The Parable Of The Talents

[Content note: scrupulosity and self-esteem triggers, IQ, brief discussion of weight and dieting. Not good for growth mindset.]


I sometimes blog about research into IQ and human intelligence. I think most readers of this blog already know IQ is 50% to 80% heritable, and that it’s so important for intellectual pursuits that eminent scientists in some fields have average IQs around 150 to 160. Since IQ this high only appears in 1/10,000 people or so, it beggars coincidence to believe this represents anything but a very strong filter for IQ (or something correlated with it) in reaching that level. If you saw a group of dozens of people who were 7’0 tall on average, you’d assume it was a basketball team or some other group selected for height, not a bunch of botanists who were all very tall by coincidence.

A lot of people find this pretty depressing. Some worry that taking it seriously might damage the “growth mindset” people need to fully actualize their potential. This is important and I want to discuss it eventually, but not now. What I want to discuss now is people who feel personally depressed. For example, a comment from last week:

I’m sorry to leave self a self absorbed comment, but reading this really upset me and I just need to get this off my chest…How is a person supposed to stay sane in a culture that prizes intelligence above everything else – especially if, as Scott suggests, Human Intelligence Really Is the Key to the Future – when they themselves are not particularly intelligent and, apparently, have no potential to ever become intelligent? Right now I basically feel like pond scum.

I hear these kinds of responses every so often, so I should probably learn to expect them. I never do. They seem to me precisely backwards. There’s a moral gulf here, and I want to throw stories and intuitions at it until enough of them pile up at the bottom to make a passable bridge. But first, a comparison:

Some people think body weight is biologically/genetically determined. Other people think it’s based purely on willpower – how strictly you diet, how much you can bring yourself to exercise. These people get into some pretty acrimonious debates.

Overweight people, and especially people who feel unfairly stigmatized for being overweight, tend to cluster on the biologically determined side. And although not all believers in complete voluntary control of weight are mean to fat people, the people who are mean to fat people pretty much all insist that weight is voluntary and easily changeable.

Although there’s a lot of debate over the science here, there seems to be broad agreement on both sides that the more compassionate, sympathetic, progressive position, the position promoted by the kind of people who are really worried about stigma and self-esteem, is that weight is biologically determined.

And the same is true of mental illness. Sometimes I see depressed patients whose families really don’t get it. They say “Sure, my daughter feels down, but she needs to realize that’s no excuse for shirking her responsibilities. She needs to just pick herself up and get on with her life.” On the other hand, most depressed people say that their depression is more fundamental than that, not a thing that can be overcome by willpower, certainly not a thing you can just ‘shake off’.

Once again, the compassionate/sympathetic/progressive side of the debate is that depression is something like biological, and cannot easily be overcome with willpower and hard work.

One more example of this pattern. There are frequent political debates in which conservatives (or straw conservatives) argue that financial success is the result of hard work, so poor people are just too lazy to get out of poverty. Then a liberal (or straw liberal) protests that hard work has nothing to do with it, success is determined by accidents of birth like who your parents are and what your skin color is et cetera, so the poor are blameless in their own predicament.

I’m oversimplifying things, but again the compassionate/sympathetic/progressive side of the debate – and the side endorsed by many of the poor themselves – is supposed to be that success is due to accidents of birth, and the less compassionate side is that success depends on hard work and perseverance and grit and willpower.

The obvious pattern is that attributing outcomes to things like genes, biology, and accidents of birth is kind and sympathetic. Attributing them to who works harder and who’s “really trying” can stigmatize people who end up with bad outcomes and is generally viewed as Not A Nice Thing To Do.

And the weird thing, the thing I’ve never understood, is that intellectual achievement is the one domain that breaks this pattern.

Here it’s would-be hard-headed conservatives arguing that intellectual greatness comes from genetics and the accidents of birth and demanding we “accept” this “unpleasant truth”.

And it’s would-be compassionate progressives who are insisting that no, it depends on who works harder, claiming anybody can be brilliant if they really try, warning us not to “stigmatize” the less intelligent as “genetically inferior”.

I can come up with a few explanations for the sudden switch, but none of them are very principled and none of them, to me, seem to break the fundamental symmetry of the situation. I choose to maintain consistency by preserving the belief that overweight people, depressed people, and poor people aren’t fully to blame for their situation – and neither are unintelligent people. It’s accidents of birth all the way down. Intelligence is mostly genetic and determined at birth – and we’ve already determined in every other sphere that “mostly genetic and determined at birth” means you don’t have to feel bad if you got the short end of the stick.

Consider for a moment Srinivasa Ramanujan, one of the greatest mathematicians of all time. He grew up in poverty in a one-room house in small-town India. He taught himself mathematics by borrowing books from local college students and working through the problems on his own until he reached the end of the solveable ones and had nowhere else to go but inventing ways to solve the unsolveable ones.

There are a lot of poor people in the United States today whose life circumstances prevented their parents from reading books to them as a child, prevented them from getting into the best schools, prevented them from attending college, et cetera. And pretty much all of those people still got more educational opportunities than Ramanujan did.

And from there we can go in one of two directions. First, we can say that a lot of intelligence is innate, that Ramanujan was a genius, and that we mortals cannot be expected to replicate his accomplishments.

Or second, we can say those poor people are just not trying hard enough.

Take “innate ability” out of the picture, and if you meet a poor person on the street begging for food, saying he never had a chance, your reply must be “Well, if you’d just borrowed a couple of math textbooks from the local library at age 12, you would have been a Fields Medalist by now. I hear that pays pretty well.”

The best reason not to say that is that we view Ramanujan as intellectually gifted. But the very phrase tells us where we should classify that belief. Ramanujan’s genius is a “gift” in much the same way your parents giving you a trust fund on your eighteenth birthday is a “gift”, and it should be weighted accordingly in the moral calculus.


I shouldn’t pretend I’m worried about this for the sake of the poor. I’m worried for me.

My last IQ-ish test was my SATs in high school. I got a perfect score in Verbal, and a good-but-not-great score in Math.

And in high school English, I got A++s in all my classes, Principal’s Gold Medals, 100%s on tests, first prize in various state-wide essay contests, etc. In Math, I just barely by the skin of my teeth scraped together a pass in Calculus with a C-.

Every time I won some kind of prize in English my parents would praise me and say I was good and should feel good. My teachers would hold me up as an example and say other kids should try to be more like me. Meanwhile, when I would bring home a report card with a C- in math, my parents would have concerned faces and tell me they were disappointed and I wasn’t living up to my potential and I needed to work harder et cetera.

And I don’t know which part bothered me more.

Every time I was held up as an example in English class, I wanted to crawl under a rock and die. I didn’t do it! I didn’t study at all, half the time I did the homework in the car on the way to school, those essays for the statewide competition were thrown together on a lark without a trace of real effort. To praise me for any of it seemed and still seems utterly unjust.

On the other hand, to this day I believe I deserve a fricking statue for getting a C- in Calculus I. It should be in the center of the schoolyard, and have a plaque saying something like “Scott Alexander, who by making a herculean effort managed to pass Calculus I, even though they kept throwing random things after the little curly S sign and pretending it made sense.”

And without some notion of innate ability, I don’t know what to do with this experience. I don’t want to have to accept the blame for being a lazy person who just didn’t try hard enough in Math. But I really don’t want to have to accept the credit for being a virtuous and studious English student who worked harder than his peers. I know there were people who worked harder than I did in English, who poured their heart and soul into that course – and who still got Cs and Ds. To deny innate ability is to devalue their efforts and sacrifice, while simultaneously giving me credit I don’t deserve.

Meanwhile, there were some students who did better than I did in Math with seemingly zero effort. I didn’t begrudge those students. But if they’d started trying to say they had exactly the same level of innate ability as I did, and the only difference was they were trying while I was slacking off, then I sure as hell would have begrudged them. Especially if I knew they were lazing around on the beach while I was poring over a textbook.

I tend to think of social norms as contracts bargained between different groups. In the case of attitudes towards intelligence, those two groups are smart people and dumb people. Since I was both at once, I got to make the bargain with myself, which simplified the bargaining process immensely. The deal I came up with was that I wasn’t going to beat myself up over the areas I was bad at, but I also didn’t get to become too cocky about the areas I was good at. It was all genetic luck of the draw either way. In the meantime, I would try to press as hard as I could to exploit my strengths and cover up my deficiencies. So far I’ve found this to be a really healthy way of treating myself, and it’s the way I try to treat others as well.


The theme continues to be “Scott Relives His Childhood Inadequacies”. So:

When I was 6 and my brother was 4, our mom decided that as an Overachieving Jewish Mother she was contractually obligated to make both of us learn to play piano. She enrolled me in a Yamaha introductory piano class, and my younger brother in a Yamaha ‘cute little kids bang on the keyboard’ class.

A little while later, I noticed that my brother was now with me in my Introductory Piano class.

A little while later, I noticed that my brother was now by far the best student in my Introductory Piano Class, even though he had just started and was two or three years younger than anyone else there.

A little while later, Yamaha USA flew him to Japan to show him off before the Yamaha corporate honchos there.

Well, one thing led to another, and my brother won several international piano competitions, got a professorship in music at age 25, and now routinely gets news articles written about him calling him “among the top musicians of his generation”.

Meanwhile, I was always a mediocre student at Yamaha. When the time came to try an instrument in elementary school, I went with the violin to see if maybe I’d find it more to my tastes than the piano. I was quickly sorted into the remedial class because I couldn’t figure out how to make my instrument stop sounding like a wounded cat. After a year or so of this, I decided to switch to fulfilling my music requirement through a choir, and everyone who’d had to listen to me breathed a sigh of relief.

Every so often I wonder if somewhere deep inside me there is the potential to be “among the top musicians of my generation.” I try to recollect whether my brother practiced harder than I did. My memories are hazy, but I don’t think he practiced much harder until well after his career as a child prodigy had taken off. The cycle seemed to be that every time he practiced, things came fluidly to him and he would produce beautiful music and everyone would be amazed. And this must have felt great, and incentivized him to practice more, and that made him even better, so that the beautiful music came even more fluidly, and the praise became more effusive, until eventually he chose a full-time career in music and became amazing. Meanwhile, when I started practicing it always sounded like wounded cats, and I would get very cautious praise like “Good job, Scott, it sounded like that cat was hurt a little less badly than usual,” and it made me frustrated, and want to practice less, which made me even worse, until eventually I quit in disgust.

