Intelligence vs. Skill

Just as there is a difference between job training and education, there’s a difference between intelligence and skill.

A recent DailyKos post by a neurologist disputed the notion that being a neurosurgeon should be taken as evidence that Ben Carson is smart. The author distinguished between genuine intellect and technical skill.

“Smart” is a multifaceted cognitive feature composed of excellent analytical skills, possession of an extensive knowledge base that is easily and frequently augmented, possession of a good memory, and being readily curious about the world and willing, even eager, to reject previously accepted notions in the face of new data. Being smart includes having the ability to analyze new data for validity and, thinking creatively, draw new insights from existing common knowledge….

My point is that neurosurgeons are not automatically smart because they are a neurosurgeon. To get through training and have any sort of practice they must be disciplined, have immense ego strength, a reasonably good memory, and have mental and physical stamina. However, like many other doctors, they are not always smart. Neurosurgeons, like other surgeons, can be outstanding technicians but that is different than being intellectually brilliant. A truly brilliant internal medicine specialist once told me that “you can train anyone to perform a procedure”. I’ve seen surgical assistants, not doctors but physician’s assistants that specialize in surgery, perform technically difficult procedures with stunning alacrity. It’s the old rule: do something enough times and you will get damn good at it.

I thought about the difference between skill and intellect–both of which are important, but which are not the same thing– when I heard Marco Rubio’s astonishing statement in the recent GOP debate that “Welders make more than philosophers. America needs more welders and less [sic} philosophers.”

Not only was Rubio wrong on the facts (philosophers actually earn more than welders), but think about what this sneering dismissal of the worth of intellectual pursuits tells us about his worldview. Clearly, Rubio (and apparently everyone on that debate stage) evaluates  the worth of any profession solely on the basis of what it pays. If welders did make more than teachers, then welders would obviously be superior.

I’m a big fan of market economics, but the fact that the market rewards pornographers more than it rewards nurses doesn’t mean we need more pornographers and fewer nurses.

Let’s be clear: the skilled trades are important and honorable. But scholarship, research, scientific inquiry and yes, philosophy and theology, are essential to human progress. They also give our lives meaning and purpose.

Socrates–a philosopher– said the unexamined life is not worth living. There wasn’t anyone on that debate stage who appears to understand that sentiment, let alone agree with it–and that is terrifying.


  1. That reminds me of a joke I’ve seen recently.
    What do you call a medical school graduate with a C average?
    A doctor.

  2. Carson seems to be a smart guy who has lost touch with what most of us call reality. He has a narrow view of the world and doesn’t seem to have a connection with people. He is doing what he needs to do to win the nomination, even if it isn’t reasonable, rational or defensible. But wait, that could describe the entire republican presidential field.

  3. One of your better posts, Shiela, and concisely stated. I would only quibble with your statements concerning skilled trades being “important and honorable”, but that the callings that follow are “essential”. That sounds just a tad elitist, and I suspect that you didn’t intend it to be. The implication is that the skilled trades are non-essential….hence perhaps disposable. I’m not sure we can form such a priority list and a cutoff line between “essential and non-essential”. Better said perhaps that various types of enterprises serve different purposes in the vast tapestry we call “society”.

  4. Personally, I do not believe debates about Carson’s cognitive skills are very helpful. Cognition and applied intelligence show infinite variance between individuals. Using general measures two people can be judged to be very intelligent. However, each may have substantially different cognitive skills sets. Unfortunately, we don’t have very precise tools as citizens for assessing the merits of political candidates. It is hard to know among the candidates if their claims regarding their achievements are even accurate. The three Democratic candidates seem to have substantial resumes of achievement. Among the Republicans it is much more of a guessing game. Regarding the subjective measures of integrity, sound judgment and leadership skills there is only one candidate as I evaluate those factors that consistently scores well. That is Bernie Sanders. When applied to Ben Carson he seems to fall short on those measures as do several other candidates. Carson seems to be more conman than statesman and I don’t find that reassuring in a presidential candidate.

