Wise men and fools

By Dogtown Commoner | Posted at 8:57 pm, December 19th, 2007 | Topic: Uncategorized

In a very interesting article in last week’s New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell recounts the following anecdote (the “WISC” test is a widely-used kind of I.Q. test):

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories.

While Gladwell is citing the research to help rebut the arguments of “I.Q fundamentalists” who have come out of the woodwork yet again after recent comments by James Watson, the Kpelle story is also a cautionary tale that can be applied more generally: we are fools ourselves if we judge other people without first understanding why they behave the way they do. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t judge other people, only that wisdom requires judgments based on understanding, rather than ignorance. A trite point, perhaps, but one that is all too often forgotten when we assume that those with whom we disagree must therefore be evil or stupid. Sometimes those with whom we disagree are evil or stupid, but sometimes they just see the world in a different way that would be worth our while to comprehend.