On the other hand, I know people who want to get good at writing, and make a mighty resolution to write two hundred words a day every day, and then after the first week they find it’s too annoying and give up. These people think I’m amazing, and why shouldn’t they? I’ve written a few hundred to a few thousand words pretty much every day for the past ten years.

But as I’ve said before, this has taken exactly zero willpower. It’s more that I can’t stop even if I want to. Part of that is probably that when I write, I feel really good about having expressed exactly what it was I meant to say. Lots of people read it, they comment, they praise me, I feel good, I’m encouraged to keep writing, and it’s exactly the same virtuous cycle as my brother got from his piano practice.

And so I think it would be too easy to say something like “There’s no innate component at all. Your brother practiced piano really hard but almost never writes. You write all the time, but wimped out of practicing piano. So what do you expect? You both got what you deserved.”

I tried to practice piano as hard as he did. I really tried. But every moment was a struggle. I could keep it up for a while, and then we’d go on vacation, and there’d be no piano easily available, and I would be breathing a sigh of relief at having a ready-made excuse, and he’d be heading off to look for a piano somewhere to practice on. Meanwhile, I am writing this post in short breaks between running around hospital corridors responding to psychiatric emergencies, and there’s probably someone very impressed with that, someone saying “But you had such a great excuse to get out of your writing practice!”

I dunno. But I don’t think of myself as working hard at any of the things I am good at, in the sense of “exerting vast willpower to force myself kicking and screaming to do them”. It’s possible I do work hard, and that an outside observer would accuse me of eliding how hard I work, but it’s not a conscious elision and I don’t feel that way from the inside.

Ramanujan worked very hard at math. But I don’t think he thought of it as work. He obtained a scholarship to the local college, but dropped out almost immediately because he couldn’t make himself study any subject other than math. Then he got accepted to another college, and dropped out again because they made him study non-mathematical subjects and he failed a physiology class. Then he nearly starved to death because he had no money and no scholarship. To me, this doesn’t sound like a person who just happens to be very hard-working; if he had the ability to study other subjects he would have, for no reason other than that it would have allowed him to stay in college so he could keep studying math. It seems to me that in some sense Ramanujan was incapable of putting hard work into non-math subjects.

I really wanted to learn math and failed, but I did graduate with honors from medical school. Ramanujan really wanted to learn physiology and failed, but he did become one of history’s great mathematicians. So which one of us was the hard worker?

People used to ask me for writing advice. And I, in all earnestness, would say “Just transcribe your thoughts onto paper exactly like they sound in your head.” It turns out that doesn’t work for other people. Maybe it doesn’t work for me either, and it just feels like it does.

But you know what? When asked about one of his discoveries, a method of simplifying a very difficult problem to a continued fraction, Ramanujan described his thought process as: “It is simple. The minute I heard the problem, I knew that the answer was a continued fraction. ‘Which continued fraction?’ I asked myself. Then the answer came to my mind”.

And again, maybe that’s just how it feels to him, and the real answer is “study math so hard that you flunk out of college twice, and eventually you develop so much intuition that you can solve problems without thinking about them.”

(or maybe the real answer is “have dreams where obscure Hindu gods appear to you as drops of blood and reveal mathematical formulae”. Ramanujan was weird).

But I still feel like there’s something going on here where the solution to me being bad at math and piano isn’t just “sweat blood and push through your brain’s aversion to these subjects until you make it stick”. When I read biographies of Ramanujan and other famous mathematicians, there’s no sense that they ever had to do that with math. When I talk to my brother, I never get a sense that he had to do that with piano. And if I am good enough at writing to qualify to have an opinion on being good at things, then I don’t feel like I ever went through that process myself.

So this too is part of my deal with myself. I’ll try to do my best at things, but if there’s something I really hate, something where I have to go uphill every step of the way, then it’s okay to admit mediocrity. I won’t beat myself up for not forcing myself kicking and screaming to practice piano. And in return I won’t become too cocky about practicing writing a lot. It’s probably some kind of luck of the draw either way.


I said before that this wasn’t just about poor people, it was about me being selfishly worried for my own sake. I think I might have given the mistaken impression that I merely need to justify to myself why I can’t get an A in math or play the piano. But it’s much worse than that.

The rationalist community tends to get a lot of high-scrupulosity people, people who tend to beat themselves up for not doing more than they are. It’s why I push giving 10% to charity, not as some kind of amazing stretch goal that we need to guilt people into doing, but as a crutch, a sort of “don’t worry, you’re still okay if you only give ten percent”. It’s why there’s so much emphasis on “heroic responsibility” and how you, yes you, have to solve all the world’s problems personally. It’s why I see red when anyone accuses us of entitlement, since it goes about as well as calling an anorexic person fat.

And we really aren’t doing ourselves any favors. For example, Nick Bostrom writes:

Searching for a cure for aging is not just a nice thing that we should perhaps one day get around to. It is an urgent, screaming moral imperative. The sooner we start a focused research program, the sooner we will get results. It matters if we get the cure in 25 years rather than in 24 years: a population greater than that of Canada would die as a result.

If that bothers you, you definitely shouldn’t read Astronomical Waste.

Yet here I am, not doing anti-aging research. Why not?

Because I tried doing biology research a few times and it was really hard and made me miserable. You know how in every science class, when the teacher says “Okay, pour the white chemical into the grey chemical, and notice how it turns green and begins to bubble,” there’s always one student who pours the white chemical into the grey chemical, and it just forms a greyish-white mixture and sits there? That was me. I hated it, I didn’t have the dexterity or the precision of mind to do it well, and when I finally finished my required experimental science classes I was happy never to think about it again. Even the abstract intellectual part of it – the one where you go through data about genes and ligands and receptors in supercentenarians and shake it until data comes out – requires exactly the kind of math skills that I don’t have.

Insofar as this is a matter of innate aptitude – some people are cut out for biology research and I’m not one of them – all is well, and my decision to get a job I’m good at instead is entirely justified.

But insofar as there’s no such thing as innate aptitude, just hard work and grit – then by not being gritty enough, I’m a monster who’s complicit in the death of a population greater than that of Canada.

Insofar as there’s no such thing as innate aptitude, I have no excuse for not being Aubrey de Grey. Or if Aubrey de Grey doesn’t impress you much, Norman Borlaug. Or if you don’t know who either of those two people are, Elon Musk.

I once heard a friend, upon his first use of modafinil, wonder aloud if the way they felt on that stimulant was the way Elon Musk felt all the time. That tied a lot of things together for me, gave me an intuitive understanding of what it might “feel like from the inside” to be Elon Musk. And it gave me a good tool to discuss biological variation with. Most of us agree that people on stimulants can perform in ways it’s difficult for people off stimulants to match. Most of us agree that there’s nothing magical about stimulants, just changes to the levels of dopamine, histamine, norepinephrine et cetera in the brain. And most of us agree there’s a lot of natural variation in these chemicals anyway. So “me on stimulants is that guy’s normal” seems like a good way of cutting through some of the philosophical difficulties around this issue.

…which is all kind of a big tangent. The point I want to make is that for me, what’s at stake in talking about natural variations in ability isn’t just whether I have to feel like a failure for not getting an A in high school calculus, or not being as good at music as my brother. It’s whether I’m a failure for not being Elon Musk. Specifically, it’s whether I can say “No, I’m really not cut out to be Elon Musk” and go do something else I’m better at without worrying that I’m killing everyone in Canada.


The proverb says: “Everyone has somebody better off than they are and somebody worse off than they are, with two exceptions.” When we accept that we’re all in the “not Elon Musk” boat together (with one exception) a lot of the status games around innate ability start to seem less important.

Every so often an overly kind commenter here praises my intelligence and says they feel intellectually inadequate compared to me, that they wish they could be at my level. But at my level, I spend my time feeling intellectually inadequate compared to Scott Aaronson. Scott Aaronson describes feeling “in awe” of Terence Tao and frequently struggling to understand him. Terence Tao – well, I don’t know if he’s religious, but maybe he feels intellectually inadequate compared to God. And God feels intellectually inadequate compared to John von Neumann.

So there’s not much point in me feeling inadequate compared to my brother, because even if I was as good at music as my brother, I’d probably just feel inadequate for not being Mozart.

And asking “Well what if you just worked harder?” can elide small distinctions, but not bigger ones. If my only goal is short-term preservation of my self-esteem, I can imagine that if only things had gone a little differently I could have practiced more and ended up as talented as my brother. It’s a lot harder for me to imagine the course of events where I do something different and become Mozart. Only one in a billion people reach a Mozart level of achievement; why would it be me?

If I loved music for its own sake and wanted to be a talented musician so I could express the melodies dancing within my heart, then none of this matters. But insofar as I want to be good at music because I feel bad that other people are better than me at music, that’s a road without an end.

This is also how I feel of when some people on this blog complain they feel dumb for not being as smart as some of the other commenters on this blog.

I happen to have all of your IQ scores in a spreadsheet right here (remember that survey you took?). Not a single person is below the population average. The first percentile for IQ here – the one such that 1% of respondents are lower and 99% of respondents are higher – is – corresponds to the 85th percentile of the general population. So even if you’re in the first percentile here, you’re still pretty high up in the broader scheme of things.

At that point we’re back on the road without end. I am pretty sure we can raise your IQ as much as you want and you will still feel like pond scum. If we raise it twenty points, you’ll try reading Quantum Computing since Democritus and feel like pond scum. If we raise it forty, you’ll just go to Terence Tao’s blog and feel like pond scum there. Maybe if you were literally the highest-IQ person in the entire world you would feel good about yourself, but any system where only one person in the world is allowed to feel good about themselves at a time is a bad system.