  5. My now-deceased wife had a doctorate and taught at university. I have a degree in economics and law. She was the brains in the family. I couldn’t draw a straight line with a ruler and called the electrician when a light bulb burned out. Will Rogers is right; we’re all dumb in some area or other, and that insight does not exclude me. I think much of it is involved in continuing specialization. Einstein complained that he couldn’t go to meetings of physicists and understand what his colleagues were talking about anymore due to specialization in his field and the jargon that goes with it. Thus tax lawyers may not understand divorce lawyers well and vice versa, and it’s getting worse. Sub-specialties are arising within specialties. Generalists are scarce because there is too much to know these days for one lifetime. Perhaps Aristotle had trouble with interpersonal skills – I don’t know. We do know Socrates would rather break than bend with his ingestion of hemlock. It seems that, as now within the radical right, compromise was a four-letter word in his world. Philosophers are apparently smart and dumb, too.
    From my perspective, I think each human is unlike any other (even identical twins) and that each develops learned skills unevenly. Thus it is perfectly plausible to me that Carson is smart and dumb, just like the rest of us. I, for one, plead guilty as charged.

  6. I sense turf protection.

    Welders earn far more than philosophers, and Philosophy is among the elite degrees on campus.

    Most degrees at a university are absent any academic, logical or scientific rigor and ought be canceled.

    A quick whack of any department labeled “affairs” or “studies” would remove things of no use to intellectual advancement. Single-degree “schools” also deserve a presumption of uselessness.

    Your crude quote of Plato is about as ham-fisted as your attempts at understanding the Second Amendment.

  7. Good blog. Some of the candidates’ remarks leave me puzzled. Are these people not smart, crazy, or just very cynical?

  8. Rubio’s statement depicts something more than duplicity. There is a profound ignorance indicated. Any knowledgeable person today is aware that the welding trade is simply another ‘guild’ which has been emasculated during the great years of Reagan. Union wages have steadily gone down since the great communicator, acting president, straight man for Bonzo, Nancy run White House. Unless you’re working for the DOD building excess aircraft carriers, your welding job has been taken over by robots.

    Why doesn’t Rubio know that?

  9. We’ve all known folks who are “smart” in some ways and not-so-smart in others. In Ben Carson’s case, I worry that he needs professional help. Some of his strange beliefs defy explanation by history, theology, science, etc. In this week’s debate when he rambled through a disjointed narrative that a solution to Syria’s situation included attacking Iran, my fears were confirmed that his “smarts” and logic are seriously impaired. I have to wonder if that’s why he retired from medicine. He and some of his supporters may not realize that being President is every bit as exacting as brain surgery and with global consequences.

  10. As a high school dropout, and years before I got my GED at age 46, I held all college graduates in high esteem. Then I worked with many of them; I discovered that education does not increase everyone’s intelligence level…or skill in their chosen field. It simply means they have been to college. Look at the Republican presidential nominee lineup; how much intelligence and/or skill do you see or hear? I do see a certain level of skill in what Sheila referred to recently as “snake-oil salesmen…and women”.

  11. I think that Carson seems to have some big, gaping blind spots. He’s uncomfortably distant, with a sort of practiced “I’ll do this but don’t mean it” smile, lacking a sense of humor. Especially bothers me that “if I can be a neurosurgeon, I can easily be president”, not even appreciating what that says about him or his lack of empathy and respect for the whole field of politics. I can see him reading my MRI, telling me what he plans to do and expecting me to fall in line “because I said so”, not appreciating my need to understand what it’s all about or my fear of the future.

    It also bothers me that if this is a guy who had some real anger growing up now talks in a soft, totally controlled way. Maybe he’s someone who might even enjoy pushing the button. I’ll bet he had no compunction about slicing and dicing brains.

  12. What I find most disturbing about Mr. Rubio’s comment about welders vs. philosophers is that he ” …evaluates the worth of any profession solely on the basis of what it pays.” Is this then the way conservatives evaluate the worth of people? If you made millions cheating and lying your way through the stock market you are a more worthy person? If you are poor for whatever reason you have no worth as a human being? The way that conservatives treat their fellow man would indicate that this is precisely how they view their fellow human beings. Just look at their track record on funding social and educational programs. Compare it to their track record on corporate welfare. A wise man once taught me that you judge people on their actions, not their words.

  13. Sheila I enjoy reading your articles and the associated comments, but I have a personal request: please don’t ever block Gopper from posting. I find his rants immensely entertaining while at the same time being staggeringly arrogant and ignorant. They add a touch of humor and absurdity to posts that might otherwise become entirely logical and boring.

  14. In crime, victims and perps are easily distinguished. Not so much in anthropology. Culture envelopes people to whom it seems to give power, “seems” beinging the operative word.

    Thus politicians who used to be among my heroes (a few still are) are highly skilled and intelligent. They are extroverts who are energized by others, they are broadly educated and are programmable, an odd choice of words that implies to me extraordinary sensitivity to those around them.

    Empathy vs culture. Other centeredness vs ideological.

