morrison reluctantly expressed increasing discomfort with the situation. McGinn did not back off, and so she complained to university authorities, whom she now alleges did not act seriously on the complaint. McGinn contended — still contends — that the relationship was consensual, and this was the university’s judgment although McGinn was called onto the carpet for not reporting the relationship. I have to wonder how a reasonable person can claim that a relationship is consensual when one of the partners is relatively famous and has written to the other that she would be “much better off with my support than without it.” That’s what’s known as a power-play.

Both left the university. Morrison resigned as McGinn’s graduate assistant in early September 2012, filing her complaint a few days later. McGinn announced shortly before the end of the year that he would resign instead of fight the allegation; he says he was not forced out. You can read the specifics on the article I linked to above, if you are so inclined. That article also references significant passages from the emails — passages which, one should note, are pretty damning. It would be hard to say they were “taken out of context” or something along those lines.

Which brings me to the main point of this post. What on Earth is any university professor doing putting references to his having an erection or wanting a hand job into an email sent to any female student at his university, much less to his own graduate assistant?

One explanation is humorous bad judgment of the sort I noted at the outset which got a bit out of control in this case. Intelligent people are prone to it. All of us who had the dubious fortune of being born with strong inclinations towards intellectual work know, if we are honest with ourselves, that we have sometimes serious failings in other areas of our lives. I am a much better writer than conversationalist, for example. Many of us are socially awkward, borderline Asperger’s cases who can’t handle small talk, or have poor aptitude with mechanical things. I can do predicate logic in three place relations or with definite descriptions while explaining them step by step to students — but the last time I had a flat tire, I had to track someone down who could help me remove the tire and put on the spare (at least I had a spare).

The other possible explanation is a bit darker. McGinn, who is British, received his BPhil in 1974 and began his teaching career immediately. It is probably fortunate he isn’t an American, since that was right around the time the job market in the U.S. was starting to collapse. So if McGinn isn’t Lost Generation, he missed being such by the skin of his teeth — by not being an American and having been born in 1950. At 65, he may be the youngest person to have contributed both original and worthwhile material to the field with his new mysterianism: the idea that our minds just aren’t equipped to solve the problem of consciousness. The idea is intellectually serious, and can be expanded on: I am not sure our minds are equipped to understand either God’s existence or such matters as how (and when) time began or when the universe began. Our ignorance is vastly, vastly greater than our knowledge.

But never mind that here. My other possible explanation draws from the fact that McGinn was the last of the lucky generation, one might call them — those who came up before job prospects for those with advanced degrees in subjects like philosophy fell apart. Everyone in today’s academic one percent (one might call them) falls into this category. I know of no exceptions. I’ve often commented that, in U.S. philosophy anyway, there is almost no one younger than 70 doing serious philosophical work actually advancing the field, whose contributions cannot be dismissed as political (books on radical feminism, for example).

Perhaps, as an academic one percenter, McGinn thought he could get away with lack of professionalism with a graduate student. He found out otherwise — in this case (we have no idea how many instances of this sort go unreported, of course). This will taint his future in the discipline no matter how many books he writes. One of McGinn’s former colleagues came to his defense in a personal confrontation with Ms. Morrison, some minor-leaguer I never heard of named Edward Erwin, who alleged that she had ruined McGinn’s career. This earned him inclusion in the list of defendants in Ms. Morrison’s lawsuit, which also charges defamation in the face of generalized threats of retaliation. The fallout from this case may prevent her from having any future in the field at all.

What such cases do is give the radical feminists more ammunition. (All one need do to see this is read the comments section under the HuffPo article.)

Sadly, academic men now inhabit an environment in which a male professor is out of his mind if he approaches a female student — any male professor, and any female student. He is even stupider if he approaches someone enrolled in his class, and to make amorous advances toward someone working directly under him is taking stupid to the nth power! (Just think: if an adjunct or even someone full time but without tenure were to do it, that person would be gone faster than you can say sexual harassment.) This Lost Generation Philosopher’s recommendation, which is not limited to academia: never get involved with, or make advances toward, someone you work with.

Why do I say sadly? Because I have known older faculty members who met their future wives this way, as former students or former grad assistants. That, of course, was a long time ago, when there was more sexual sanity in our culture, and more maturity generally.

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About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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One Response to Why Do Highly Intelligent People Do Extremely Stupid Things?

  1. lecox says:

    The research I am familiar with gives one basic common denominator to “stupid mistakes.” That commonality is: Connection to a psychopathic personality. Such a personality, though it may openly profess a desire to help or even adoration, secretly desires to destroy the lives of the people around it. They are seen as threats to its survival.
    Though the above is an over-simplification, this is a tested, workable theory. It is also almost entirely unknown. The only totally secular work I know regarding this phenomenon is called “Political Ponerology.” There are some other books available about psychopathy that I don’t trust as much as this one. I recommend this one to you.

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