People say we should stop talking about ability differences so that stupid people don’t feel bad. I say that there’s more than enough room for everybody to feel bad, smart and stupid alike, and not talking about it won’t help. What will help is fundamentally uncoupling perception of intelligence from perception of self-worth.

I work with psychiatric patients who tend to have cognitive difficulties. Starting out in the Detroit ghetto doesn’t do them any favors, and then they get conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia that actively lower IQ for poorly understood neurological reasons.

The standard psychiatric evaluation includes an assessment of cognitive ability; the one I use is a quick test with three questions. The questions are – “What is 100 minus 7?”, “What do an apple and an orange have in common?”, and “Remember these three words for one minute, then repeat them back to me: house, blue, and tulip”.

There are a lot of people – and I don’t mean floridly psychotic people who don’t know their own name, I mean ordinary reasonable people just like you and me – who can’t answer these questions. And we know why they can’t answer these questions, and it is pretty darned biological.

And if our answer to “I feel dumb and worthless because my IQ isn’t high enough” is “don’t worry, you’re not worthless, I’m sure you can be a great scientist if you just try hard enough”, then we are implicitly throwing under the bus all of these people who are definitely not going to be great scientists no matter how hard they try. Talking about trying harder can obfuscate the little differences, but once we’re talking about the homeless schizophrenic guy from Detroit who can’t tell me 100 minus 7 to save his life, you can’t just magic the problem away with a wave of your hand and say “I’m sure he can be the next Ramanujan if he keeps a positive attitude!” You either need to condemn him as worthless or else stop fricking tying worth to innate intellectual ability.

This is getting pretty close to what I was talking about in my post on burdens. When I get a suicidal patient who thinks they’re a burden on society, it’s nice to be able to point out ten important things they’ve done for society recently and prove them wrong. But sometimes it’s not that easy, and the only thing you can say is “f#@k that s#!t”. Yes, society has organized itself in a way that excludes and impoverishes a bunch of people who could have been perfectly happy in the state of nature picking berries and hunting aurochs. It’s not your fault, and if they’re going to give you compensation you take it. And we had better make this perfectly clear now, so that when everything becomes automated and run by robots and we’re all behind the curve, everybody agrees that us continuing to exist is still okay.

Likewise with intellectual ability. When someone feels sad because they can’t be a great scientist, it is nice to be able to point out all of their intellectual strengths and tell them “Yes you can, if only you put your mind to it!” But this is often not true. At that point you have to say “f@#k it” and tell them to stop tying their self-worth to being a great scientist. And we had better establish that now, before transhumanists succeed in creating superintelligence and we all have to come to terms with our intellectual inferiority.


But I think the situation can also be somewhat rosier than that.

Ozy once told me that the law of comparative advantage was one of the most inspirational things they had ever read. This was sufficiently strange that I demanded an explanation.

Ozy said that it proves everyone can contribute. Even if you are worse than everyone else at everything, you can still participate in global trade and other people will pay you money. It may not be very much money, but it will be some, and it will be a measure of how your actions are making other people better off and they are grateful for your existence.

(in real life this doesn’t work for a couple of reasons, but who cares about real life when we have a theory?)

After some thought, I was also inspired by this.

I’m never going to be a great mathematician or Elon Musk. But if I pursue my comparative advantage, which right now is medicine, I can still make money. And if I feel like it, I can donate it to mathematics research. Or anti-aging research. Or the same people Elon Musk donates his money to. They will use it to hire smart people with important talents that I lack, and I will be at least partially responsible for those people’s successes.

If I had an IQ of 70, I think I would still want to pursue my comparative advantage – even if that was ditch-digging, or whatever, and donate that money to important causes. It might not be very much money, but it would be some.

Our modern word “talent” comes from the Greek word talenton, a certain amount of precious metal sometimes used as a denomination of money. The etymology passes through a parable of Jesus’. A master calls three servants to him and gives the first five talents, the second two talents, and the third one talent. The first two servants invest the money and double it. The third literally buries it in a hole. The master comes back later and praises the first two servants, but sends the third servant to Hell (metaphor? what metaphor?).

Various people have come up with various interpretations, but the most popular says that God gives all of us different amounts of resources, and He will judge us based on how well we use these resources rather than on how many He gave us. It would be stupid to give your first servant five loads of silver, then your second servant two loads of silver, then immediately start chewing out the second servant for having less silver than the first one. And if both servants invested their silver wisely, it would be silly to chew out the second one for ending up with less profit when he started with less seed capital. The moral seems to be that if you take what God gives you and use it wisely, you’re fine.

The modern word “talent” comes from this parable. It implies “a thing God has given you which you can invest and give back”.

So if I were a ditch-digger, I think I would dig ditches, donate a portion of the small amount I made, and trust that I had done what I could with the talents I was given.


The Jews also talk about how God judges you for your gifts. Rabbi Zusya once said that when he died, he wasn’t worried that God would ask him “Why weren’t you Moses?” or “Why weren’t you Solomon?” But he did worry that God might ask “Why weren’t you Rabbi Zusya?”

And this is part of why it’s important for me to believe in innate ability, and especially differences in innate ability. If everything comes down to hard work and positive attitude, then God has every right to ask me “Why weren’t you Srinivasa Ramanujan?” or “Why weren’t you Elon Musk?”

If everyone is legitimately a different person with a different brain and different talents and abilities, then all God gets to ask me is whether or not I was Scott Alexander.

This seems like a gratifyingly low bar.

[more to come on this subject later]

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791 Responses to The Parable Of The Talents

  1. Frog Do says:

    I would guess the progressive paradox of intelligence being nurture not nature is the strong linking of intelligence, education, and morality in their world view. Thus if you publicly state something no progressive, you’ll be told to “educate yourself”, this idea if we teach people not to be racist, sexist, etc. they’ll overcome deep biological drives, etc. More or less following the Moldbuggian history of contemporary progressivism.

    The fact that most people can’t achieve the heights of intelligence is then theologically equivalent to saying they can’t be saved, which is awful. Imagine how Unitarian Universalists see strict Calvinists.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Hm. This predicts that people who think making money is really important would be most likely to believe it is entirely based on hard work. I think this kind of checks out (certain very strong laissez-faire libertarians/Objectivists)

      It would also predict that people who think not being mentally ill is really important would be most likely to believe you can overcome mental illnesses through willpower. But for me the first part translates to “psychiatrists and mental health advocates”, and they seem to be least likely to believe that.

      I don’t know. There’s also the confounding factor that maybe you will only worship something as a sacred value if you think it is a worthy test of character – ie the reverse causal pathway.

      • Frog Do says:

        There is also global considerations. “A more educated citizenry” and “a wealthier society” seem obviously valuable, whereas I don’t here much about “a more mentally healthy” society outside of fringe cults and neoreactionaries. My instinct it to say “wealth” and “education” belong to a different category than “mental health”. At least for the West.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          I think a lot of people would sign on to “Decreasing the burden of mental illness is very important”, even if you frame it in terms of externalities for the mentally healthy.

          • Anonymous says:

            I think it’s relevant that mental health is often seen in purely negative terms, ie the ‘typical’ person has no mental health issues and then it’s all downhill from there.

            Outside of rationalist circles, you rarely see people being praised as unusually sane.

            As you noted in this post, the low end of the IQ bell curve is disproportionately composed of people with serious mental illnesses.

            So I think the relevant question is not “who cares about decreasing the burden of mental illness?” but rather “who focuses on the highest extremes of mental health?”, which is basically a rephrasing of “who cares about intellectual achievement?”

            Obviously there’s some conflation between mental wellbeing and IQ going on here, but I think that’s consistent with how many people view these areas (if not exactly an accurate description).

      • primality says:

        Your language might be confounding your brains example-finding mechanism, since people who use the phrase “mentally ill” probably sees it as an illness and therefore out of the sufferer’s control and therefore Not A Willpower Issue. You should try mentally searching for people who believe being happy/normal/A Productive Memeber Of Society is important. I tried, but it was hard to think of a particular group, since there’s a lot of people all over the political system who think those things are very important.

      • Good post—especially the line about Von Neumann, who is a hero of mine. Teller comments that Von Neumann proves humans can get addicted to anything, even thinking.

        But some of the problems can be solved—with patience. My mother claimed she once taught my father a song well enough so that he could tell if something was that song or wasn’t, but he denied it. Just yesterday I observed the success of a three generation project to breed musical ability back into his descendants. He married a musical wife, and I can recognize music just fine, although I can’t carry a tune. I married a musical wife. Our son married a musical wife.

        And my granddaughter can carry a tune.

        But unless you are a truly extraordinary physician, your comparative advantage is not in medicine. As demonstrated here.

        • That is a really remarkable result of assortative mating. I’m also a little astonished to learn that there are people atonal enough to not know whether two tunes represent the same song.

          • Creutzer says:

            How is a profoundly unmusical person marrying a musical person assortative mating?

            I know there is such a thing as negative assortative mating, but that’s precisely not what people refer to when they speak of assortative mating in humans, no?

          • It’s a result of assortative mating only in the sense of being a result of selecting mates for similarity on traits A, B and C and ending up with mates very dissimilar on trait D. Not a result one would predict from, but not inconsistent with, given that D, on the evidence of the particular people in question, doesn’t seem to correlate at all closely with A, B and C.

      • There’s a different dimension to these issues that I think is worth mentioning. Most outcomes depend partly on ability and partly on effort. Treating them as almost entirely dependent on ability may keep you from feeling bad about your weaknesses or unjustifiably proud about your strengths. But it also sharply reduces your incentive to apply more effort.

        Following out that line of thought, it might be a good thing if poor people believed that their poverty was mostly their fault, giving them a strong incentive to do something about it, while not-poor people believed that the poverty of the poor was mostly not their fault, hence that they deserved help and sympathy.

        • Following out that line of thought, it might be a good thing if poor people believed that their poverty was mostly their fault, giving them a strong incentive to do something about it, while not-poor people believed that the poverty of the poor was mostly not their fault, hence that they deserved help and sympathy.

          Is it ethical or wise to spread false hope?