    I know people who have met Bill Clinton and have been told that he fills the room that he’s in. He effortly becomes part of everyone. He’s that empathetic. Obama I suspect is the same. Reagan but to a smaller degree because he had to rely more on idealology because of limited intelligence.

    People who are ideology based connect to others by offering them something intangible. The notion that they superior.

    People who are empathy based connect to others by communicating empathy, offering not superiority but connection. We are the same, brothers and sisters.

    Liberals and conservatives want the same thing. Liberals for everyone.

    Conservatism is ideological, cultural. Liberalism empathetic, personal.

    The mob on the Republican stage are just as victimized by conservative ideology as their supporters. The are driven by gaining advantage over others so they pursue what they feel is a powerful culture.

    The liberal stage is driven by empathy, connectedness, brother and sisterhood.

    Take your pick.

  15. In fact IMO, Carson, Rubio, Trump and Cruz are all
    Psychopaths. They have no connection to the rest of the human race. They are ideological robots.

  16. Or is Carson an idiot savant? Can perform medical miracles regarding surgery but can’t tie his shoes or answer simple questions put to him in English.

  17. John: I’m with you on this one.

    Apropos of various:
    I do know that some welders do make remarkable incomes, but it is still evil to assign value to a person based on their ability to acquire money.

    Several years ago I coined a term for use in the DSM, Charismatic personality disorder; The person displays apparent extraordinary empathy, attracts people of all ages and genders, has great emotional, sexual attraction. The person also suffers addiction of some sort, usually including attention seeking and sexual addiction or at least poor control of sexual urges. While apparently empathetic, the person manipulates and exploits others for personal gain. The person is generally amoral and unable to recognize the nature and negative or destructive aspects of any of the above.

    Bill Clinton in both positive and negative characteristics personifies the term. Hillary does not. I’m sure you can think of others.

  18. Paul, you say of Bill Clinton, “while apparently empathetic, (he) manipulates and exploits others for personal gain.”

    What are some examples?

  19. Wallflower, that painting of Carson and Jesus ought to have created a stampede away from him. The fact that it apparently has not is either a failure of journalism for not making enough of us aware of it or of us becoming a nation of extremists with regard to religion.


  20. While trying to find information on Paul’s claim, “I coined a term for use in the DSM, Charismatic personality disorder;” I came across this that I didn’t know:

    “Psychopaths (as compare to sociopaths), on the other hand, are unable to form emotional attachments or feel real empathy with others, although they often have disarming or even charming personalities. Psychopaths are very manipulative and can easily gain people’s trust. They learn to mimic emotions, despite their inability to actually feel them, and will appear normal to unsuspecting people. Psychopaths are often well educated and hold steady jobs. Some are so good at manipulation and mimicry that they have families and other long-term relationships without those around them ever suspecting their true nature.”

    “When committing crimes, psychopaths carefully plan out every detail in advance and often have contingency plans in place. Unlike their sociopathic counterparts, psychopathic criminals are cool, calm, and meticulous. Their crimes, whether violent or non-violent, will be highly organized and generally offer few clues for authorities to pursue. Intelligent psychopaths make excellent white-collar criminals and “con artists” due to their calm and charismatic natures.”

    “The cause of psychopathy is different than the cause of sociopathy (1). It is believed that psychopathy is the largely the result of “nature” (genetics) while sociopathy is more likely the result of “nurture” (environment). Psychopathy is related to a physiological defect that results in the underdevelopment of the part of the brain responsible for impulse control and emotions. Sociopathy, on the other hand, is more likely the product of childhood trauma and physical/emotional abuse. Because sociopathy appears to be learned rather than innate, sociopaths are capable of empathy in certain limited circumstances but not in others, and with a few individuals but not others.”

    Glad that I accidentally picked the right word for Carson, Rubio, Trump and Cruz.

  21. Sometimes it dawns on me that the party name “Democrat” is pretty well chosen for the more liberal
    party. Perhaps “Republican” too.

    Democrat, democracy, the governed hires and fires those who govern, all citizens equal in rights, the party of connectedness and empathy.

    Republican, the party of what we are, a Republic, not who we are. The party of ideology for the distribution of power.


  22. Carson and other young earth, young universe Republicans will probably use their cell phones and GPS with out the slightest thought of what it means. We expect these devices to operate at the speed of light and indeed they do. They may even have heard about recent NASA Pluto Mission, the message took four hours 25 minutes to traverse 4.7 billion km of space back to earth.

