A few days ago I read about Apple CEO Tim Cook’s response to a shareholder complaint about sustainability programs:
At a shareholders meeting on Friday, CEO Tim Cook angrily defended Apple’s environmentally-friendly practices against a request from the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) to drop those practices if they ever became unprofitable.
I support the practices Cook defended. But the incident was summarized by a headline writer like this: “Tim Cook tells off climate change deniers.” I am a climate change denier in the sense that I don’t believe that there is persuasive evidence that humans are dangerously warming the planet.
The headline — not what actually happened — reminded me of something surprising and puzzling I noticed soon after I became an assistant professor at Berkeley. I attended several colloquium talks — hour-long talks about research, usually by a visitor, a professor from somewhere else — every week. Now and then the speaker would omit essential information. Such as what the y axis was. Or what the points were. The missing information made it impossible to understand what the speaker was saying.
I didn’t expect graduate students to interrupt to ask for the missing info but surely, I thought, one of the five or eight professors in the room would. We all need to know this, I thought. Yet none of them spoke up. I cannot think of a single example of a professor speaking up when this happened (except me). Even now I am unsure why this happened (and no doubt still happens). Maybe it reflects insecurity.
I mention climate change on this blog because it is interesting that so many intelligent supposedly independent-thinking people actually believe, or claim to believe, that humans are dangerously warming the planet. The evidence for the supposedly undeniable claim (“97% of scientists agree!”) is indistinguishable from zero. Of course journalists, such as Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker and Bill McKibben (a former journalist), are often English majors and intimidated by scientists. I don’t expect them to question what scientists say, although questioning authority is half their job. Of course actual climate scientists do not dissent, for fear of career damage. It is when smart people who are not journalists or climate scientists take this stuff seriously that I am impressed. Just as I was impressed by Berkeley professors who did nothing when they didn’t understand what they were being told.
It seems to me that the smarter you are the more easily you can see that climate change fear-mongering is nonsense. There must be some other important human quality (conformity? religiosity? diffidence? status-seeking? fear of failure?) that interferes with intelligence in non-trivial ways. To try to figure out what the quality is, I ask: who is the smartest person you know who believes global warming fear-mongering? Does that person do other extreme or unusual things? These might shed light on what the intelligence-opposing personality trait is.
People talk about intelligence quite often (“you’re so smart!” “she’s very bright”). Many people, including me, think it matters. There are tests for it. But this other trait, which can negate intelligence and therefore is just as important…not so much. In my experience, not at all. My fellow Berkeley professors were very smart. But they were also something else, much less apparent.