Muck and Mystery
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October 04, 2011
Intellect Again

Intellectuals are always whining that they get no respect. There's truth in that, and it's worth thinking about.

The most depressing spectacle on the political landscape right now (besides a potential second term for Barack Obama) is the party of Lincoln entertaining the presidential ambitions of Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann—women with better hairdos than heads. One needn’t be a GOP-hater like Paul Krugman or Maureen Dowd to be dismayed by the growing anti-intellectualism of the party. Even David Brooks, a conservative commentator, has observed that Republican disdain for liberal intellectuals has morphed into a disdain for all intellectuals.

But modern intellectuals, having abandoned honest inquiry for unabashed activism, must themselves bear some blame for the backlash. ...

every time really smart people run the country, things go spectacularly wrong.

The team of the “best and brightest” that Lyndon Johnson inherited from John F. Kennedy embroiled America in an ignominy like Vietnam—not to mention Medicare, a fiscal quagmire that, unlike Vietnam, the country can neither exit nor fix without courting bankruptcy or seriously screwing over millions of seniors.

Moreover, George W. Bush’s failures resulted not from his alleged stupidity, as his most vitriolic critics believe, but the brainiacs in his Cabinet. Bush himself might have reveled in his Forest Grump image. But he assembled a team of intellectual stars including Dick Cheney, who was so smart that Beltway Republicans and Democrats wished that he had run for president; Paul Wolfowitz, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies; Condi Rice, provost of Stanford University; and Donald Rumsfeld, who made his mark in academia, politics, and military service. But this Mensa-worthy team, backed by Ivy League neocon intellectuals, left a legacy of Afghanistan, Iraq, and deficits as far as the eye can see.

The prize for discrediting intelligence, however, goes to President Obama. Unlike Bush, he wore his intellect on his sleeve, raising hopes that he could fix the country with sheer brainpower. But he has presided over a deterioration on every front: Deficits are worse, unemployment is higher, a double dip is imminent, and we have added another foreign misadventure.

So why do intelligent people consistently make such a hash of things? Because they are smart enough to talk themselves into anything. Ordinary mortals don’t engage in fancy mental gymnastics to reach conclusions that defy common sense. But intellectuals are particularly prone to this.

Or, as Herb Gintis once put it:
two basic cultural transmission mechanism lead humans to accept statements that they do not personally subject to scrutiny for factual validity. One is conformist transmission, whereby people see what the majority are doing, and copy it (Boyd and Richerson, 1985, Henrich and Boyd 2001). When there is much to learn and the cost of testing is high, this is a fitness enhancing strategy for a large fraction of the population, especially when the costs and benefits of different behaviors do not change rapidly over time. The other is the transmission by socialization, through which new members of society are induced to accept norms and values that they choose to follow. Norms and values cannot be scrutinized for truth value, since they have none. But, people can generally believe that those who subscribe to the norms and values of their society have higher fitness and well being than those who violate these norms. Moreover, this believe that "those who do good will do well" is generally true in most societies, so this belief can be personally validated. ...

Fitness enhancing, however, does not always mean true in the scientific sense. Thus, many untrue beliefs have proliferated in even the most advanced societies.

... advanced intellectual sophistication is not a counterweight to any of the above assertions. Think of our own society, where the most educated classes have believed such things as (a) autism is caused by poor mothering, (b) fat is bad for you and carbohydrates are good for you, (c) colds are caught by sitting in a draft, (d) second hand smoke is so bad for non-smokers that smokers have absolutely no right to smoke in public. And so on. Not to mention whole ideologies, such as Freudian psychology and Marxian political theory.

And lately, a resurgence in that old fraud Keynes' economic theories.
The most common name for a misplaced emphasis on macroeconomic policy is “Keynesianism.” Despite his brilliance, John Maynard Keynes was always a bit of a fraud, and there is always a bit of clever trickery in massive fiscal stimulus and the related printing of paper money. But we must acknowledge that this fraud strangely seemed to work for many decades. (The great scientific and technological tailwind of the 20th century powered many economically delusional ideas.) Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, innovation expanded new and emerging fields as divergent as radio, movies, aeronautics, household appliances, polymer chemistry, and secondary oil recovery. In spite of their many mistakes, the New Dealers pushed technological innovation very hard.

The New Deal deficits, however misguided, were easily repaid by the growth of subsequent decades. During the Great Recession of the 2010s, by contrast, our policy leaders narrowly debate fiscal and monetary questions with much greater erudition, but have adopted a cargo-cult mentality with respect to the question of future innovation. As the years pass and the cargo fails to arrive, we eventually may doubt whether it will ever return. The age of monetary bubbles naturally ends in real austerity.

On the political right, we are seeing a quiet shift from the optimism of Jack Kemp to the pessimism of Ron Paul, from supply-side economics to the Tea Party, and from the idea that we can combine tax cuts with more spending to the idea that money is either hard or fake. A mischievous person might even ask whether “supply-side economics” really was just a sort of code word for “Keynesianism.” For now it suffices to acknowledge that lower marginal tax rates might not happen and would not substitute for the much-needed construction of hundreds of new nuclear reactors.

