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.