Rick Perry – a matter of optics?

By Razib Khan | November 11, 2011 4:14 am

A few months ago I pointed out that there’s strong circumstantial evidence that Rick Perry is not very smart. Or, he’s very lazy. While George W. Bush had a reputation as dull, his standardized test scores indicated that he wasn’t without any raw material. This makes sense in light of the fact that his father is reputedly bright, having graduated from Yale with an economics degree in three years. Perry in contrast may be the real deal in terms of a dumb authentic Texas politician.

All that being said, one reader pointed out that Perry did have the intellect to become an officer in the Air Force. Since the military uses standardized tests a fair amount you can put a floor on his intelligence. So I let the matter rest, especially since Perry dropped a great deal in the polls.

But all this came back to mind over the past few days, after Rick Perry’s famous brain freeze during the recent debate. I don’t judge Perry too harshly on this matter in regards to intellect, as I suspect a lot of the problem here is that he hasn’t campaigned very long with the same talking points. Nevertheless, he did forget about the Department of Energy, which should be high on his mental checklist recalling his priorities in this area.

Kevin Drum is in no mood for apologies:

Right. And with that, I will now repeat my most brilliant political prediction ever. This was #4 on my list of reasons that Rick Perry won’t win the Republican nomination:

He’s too dumb. Go ahead, call me an elitist. I’m keenly aware that Americans don’t vote for presidents based on their SAT scores, but everything I’ve read about Perry suggests that he’s a genuinely dim kind of guy. Not just incurious or too sure about his gut feelings, like George W. Bush, but simply not bright enough to handle the demands of the Oval Office. Americans might not care if their presidents are geniuses, but there’s a limit to how doltish they can be too.

I demand abject apologies from everyone who gave me a hard time over this. Rick Perry is too dimwitted to be president. End of story.

Drum presumably got a negative reaction because intelligence isn’t something spoken of in polite company. Even many readers of this blog became offended or angry, despite their distaste for Perry’s politics. But a bigger issue is the point that people bring up about Perry having a “senior moment.” That’s not totally implausible. He’s a 61 year old man. But does he look like a 61 year old man? From what I recall Rick Perry has gotten some extensive cosmetic surgery, as well as experimental treatments like human growth hormone injections. This has given him a youthful look on the outside, but it doesn’t change his slow decline on the inside. If he looked more his age I wonder if people would be more forgiving. As it is, they see a vigorous man, and assume a vigorous mind.

Image credit: Gage Skidmore

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Politics
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  • Wes

    Does that human growth hormone stuff work and is it safe in small doses? Not asking for medical advice, I will never use it, just curious if there is any science out there on it.

  • http://www.huxley.net/bnw/index.html Mustapha Mond

    Notwithstanding the obligatory politician’s hair dye job Rick Perry looks every bit as old as his 61 years.

  • Ben

    The sad thing is that a temporary memory lapse is seen as a huge gaffe but if he’d fluently quoted a completely wrong statistic or advocated a policy that was against the interests of the vast majority of the electorate, there would be little consequence.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #3, excellent point.

  • S.J. Esposito

    “…because intelligence isn’t something spoken of in polite company.”

    I never can seem to get my head around this. Why is intelligence any more of an inflammatory topic than a person’s physical appearance? I suspect some of the same persons who were so offended by referring to Perry as dumb are those that may have considered Mitt Romney to “look Presidential”.

    And I don’t understand the taboo of intelligence in conversation between individuals engaged in general conversation either. Many people are always talking about their physical appearances: how they keep a good physique or do their hair, etc., however it seems whenever someone of significant intelligence wants to bring up intelligence (or a related topic), there’s an immediate turning off of the people around him.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #5, i think it’s because intelligence matters more…at least to intelligent ppl :-)

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    and to be clear, there’s obviously no strong taboo on saying conservative white men are not intelligent.

  • Katharine

    SJ Esposito, from someone located in the far right tail of the bell curve (I’ve gotten estimations as high as ‘well over 180′), I think I might be able to answer your question:

    Intelligence is distributed normally, i.e. 68% of people are within one standard deviation of the mean. The mean is 100, and the standard deviation is 16, so 68% of people have an IQ between 84 and 116. Moreover, 99.5% of people have an IQ within two standard deviations, so 99.5% of people have an IQ between 58 and 132.

    Our society, rightfully so, is concerned about equity; there should be no difference in access to opportunities by race, sex, etc. However, the justification behind much of this is that there is no significant difference in intelligence between the groups, or at least (in the case of, say, the impoverished) not one that can’t be rectified through human activity.

    However, when intelligence is inherently unequally distributed the people with less of it are going to get resentful of those who have more of it, and one can’t change their intelligence that much. One can work on their self-discipline, but they can’t change their intelligence.

