What the Atlantic Got Wrong About the War On Stupid People

If I can’t drive a car, you shouldn’t hand me the keys.

Although it needs no defense, this very idea seems to completely elude the Atlantic’s David Freedman, as he laments in a recent article headlined “The War on Stupid People” that modern life has unfairly fettered the unintelligent.

In the article, Freedman cringes at facts like this one: “IQ correlates with chances of landing a financially rewarding job.” He then goes on to becry employment website Monster’s advice to hiring managers that they look for “smart” employees.

“That can’t be right,” he concludes in the final paragraph. “Smart people should feel entitled to make the most of their gift. But they should not be permitted to reshape society so as to instate giftedness as a universal yardstick of human worth.”

There are several things wrong with Freedman’s thesis, but I’ll start with this gross assumption that punctuates the last sentence—echoes of which are laced throughout the article in a series of false corollaries. He uses the time-honored tactic here of painting his opponents as bigots, assuming they equate intelligence universally with human worth, and then incorrectly linking this grotesque charge with his groanings about the lack of jobs for the less-intelligent.

He cites some interesting data, which, if true, does say something about the role of intelligence in job performance (although I wonder if it says more about jobs than intelligence). For instance, he notes, “Whatever advantage high intelligence confers on employees, it doesn’t necessarily make for more effective, better employees. Among other things, the less brainy are, according to studies and some business experts, less likely to be oblivious of their own biases and flaws, to mistakenly assume that recent trends will continue into the future, to be anxiety-ridden, and to be arrogant.”

That paragraph does a lot of heavy lifting for Freedman’s case, yet he declines to elaborate on which studies he’s citing, or even on who these “business experts” are. And so we’re left guessing at the precise meanings of phrases like “less likely,” “biases and flaws,” “anxiety-ridden” and “arrogant,” each its own small universe of subjective meaning. (We’re also not told exactly what these researchers mean by “high intelligence.”)

But even if we give Freedman the benefit of the doubt and assume these studies hold merit, and that knowledgeable, credible experts back him up (elsewhere he does cite the late Harvard Business School professor Chris Argyris), we’re still left with what I believe is the most fundamental flaw in Freedman’s case. Namely, that intelligence is not like any other human trait, and it takes an incredible feat of logic to treat it as one.

Here it helps to lay out the problem simply: Intelligence is about the acquisition and application of skill. It’s a skill that begets skill. We might call it “the ability to learn,” or “openness to new information.” And so this problem Freedman persistently wrings his hands over isn’t borne of subconscious implicit biases against different racial or ethnic minorities or sexual orientations; it comes instead from an open appraisal of a person’s ability to thrive in a given framework.

A compassionate read on the situation would rightly suggest that not everyone gets to decide their path in life, and intelligence is often a product of external factors. This is absolutely true, but it does not follow, as Freedman seems to suggest, that intelligence should be devalued simply because it is unevenly distributed. Instead, we should seek to mitigate the inequity, even as we uphold a broad preference for reason and education.

It’s hard to overstate how significant the gap is between the unconscious biases we should actively weed out (racism, sexism, et. al) and the very conscious bias the modern world has quite correctly instantiated toward intelligence. I think Freedman has talked himself into making such a massive category error here that his argument, taken to its conclusion, has the potential to undo the human project itself.

In one of the more alarming points in the article — and the line which I suspect demolishes his case for many if not most readers, Freedman writes, “The government could, for example, provide incentives to companies that resist automation, thereby preserving jobs for the less brainy.”

Consider how far Freedman is willing to go here. The problem is so dire, he seems to suggest, that we should place it in priority above the overall economic success of our country, even above technological progress itself. Not only that, but we should actively handicap these things in the interest of providing jobs for the “less brainy.”

We’re at a crossroads. Jobs are disappearing, the world is changing. One view says we should restore things to the way they once were, another says we should move forward and take new ground. But this familiar debate amplified through Freedman’s philosophical lens becomes a grotesque flirtation with destruction.

And yet strangely, even Freedman seems awkwardly bound to the utility of intelligence in his own article, as he proposes fix after fix for our “fetishization of IQ,” almost all of which paradoxically revolve around more and better education. He calls “helping the unintelligent become intelligent” a “marvelous goal.” Even as he rightly criticizes the derision shown to so-called “stupid” people and asks the reader to champion the humanity of every person, his ultimate solution to this problem is, simply, education.

This section, taken on its own merits, is actually likely to resonate with most readers, as it did with me. Like Freedman, I too believe that expanding early education is one of the ways out of the ditch we find ourselves in. But he seems not to notice that even if this paradigm shift were to happen, it would have to occur at the hands of some very intelligent people, and its net result would be a better-educated world, which is by definition one which places an even greater value on intellectual life.

I think Freedman is correct to criticize the mistreatment of others, but I think he is deeply misguided in his view of intelligence as a human trait to be taken in concert with other traits.

If my two-year-old son asks to drive my car, and threatens a temper tantrum if I refuse, my response will be to welcome the tantrum, because the consequences of allowing a toddler to drive are unacceptable. But Freedman doesn’t bother railing against the restrictions placed on toddlers, because (one assumes) he understands that an appropriate threshold of intelligence is needed here — a trait developed over time and through experience — and that this process is important for the formation of humans who will respect each other and live together peacefully. Yet he fails to make the logical leap and apply this self-evident truth to the broad spectrum of human experience and learning. A person’s skin color or sexual preference does not alter their ability to gain knowledge from experience; their level of intelligence does.

Jesse Singal writes in New York Magazine in response to Freedman:

“Whenever there’s only so much of a resource to go around — money, education, whatever else — things are always complicated. We should acknowledge, though, that in instances in which some sort of discrimination is inevitably going to take place, discriminating on the basis of intelligence might sometimes be the least-bad option.”

I would go farther and suggest this form of discrimination may often be the only ethical one.

Freedman’s article begins with a telling glimpse into his own perspective:

“As recently as the 1950s, possessing only middling intelligence was not likely to severely limit your life’s trajectory … The qualifications for a good job, whether on an assembly line or behind a desk, mostly revolved around integrity, work ethic, and a knack for getting along….”

You may have noticed the two qualifications Freedman forgot: being white, and being male. The world has come a long way since the 1950s. That distance can largely be measured in terms of intelligent solutions to endemic inequity. But the thing is, there are miles to go before we sleep. American life today is riven with a deep vein of anti-intellectualist rhetoric that smart people like Freedman should be actively calling out in the name of collective progress. But instead, he proposes further eroding our societal preference for intelligence, which seems destined to send us backward in the worst way. I don’t want to live in that world, and neither do you.