Can You Judge Intelligence Based on Beliefs?

Here’s an uncomfortable question: can you accurately judge somebody’s intelligence based on their beliefs? The polite answer is “no”, but my own experiences make me think otherwise. Specifically, when people defend plainly inaccurate beliefs, it can reveal a few things: the amount of research they’ve done, their intellectual integrity, and/or their ability to critically think.

Ultimately, I believe we can make these inferences for one reason: truth is discoverable. Anybody with a sincerely open mind, the tools for research, and the capacity to critically think can discover true knowledge about the world (though, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will).

Throughout this article, I’ll reference “intellectual integrity”, so allow me to define what I mean. I’m talking about a genuine commitment to acknowledge the truth, wherever it leads, even if it means rejecting previously held beliefs. It means having a humble, open, self-critical mind.

Without intellectual integrity, it doesn’t matter how much research you’ve done nor how smart you are. If your beliefs aren’t guided by the pursuit of truth, your conclusions are likely to be arbitrary and false.

Before everybody assumes I’m an elitist snob, let me clarify a couple things. First, I believe most inaccurate conclusions are due to a lack of research or intellectual integrity, not a lack of mental capacity. One primary reason for the catastrophic error of intellectual dismissal is a simple lack of research – something I will write about extensively in the future.

Second, merely holding an inaccurate belief does not mean somebody is stupid, regardless of how wild the belief appears. There are a hundred reasons why somebody might hold wrong beliefs not related to their intelligence or intellectual integrity. If I was raised in a sheltered environment, where all the textbooks and people around me claimed the moon was made of cheese, believing so wouldn’t mean I was stupid.

Let’s take an easy case: when I was a child, I believed in Santa Claus. Everybody around me told me the same fanciful story, which I believed to be true. No problem. As I got older, my critical reasoning got sharper, and I eventually rejected this belief. In the 21st century, with access to the internet, if I currently believed that Santa was real, it would be reasonable to assume one of three things: I am not interested in the truth; I have done insufficient research, and/or I do not have the capacity for critical reasoning.

It becomes reasonable to make inferences about somebody’s intellectual integrity or intelligence only if they refuse to change their beliefs when presented with superior arguments. Practically everybody experiences this change as they grow out of childhood; if an adult believes everything identically as he believed in childhood, we can make reasonable assumptions about his mind. This might sound obvious when talking about Santa Claus, so let’s take a more difficult case: Economics.

You might have heard of Paul Krugman. He’s an economist and writer, won a Nobel Prize in Economics. He is also a vocal proponent of raising the minimum wage. I won’t make the case here, but suffice to say, raising the minimum wage is bad economic policy. The information is freely available to anyone with an open mind, and the case is overwhelming. What, then, can we conclude about Paul? I’d say two things, one more controversial than the other.

I don’t think Paul Krugman is stupid, and I don’t think he’s unfamiliar with sound economic arguments. I do think, quite confidently, that he is not intellectually integritous. He is a shill in support of progressive ideology, regardless of its accuracy.

But here’s the provocative part: to the extent that Paul Krugman is intellectually integritous and has researched the minimum wage, his conclusions must come from a lack of intelligence. I don’t see another option, given the fact that the minimum wage is clearly bad economic policy. I realize that sounds terrible, but enough resources exist for anyone with an open mind and an internet connection to understand why the minimum wage harms the economy. But again, personally, I don’t think Paul’s stupid; I just think he values ideology more than accuracy.

If I’m correct, then it implies the following: people who are capable, open-minded, and do enough research will often arrive at the same conclusions – the truth. This also correlates with my own personal experience. It may simply reflect my own bias, but those individuals whom I perceive as sincerely pursuing truth almost always hold very similar core beliefs, whether philosophic or political. But this shouldn’t shock anybody if indeed objective truth is discoverable.

Of course, I don’t mean to imply that all intelligent truth-seekers agree on everything. That’s not even close to being true. The grey areas, where objective truth is unclear, outnumber the black-and-white areas. What is the ontological status of universals? Extremely intelligent people can disagree with each other on this question, for good reason.

But in my own limited experience, nearly all disciplines have basic fundamental truths which can be discovered. In Economics, the problems with the minimum wage are clear; in Philosophy, the problems with epistemological nihilism are clear and discoverable to everyone. Even in a physical discipline like the martial arts, there are core principles which can be rationally understood by those who are open to discovery.

Consider Ptolemy as a final example. Ptolemy was a brilliant guy who came up with a bunch of great theories on different topics. He developed the “Ptolemaic model” of astronomy – a theory about the movement of heavenly bodies. The predictions of this theory were incredibly accurate; they meshed with earlier work of Aristotle, and they were consistent with the dominant strain of metaphysical thought at the time. If you were a smart, integritous man, you could check Ptolemy’s predictions and measurements. And you’d find – without using modern tools – his predictions were accurate.

Problem is, as reasonable and useful as those ideas were, they were wrong. His theory relied on the earth being in the center of the universe, which, apparently, it isn’t. Everybody who believed so was wrong. Obviously, this doesn’t mean Ptolemy and his followers were stupid or disingenuous. It simply means enough evidence accumulated to challenge his model, and that evidence was coherently explained by a superior theory of heliocentricism.

But what about the dogmatist, who insists on the Ptolemaic model regardless of the superior arguments? I think we can conclude one of three things: that individual is not ultimately concerned with the truth, hasn’t done enough research, or outright lacks the capacity to critically analyze.

Given our limited intellectual state as humans, our best theories in astronomy are likely wrong. But that’s no problem – inaccuracies can be corrected over time. Once a superior theory is discovered, we can each critically analyze it and determine whether our old beliefs should be discarded.

To be honest, I am still working out the implications of these thoughts. I don’t know the ratio between the disingenuous, uninformed, and inept. The kind, youthful part of me wants to give everybody the benefit of the doubt. The harsh pessimist in me isn’t so charitable. Regardless, this I can say for sure: intelligence is not determined by the accuracy of your conclusions. What matters is the ability to adjust your beliefs in relation to the best arguments. And when somebody dogmatically insists on inaccurate beliefs, they reveal more about themselves than intended.