    This has been a central problem for me my entire life: dealing with people who either blatantly or subtly resent my brains. As a result it’s made me somewhat reclusive; the only people I tend to hang around are others in the sciences, if I am somehow feeling an impulse to be social. Do you think I want to hang around people who not only don’t operate on my wavelength but actively resent me for it? No. And damn it, I AM better than the average person, and anyone who wants to hold me back from my goals can go snuff it.

  • Carol

    The man is 61 years old! Oh my god, mental decline must be well advanced! Hell, as a 63 year old computer systems administrator, I am probably so advanced in my mental decline I should not be trusted to figure out what is going on in the systems I administer.

    Talk about ageism.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    #9, are you so old that you’ve become stupid? of course plenty of older people can accomplish incredible mental tasks, and have a great deal of fuel in the tank. the point is that some aspects of intellectual acuity begin to decline after 30. that’s not controversial.

  • Charles Nydorf

    @Katherine
    Please don’t be reclusive. We need more intelligent conversations not less.

  • http://www.huxley.net/bnw/index.html Mustapha Mond

    “This has been a central problem for me my entire life: dealing with people who either blatantly or subtly resent my brains. As a result it’s made me somewhat reclusive; the only people I tend to hang around are others in the sciences, if I am somehow feeling an impulse to be social. Do you think I want to hang around people who not only don’t operate on my wavelength but actively resent me for it? No. And damn it, I AM better than the average person, and anyone who wants to hold me back from my goals can go snuff it.”

    It sounds as though you have some serious self-esteem issues despite others “estimations” of high intelligence. Are you sure people resent you just for your brains? You sound somewhat angry. This trait will hardly endear you to everyone. Do you have a problematic appearance? (fat, ugly, unkempt, etc…) Some folks judge women especially hard on these things so your social problems may not stem entirely from your intelligence.

  • wijjy

    I can talk for Britain if not the States. The reason that intelligence is not talked about is that there are plenty of signifiers for intelligence – wit & irony, fluency in conversation etc. and that if you feel the need to talk about it then you have failed one of the intelligence tests (being able to assess other peoples’ intelligence.) If you want to flaunt your intelligence then you can, but you have to flatter everyone else intelligence as you do it.

    In other words talking about intelligence is vulgar and stupid, as is joining mensa, telling people your IQ or boasting about how far right you are on the bell curve.

    Of course this should not preclude talking about a politician’s suitability for office.

  • http://www.huxley.net/bnw/index.html Mustapha Mond

    “there are plenty of signifiers for intelligence – wit & irony, fluency in conversation etc. and that if you feel the need to talk about it then you have failed one of the intelligence tests (being able to assess other peoples’ intelligence.) If you want to flaunt your intelligence then you can, but you have to flatter everyone else intelligence as you do it.”

    Alas, verbal fluency is not the be all and end all of intelligence. There remain some folks with extremely high math and/or spatial talents who are less than stellar conversationalists.

  • wijjy

    @ Mustapha Mond
    “Alas, verbal fluency is not the be all and end all of intelligence. There remain some folks with extremely high math and/or spatial talents who are less than stellar conversationalists.”

    Yes, also fluency is only useful when you have something to say. There are many stupid people who are verbally fluent. Anyone who says little, but is profound when they speak may be prized.

    It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt. Mark Twain

  • Sandgroper

    “I AM better than the average person”

    I think I see the problem.

  • wijjy

    @sandgroper

    Of course she is better than us, she is one in 20.7 million (conservatively as she says her IQ is well over 180.) A better guess might be an IQ of 185 then she is one in 137 million. To think that one of only 50 people in the world this intelligent discuss things here. We are truly blessed.

    Working in R:
    1/pnorm((180-100)/15,lower=F)
    1/pnorm((185-100)/15,lower=F)

  • ST

    Mmm, is Katharine (#8) Razib’s female alter ego? The anger Mustapha mentioned also shines through in Razib’s comment (#10). Or should somebody explain to him that #9 was a joke?

    Absolutely, agree with wijjy. Talking about intelligence, wealth and appearance is largely vulgar.

  • Drew

    I’ve always tried to distinguish between intelligence and ignorance. Perry may or may not be smart enough to be President. But his ignorance is a certain disqualifier. He had more than a brain freeze, he ran out of brain gas. He was simply trying to parrot old and widely repeated Republican talking points. But he had no idea what he was saying. What do you think his response would have been to a follow-up question asking what he would do with the Census, HeadStart or the NRC? He’d have had no clue. His tank was empty.

  • Roger Bigod

    Intelligence is part of male identity in the US, in the sense that calling a guy stupid can lead to hurt feelings and even a fight under many social circumstances. The target can be favored in many ways — looks, athletic ability, attractive personality, wealth. He can be from a background where intelligence isn’t a high priority and on a career path where it’s irrelevant. It’s still a serious insult.