          To quote Bertrand Russell:

          If you think that your belief is based upon reason, you will support it by argument, rather then by persecution, and will abandon it if the argument goes against you. But if your belief is based on faith, you will realize that argument is useless, and will therefore resort to force either in the form of persecution or by stunting and distorting the minds of the young in what is called “education”. This last is particularly dastardly, since it takes advantage of the defencelessness of immature minds. Unfortunately it is practiced in greater or less degree in the schools of every civilised country.

        • Paul Torek says:

          That’s a vital point. Compare intelligence and knowledge. Most of the value of the former comes from the latter. And attaining knowledge requires effort. This would still be true even if knowledge didn’t feed-back into intelligence.

        • roystgnr says:

          What human bias suggests is that instead poor people will come to believe that poverty is mostly not their fault, and not-poor people will come to believe that the poverty of the poor is mostly their fault. The solution which most reduces cognitive dissonance turns out to be the solution which least reduces poverty.

          At this point we might as well try to search for the actual answer to the question; if that means only one of the above groups ends up with beneficial incentives, that’s still a big improvment over neither.

          • Your first point is, I think, correct, although I was leaving it to implication in my comment. Your second assumes there is a correct answer to the question, which is much less clear.

            No level of effort can reliably get someone from poverty to wealth. But, for most poor people in the U.S., there are levels of effort—working hard, showing up on work on time, and the like—that will pretty reliably make them less poor and have a good chance of making them not poor. Consider all of the immigrants who come in with nothing, not even fluency in English, and make it into the middle class in a generation or two.

            To avoid that conclusion, I think you have to take the position that not only birth wealth and IQ are outside of individual control, but that the personality characteristics that make someone unwilling to work hard, show up for work on time, and the like are as well.

        • That’s pretty close to the direction of my thinking. As a libertarian, I think about incentives a lot, and convincing people that being good at stuff is all innate leaves them feeling not at fault for everything that doesn’t go their way. The important message to people who haven’t found their natural talent (or those who think they have, but can’t earn a living at it) is that you can choose to work harder at some of the things that aren’t working well, and it’s important to do so.

          Many of the apparently successful people around you are doing well at something that wasn’t their first guess at what they’d be good at. They had to pick something else and work really hard at it to get to where they are. You can succeed and look like a natural at something that doesn’t feel natural at first, but you’re going to have to practice a lot to get there.

      • Steve Johnson says:

        It would also predict that people who think not being mentally ill is really important would be most likely to believe you can overcome mental illnesses through willpower. But for me the first part translates to “psychiatrists and mental health advocates”, and they seem to be least likely to believe that.

        Strongly disagree.

        People who place the most importance on mental health are repulsed by the mentally ill to such a degree that they would never consider a career where they have to interact with the mentally ill.

        Psychiatrists and “mental health advocates” are people who have significantly smaller disgust reactions to mental illness.

        • Decius says:

          Yes, in the same way that people who place a lot of importance on “pulling one’s own weight” are unlikely to have a career where they engage with the homeless.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            I got to ask based on your name – are you just a person who happens to be tenth at something, or a fellow Fall From Heaven fan?

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          I have a somewhat personal direction to inquire:

          What do you feel that people who disgust you should do about it?

          Imagine, specifically, that you’re confronted face-to-face with someone who is profoundly mentally ill. What do you believe they should do about their presence in your life?

        • SUT says:

          Just as gout was “the disease of kings”, it seems mental ‘frailty’ (or whatever they called it) was over-represented in the women of the leisure class in the 19th century.

          Although I would never want to put myself in the shoes of someone with migraines before modern medicine, it seems like a working person would just kind of get through it because they had to, while those without any obligation ended up bed-ridden for a good part of their lives.

      • As a libertarian-type, I believe the acquisition of wealth requires IQ firstly followed hard work and some degree of luck. This ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ rhetoric does get tiring because it overlooks the role of biology.

      • Ialdabaoth says:

        Actually, the people who most strongly think tht not being mentally ill is really important tend to be cultists – i.e., people who demand behavioral conformity from their peers.

        Scientologists, Christian Fundamentalists, etc.

        So ask yourself: do those people tend to have narratives that “if you just follow these rules and don’t slack off, you’ll be sane”?

      • Shenpen says:


        I think Frog Do is on the right track, but it is more historical. The whole Age of Enlightenment stuff on which progressivism is based on is basically the narrative of the brave heroes of Galilei-type rationality who defeated the darkness of medieval ignorance and superstition. Of course this is bullshit (medieval Aquinas was a genius, Galilei was probably smart but horribly dishonest etc.)

        And then of course it would be horrifying to say that some people cannot participate in that! Maybe darkness cannot be defeated, after all!

        Look, if the above narrative sounds remotely familiar, you should also take into consideration that it was not something atheist progressives invented to fuck with religious conservatives, but what Protestants invented to fuck with Catholics. Galilei and others, Age of Reason stuff has been a Protestant story of defeating the Antichrist in Rome much earlier than it was an atheist story.

        And of course it harkens back to Gnostic stories of light fighting darknesss. Ligth. Enlightenment. Light of Reason. Get it?

        Basically Eric Voegelin was right, the undercurrent of modern progressivism is a Gnostic-Protestant narrative.

        Modernity is based on a Rebel Alliance vs. The Empire narrative. (Obviously in the sense that the SW movies are truly excellent artistic metaphors of and growint out from the foundational myths of modernity.) The Empire is the darkness in the minds. Biologically fixed IQ suggests the Empire will never be fully defeated… the progressives can take over the rulership, but can ever exorcise teh stooooopid from the minds.

    • You see this apprehension about biological determinism as it applies to the skills that are most pertinent in the 21st century – intellectual skills such as math and verbal, as opposed to physical skills like running and jumping. The fears are not unfounded, and there is no answer to placate these fears without sugarcoating.

    • Gbdub says:

      I think Frog Do’s OP has a point that this may just be tribalism. Most of what we’re talking about has both a genetic and non genetic (nurture, effort, whatever you want to call it) component. Because of that, it’s easy and I suspect common to pick and choose what policies you support, and only then decide whether you’re going to emphasize the genetic or effort component of the issue.

      The modern Blue tribe is strongly associated and influenced by academics, teachers, and public employees. They favor interventionist government policies, such as economic redistribution and increased education spending, that are intended to result in greater equality of outcomes. If intelligence is innate, then dumping extra money and effort into education is unlikely to have an effect, so the Blues emphasize the effort/nurture aspect of functional intelligence. Likewise, supporting economic redistribution makes more sense if the poor are blameless in their poverty, so Blues emphasize the structural/innate aspects of poverty (but not necessarily the genetics). For Reds, a lot of their policies can be supported by emphasizing the effort/nurture aspect, so that’s what they do (“personal responsibility” “pull up by the bootstraps” “improve the moral culture”).

      I’ll grant that this is a cynical view and doesn’t resolve the irrationality, but I think it’s close to the truth. Basically, admitting intelligence is significantly genetic is uncomfortable for everyone (harder to justify holding the poor responsible, but also harder to justify going to great lengths to educate them) so it’s taboo.

      Of course this is confusing as hell for someone trying to approach it rationally. (I’ll note that Scott has in the past stated support for both guaranteed minimum income and also not worrying so much about gender imbalance in STEM fields – both of these positions are supported by a world where genetics play a strong role in intelligence/what we’re good at).

      • BearHeelCub says:

        I think you may be conflating two things. You are implicitly assuming that socio-economic outcomes (“the poor”) are entirely or mostly driven by ability, and not just any ability, but IQ alone.

        But following evidence that IQ has an innate component is not the same as determining that poverty is caused by lack of intelligence. I believe the evidence tends to show that the best determiner of poverty is simply that your parents are poor.

        In fact, Scott’s primary example of mathematical ability, Ramanujan, provides an anecdotal counter example to the idea that heritable genetic traits for IQ (or lack thereof) are what keep poor families poor.

        • Gbdub says:

          I’m not actually taking either position, just explaining why I think certain groups prefer to emphasize certain explanations.

        • Multiheaded says:


        • Tracy W says:

          Okay, there’s a couple of things going on here. Firstly, generally the main determinant of poverty is if you are born into a poor country versus a rich one (with exceptions, eg kids of ex-pats, the occasional very rich local person). But most of this discussion implicitly assumes that we are talking about a country in the contemporary West.

          Secondly, most children are raised by their biological parents or other relatives, so even if the best determinator of whether you are poor is whether your parents are poor, that doesn’t tell us how the link actually works.

          So we need to look at adoption studies, ideally ones where parents are randomly assigned. And these tend to indicate at least in the USA and Denmark, that biological relationships are about as important as adoptive relationships (see or even more important (see“)

          (Note, there’s a few limitation of adoption studies, in that the parents are generally screened before adoption and hopefully that cuts out the worst abusive parents. Also, these adoption studies typically take place in one country, so gene-environment effects may be important. To pick on basketball again, an adopted kid genetically predisoposed to be tall if brought up in a basketball playing environment might do quite well the first few times they play, so they practice some more, and do better, and get picked for the school team and get even more training, and wind up quite good at basketball, and this could show up on a study as an inherited ability for basketball, but if they were adopted into an environment where no one played basketball this particular effect wouldn’t happen.)

  2. Luke G says:

    >The first percentile for IQ here – the one such that 1% of respondents are lower and 99% of respondents are higher…

    Haha. I am part of the 1 percent after all!

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I just realized it’s probably encouraging the wrong sort of thought processes to post that number in that context. I’ve edited it out of your comment and slightly changed the wording of the original post to obfuscate it behind a standard deviation calculation. Sorry for the heavy-handedness.

      • Luke G says:

        I understand–no worries.

      • Deiseach says:

        I can identify very easily with the “good at English, dreadful at Maths” part, though I think I’m probably worse at Maths than you (just about scraped a D in Leaving Cert Pass Maths, which was great fun when later I overheard two of my physics lecturers at my Regional Technical College laughing at the very notion that ‘D in Pass Maths’ students would even try enrolling on a science course).

