FEBRUARY 19, 2015
Watching The Theory of Everything, the film about Stephen Hawking, one wonders: why do geniuses behave like jerks?
In May 2013, Hawking, after initially accepting an invitation to speak at Israel’s President’s Conference organized to mark the 90th birthday of Shimon Peres, changed his mind and declared that he would not participate in any academic or cultural exchanges with Israel. He announced his support for the BDS movement.
Now there are many reasons why ordinary people should oppose BDS.
But Hawking is not an ordinary person. Hawking suffers from ALS, which has left him unable to utilize any muscle functions except for his cheeks, whose movement is monitored by a sensor attached to his spectacles. His sole means of communication is through a computer Intel Core i7-based communication system, which runs on a chip designed in Israel.
If BDS were universally adopted, the very technology he relies upon to communicate would be unavailable to him. Hawking, a supposed champion of logic, thus takes the absurdly illogical position of opposing the same kind of exchange that allows him to communicate his opposition in the first place.
A first grader would blush at the internal inconsistency of such a position.
That’s what makes Hawking’s stand on BDS so interesting. It is not just an example of an ordinary person acting dumb. It is an example of a genius acting dumb – a phenomenon that turns out to be surprisingly common.
The dumbness which we explore here in this essay is not Einsteinian absent-mindedness. It is a much different thing. Hawking utilizing an Israeli-designed chip to tell people that they should not deal with Israel represents is just plain dumb. Noam Chomsky, the MIT professor who lobbied Hawking to support BDS, exhibits more of the same mentality.
Chomsky is another recognized genius. The same SuperScholar website, which lists Hawking as No. 1 among the 30 smartest people in the world, pegs Chomsky at No. 11.
But Chomsky yields no ground to Hawking when it comes to acting like a jerk. He has denied that the Cambodian genocide, which wiped out nearly 2 million people, occurred. Instead, he insists that the death toll of the Khmer Rouge massacres amounted to “at most in the thousands.“ Those few victims, Chomksy maintains, were comparable to the Nazi collaborators executed at the end of World War II.
He is skeptical of Osama Bin Laden’s responsibility for 9/11, and insists on referring to the Al Qaeda mastermind only as a “suspect.” He even insists that bin Laden’s confession that he actually planned the attacks was merely a “boast.”
If there were a Nobel Prize for genius-generated jerkiness, it would be awarded posthumously to chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, a genius with a penchant for dumbness. Just as Chomsky denied that the Cambodian genocide occurred, Fischer denied that the Holocaust happened. An ardent admirer of the Nazis, he adorned his room with photographs of Hitler. He believed that the “stinking Jews” controlled the United States, and declared the 9/11 attacks “wonderful news.” He had his fillings removed from his teeth because he believed that they were used to emit dangerous radiation, possibly by his American or Russian enemies.
So what gives? Is there a causal connection between genius and jerkiness?
The answer may be yes. Genius is not just a matter of coming up with answers faster than others can. It is a matter of seeing the world in ways that others have not or cannot. It is not just better eyesight, it is different vision. And once crowned – or cursed – with the epithet of “genius,” it is difficult to encounter a new problem, and to tamely announce: “Well, I’m not really sure.”
No, a genius must always be a genius. He must swing for the fences, rather than hit to get on base. And when one swings for the fences, one is more likely to strike out. And the harder the swing, the more ridiculous the batter – or thinker – looks when his bat hits nothing but empty air.
Albert Einstein may have been absent-minded on occasion, but he was focused and attentive in 1952, when he received a letter from Abba Eban, written on behalf of David Ben-Gurion, offering him the presidency of the State of Israel. Einstein replied:
I am deeply moved by the offer … [but] I cannot accept it. All my life I have dealt with objective matters, hence I lack both the natural aptitude and the experience to deal properly with people and and to exercise official functions.
In recognizing both his cognitive limitations and the boundaries of his expertise, Einstein proved that he was more than merely a genius. He proved that he was not dumb.