I've said much the same as this for many years.
Intellectualism, in today’s society, isn’t about intellect. It’s just a pose, like hipsterism or faux-redneckism. Most of those people who self-identify as intellectuals aren’t especially bright, they’ve just adopted a lifestyle that’s littered with what they think are markers of intelligence.
More importantly, even if they were especially bright compared to other humans they still aren't bright enough to deal with the current problem set. Their arrogance is inappropriate. If they were any where near as smart as they think that they are this would be obvious to them.
Posted by back40 at 04:27 PM | culture

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I believe the proper term for government by the intelligentsia is "idiocracy". I recall reading,in the sixties, a study that asked people to estimate the weight of a common desk phone. Very few responses were even close, but the average of all answers was correct within a fraction of an ounce. Maybe that stuck a chord within me to the point I automatically mistrust ex cathedra pronouncements. Directing the economy from the top, which Keynes's theories require, has the stink of unwarranted hubris. Then, there's the Fed (shudder). Give me the bottom up economy and marketplace of ideas of Smith, Friedman, and Hayak.

Posted by: gary turner at October 6, 2011 08:16 AM

Hi Gary,

I too have been a student of collective intelligence. The situation that you describe works because the respondents were diverse and independent, but only works when there is a true answer.

When the groups are homogeneous, or have too much cross talk and become vulnerable to convergent thinking and information cascades - the dreaded consensus effect - then they are ineffective.

When there is no true answer in the simple sense of the weight of an object or the number of beans in a jar, then collective intelligence is less useful. In that case individual expertise can be better, but not by much.

Better yet is a group of experts working as a team, but only if they are diverse and independent so that their divergent thinking avoids cascades. As the old joke goes a group of smart people can go into a room together and come out stupid from talking to each other, but that's a consequence of convergent thinking. A sufficiently diverse group comes out smarter than any of its members so long as they are not so diverse that they can't talk to one another.

Posted by: back40 at October 6, 2011 11:04 AM

The economy, unless driven by communist, fascist, or modern version liberal-socialists, is broadly diverse with varying areas of agreement and common cause. It works best because there is no one answer. Your group of experts would likely become befuddled if they were asked to opine on the weight of a modern non-mechanical desk phone because of prejudicial knowledge of what a phone has always weighed, where the lay person compares not to phones, but to his experience with other objects that feel the same weight.

Your joke is not so funny when we consider that a bunch of otherwise smart scientists talked themselves stupid and into a corner on catastrophic man-made climate change. That is an awful example of convergent thinking which has a pot load of people whose reputations hang on their collective, convergent misfeasance.

Then, we have the current chemistry Nobel recipient, Dan Shechtman, who refused to bend over to the herd mentality. The issue becomes not that people's ideas might be so diverse they can't talk to one another, but that they will not talk. Dr Shechman tried to convey what he had found, only to be rebuffed and kicked out of his research group.

Both cases are examples of arguing from authority, the papal bull from above. From this we get top down economic control, as if the populace were homogenous, and all economic factors were known and understood. I heard/read somewhere (maybe Matt Ridley) that no one person knows how to make a pencil. That pencils do get made says that there is a collective mind that does know. Collective knowledge does not imply convergent thinking. In the thriving economy, the actors are independent black boxes, each taking input as needed or desired and producing output according to ability. Sounds kinda Marxist, no? Except that the individual decides what he needs and wants; word does not come from on high.

Posted by: gary turner at October 6, 2011 02:15 PM

I don't disagree with the thrust of your comments, however there are some small points that can benefit from clarification.

The desk phone example that you use assumes that none of the experts in the group is actually an expert, and so would not know in very great detail what the phone was made of and its weight to a very close tolerance. I'm sure that I could easily assemble that group.

However, as with your example of I, Pencil by Leonard Read, first published in the December 1958 issue of The Freeman, that doesn't mean that the group of diverse experts would necessarily know, or need to know, all of the material processing and part manufacturing steps or methods. They could in theory, but it would be a large group.

The work that I was alluding to for diverse expert groups comes from Scott Page and Lu Hong. They establish that Groups of diverse problem solvers can outperform groups of high-ability problem solvers just as you might expect, but they also show that groups of diverse high ability problem solvers do even better. Please see my old posts Independent Cacophony and Tag Teams for eye glazing detail and references.

Posted by: back40 at October 6, 2011 06:51 PM

You might enjoy The lessons of the baby-sitting co-op reconsidered The punchline:

This is the third lesson: experts cannot manage the economy.
As they asked at the end, ”if goodhearted people in an area that offers little scope for chicanery can so bungle economic management, can we really be surprised at the results of turning our economy over to the tender mercies of political experts?”

Posted by: back40 at October 6, 2011 09:04 PM