Health Magazine

When You’re Not the Smartest Person in the Room

Posted on the 24 January 2014 by Badgereverglade
Cat with a paper cup for a hat

My cat is never the smartest person in the room.

I notice that a lot of the people I end up “debating” with get huffy as soon as they realize they’re not the smartest person in the room, and then I’m the bad guy for knowing more stuff.

Here’s how it goes:

Somebody (okay, usually a dude) will say something asinine and offensive (okay, usually misogynistic), and will use language he thinks makes him sound informed and intelligent. The other day, it was a dude trying to say that it isn’t societal oppression holding women back from powerful careers (in this case, comedy), but “biological differences.”

(He later revised his argument to say that society DOES play a role, but a small one, and the crime is “ignoring” biological differences, because women totally don’t make it into boardrooms because their estrogen physically yanks them back like a strong wind.)

So when these dudes (and sometimes ladies, just not often in my experience) say something asinine and offensive, coating it with big words, the Dunning-Kruger Effect kicks in and they assume that their argument stands because they are the smartest person in the room. I mean, they use words like “science” and “logic,” which means they ipso facto know how to use science and logic, right? (A variant of these people is the Calories In/ Calories Out troll, who justifies their fat bigotry by citing thermodynamics, thereby ignoring the complex interplay of biology and chemistry that governs the human metabolism.)

I am not always, or even often, the smartest person in the room, but I’m usually smarter than these people.

Especially when they’re dudes trying to tell me things about my lived experience as a woman. When they tell me that the things I’ve experienced are incorrect, they’re making two epistemic claims: a) they have superior knowledge to me in this regard and b) I’m reporting my experiences and memories incorrectly, meaning I’m either lying or crazy. The first claim is just stupid. The second is gaslighting, and it’s abuse.

So I get testy.

I take issue to this kind of “debate” for epistemic reasons as well as moral ones. Morally, we don’t need to get into why gaslighting is bad. Or at least, I hope we don’t. Some things we really don’t need to drag in ethical philosophers to explain.

But epistemically — that is, when our goal is to seek truth — it just makes sense to defer to the expert in the room. That’s not an appeal to authority. That’s called taking-a-break-from-pulling-things-out-of-your-ass.

If a man is talking about a woman’s lived experiences, and then a woman talks about her own lived experiences, the woman is the expert.

If a cisgendered man with no scientific, medical, or personal background in endocrinology is talking about estrogen, and a woman who has been the recipient of hormonal therapy talks about estrogen, the woman is the expert.

We don’t even need to talk about feminism or womanism here, though the sickness of misogyny does amplify the bad epistemology by virtue of automatically assuming the woman has inferior knowledge (due, perhaps, to a biological difference — we can’t discount those, right? My only regret is that I have but one head to slam into my desk.)

Tom Nichols, professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, recently wrote an article for The Federalist called The Death of Expertise, where he laments the fact that his knowledge holds no more clout than that of a layman or student:

And when you get invested in being aggressively dumb…well, the last thing you want to encounter are experts who disagree with you, and so you dismiss them in order to maintain your unreasonably high opinion of yourself.

I’ve seen this in the classroom, as well. In college I took an honors seminar in, of all things, epistemology. The honors program at my college stuffed its students with elitist garbage, constantly reminding us that we were somehow superior to our peers because we got this-or-that test score and filled out an application. It was exhausting for me, but it also left many of my peers with the confidence that they were the smartest people in the room.

Smarter, even, than the professors.

My epistemology professor, whose undergrad degree was in Physics, was making an example of non-Euclidean geometry to explain a point. Something-something-straight-lines-are-actually-circles or something. I won’t pretend to be an expert in non-Euclidean geometry, and I was probably hungover.

I do remember, however, my classmates straight up telling him he was wrong. Loudly and petulantly.

Here’s the thing: it is important to challenge authority. That’s the upshot to all this complaining about gaslighting from ignorant, opinionated people — the other side of the coin is healthy, researched, reasonable debate. Authority fucks up. Andrew Wakefield published a scholarly, fraudulent article claiming that vaccines cause autism. “Science” used to assert that women were crazy because our uteri were floating all over our bodies.

But simply throwing stones because something chafes against your intuition or worldview, without challenging your own assumptions first? That’s just ignorance.

And so the ignorant, unwilling to give up their Smartest Person in the Room trophies, begin to flail. Their arguments get even sloppier. They backtrack. They project. If you call someone out on racism, they’ll claim you’re a reverse racist. If you call somebody out on their blatant misogyny, they turn around and call you a misandrist.

Because you didn’t just find fault with their argument, you took away their trophy.  Their superiority. I don’t have patience for these people; I didn’t get my BA in Philosophy just to entertain the death throes of their pathetic excuses for “arguments” (I got the degree for the instant fortune it promised, obviously).

So I troll them. I’ll call myself a Great Castrator or whatever, because I’m not going to get through to them. Is it the high road? Maybe not, but I never promised them a saint. I’m more Old Testament-style, plagues-of-locusts justice than I am Robert Rules-style decorum. I’m pretty open about that, though. People should know what they’re getting into with me.

I did get an A in Ethics, though.

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