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Sep
01

Being Wrong and Being Smart

Author // Isaac Morehouse

In one of his lectures, mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing said, “If a machine is expected to be infallible, it cannot also be intelligent.”

This quote got me thinking. I asked T.K. Coleman, the education director at Praxis (a professional development and startup bootcamp), what he made of it, and we had a pretty interesting discussion on the relationship between being right and being intelligent.


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If you’re always wrong, you’re not smart. But if you’re never wrong, does it mean you are smart? T.K. said no, and I think he’s onto something.

Imagine playing Trivial Pursuit. Getting a lot of answers right is impressive. But if someone gets every answer correct every single time, something’s up. They’ve memorized all the answers. They’re unerring, but also kinda dumb.

Why is it dumb?

For one thing, it’s an odd use of their time. Who would think that getting every answer right in Trivial Pursuit was worth the time it takes to memorize all the cards, versus all the other things they could do with that time? Probably someone who has a perspective that’s out of whack. Maybe they place too much value on winning a board game. Maybe their opportunity cost is low.

Another problem is that it signals a misunderstanding of the point of Trivial Pursuit. It’s meant to be a challenge. It’s fun when you know some, but not all, of the answers. It’s fun when you have to work to remember and make associations. To memorize all of the cards and never miss is to not play the game everyone else is playing. It shows a kind of social stupidity.

It might also imply fear or arrested development. If Trivial Pursuit cards can be memorized, why not apply that brain power to a bigger challenge? Why stick with games you are guaranteed to win? Engaging only in activities where you’re the schoolyard bully signals that something is missing in your motivator.

The analogy isn’t perfect, but you get the general idea.

So maybe what Turing was getting at is that intelligence is more complicated than knowing stuff. Maybe it’s about ability to learn. Maybe it’s about change and progress. Progress can’t happen without new challenges. New challenges are, by definition, full of unknowns. Unknowns mean you won’t know the right response every time. You’ll get stuff wrong. You need that feedback to incorporate into your worldview so you can alter your understanding, and then get it right the next time. The process is intelligent, even if the answers at individual steps are sometimes wrong.

Maybe to be infallible is to be immobile.

I’m not sure if this is what Turing meant, but there’s something in it.


Pathways Issue 63 CoverThis article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #63.

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