Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Intelligence and the presidential campaign

I promised a long entry on the 2008 election. Didn't happen. With a week to go, here are some thoughts on why I'm voting the way I am.

There has been a lot of debate about intelligence and experience, and that's what I'm going to touch on in this entry. The general wisdom goes: Sarah Palin isn't intelligent; Barack Obama isn't experienced.

Leaving aside issues of character or lack thereof, which would you rather have?

For me, lack of experience wins hands down. Better that in the White House than the profound lack of intelligence we've seen for the last eight years.

Conventional wisdom might dictate that you need experience.

My friends won't bat an eyelid when I tell you that conventional wisdom is wrong. Again.

First, I need to do is be clear about what I mean by 'intelligence'. I define intelligence not by knowledge base, but by what I think of as (my coinage, I'm sure there's a better term) 'meta-cognitive' ability - which I use to mean having well-developed cognitive structures to process information, and to actually THINK about how you're processing it.
In other words, what do you DO when information comes in? Do you think about how you're...thinking?

Barack Obama, whatever reservations people may have about him, appears extraordinarily capable of taking experience and information, assimilating it, manipulating it and making it his own. He WANTS TO KNOW and he LEARNS. I strongly suspect he's capable of changing a theory as new information comes in - he doesn't set a theory in the concrete of his view of how the world should look. This curiosity, ability to process information and mental flexibility is, in my book, the REAL hallmark of intelligence (what's the point of having loads of factoids if you're not creative with them - manipulating, synthesising, etc. ?).
It's the processing ability that makes it possible for someone to think on their feet, turn on a dime, listen to others and absorb what they have to say, pull it all together and come to a decision. I've seen less of Biden, but from what I've seen, he demonstrates a formidable knowledge base with similar ability to process/manipulate information.

On the other hand, loads of experience paired with inflexible thinking and a lack of curiosity isn't worth a bucket of warm piss (which was probably Garner's REAL quote on the vice-presidency. Come on, surely a bucket of warm 'spit' didn't make sense to anyone? Who can spit that much?).

In contrast to Obama and Biden, John McCain and Sarah Palin have demonstrated (through interviews and the debate) a real lack of curiosity and unwillingness/inability to absorb/process info and make it their own. Palin just parrots soundbites. Nowhere in her interviews or her debate did she show any ability to process and manipulate information and make it her own. She would make comments like, "I may not answer the question, Gwen," (uh, yeah, you f***ing will, if you want the 2nd highest office in the land) and do everything she could to return to her talking points. She didn't use the talking points to come to any conclusions, she wasn't able to use what she had been given to deal with the situation at hand - the questions that were being thrown at her. She simply pretended they didn't exist.

With McCain, incoming information seems to make no impact on any theories he holds, leading to poor decision-making, since theories are based on preferences, not on incoming evidence. His comment - with derisive air quotes - around 'the health of the mother' makes for a classic moment. Obama has just said, "No one is pro-abortion", to which McCain responds:

This is just another example of the eloquence of Senator Obama. His 'health of the mother' (derisive air quotes) - that's been stretched by the pro-abortion movement to mean almost anything.

Eh? How about asking Obama what he means? Using facts to back his position? Instead, he uses all the contempt in his possession to simply dismiss what Obama had to say - and women in general, as well as the one exception many of his anti-abortion colleagues *allow*. Add to this his stepping up attacks against Obama when evidence shows that more and more people are backing away from his vitriol, and it's pretty clear that listening and evidence have very little place in the McCain campaign.

If you don't believe me, speak to the press corps whose darling he was not a year ago and who have been turning away from him in droves. Look at every fact check website and you'll see that McCain's lies both outnumber and outweigh Obama's.

Both Republicans baldly lie in the face of evidence: e.g., Palin's bridge to nowhere, McCain's claim that Obama was opposed to offshore drilling, even though Obama had stated in his acceptance speech he was open to it.

Essentially, the Republican ticket mirrors its right-wing base - uncurious, unquestioning, insistent that facts fit into their framework, not that their framework fit the facts.

That isn't so bad if you're me and making a decision between ice cream or Death by Chocolate for pudding, but if you're vice president, or Flying Spaghetti Monster forbid, president, it can be the difference between life and death.

In my eyes, THAT is why McCain and Palin are completely unqualified. They simply cannot, or will not, base their decisions on reality when it interferes with their preferences.

Obama may be less experienced, but his ability to absorb and process experience when it comes means that any disadvantage will be quickly overcome by his ability to *create and manipulate* a sizeable knowledge base.

Or, more basically:

Lack of experience is easily sorted. Lack of thinking is not.


Ariel said...

The only thing I'd like to add to this is that perhaps our most famously "inexperienced" president was also one of our best (in my opinion the best): Abraham Lincoln.


Irim said...

And an Illinois legislator.