Glibness v. Intelligence:

This piece by Randall Hoven on American Thinker raises a question that I've been wondering about, namely how it came to be that many people believe that Sarah Palin is not smart enough to be Vice-President. I think that what it probably explains it is a tendency to confuse glibnesswith intelligence, or perhaps more accurately, to confuse the ability to "bullshit" with actual intelligence.

The meme that has arisen that Sarah Palin isn't smart enough to be Vice-President (and potentially President) strikes me as quite implausible. Focusing on the big picture: she has been an extraordinarily successful governor with substantial policy accomplishments in a short time, she has an 85% approval rating, and she knocked off an incumbent and former governor to be elected. And, as I've previously discussed, based on my experience working with and in government, being governor of a state is an extremely difficult job, much more difficult than being a Senator (for instance). Sure there are some things that people are picking at, such as the trooper story or what really happened with the Bridge to Nowhere--but none of those things raise any doubt about her intellect or ability. With respect to the issues to which she has set herself to mastering and implementing, and the most important issues for Alaska, by all accounts she has an extremely strong understanding and mastery of the issues. It is simply not plausible to believe that she is dumb any more than it was credible that Ronald Reagan was dumb back when the establishment said the same thing about him.

Put another way, to believe the view that Sarah Palin is unintelligent you would have to have an awfully low opinion of the voters of Alaska and the overwhelming majority of Alaskans who approve of her job as governor. It seems much more plausible to me that when you are dealing with someone who has an impressive record of accomplishment as governor, won a couple of very tough elections, and has hugely high approval ratings, there should be a strong presumption that the person is capable and intelligent. And it is very difficult to hide if you are an incompetent governor (unlike being in the Senate, for instance). Alternatively, you would have to believe that she is simultaneously dumb yet so smart that she can fool the voters of Alaska into not realizing how dumb she is. There are probably some people out there who do believe that Alaskans are that dumb, but that's not who I'm thinking of. And when it comes to the issues that Palin has dedicated herself to mastering and acting on, such as energy policy, there seems to be little doubt that she understands quite well what she is doing.

Given this, how can it be that many reasonable people can suggest with a straight face that Palin is dumb--leaving aside those who actually do think that Alaskans are stupid?

My sense is that Hoven is on the right track. Some thoughtful people simply have a tendency to confuse intelligence with the ability to be glib, or more precisely, to bs. And I think that is much of what it comes down to--if Palin doesn't know the answer to a question, she just isn't that good at making something up. Biden, by contrast, is a master bs'er, as his debate performance exhibited. As a general rule, the less informed he was about the answer to a question, the more assertive he was in answering it, such as his extraordinary answer about the legislative role of the Vice-President. It is clear that he had not the slightest idea what he was talking about, yet he just plowed ahead throwing out assertions with rhetorical flair. Classic bs. Even on issues that were supposedly in his area of expertise, such as the Constitution, he wasn't even in the ballpark of being correct. Hoven picks up on Biden's whopper of answer about kicking Hezbollah out of Lebanon, but it is pretty much the same thing--aggressive bs covering a complete lack of any clue what he is talking about.

It is not uncommon to confuse glibness with intelligence. Certainly law professors do it all the time in assessing faculty candidates or students. I suspect that we are not alone in doing this. Quite obviously the establishment mainstream media falls for the same thing (at least when it fits their ideological predispositions). They also underestimated Ronald Reagan (remember the characterization of him as an "amiable dunce"), but I suspect that many of those who thought Reagan was dumb would not admit today that they held that position back then.

As a sidenote, I think McCain one reason McCain has suffered in the debastes is that he also is not a great bs'er either. Frankly, I'm not sure how smart he is--unlike being a governor where it is very hard to hide if you are dumb, it is pretty easy to hide in the "world's greatest deliberative body." And Obama is obviously quite good at bs'ing, although his style is different from Biden's--Obama has this ability to fall back on empty stock-phrases that he utters with a furrowed brow and gravitas, projecting a perception of intelligence and understanding even if what he is saying is largely devoid of substance. For instance, it seems relatively clear that neither McCain nor Obama has the slightest clue about what caused the financial crisis or what to do about it. But McCain's discomfort and lack of knowledge when it comes to talking about the financial crisis is transparent, whereas Obama is able to cogently spout empty generalities that obscure his lack of knowledge.

I have to say though, given the choice between someone who gets flustered when she doesn't know the answer to a question versus someone who doesn't know the answer but just makes something up, it is not obvious to me that the latter is smarter or better able to lead the country.


Along the same lines is this observation following on Orin's post and mine, at

It's more important that an ignorant executive be cautious than decisive. On that score, Palin is the only candidate in either ticket that seems even mildly conscious of her own ignorance. When foundering in ignorance, Obama reverts to platitudes, Biden makes stuff up, McCain suspends his campaign, and Palin asks for clarification.


More on Palin and Measuring the Intelligence of Political Candidates: Todd's post below on Sarah Palin brings up some good questions about how we measure the intelligence of politicians. I wanted to offer a few thoughts.

  It seems to me that when we talk about a candidate's "intelligence," we usually mean a mix of several different things. We might mean raw intellectual candle power, the sort of mind that we might expect to excel in an academic setting. We might mean charisma, the ability to impress and inspire observers. We might mean judgment, a person's ability to chose wisely among different options. We might mean articulateness, a person's ability to communicate effectively. There are some other options, of course, but those are a few of the different kind of judgments that usually factor in how we assess intelligence.

  My sense is that all of these factors are usually considered when assessing a candidate's intelligence, with the caveat that we often end up filtering these questions through the lens of how much they agree with us. Politicians who agree with us are necessarily intelligent. After all, they have the raw candle power and the judgment to see that we are correct! And politicians who don't agree with us are presumed to be much less intelligent: They either lack the candle power or judgment to "get it." These sorts of intuitive judgments mix together with some of the more objective evidence (academic pedigrees, great writing or speaking skills) to form our judgments of a candidate's intelligence.

  How might this work with Sarah Palin? If you agree with Palin's views, you're likely to figure she is obviously reasonably sharp (smart enough to get the issues) and has good judgment (she gets then right). Further, her political success proves that she has charisma (popular Governor, beat the incumbent). And if she isn't the most articulate person, well then she's just not glib. On the other hand, if you disagree with Palin's views, you're likely to think she isn't intelligent (no impressive academic degrees), she lacks judgment (she's wrong on the issues), and she's inarticulate (see Couric interviews). And if she's a charismatic person, well then it's just an empty and misleading charisma.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More on Palin and Measuring the Intelligence of Political Candidates:
  2. Glibness v. Intelligence: