How can really, really smart people be so really, really dumb?

By Dave Andrusko

Noam Chomsky

In a back and forth conversation by text yesterday, I came away bewildered. This individual, who frequently participates in debates, and I disagreed over something. Who knows, on the overall point, perhaps I was wrong. But my friend reached his conclusion in a manner that made zero sense to me (and I’m guessing any third party, had there been one). He made assertions that (in the back of his mind) he had to know would fail an introductory high school logic course.

This instantly recalled a conversation I had over lunch not so long ago with one of what used to be called “public intellectuals.” He’s the kind of guy newspapers routinely call for an explanatory comment. Bright, witty, eminently quotable.

Without getting into the substance of what we kicked around, let me just say that I was astounded by some his conclusions. It was like 1+1= a minus 3. I was, in a word, dumbfounded.

Our two ships passing in the night discussion immediately reminded me of a late friend of mine who not only taught me a lot about how to think but was also one of the kindest men I’ve ever know. His particular blind spot was Noam Chomsky.

As insightful and knowledgeable as my friend was (he thoroughly intimidated me with his sheer brilliance, although that was never his intent), the fact that Chomsky was a pioneer in a host of fields, most especially linguistics, did not mean Chomsky’s expertise was universal. In a word, Chomsky (like all of us) could make jaw-droppingly stupid remarks when he ventured outside his (admittedly numerous) areas of competence.

Here’s one example– what Chomsky once said a while back when speaking at a reception where he received University College Dublin’s highest award—the Ulysses Medal.

So, what exactly did he say? As the story unfolded (as reported in the Irish Times), Chomsky began with the usual pro-abortion bromide: protective abortion laws are “attacks on women’s rights.” Well, okay, one man’s opinion. But Chomsky was just warming up.

He said there had been improvements in women’s rights, “Although they are nowhere near where they ought to be and it’s going to be a long struggle.” And then

“There is a strong debate at the moment with regards to a woman’s right to control an organ of her own body – namely the foetus. …Pretty soon you can imagine legislation prohibiting the washing of hands because thousands of cells are flaked off that could be turned into a stem cell and you can grow a foetus– so you’re killing a person. It’s attacks on women’s rights.”

Maybe it was a long evening and he was tired. Maybe, in a flourish of free (and I do mean free) association, he reasoned women’s rights=right to her own body=everything in her body is hers=ergo she can designate what is in her body in any language she chooses.

Or maybe it was just a stupid comment.

What about the washing hands gibberish? Just as a baby is not an “organ,” a skin cell is a skin cell, not an embryo, and not a “potential” embryo.

How can smart people be so dumb?