        Also the ‘can’t carry a tune in a bucket when everyone else in the family is musical’. Are we positively certain we’re not related some way? 🙂

        And yes, I too got the “You’re just not trying hard enough” from teachers and parents. Because, since I was good at every other subject, then it couldn’t be incapacity – had I been stupid all round, I would have been left alone. So, since I was demonstrably Not Stupid, this only left laziness and needing to be chivvied/shamed into working harder and putting in effort. This, despite the fact that I was studying as hard as I could, ending up actually crying genuine tears in class when I could not Get It and everyone else did, cudgelling my brains every night trying to understand the concepts and seriously damaging my relationship with my father as he (who was good at maths) tried to help me with my homework, which degenerated into yelling on both sides, disappointment on his and me flouncing off to my room to burst into tears on my side.

        The idea that people are not universally good at everything didn’t seem to be around, and it was not one bit helpful to be told “You’re just not trying hard enough” when I was trying as hard as I could and getting nowhere. All the effect that had on me was “I am trying, it’s not working, I’m still being told to try harder, I can’t try any harder, I’ll never get anywhere, I may as well give up completely and not try for the little I can manage because what’s the point?”

        I think the same thing applies with being fat (which I also am), being poor, etc. “Try harder!” “I am trying as hard as I can!” “Obviously you’re not, since you’re still fat/poor/whatever!” “What’s the point in me trying at all, then, I might as well give up.”

        Re: intelligence – when you’re getting a message that it’s Vitally Important to the Continuance of the Human Race that future generations should be 7′ tall, so we must work on that problem of getting our descendants taller right now, and you’re 5’4″, it is easy to feel that you’re pond scum and are no use, can never be of any use, and are indeed a clog on the human race right now.

        And if it’s mostly inherent, there’s nothing you can do about it, unlike hard work where you can pull yourself up by your bootstraps, so pond scum you are by nature. Any thing about “no, really you’re not” then feels like patronising pats on the head from the non-pond scummy: your 6′ 3″ tall friend may not be the Vitally Necessary 7′, but he’s a heck of a lot nearer to it than you are.

        That also goes for weight loss: when you’ve internalised all the messages that “blaming it on big bones/my glands/biology is only an excuse; the reason you’re fat is because you’re too lazy to exercise and too greedy not to over-eat”, then the “it’s got to do with your genetics” message sounds too good to be true (people who’ve been fat all their lives learn fast to be distrustful of things that sound too good to be true; like ‘hey, I want to be your friend’ or ‘would you like to try this thing out’ or ‘can you help me, I’m conducting a study*’ – because it’s quite often only a thinly-veiled ‘let’s play a prank and mock the stupid fat person who thought we liked them or valued them for something else other than being stupid fat person!’)

        *I Can Haz Anecdote about this one, when I was fifteen.

        • Meredith L. Patterson says:

          I was also a bright child, and math was as easy as everything else for me until high school calculus. I took my D, and figured it was fine to be good at everything up through trigonometry but no farther.

          In college I took a beer-money job for an SAT tutoring company. I planned to tutor for the Verbal section, but after the sample test they gave me, they asked me to tutor math instead. There’s one student I’ll always remember; she was strong in algebra but weak in geometry, and like you and Scott, it was some kind of fundamental Not Getting It that she couldn’t even describe the internals of.

          “I can’t teach you geometry in six weeks,” I said, “but I can probably teach you trig.” So we did that, and she got a 720.

          I had a few other students like this during the time I tutored. Teaching methods are geared to be as general as possible, but sometimes one pedagogical approach just doesn’t work on somebody, and the only reasonable approach is to try another if there’s enough motivation to do so.

          Even so, it took me another few years to find out I actually only have a hard time with continuous math. More still to find out that there are discrete-math approaches to calculus that I could have been studying at 17 instead of trying to wrap my head around the standard textbook for the state of Texas at the time.

          “Try harder” coming from educators and parents especially infuriates me if the educators/parents are only trying so hard themselves. The task of education is to find the language that will convey the desired understanding to the student, and it is the educator’s problem.

          • Mary says:

            The algebraic mind vs. the geometric mind.

            I got an A in geometry, mind you, but I HATED it.

          • ckp says:

            >Even so, it took me another few years to find out I actually only have a hard time with continuous math.

            Oh my god this dichotomy does for other people exist!? I have it the other way around – continuous is fine but put me in front of a discrete math and it’s like the ground falls away from under me.

          • moridinamael says:

            I should know better than to other-optimize, but this notion has been brought up several times in the thread and implicitly in Scott’s post and I can’t resist addressing it.

            I was a bad math student during all stages of elementary, middle, and high school. I genuinely feel that I only ended up in Calculus classes because it was expected of me. I was a mediocre engineering student in college, earning a very disappointing GPA, so poor that I couldn’t get a job.

            Luckily, and somewhat perversely, I was able to get into graduate school for engineering. I think at that point I had mentally matured in a number of ineffable ways. Suddenly, it seemed, math made sense easily. Maybe this was because I had been dragging myself through a decade of advanced math and that part of my brain finally started clicking. Maybe it was because my brain matured in some more global, developmental sense.

            Then I became the star grad student in my department of 200 grad students.

            So I personally feel a strong personal reaction when somebody says something along the lines of, “I was bad at math in high school and so I possess the quality of being Bad At Math.”

            My brother is excellent at math. He has degrees in physics and mathematics and was always a top student. He would *also* resent being told that this was due purely to innate talent. He worked his ass off. I know he did, I was always there to watch.

            I guess my life experience has predisposed me to be more sympathetic toward the nurture explanation.

          • > Even so, it took me another few years to find out I actually only have a hard time with continuous math. More still to find out that there are discrete-math approaches to calculus that I could have been studying at 17 instead of trying to wrap my head around the standard textbook for the state of Texas at the time.

            You are not alone. I had the exact same problem – I simply couldn’t wrap my head around infinitesimals, because the damn things make no sense. Math really isn’t supposed to work like that – they didn’t feel rigorous enough to me.

            Another problem was the crappy way my curriculum was structured. 11th grade physics included calculus-based mechanics, but we never studied calculus until the 12th grade. (This is a real problem. This is the curriculum followed in schools affiliated with the Central Board of Secondary Education in India, which has millions of students, and there are students following its curriculum not just in India, but in other regions too, notably the Middle East and Africa.) It’s taken me years to recover from the effects of this educational trauma – my mistakes followed me into my engineering degree, where I had a horrible time with mathematics. (Our curriculum included three semesters of continuous mathematics.) I’ve recovered now, and have realised that my problems with mathematics had nothing to do with innate ability, and everything to do with a confluence of horrible circumstances (among which the bad structure of the curriculum was merely one).

            Oddly enough, I feel much more impressed by Scott Alexander here than by Scott Aaronson – because I really liked physics as a high-schooler, and had a knack for it, and am also interested in and good at computation complexity theory (to the extent I’ve studied it – at the graduate level, stopping just short of the time/effort required to do original work). So when I look at Scott Aaronson, I think that if I put in the time and effort, I can do that, and probably will (recreationally), now that having a regular job has given me the time to; I actually enjoy it and find it fun. Whereas the amount of effort I’ll have to put into writing as well and clearly as Scott Alexander will require me to significantly improve both my writing skills, and the clarity of my thinking as well. I intend to work on both, but I don’t know yet if I can write as clearly as Scott here does.

          • Deiseach says:

            Oh, my father loved calculus. Loved it. His idea of relaxing happy times after a hard day’s work* was to sit down with a maths textbook and do acceleration, etc. problems for fun.

            I don’t have that kind of mind at all 🙂

            *Some of that may have been down to him being an NCO in the army, where practical applications of mathematics were things like using range tables to calculate angles of elevation for aiming and firing gunnery; he found out he was good at working these things out when he was in training, even though he’d left school at fourteen with a very scrappy education.

          • Deiseach says:

            Oddly enough, I liked algebra, probably because it was the nearest thing to language. Problems full of numbers, fractions, and the like made me freeze up, but “solve for x” was fine because ‘x’ wasn’t a number.

            Please don’t ask me why my brain decided that, I have no idea. And of course, liking algebra was no help when it came to making the jump to calculus.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            You may find this interesting.

          • Tracy W says:

            In a lot of these cases, it’s quite possible that the student in question missed something earlier in their maths education, and that’s why they’re not getting it now.

            So the teacher should be going back and trying to build up from the smallest bits possible.

            Also, people who are naturally very good at maths generally suck at teaching it (with some exceptions), because they don’t remember the details. Maths teachers who sweated are better because they know where others might have gone wrong.

            I say this because I have a mild speech disability, and I recall my parents trying to teach me how to pronounce sounds like “sh”, “th”, “ch”, and me just not getting it. And absolutely hating those sounds and doing my best to avoid them, because otherwise I was just being expected to do something I could not do. But when I got speech therapy, from an actual speech therapist, who said things like “put your tongue to the roof of your mouth”, I could and did learn.

  3. Susebron says:

    I think that progressive views on intelligence are more connected to history. Rightists were the ones saying that intelligence was genetic and therefore black people were inferior. Progressives went the other way.

    • Frog Do says:

      You should read more about the history of eugenics, I think.

    • Anonymous says:

      Nonsense. Let’s sterilize all these inherently criminal and stupid defectives was a Progressive slogan; they looked down on those immoral conservatives who would let the riffraff go on.

      • Very true. Lets think back to the Scopes Trial. Here is a quote from the book “Civic Biology”, which Scopes was on trial for teaching:

        The Races of Man. — At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; The American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America. …

        Improvement of Man. — If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection. This improvement of the future race has a number of factors in which we as individuals may play a part. These are personal hygiene, selection of healthy mates, and the betterment of the environment.

        Eugenics. — When people marry there are certain things that the individual as well as the race should demand. The most important of these is freedom from germ diseases which might be handed down to the offspring. Tuberculosis, syphilis, that dread disease which cripples and kills hundreds of thousands of innocent children, epilepsy, and feeble-mindedness are handicaps which it is not only unfair but criminal to hand down to posterity. The science of being well born is called eugenics. …

        Parasitism and its Cost to Society. — Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.

        The Remedy. — If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with some success in this country.