    The situation differs for women, but I can’t think of any instances where I’ve noticed it.

    This may be a side-effect of universal education. From an early age, people are reminded daily that they’re “C students” or deficient in math skills. So there’s a deep insecurity about it. Also, since it’s considered “innate”, calling attention to it is like mentioning a physical impairment. Just isn’t done.

  • Jim

    I am just glad that all of this is coming to light on a national level. As someone very interested in politics (but by no means a political enthusiast) and also as a scientist and resident of Texas, I hoped that Perry would show his true colors, and thankfully, he has. Although I still fear a Republican president, I can at least rest a little easier in knowing it won’t be Rick Perry. As consolation, thank goodness that the seat of Governor in Texas is almost trivial, but it is a shame that he is the longest serving Texas Governor in history, and such a staunch advocate of creationism, or as I like to call it: magic.

  • leviticus

    Should I begin with a disclaimer? I guess it is necessary to avoid appearing an apologist. I am horrified by Perry’s persona and politics, but this incident says relatively little, beyond Perry’s lack of preparation and somewhat poor debating skills.

    People are seizing on this gaffe, who should know better. A momentary lapse does not indicate stupidity, nor does a lifetime of selling the public out. Perry might be a high-functioning sociopath, but he ain’t m.r.

    Ben at #3 is spot on. We’ve probably all watched shows, like Bill Maher’s, where crowds of middle-brows wildly cheer factually incorrect, but well presented statements.

    Americans can love presentation and confuse trivia with intelligence until they’ve had extended exposure to an individual. At least, that’s been my experience. I’m good at trivia, but am far from the most intelligent person in the room. People think I’m smarter than I am, but it’s mostly just wikipedia and imdb.com.

    With all do respect to Mr. Mencken and his theory that most Americans would only be content once they elected a drooler, there is a limit to what handlers can do with utter incompetents. Moreover, one doesn’t get handlers until one has proven to be a political product that is worth investing in. It’s a long way from Perry’s origins to where he is now. He helped himself get there.

    Perry was a victim of the double-edged weapon that he has used to his advantage in the past- a glib media.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    . From an early age, people are reminded daily that they’re “C students” or deficient in math skills.

    are you too old to understand the pervasiveness of grade inflation?

    #19, then it was a stupid joke.

  • http://backseatdriving.blogspot.com/ Brian Schmidt

    If in the immediate aftermath, Perry could’ve presented several reasons specific to DOE that argue for its abolition, then all he had was a trivial brain freeze. If he couldn’t because it’s just a name given to him and he has no real knowledge of the department, then his inability to call up the name indicates a deeper problem.

    We don’t know from that one incident which is the explanation. Other incidents with Perry start to make a pattern, however.

  • http://www.huxley.net/bnw/index.html Mustapha Mond

    “I’m good at trivia, but am far from the most intelligent person in the room. People think I’m smarter than I am, but it’s mostly just wikipedia and imdb.com.”

    Haha! I’ll settle for that. The new definition of “smart.” Seeing someone looking stuff up on their iPad before opening their mouth. :-)

  • Sandgroper

    wijjy, I’d say Katherine has been massively misled about her intelligence. Of course that could just be me being resentful of the incisive brilliance of her insight into the topic.

    Back to Perry, I don’t think his lapse was all that forgiveable, but what compounded it for me was he ended up saying “Oops.” Who says “Oops” in that context? That’s not just not very bright or quick witted. “Oops” is not a senior moment. I thought Texans were supposed to be he-men. Next you’ll be telling me he’s been botoxed. Get him off before I tell Julia to rip up the ANZUS treaty.

    I’ll now retire back to my rocking chair before I forget where it is.

  • Katharine

    Re ugliness, I’m pretty sure I’m not ugly (I am not totally sexually inexperienced nor have I had to coerce anybody into them), nor fat (I’m within the normal bounds of weight per the BMI charts), nor unkempt (at least comparing my standards to normal standards, mine actually are fairly professional-looking compared to other students in my cohort).

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Have any historians tried to put together a list of our dumbest Presidents? I’m not sure how you test the intelligence of someone who has been dead for 150 years, but it might be an amusing project.

    p.s. Didn’t Gerald Ford catch grief for being dim?

  • Sandgroper

    LL – Yes he did.

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    OK, I should have googled before asking that question…

  • Thomas

    I wouldn’t call myself highly intelligent by any means, but I am curious, like to learn, have little hesitation in asking questions, and saying “I don’t know”. Experience has taught me BS-ing my way through tough spots only comes back to bite me in the ass. I would rather hang with intelligent people who are comfortable with themselves. Being around smug, incurious, mentally lazy people who parrot illogical nonsense is just too trying. POTUS is job that requires knowledge and intelligence, and leadership skills. Sadly, it seems too many Americans would rather follow people they are attracted to, and who make them feel comfortable, especially with themselves; poor basis for choosing a president. Perry doesn’t appear to have much of the former, mostly the latter, with hints (to me) of some disquieting moral ambiguity. We need a strong leader, not another charismatic personality with a large following.

