Very clever people being … not so clever

I just came across this hilarious story.

Trying to rescue Naomi Campbell from the overzealous attentions of Mike Tyson, the Oxford philosopher A J “Freddie” Ayer – according to Ben Rogers, his biographer – inserted himself between the boxer and the supermodel. “Do you know who the f*** I am?” Tyson objected. “I’m the heavyweight champion of the world.” The 77-year-old Ayer replied: “And I am the former Wykeham professor of logic. We are both pre-eminent men in our field; I suggest we talk about this like rational men.”

It reminded me of a conversation I had about thirty odd years ago with one of Australia’s prominent philosophers John Passmore. I used to go when I could to the seminars put on by the History of Ideas Unit at around 12.00 noon on Wednesdays (as I recall) and went along to one. After each seminar off we all went to lunch across the road at University House. I was sitting next to John Passmore and for some reason the subject of banking came up. He said that he couldn’t understand why Westpac wouldn’t give him better service. I said “John, that’s because you haven’t got any market power. They don’t care about you – they’ve got bigger fish to fry”. He said “But that’s where you’re wrong – I do all my banking through them.” Perhaps he was worth squillions, but I don’t think so.

Self-importance is one of the main engines behind otherwise intelligent people acting not so much.

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David Walker
David Walker(@d-w-griffiths)
7 years ago

It seems a common mistake to assume that people at the top of a field have any special genius beyond it. They almost always don’t. Passmore didn’t know about economics, and being a giant of philosophy didn’t help. Einstein didn’t know much about religion, despite all those quotes used on both sides of the God debate. Linus Pauling didn’t know much about disease prevention. Isaac Newton didn’t know much about astronomy. Outside their field of expertise, experts quickly become amateurs or even cranks.

We’re all idiots; we’re just idiots about different things.

David Walker
David Walker(@d-w-griffiths)
7 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

Obvious correction: Isaac Newton didn’t know much about astrology, a topic which consumed him in his later years. Especially, he didn’t know it was bunk.