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On the run

By
November 14, 2007

A beautiful thing about the sport of running is that it’s impossible to lie to yourself about how good or bad you are at it. By contrast, anybody can watch a tennis match or a basketball game and imagine he might take a few points off Roger Federer or score a couple of buckets on Shaquille O’Neal.

Running isn’t like that. When Haile Gebrsellasie broke the world marathon record last month, he ran the 26.2 miles at an average pace of four minutes and 45 seconds per mile. That’s about 71 seconds per 400 meters. Shaq generally isn’t available for a pickup basketball game, but anybody can go to the local high-school track and try to run 400 meters in 71 seconds.

Now imagine doing it 105 times in a row.

I’ve been running for almost 30 years, and when I was somewhat younger I might have been able to run a single 71-second lap, if a tiger was chasing me. I have no talent for the sport, yet I’ve always enjoyed taking part in it, precisely because the stopwatch serves as a particularly pure form of reality therapy.

One of the curious features of our culture is that, while a bad athlete who exaggerates his abilities is considered an appropriate target for open mockery, it’s considered terribly poor form to point out to a dumb person who thinks he’s smart that he is in fact mistaken.

As both a bad athlete and a smart person, I find this very annoying. Of course, merely writing that sentence is extraordinarily obnoxious. Smart people are supposed to pretend that they aren’t, or at the very least have the decency not to point out that, in comparison to the average person, they are, like, smart and stuff.

This is a product of a certain anti-intellectual populism that’s a long-standing feature of American culture. Currently, it’s most commonly found as part of the right-wing backlash politics described in Thomas Frank’s book “What’s the Matter With Kansas?”

Oh the rage many a Fox News viewer feels at the thought of all those smarty-pants professors! We think we’re smarter than the average salt-of-the-earth citizen, yet we couldn’t possibly survive in the real world, where car engines are rebuilt, siding is installed and many other manful feats are performed without the aid of doctoral dissertations and where “common sense” (translation: the undigested biases of the middle class) rules the day.

Or so I have been informed by a few hundred e-mails in recent years.

Again, it’s considered extremely rude to point this out, but the average person isn’t very smart, any more than the average gym rat can dunk on Shaquille O’Neal. The average American doesn’t read books, or at least any books that would challenge an intelligent teenager. He doesn’t understand statistics, or know anything about other countries, or remember more than a few stray facts about the history of his own.

He is a slave to anecdote and prejudice; he is largely incapable of logical argument; and he tends to wildly overestimate his knowledge regarding just about everything. In short, nobody would ever pretend to take his views on any complex or difficult issue seriously, if it were not for the cultural shibboleth that the average person’s opinions are entitled to respect.

This is reflected by such absurdities as endless opinion polls on issues regarding which the median respondent knows nothing whatsoever.

None of which is to say that smart people are morally superior to their rather dim brethren, any more than Shaq is morally superior to a terrible basketball player (such as, for example, me).

But I’m not going to delude myself into thinking I have mad hoop skills.

(Paul F. Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)