Intellectual Attractive Nuisances

I take International Law at Yonsei with Professor Kim Joongi, a class that I really enjoy, largely because the professor’s technique of question and answer in which he elicits opinions from students and calls upon the rest of the class to either challenge or bolster them.

The phenomenon that got me thinking up this post is like so: The professor will ask a question, for example ‘What is the justification for extraterritoriality?’ and someone will say ‘Stateless people!’

Now, as you already know, stateless people are exceedingly rare, and typically entire systems aren’t designed to accommodate exceedingly rare things.  They are designed to handle common things and must be tweaked and touched up to handle little side issues like stateless people.

A few days later the professor asks ‘What is the difference between Humanitarian Law and Human Rights?’ and someone will say ‘Stateless people!’

Why?  Because it sounds good.  But not only does it sound good.  It’s that exception to the rule that captures the imagination, clouds one to the realities of the world.  Talking about it makes you sound smart.  Why didn’t I think to reference stateless people?  But talking about it won’t really get you anywhere, because it’s a sideshow.

I remember from my linguistics days that ergative languages and languages with Object-Verb-Subject word order were the big intellectual attractive nuisances around me.  Both are rare types of languages which can provide interesting research data by virtue of their being the exceptional type, but many confuse that with actual extra significance.  I know these exist in every field of knowledge, because that’s the way that human minds work.  We like the glitzy and the arcane, and what’s better than something both glitzy and arcane.  I’ve thought quite a bit about this, and here are some other intellectual attractive nuisances that I’ve come up with:

It should also be noted that any statement made by a historical figure that seems to run counter to that person’s public persona is good for a few idle minutes of stabs in the dark and beard stroke-cogitating.

I have been talking about intellectual laziness for a while on this blog and in life and I am getting close to encapsulating these thoughts.  As strange as it may sound, I think the take-home lesson of all this thinking about thinking for me is basically 

Don’t talk seriously about things you don’t know much about.  By the way, you don’t know much about nearly every topic.  So almost never be serious.

I’m sure Kurt Vonnegut‘s looking down on me approvingly right now.

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~ by Joe on May 6, 2008.

One Response to “Intellectual Attractive Nuisances”

  1. And Rudy Rucker, with his fascination with fractals, is snarling. šŸ˜‰

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