      • Deiseach says:

        “Progressive” and “Conservative” in this context and in the history of the Eugenics movement are not very helpful; there were those who would be considered politically conservative who were all for it, but on the grounds of Progress! Science! Better and Brighter Future! There were those who were socially and politically conservative who opposed it, and those who were politically and socially liberal/libertarian/progressive/socialist/Marxist who were all for it, and those who were liberal etc. who were against it.

        Winston Churchill, for instance, crossed the floor to join the Liberal Party in 1904, and a little later he was enthusing over eugenics:

        In 1904 the Royal Commission on the Care and Control of the Feeble-Minded was set up with the warrant “to consider the existing methods of dealing with idiots and epileptics, and with imbecile, feeble-minded, or defective persons not certified under the Lunacy Laws… to report as to the amendments in the law or other measures which should be adopted in the matter”. The Commission returned a lengthy report in 1908 which estimated that of a population of 32,527,843 British inhabitants 149,628 people (0.46%) were considered “mentally defective”. It recommended the establishment of a board of control which would oversee local authority efforts aimed at “the well-being of the mentally defective”.

        Winston Churchill spoke of the need to introduce compulsory labour camps for “mental defectives” in the House of Commons in February 1911. In May 1912 a Private Members’ Bill entitled the “Feeble-Minded Control Bill” was introduced in the House of Commons, which called for the implementation of the Royal Commission’s conclusions. It rejected sterilisation of the “feeble-minded”, but had provision for registration and segregation. One of the few voices raised against the bill was that of G.K. Chesterton who ridiculed the bill, calling it the “Feeble-Minded Bill, both for brevity and because the description is strictly accurate”. The bill was withdrawn, but a government bill introduced on 10 June 1912 replaced it, which would become the Mental Deficiency Act 1913.

        The First Eugenics Congress was held in London in 1912, with all the Right People in attendance saying all the Right Things – we do all know who Francis Galton is, correct? Though to do him credit, I think he would have been appalled at the ‘honour’ done him – and the American involvement is either amusing or horrifying, depending on how black you like your humour:

        The First International Eugenics Congress took place in London on July 24–29, 1912. It was organized by the British Eugenics Education Society and dedicated to Galton who had died the year prior. Major Leonard Darwin, the son of Charles Darwin, was presiding. The five day meeting saw about 400 delegates at the Hotel Cecil in London. Luminaries included Winston Churchill, First Lord of the British Admiralty and Lord Alverstone, the Chief Justice, Lord Balfour, as well as the ambassadors of Norway, Greece, and France. In his opening address Darwin indicated that the introduction of principles of better breeding procedures for humans would require moral courage. The American exhibit was sponsored by the American Breeders’ Association and demonstrated the incidence of hereditary defects in human pedigrees. A report by Bleeker van Wagenen presented information about American sterilization laws and propagated compulsory sterilization as the best method to cut off “defective germ-plasm”. In the final address, Major Darwin extolled eugenics as the practical application of the principle of evolution.

        And to quote my homie G.K., whose 1922 book “Eugenics and Other Evils” I happen to have on a bundle on my Kindle for PC software but which I had no occasion to read until now:

        Now, if anyone thinks these two instances extravagant, I will refer to two actual cases from the Eugenic discussions. When Sir Oliver Lodge spoke of the methods “of the stud-farm” many Eugenists exclaimed against the crudity of the suggestion. Yet long before that one of the ablest champions in the other interest had written “What nonsense this education is! Who could educate a racehorse or a greyhound?” Which most certainly either means nothing, or the human stud-farm. Or again, when I spoke of people “being married forcibly by the police,” another distinguished Eugenist almost achieved high spirits in his hearty assurance that no such thing had ever come into their heads. Yet a few days after I saw a Eugenist pronouncement, to the effect that the State ought to extend its powers in this area. The State can only be that corporation which men permit to employ compulsion; and this area can only be the area of sexual selection. I mean somewhat more than an idle jest when I say that the policeman will generally be found in that area.

        Perhaps the weakest of all are those helpless persons whom I have called the Endeavourers. The prize specimen of them was another M.P. who defended the same Bill as “an honest attempt” to deal with a great evil: as if one had a right to dragoon and enslave one’s fellow citizens as a kind of chemical experiment; in a state of reverent agnosticism about what would come of it. But with this fatuous notion that one can deliberately establish the Inquisition or the Terror, and then faintly trust the larger hope, I shall have to deal more seriously in a subsequent chapter. It is enough to say here that the best thing the honest Endeavourer could do would be to make an honest attempt to know what he is doing. And not to do anything else until he has found out. Lastly, there is a class of controversialists so hopeless and futile that I have really failed to find a name for them. But whenever anyone attempts to argue rationally for or against any existent and recognisable thing, such as the Eugenic class of legislation, there are always people who begin to chop hay about Socialism and Individualism; and say “You object to all State interference; I am in favour of State interference. You are an Individualist; I, on the other hand,” etc. To which I can only answer, with heart-broken patience, that I am not an Individualist, but a poor fallen but baptised journalist who is trying to write a book about Eugenists, several of whom he has met; whereas he never met an Individualist, and is by no means certain he would recognise him if he did. In short, I do not deny, but strongly affirm, the right of the State to interfere to cure a great evil. I say that in this case it would interfere to create a great evil; and I am not going to be turned from the discussion of that direct issue to bottomless botherations about Socialism and Individualism, or the relative advantages of always turning to the right and always turning to the left.

    • Anonymous says:

      See Thomas sowell on this. Before hitler, it was progressives who were all out for eugenics. Argaret Sanger openly promoted birth control to limit the genetically inferior blacks. President Wilson thought Jews were genetically inferior. Fascinating book: race and intellectuals

      • Furrfu says:

        Perhaps you meant Margaret Sanger. This libel against Sanger as racist is endlessly repeated by the sort of intellectually inferior conservative types who prefer controversy to truth. While she was of course a prominent eugenicist who openly promoted birth control to limit the reproduction of those she thought genetically inferior, Black people were not among them. Even strongly motivated anti-birth-control groups who work hard to libel her fail to find any credible evidence among her works that she believed Blacks were genetically inferior — a truly astonishing fact when you consider the environment she grew up in.

  4. Scott, your writings have always seemed extremely correct and insightful to me. I now wonder if this is in part because we both share a high variance in our intellectual abilities which has given us a common outlook.

    People tend to assume that if you are really good at one type of intellectual task you are probably at least above average in all of them, and so, at least in my case, when they see that I preform below average at something they assume it’s because of laziness.

    • stubydoo says:

      I hade a similar type of quasi-epiphany reading this post – i.e. of Scott seeming wise to me because of biographical details he and I share. Though in my case the thing I have in common with Scott is an overachieving younger brother.

    • Hmmm..Scott’s SAT score is an outlier because usually it’s the other way around: high math and modest verbal. I think high verbal is indicative of higher intelligence than high math; a person who scores really well on the verbal has the cognitive capacity, with relative ease, to do well on the math if he or she puts the time into it, whereas a person who scores well on the math portion but mediocre on the verbal would face a much harder uphill struggle to score well on the verbal compared to the effort for a high-verbal person to score well on math. I also suspect the IQ of high-verbal scorers is higher than high-math scorers. This is just my unsubstantiated opinion, I would be curious if there are any studies about this

      • Anonymous says:

        “Usually” relative to what: the scores of high-IQ people, nerds in general, or something else?

        I wonder what the results would be if Scott polled this particular community on the subject, perhaps by splitting apart the SAT question on his annual survey.

        • Deiseach says:

          I’d be interested to see the survey results, given that I have no idea what my IQ really is. I’ve never done any official IQ test, but an online Raven’s Matrices test scored me as IQ of 99 🙂

          As I consider I do pretty well verbally, I’m quite happy to be the Control Stupid Person if anyone wants to rig up a verbal test 🙂

          • Mo Fareed says:

            I know you were joking re: last remark (“I’m quite happy to be the Control Stupid Person”), and I know I’m replying to a year-old comment, but I couldn’t resist – as a long-time lurker in the comments section here, I’ve seen so much evidence to the contrary from you that I burst out laughing when I read that.

      • Robert says:

        I don’t know if this is true generally, but my personal experience speaks otherwise:

        I took the SAT at 13 to get into college early (I did not get accepted until next year, however). I got a 720 M 560 V. This roughly matched my middle school experience: I started Algebra in sixth grade and finished Trig/Precalc by ninth, but I did not do very well in my English classes (B range). In college I struggled with Calculus until I realized I could no longer skate on natural talent alone and started actually studying – then I began to get acceptable grades again. However, my English/writing skill improved dramatically a few years into college, possibly as the result of my beginning explorations writing fiction. After I graduated I took the GRE and scored a 168/168 without any real practice or study.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        SAT math and verbal scores are highly post-processed so that your score is a reflection of your percentile rank among test-takers. That makes me think it doesn’t really make sense to talk about one being easier to do well in than the other.

        • Michael Watts says:

          The following is what I wanted to say, but my shoddy internet connection won’t let me look into SAT score distribution specifically at the moment, so take it as somewhat hypothetical. :/

          It’s true that the math and verbal scores are post-processed, but it’s not true that they’re handled equivalently; a score of 800 verbal is a much higher percentile rank than a score of 800 math is (and similarly for lower-but-still-high scores). Not only does it make sense to talk about the math section being easier to do well in, it’s quite true.

          For an example of what’s going on with numbers I actually have to hand, my GRE scores in 2010 were verbal 750/800 (99th percentile) and math 780/800 (a higher number, but only 89th percentile).

          I believe that in psychometric terms you’d say the ceiling of the math section is lower; it’s not as capable of distinguishing testees at the high end as the verbal section is.

          • Eli says:

            I find that very strange, since I always tended to do far better in verbal sections than in math! I actually needed coaching to pull, with some struggle, a 670 in SAT math, but effortlessly pulled 700-somethings in Verbal and Writing.

            Then, some years later, I walked into the GRE blind at the end of undergrad and got near-top scores without studying whatsoever.

