David M. Brown's Blog

August 22, 2011

Was Isaac Asimov smart enough to know better?

Filed under: Psychology,Science,Society and culture — davidmbrowndotcom @ 7:52 am

I don’t believe science fiction and science fact writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) when he says that he’s not sure whether he can properly be said to be more intelligent in any “absolute” sense than the car mechanic who snookered him with a silly puzzle designed to confound absent-minded professors.

Sayeth the sage: “My intelligence, then, is not absolute but is a function of the society I live in and of the fact that a small subsection of that society has managed to foist itself on the rest as an arbiter of such matters.”

“Foist,” eh?

The statement is baloney.

Asimov has book smarts, the mechanic has mechanic smarts; Asimov proposes that measurement of one form of intelligence may not capture much that is very relevant to measurement of the other. Ergo, Asimov cannot, presumably, assert with sober objectivity that he is smarter than the mechanic.

But if Asimov had been interested in developing mechanical knowledge of the innards of cars, he would have learned as more or more than the mechanic about car repair, and faster. I doubt the mechanic could have learned how to write several hundred pretty readable books on science, history, the Bible, Shakespeare, etc. The fact that intelligence can be applied to only a very limited number of arenas in one lifetime does not mean that one is a “moron” with respect to those fields one has never undertaken to learn anything about. Ignorance is not the same as stupidity.

In his volumes of autobiography, Asimov reports that while earning his chemistry degrees, he was a mediocre experimenter in the lab, and thus not destined to excel as a scientist. Maybe so. But was he all that interested in lab work to begin with? We know one mechanical skill that Asimov was very interested in acquiring and applying: that of typing. And he became a very proficient typist. If I remember correctly, with a manual typewriter he managed to type around 50 wpm; with an electric typewriter around 90 wpm; and, in the last few years of his life, with a word processor around 100 wpm. Typing is obviously not the same as fixing car engines. But to type skillfully is not a matter of purely abstract facility either. It requires a certain physical coordination and dexterity.



  1. An odd statement by Asimov. But then, too often he lapsed into a knee-jerk technocratic progressivism.

    My crankiest notion is that his greatest contribution to the benefit of mankind will someday prove to be his elegantly devised quarterly calendar! (See “The Tragedy of the Moon.”) Only a very clever person could come up with that ingenious solution.

    Comment by T.W. Virkkala (@wirkman) — August 25, 2011 @ 9:23 pm | Reply

  2. I don’t want to give the impression that I’m more critical than adulatory about Isaac Asimov. He is one of my all-time favorite writers. When I first read a bunch of his non-fiction in high school (thanks to a Book Digest excerpt of Collapsing Universe), the problems with his politics didn’t register with me. Later they seemed pretty glaring. But a lot of Asimov’s personal philosophy, his rationalism and his infectious love of learning, is very inspiring.

    Comment by davidmbrowndotcom — August 25, 2011 @ 10:06 pm | Reply

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