  • April Brown

    Do you have references to his cosmetic surgery and growth hormone treatments? I don’t disbelieve you, but statements like that smack of rumour. (Blog posts on a science website would ideally be overreferenced and lite on hints at gossipy rumours.)

  • Doug1

    Katherine–

    Moreover, 99.5% of people have an IQ within two standard deviations, so 99.5% of people have an IQ between 58 and 132.

    The bell curve on IQ is steep but not that steep. 95% of white (Euro descended) people have IQ’s WITHIN two SD’s of the white mean of 100, or between 70 and 130. 97.5% of whites have IQ’s less than 130.

  • Linda Seebach

    Why is *joining* Mensa “vulgar and stupid”? Bragging about it to people you know can’t join, yes; but the people who do that are not typical of people one meets in Mensa (no point in bragging if everybody present is a member too). Many Mensans are, in fact, quite reluctant to mention their membership to non-members.
    People join for all kinds of reasons; in my case, because I knew Mensa served as a support group for parents of “severely gifted” children (as the school district labeled my son). And later, when I moved to a new city, it was somewhere I could count on finding interesting, congenial people. “Top 2 percent” isn’t all that selective.
    Is it “vulgar and stupid” to get a Ph.D.?

  • Sandgroper

    Mensa members are supposed to be too smart to rise to the bait.

    I know quite a few vulgar stupid people with PhDs, although it might not have been a prerequisite.

  • http://plastic-surgery-gone-wrong.net Simone Drube

    To make use of plastic surgery for just about any other reason as compared to disfigurement is just too much vanity and also you might even always be target in order to a surgical operation gone completely wrong.

  • Sandgroper

    “To make use of plastic surgery for just about any other reason as compared to disfigurement is just too much vanity ”

    Agree – you have to work hard in this life to earn your scars and wrinkles, I don’t know why anyone should feel ashamed of them.

  • Sandgroper

    You think Rick Perry wears make-up?

  • ackbark

    The hair looks stuck on a little too tight.

  • Rama Kandra from Matrix

    >”I’ve gotten estimations as high as ‘well over 180′″

    Which IQ test might that be? “Well over” 180 ? Really?

    >Why is *joining* Mensa “vulgar and stupid”

    Neither. Just a sign of one’s insecurity. They’re typically far from accomplished.

    >Is it “vulgar and stupid” to get a Ph.D.?

    PhD => academic achievement = f(conscientiousness, intelligence).

    High IQ => High IQ.

    See the difference?

    >I’d say Katherine has been massively misled about her intelligence.

    Reminds me of former GNXP contributor Jackie Passey (Razib remembers, I’m sure).

    > The reason that intelligence is not talked about is that there are plenty of signifiers for intelligence – wit & irony, fluency in conversation etc.

    High V low M is a disease that many suffer from. They’re thankfully unemployed or working as adjuncts in shitty schools these days.

  • ackbark

    “High V low M is a disease that many suffer from. ”

    Is it really?

    http://www.livescience.com/16897-math-language-dyslexia-dyscalculia.html

    I’d suggest that most people who would be called ‘high math low verbal’ actually aren’t that high in math, but are really low in verbal and as a result actually don’t say much so you never notice them.

  • Rama Kandra from Matrix

    Was referring to this:

    http://infoproc.blogspot.com/2011/06/high-v-low-m.html

    This is a classic. I have it framed and read it every morning.

  • Spike Gomes

    Rama Kandra:

    As a high verbal, relatively low math person, I don’t disagree with you. You can’t do science without a firm handle on the subject, still, when you flip it, a person could be similarly disabled. High verbal allows one to better disseminate and argue for one’s ideas, whether for good or bad. There isn’t a lack of scientists in history who have had trouble spreading their correct ideas about for lack of skill in persuasion.

    Ideally, I think it’s best that one know what their strengths are and what their weaknesses are and collaborate with those who can bolster their deficiencies. Philosopher, know thyself and whatnot.

  • dave chamberlin

    My cousin who lives in Austin Texas worked directly for Rick Perry while he was governer and she has numerous first hand stories that this man is as dumb as a Texas fence post. Her job is to write bills for the Texas legislature and she often had to report directly to Rick Perry on the particulars of these complex bills and he was intellectually incapable of following her rediculously simplified summaries. Political ideologies aside it is a very sad statement that americans chose to vote for folks like themselves rather than candidates that can prove their ability to comprehend complex subjects.

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Gene Expression

This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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