    So when the Hubble casts it’s gaze out into the universe and discovers a galaxy billions of light years from earth, how do they explain this in conjunction with the young earth, universe belief. I recall one of these Tele Evangelists explain it as a devils trap to fool people.

    Intelligence vs. Skill dovetails back into the Knowledge vs Anti-Knowledge. You may have intelligence and skill but you can still possess Anti-Knowledge.

  23. Pete

    Your posts today are hilarious. Yesterday, you told Dr. Paul Ogden that his “amateur” status precluded him from even looking at the global warming research, but today, we find you playing psychiatrist, diagnosing people as psychopaths.

    Just like a liberal. No morals. Say whatever you feel like and hope nobody remembers your contradictory statements.

  24. Your point is valid. Any of us can write anything we want. Here’s the rub. When I hear or see someone positing anti-knowledge in my field I will call them on it and give them and anyone else who might fall for it the reasons why it’s wrong.

    Psychology is not my field so if you have better supported knowledge than what I posted feel free to correct me. In fact I would welcome more professional input to learn from.

    If instead you follow your typical line of thinking that you would merely prefer something else to be true that’s not useful for anyone including you.

    You’ve never even told us what your field is and almost everyday say something that hurts your credibility in all fields.

    Whining is just not very credible, anyone can do it.

    Show us your expertise.

  25. Pete: I did see the painting briefly on a tv news clip, but I don’t think anyone is taking a lone piece of art that seriously. To me, it’s a giant red flag that the news media is ignoring. It also seems to border on blasphemy, which I would have thought would have gotten the fundamentalists up in arms – more so than a red cup. As we well know, though, they are willing to turn a blind eye to some pretty bad behavior.

  26. I saw it on Jimmy Kimmel.

    For those who haven’t seen it, it is a painting showing Carson and Jesus together that hangs prominently in Uncle Ben’s home.

  27. Don Sherfick, my reaction to this post was nearly identical to yours. I have always felt that skills were under appreciated in our culture, thus the current requirement that everyone go to college, when everyone is clearly not meant for college and vise versa.

    I know that anecdotal evidence is not acceptable for science but I will wager that all of us know someone who is a tradesman/philosopher who has forgone college for one reason or another yet follows ideas in many fields and discusses them with excellent logic.

    We all need to be valued for what we can give to society. Sheila’s example of the relative value of pornographers is an excellent but I would add the job of betting on values of commodities and derivatives of values of commodities is another that is being paid way too much.

    Back to the meat of the essay: Carson is pandering to his base; anti-intellectual, fundamentalist, attracted by a redemption story that doesn’t exist. He believes he is self made and therefore attracted by and attractive to the Republican right.

  28. The stuff hanging on your walls tells people what’s important to you and who you are. I suspect most of the posters have pictures of their kids, parents, relatives and folks like that, especially in their more “intimate” places, like home office spaces and bedrooms. Carson’s walls are filled with HIM, and then there is the classic picture of Carson with Jesus at the top of his stairs. I’m surprised he doesn’t have a scalpel in his right hand with an “I’ll get you next” grin. Then Jesus at his left. His LEFT, mind you. This is downright spooky, and clearly tells you what he’s all about.

  29. As it pertains to Presidential candidates, I would prefer a discussion of integrity, wisdom, and judgement over the distinction between skill and intelligence.

  30. Pete,

    I’m afraid that you’re probably right about the use of the word psychopath when describing Ben Carson. However, it’s is almost impossible to prove unless someone goes out and commits an outrageous act such as murder. Or mass murder. And then it is still very difficult to prove.

    Both psychopaths and sociopaths generally have a “Mask of Sanity.” In many cases the condition is caused by what’s called: early onset schizophrenia.

    My specialty as an attorney was the use of “early onset schizophrenia” as a defense in criminal cases.

    Superb athletes like my biological father and O.J. Simpson can fool everyone with their technical skills. But unfortunately, in time, the underlying condition will come to the forefront.

  31. What is terrifying is that many, particularly modern liberals, who think that they are intellectually superior, like Mrs. Kennedy, probably can’t grab their ass with both hands in the real world. To note in a 2010 Star editorial that “if people of good-will” don’t vote (for the Democrats) then “people of ill-will will get their way.” And that “angry, old white men who see the world that they were born in, or think they were born in” vanishing they (are not very smart and are evil?). Her two 2010 editorials both took aim at about every white man I’ve ever known or respected. The modern liberals continue to demonize many people, including those “on that debate stage,” that I see as far superior to any intellectual dim wit. I know exactly what world I was born in, before Obama and the Clinton immorality–thank God.

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