Thursday, June 11, 2009


Yesterday's attack at the Holocaust Museum is disturbing. But not for the reasons that you might think. It turns out that the killer, James W. Brunn, was a member of Mensa. 

[Mensa is the association of geniuses. That is to say, it is an association of people who have passed the standardized intelligence quotient tests with flying colours. Leaving the limitations of the test itself aside, it can be perhaps be thought of as an organization of people with a genius for passing IQ tests.] 

Normally I prefer to think of bigots and extremists as being less intelligent than myself. That is in any case what I assume. It is a very comforting thought. But people like James W. Brunn and Theodore Kaczynski prove me wrong. 


Balance, perspective, and common sense may go hand in hand with intelligence, but do not necessarily do so, and there is little evidence that more intelligent people are also saner. Some brainiacs, in fact, can be startlingly loopy. When we moved to the Netherlands in 1962, my parents joined Mensa. It seemed like a good idea, as, they assumed at the time, it would make it easier to meet English-speakers with a certain level of education. They were wrong. 


Mensa made it easier to meet people who believed that Amelia Erhart had been kidnapped by space-aliens and was held captive in a giant green triangle flying around the sun. As well as individuals who had joined Scientology and were convinced, CONVINCED, that the solution to all of mankind's problems lay in worshipful obedience to Elron. Plus other beliefs even more absurd. 

Many of these people were adept at twisting words, and experts at "finding" evidence that supported their views. The more able they were in this regard, the less open to reason or rational conversation they proved themselves. Having a super-brain set them aside from normal social interaction, and made them susceptible to creative re-interpretation of reality. 
You cannot have a normal conversation with someone who is mad as a hatter. 


My parents dropped out of Mensa within a few years. Dealing with brilliant nutballs was not nearly as stimulating as they had hoped. 

[Personally, I doubt that it was stimulating at all - several of the staggeringly insane people whom I know due to living in San Francisco are of genius level. I do not find them stimulating, and I wish to have naught to do with their stimulation.] 

Later on, one of my father's colleagues finally was allowed to join Mensa. And was extremely surprised to find a person in the list of members with the SAME NAME as my father. Was my father a relative of this man? Did he know him? Where they, perhaps, distant cousins? How interesting that someone had the same name! And had my father ever been accidentally mistaken for that man? Had he met him? 

My father solemnly confessed that no, he had never been mistaken for that man, in fact had no idea that there was another person in the whole of the Netherlands with the same name, how remarkable that the names were identical! If he ever met that man, he would be sure to express wonder at the fate that had given them the same handle. 

It was very perspicacious of you to notice that the names were the same. 
And congratulations on being a member of Mensa. 
We had NO idea that you were so smart.


The back of the hill said...

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Kylopod said...

You think Eichmann was an idiot? How about McVeigh?

Tzipporah said...

creative re-interpretation of reality

Hmm, sounds like talking to a 3-year-old.

Anonymous said...

I think this article is interesting but not for the reason you had intended. This may be a bit off the reservation but the club you alluded to got me thinking about a bunch of high brow folks banding together out of a sense of intellectual superiority.

I think that people with high IQ's are very interesting in that they are able to unravel difficult puzzles, recognize patterns in number sequences, and analyze data faster than a computer and so on. But I submit that it does not make them more intellectually stimulating than us average, above average or even below average folks.

For instance, I have a close friend that shares my passion for custom motorcycles. The man never made it out of high school and yet I consider him a genius. When you see what he can do with metal using nothing more that a back yard garage, welders, grinders and hammers and paint is art at its highest level. He creates with his hands what others cannot even imagine in their minds.

He never read War and Peace, he can’t do complex mathematics, he has little understanding of the universe but he has something that few other have. He will never test out more than average and I suspect his lack of education would put him well below. But his mind is razor sharp and I often go to him for advice because he has a sense about him that I often cannot achieve.

I suspect that any group than bands together and slaps each other on the back because they have scored well on a test is an exercise in mental masturbation and probably borders on narcissism. I mean no disrespect to the readers of this blog as I can tell that there are a number of extremely intelligent, insightful people. And Barney you are certainly no exception to this with the ease that you access an amazingly eclectic range of data and language.

But I urge all the readers to take pause when they engage with someone who appears to them intellectually junior. Look past your own judgment of social status or lack of education and I think that you will find that many of these people posses a gift that is genius. G-d gives gifts to us all.


The back of the hill said...

Kylopod, again, two examples of non-idiots who are bigots. And the list is probably endless.
It is a comforting thought to assume bigots are idiots. But not, obviously, a sound or safe one.

Tzipporah, my experience with three year olds is limited to losing arguments. That has encouraged me to even further limit my exposure to three year olds. I do not like losing arguments to people who don't even come up to my knee - they tend to gloat too much, and NOT eye to eye! Which is just not very sporting.

Kevin, that precisely highlights the limitations of iq tests. Such tests don't measure as broad a range of intelligence as they should, and too much is made of them.
As I mentioned, several of the staggeringly insane people I know in San Francisco are of genius level. I should perhaps also mention that the majority are barely functional, and several are one very small step up from street-person. Many of them are so brilliant at mis-interpreting, that any hope of sensible conversation must be abandoned.

sapiently amphibious said...

As someone on the outside not terribly interetsed at looking in, I have always regarded MENSA as a group of insecure people who want other insecure people to know how brilliant they are. But maybe I'm just stoopid.

treppenwitz said...

I was a member of Mensa in the US and joined the Israel chapter recently. Yes, there do seem to be a disproportionate number of oddballs... but I think those people tend to stand out in any crowd.

Once you and a select few of the more normal mensans enter into a silent conspiracy, it isn't hard to spot the potential fun in gas-lighting tin foil hat crowd. :-)

Anonymous said...

Sounds like genius is a painful affliction.

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