            Mind, I also think that our educational system is miserable at teaching mathematics: I’ve always suffered from the inability to build genuinely causal models of mathematical objects in my head due to their presentation as Platonic Forms that simply Exist without having mechanisms to them. Once you present mathematics constructively, I start just getting it the way I’ve gotten programming since my youth.

          • Michael Watts says:

            Found some numbers! Unfortunately, I didn’t find “overall” numbers.

            The SAT, overall, shows much less of this skew than the GRE does, and less of a ceiling effect than the math SAT II subject tests do. But you can still see, kind of, that the math section is easier than the verbal section:

            700 is the 95th percentile for males in verbal, but the 90th in math

            500 is the 50th percentile for males in verbal, but the 39th in math

            Females overall show much, much less skew than males do. But they still show math as easier by a consistent one to two percentage points.

            For a really hilarious gap, 700 is the 91st percentile for asians in verbal, but the 75th in math. I think it’d be fair to say they find the math section easier.

            On a totally unrelated note, if anyone out there is (1) currently in China, and (2) not experiencing massive issues tunnelling out to the foreign internet, I’d love to know what you’re doing that I’m not doing.

          • Anonymous says:

            Probably what they are doing in China is not teaching English as a first language.

          • namae nanka says:

            The 800ers on SAT-M score ~750 on a retest, so the ceiling is lower and can’t differentiate between the top 3%. I’d think that something similar holds for the GRE.

      • “I also suspect the IQ of high-verbal scorers is higher than high-math scorers. ”

        IQ tests measure a variety of skills, and I don’t think there is a natural weighting of them. So if your suspicion is correct, does that mean anything more than “IQ tests weight verbal skills more highly than mathematical skills?”

        • Stezinech says:

          I’ve seen it in the literature that SAT Verbal does have a higher correlation with IQ than SAT Math.

          Broderick & Ree (1995) found r = .80 for verbal, and r = .70 for math. See here:

          To answer your question more directly, many IQ tests are probably weighted more towards the verbal side, but verbal tests also tend to correlate more highly with the general factor of intelligence.

    • Anonymous says:

      your writings have always seemed extremely correct and insightful to me

      To be fair, ability to write persuasively is a part of having good writing skills.

    • Tom says:

      It’s interesting that you say “People tend to assume that if you are really good at one type of intellectual task you are probably at least above average in all of them” because I have almost the opposite impression. I find that people seem to think that ‘talent’ is somehow distributed evenly. One obvious example is that, throughout my schooling, people would assume that if you are good at maths, then you probably aren’t very adept at English (or vice-versa). Similarly, if you’re good at academics, then you aren’t very athletic (and again the opposite).

      Of course, this wasn’t true. At least as far as I could see. But it does strongly tie in to a sort of egalitarian perspective that was strongly encouraged throughout school and university.

  5. Icicle says:

    This didn’t really help because, even though your point about “stop tying your self-worth to intelligence” is correct, “stop tying your self-worth to intelligence” isn’t a primitive action for most people, so the discussion about Elon Musk and jazz and writing and math just made me feel inadequate for the exact reason you said was a bad one.

    • Ialdabaoth says:

      Agreed. I wouldn’t keep tying my self-worth to intelligence if I wasn’t constantly bombarded by reminders that society’s evaluation of my worth is based on my purchasing power and social status, both of which are very strongly correlated with intelligence.

      • LRS says:

        Indeed, for those of us with marginally above-average IQs and low purchasing power and low social status, tying our self-worth to our intelligence (and trying not to think too hard about Elon Musk and Terry Tao) is one of the few ways we have to feel good about ourselves.

        • Eli says:

          I don’t get it. You’re a person: if you’re a good person to other people, you should feel good about yourself regardless of anything else. You live in a Large World where there’s almost always a sizable number of people marginally higher or lower than you: assigning self-worth based on percentile ranks in anything is dishonest, fails to tie itself down to meaningful consequences, and can only serve to make you miserable. Why do that to yourself?

          • Andrew says:

            Interesting theory. Personally, I’m in maybe the 20th percentile of being good to other people, but the 99th percentile of intelligence, and I feel great about myself.

          • Fazathra says:

            Why do that to yourself?

            Because you can’t not. I would love to tie my self worth to things which aren’t mostly innate instead of the unholy trinity of intelligence, attractiveness, and achievement. But this seems to be an aspect of personality that you just can’t hack away.

          • LRS says:

            Firstly – as the parent comments say, it’s non-trivial to self-modify away from a status-hierarchical conception of self-worth.

            Furthermore – you say “if you’re a good person to other people, you should feel good about yourself.”) But I can only measure how good other people perceive me to be to them by looking at how much money they give me and how highly they esteem me socially. So your prescription doesn’t sound that different to me than just doing what society tells me to do anyway, which is to measure my self-worth in terms of my purchasing power and my social status. When I do this, I am forced to the conclusion that I am worth substantially-below-average.

            Tying my self-worth to IQ at least allows me to conclude that I am worth marginally-above-average, even though it also invites the problems that Scott discusses in detail in the post.

            I feel like your conception of “being a good person to other people” might be tied to some sort of moral code, and your measurement of your self-worth might be based on how faithfully you live out that moral code. I would struggle with this because I haven’t solved morality with a high enough degree of certainty. My best guess at this time is some form of utilitarianism, but: (1) that’s computationally intractable, so it’s hard to use my adherence to it as a basis for measuring my self-worth, and (2) my market-determined income and socially-determined status are (admittedly noisy) proxies for the utility I confer anyway, so I’m back to measuring my self-worth in terms of my income and status.

      • Multiheaded says:

        ^^^ THIS. This so much.

      • I’m not sure what “society’s evaluation of my worth” means. “Society” isn’t a person. One of the choices each of us makes is what subset of people to interact with, and the fact that people I don’t care about would have a low opinion of me if they knew me doesn’t have much to do with my self worth.

        One of my hobbies is the Society for Creative Anachronism, a group that does historical recreation. I’ve known lots of people who had high status in that organization despite not a lot of purchasing power or (in your sense) social status, and pretty clearly felt good about themselves as a result. The same thing seems to be true in lots of other contexts.

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          One of the choices each of us makes is what subset of people to interact with,

          Sometimes, yes. But barring never going out my door, I’m likely to occasionally have to interact with police officers, doctors, bureaucrats, and customer service representatives – all of whom make reasonably accurate assessments of my worth based on my clothing and health and behavior.

          Even passersby can ascertain a lot based on my clothing, bearing, and general state of health – and all the subtle microaggressions and shunning behaviors that come with that can wear on a person’s ability to maintain a positive self-image.

          Also, I found this documentary insightful:

      • drethelin says:

        Or maybe you’ll keep tying your self worth to intelligence because you’re genetically predisposed to do so and there’s nothing you can do about it! Yay!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Not sure I’m convinced. I mean, yeah, you’re right, I’m not objectively a bad person or otherwise blameworthy for not being smarter than I actually am. But knowing that doesn’t really address the source of the insecurity that I and probably many others sometimes feel, which is – of course – yet another phenomenon whose name you coined: epistemic learned helplessness. Basically, my experience is that there’s a sizable pantheon of people who can pretty reliably change my mind about anything. Whenever they have a discussion, at any point in time I’ll be more or less swayed by whoever spoke most recently. This has taught me to fundamentally distrust not only my ability to suss out truth about most matters of importance, but to know who else to trust as an expert instead. My strong intuition is that if I were maybe 10 or 20 IQ points smarter, I’d feel much less buffeted around by prevailing intellectual winds, even if it wouldn’t make me omniscient or the smartest person in the world. Walking around unarmed in a world full of mental muggers sucks.

    I’m actually not too depressed about this anymore, but I once was, and that’s what I might’ve said if I’d read your post then. Apologies if this comment comes off as overly personal; I’m sure it doesn’t apply to many of the people you’re addressing.

    • “This has taught me to fundamentally distrust not only my ability to suss out truth about most matters of importance, but to know who else to trust as an expert instead. ”

      Evidence that you are in that regard more intelligent than the overwhelming majority, who are confident that they know who to trust and that what those people tell them is the truth.

      • social justice warlock says:

        the overwhelming majority… are confident that they know who to trust and that what those people tell them is the truth

        This is one of those things that people who pride themselves on their intelligence like to say to define their out group, but I’m not really sure it’s particularly true.

        • ascientificchristian says:

          While your critique may be correct on some level, I still think it’s true that a wide range of people have enough insecurity about the moral rightness of their opinions to only listen to other proponents of that opinion. Very toxoplasma of rage style.

        • Eli says:

          Yeah. I think the majority of people, if asked to find an expert on, say, science, would successfully say, “Oh, I think scientists work in laboratories or universities. You should talk to one of those people!” This would be the Simple and Correct answer.

    • stubydoo says:

      The fact that essentially everyone is walking around unarmed in a world full of mental muggers is basically the entire story of the history of civilization. Your recognition of what is going on puts you way ahead of most.

    • Princess Stargirl says:

      Its not clear the IQ would help enough. Political science is not well understood. Top university professors have high IQs yet there is no consensus in Poli Sci on fundamental questions. Political science is not an unusual field in this regard. If there is no genuine agreement on the core problems then your IQ increasing will not give you certainty.

      • BD Sixsmith says:

        Acknowledging the scale of human fallibility has been of some comfort as I accept my own weaknesses.

      • Paulmcl says:

        This reminds me of the joke-but-close-to-truth that if a science needs to put the word science in its name then it isn’t: political science, social science, computer science. Real science just has a name: physics, chemistry, microbiology

        • Geirr says:

          Computer Science has a name too, it’s Informatics or a cognate in German, French and all the romance languages. I can say horrible things about economics or sociology all day and I’m guessing polysci is very similar but the social sciences I do know something about, E&S, are about as rigourous as they know how to be, like psychology.

          • Andrew says:

            Well, computer science is not like the others. Its name is merely a misnomer, an accident of history rather than a pretense. It is called “science” but it is actually a kind of math (which is just as rigorous as any science). Nobody has any reason or makes any attempt to pretend otherwise.

            The same is not true of the other “sciences” in the list.

