We “modern” people of the technological age tend to think of mythology as something from the past, but myth is still very much alive today, and it is in some ways just as pervasive as ever precisely because we are less wary of a thing we believe no longer exists for us. Whereas the ancients often accepted myths because many people unthinkingly believed them true, many contemporary thinkers accept myths because they unthinkingly believe that they couldn’t possibly believe anything that is a myth.
As laughable and disturbingly true as that may be, many smart people have fallen prey to the belief that they couldn’t possibly believe a myth. And they often believe that they couldn’t possibly believe in myths precisely because they believe in the contemporary myth of the smart person. Specifically, they often believe that they are such a smart person.
So what’s a myth, and what’s the myth of the smart person? According to the grand dictionary of dictionaries, it is:
“a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature.“
So as a baseline, the myth of the smart person would be a story that may or may not have a factual basis, but would seek to explain some observable phenomenon of nature by appeal to some superhuman entity.
I could point to examples in popular culture, like the recent Iron Man films in which Tony Stark can become an expert on any subject over the course of few hours and invent new technologies with barely any research and development time. Or the Batman films in which Bruce Wayne is an expert detective, competent multi-domain engineer, genius programmer, and financial whiz. There are numerous examples of superhuman characters like this, and not just in superhero films either. There are television shows and movies in which a smart person with an understanding of mathematics can solve any crime, in which programmers can hack anything with a laughably underpowered mobile phone, etc. Memes with pictures of Albert Einstein captioned with quotes attributed and incorrectly attributed to him are always circulating in social networks online, because if a smart person said it, it is clearly a profound truth!
This cultural trope of the smart person is so ubiquitous that is has become a cultural myth present even in our workplaces. In one of my old jobs, I was regarded as the smart person, the person who knew everything about everything. It was a real struggle to try to get people to understand that I actually knew very little, and that I made my fair share of mistakes. It was an even greater struggle to get them to trust reliable methods instead of just running to an “expert” every time something was in question. Why would they bother with systematic problem-solving on their own when the person who dispenses answers is readily available? Tragically, the systematic problem-solving that allowed me to learn how to complete a wide variety of tasks was the one thing that they usually didn’t want to take the time to learn from me.
So what phenomenon of nature do we explain by looking to the smart people for answers to all of our little problems? We explain the amazing technology we see around us that is a natural result of the evolution of our tool-making capacity and the consequences of millions of hours of hard logical work on the part of many people who have taken on many small tasks. It’s difficult for us to imagine a process of technological invention that involves thousands of people working in teams for several years and managed by multiple project managers using strict methods to get results. It’s easier to think that there’s a Ben Franklin-esque figure doing experiments and being all smart until an invention pops out.
The myth of the smart person is a narrative for explaining the smartphones in our hands and the increasingly advanced robots in our factories, for explaining the presence of the massive interconnected systems we don’t fully understand with the limited modeling capacity of our tiny hominid brains.
As a bonus, it also explains our inflated sense of our competence when we are very incompetent and prone to just as many cognitive errors as anyone else; it does so in a much more pleasant way than the Dunning-Kruger Effect, telling us the wild falsehood that the reason we perceive ourselves as extremely competent is that we are smart people who are competent at everything by virtue of our smartness. We dare not tell ourselves the plain truth that we are only competent when we apply the right methods learned through trial and error, that we commit cognitive errors as easily as we breathe and sometimes with the same frequency.
We don’t need more self-professed smart people. Nor do we need more people who are declared the smart people by others. We need everyone to be willing to learn the kinds of systematic problem-solving methods that can actually help us overcome our cognitive errors.