        • Eli says:

          Computer science is a branch of mathematics that likes to pretend to be a branch of engineering for the money.

        • Peter says:

          So what does that say about all those fields with “studies” in the name?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      See this post where I admit to feeling the same way. I doubt this is solveable and expect more intelligence -> more intelligent peer group and choice of reading materials -> about the same amount of exposure to things smart enough to fool you.

      But I’m also not sure foolability is that heavily related to IQ. Hitler was by all accounts not very smart (not just in a ‘it’s fun to insult Hitler’ sense, but in a that was the impression people had of him at the time, even people willing to admit other Nazis like Speer were smarter) but he was apparently persuasive enough to convert an entire country to his cause, including various certified Nobel-winning geniuses. Intelligence probably helps, but maybe not as much as we think.

      • the unofficial ‘internet score’ is that he had an IQ of 140; seems reasonable considering he wrote, by himself, a 750 page book of such a great scope . This not a trivial endeavor by any stretch of the imagination. Hitler was plagued by mental illness, especially towards the end of his life, which may have made him seem less intelligent.

        • Fazathra says:

          It’s a pretty poor book though, and I imagine it would remain so even if you agreed with everything in it. On the other hand he was apparently a pretty voracious autodidact who amassed quite a large library and also (according to Speer IIRC) he had a prodigious memory for facts and statistics especially military ones.

          • Protagoras says:

            It also seems noteworthy that his persuasiveness was something he deliberately cultivated; he made a science of how to speak and present himself, and quite obviously the techniques he developed were indeed highly effective. So he does at least seem to have been good at that, even if he wasn’t much good at writing. I wonder if the people around him who though he wasn’t all that smart were really going on the fact that his education wasn’t all that advanced and he had a bit of an anti-intellectual attitude of contempt toward the better educated.

      • Alexp says:

        Hitler was a homeless man who sold the stock paintings that were used to sell pictures frames.

        His actually might be a better “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” story than Ramanjunan’s.

        [joking in case that wasn’t clear]

        • Ahilan Nagendram says:

          But seriously, I am genuinely inspired by Hitler’s ascent to power, and of similar stories. One is of Hong Xiuquan, then there’s good ol’ Muhammad, and whoever the man we know as Jesus was.

          • David Hart says:

            I’m not sure Jesus really belongs on that list. Assuming the gospel stories are vaguely accurate, he seems to have been someone who collected a few dedicated followers but didn’t achieve any meaningful degree of political power in his own lifetime. And assuming the gospel stories aren’t even vaguely accurate, we can conclude pretty much nothing at all about him

          • John Schilling says:

            Saul of Tarsus aka the Apostle Paul, probably does belong on that list. For approximately the reasons one would otherwise include Jesus of Nazareth, except he did it with only one disciple and without the ability to walk on water.

          • If you want a Chinese inspiration, let me suggest Zhu Yuanzhang, a poor peasant who became the founder of the Ming dynasty.

      • Andrew says:

        I hate to say anything suggesting a defense of Hitler, but from what I have read, his biography is hardly one of a person without exceptional intelligence.

    • Anonymous says:

      As someone who has an IQ in the top 1% of people, I also suffer from this buffeted by intellectual winds phenomenon. So there’s some evidence that this personality trait isn’t related to IQ!

    • cypher says:

      > Apologies if this comment comes off as overly personal; I’m sure it doesn’t apply to many of the people you’re addressing.

      I think it adds something valuable to the discussion, actually.

    • Anonymous says:

      Hmmm. I’m a compulsive arguer, but I find that changing anybody’s mind anything is Amish impossible,

      • My father’s view was that the purpose of argument was not to persuade someone but to provide him with the ideas with which he might later persuade himself.

      • Tracy W says:

        On the other hand, I stopped having opinions on the Jewish-Palestine issue once my local newspaper ran a series of articles on it from both sides, and I noticed my view changing with whatever I had just read.

    • amiwelcomehere says:

      Being swayed easily sounds more like a character trait than anything related to intelligence. many people are set in immovable opinions regardless of their intelligence. others operate based on clear priniciples (that may or may not be intelligent) that allow them to quickly align themselves with or against a given proposition.
      Good judgement is not necessarily correlated with high IQ – hence the distinction between ‘common sense’ and pure brainpower. Good judgement and clear opinions are often associated with knowledge and interest, again, independent of IQ. Very smart people can be quite ignorant outside their narrow field of interest.

      That said, you are probably on to something that a high IQ gives people confidence in how smart their opinion is, hence harder to change – whether or not that given opinion is an intelligent one.

      • “you are probably on to something that a high IQ gives people confidence in how smart their opinion is, hence harder to change – whether or not that given opinion is an intelligent one.”

        That fits Dan Kahan’s evidence that, where a position on an issue, such as global warming or evolution, has become linked to group identity, the more intellectually able someone is the more likely he is to support his group’s position.

    • Harald K says:

      My strong intuition is that if I were maybe 10 or 20 IQ points smarter, I’d feel much less buffeted around by prevailing intellectual winds

      Hah, that may be true, but not necessarily for the reason you think. I believe that if there is truly one underlying trait that helps on everything from literature to math to music, it must be intellectual arrogance.

      Intellectual arrogance is a damn useful trait to have. If I think I know algebra through and through, I can build on that to start understanding more advanced concepts. If it then turns out my understanding of algebra was flawed, it’s easier to go back and fix it. Being bold is usually profitable.

      I notice IQ tests usually have underspecified problems. Here’s this shape. Here are five other shapes. Pick the right one. These problems are terrific for rooting out intellectual arrogance. The less arrogant you are, the more likely you are to think “WTF?? Well, maybe that one sorts of looks more right? Is that what he means? How should I know whether my intuition corresponds to the test maker’s? I’m not smart so it probably doesn’t, I shouldn’t rely on it”.

      Gaining 10-20 points of IQ may not be as hard as you may think. Just train yourself to be an arrogant jackass a little more often. Especially in the context of real-world IQ tests, practicing and learning to become less intimidated by the test maker’s tricks will do wonders. Gaining confidence in SSC-type discussions might take a little more work, but I think the same approach will pay off there as well!

  7. Henry M says:

    It seems like there is something really flawed in our ordinary intuitions about judgment, even as compared to intuition about other philosophical questions. It’s just too easy to come up with thought experiments to explode claims like “we should judge people about X.” So maybe we should just discard judgment as a fundamental value and try to be nonjudgmental about everything, except when it’s instrumentally useful. Is that what you think, Scott?

    In that case, you could make a more precise claim about the examples you’ve written about: We are ruling out “judgment about X is instrumentally useful” by proving that judging people about X cannot possibly change X.

    • Corwin says:

      “Do not judged, lest you be judged” : that dude had a point, there.

    • Paul Torek says:

      This, so very much. To quote a famous philosopher, we are not here to earn God’s love, we’re here to spend it. (You don’t need to be a theist to see the point.)

    • Henry M: “proving that judging people about X cannot possibly change X.”

      Even accepting full heritability would make this true only for a given individual. Over long periods, judging people about X could change X in the population even if this is the case.

      • Henry M says:

        Totally agree. Also, “proving” was a poorly-chosen word, since we can’t really get proof about complicated social questions. The important point, which I hope you would agree with, is that it’s good to be clear what we’re arguing about, especially when we’re amateurs trying to do moral philosophy.

  8. Raghav says:

    Apologies in advance for the totally unconstructive nitpicking, but Ramanujan wasn’t born in rural India; he was born in Erode, which is about the same size as Durham, North Carolina, and grew up in other moderately-sized cities.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      My sources all say rural – see here for example.

      This page says Erode’s population in 1900 was 15,000, so probably a little lower when Ramanujan was born. Compare to Durham which is about 250,000.

      Maybe I’ll just change it to “small-town India”

      • stubydoo says:

        In some countries official population statistics for towns are done with fairly wide surrounding rural hinterlands included. I have visited many towns in many countries that are like four blocks wide but have five-figure populations according to the internet.

    • DES3264 says:

      Other nitpicking: The continued fraction anecdote may literally speaking be one of Ramanujan’s most famous discoveries, in the sense that the story has been told a lot of times, but it is in no way a significant one. The problem was to describe the integer solutions to 1+2+…+(k-1) = (k+1) + (k+2) + … + n. This is slightly disguised Pell’s equation, and methods taught in standard undergraduate number theory courses will solve it. It is impressive that he solved it almost immediately in his head, but put it up on and you’ll get solutions in an hour. (See pages 214-215 of Kanigel’s The man who knew infinity for the story.)

      Also, you can find great mathematicians who claim that their work is all magical inspiration (Ramanujan is near the extreme) and ones who claim that it is mostly hard work and following through on “obvious” questions (Grothendieck, Gowers, Tao). I wouldn’t immediately believe Ramanujan’s word over the others.

  9. Corwin says:

    Just thank you. So much.

  10. social justice warlock says:

    My primary attitude towards my lack of intelligence is not guilt but despair. I already have plenty of things to feel guilty about, but for my own selfish purposes, what I would really like to do is be able to is look upon the face of God and be unburnt, &c., or at least be able to think about problems that require more than basic calculus, or to read Proust in the original, or whatever. Undo far as these things are trainable that gives me motivation and insofar as they are not it gives me despair.

    (On the other hand telling myself that my general laziness and inability to organize or keep track of anything for a damn (which I do feel guilty about) is innate really does seem to function nicely as an ego defense mechanism. Not the most useful attitude, though.)

    Also, I think your parallels for fatness &c. seem to well as well as they do because you’re employing a narrow dichotomy between genetic determination and individual effort, then seeing how that maps onto left vs. right frames. Throw other approaches into the mix and I think it looks like less of an exception.

  11. Sam Hopkins says:

    Is having the correct moral views a part of intelligence, in your estimation?

    • Corwin says:

      How do you count?
      I think it’s possible for someone of low intelligence to be harmless even if they don’t have a clear, consistent, fully developed theory of mortality developed from first principles.
      Now there is a “you must be this smart to enter” barrier to having the clear, consistent, fully developed theory of mortality developed from first principles, so if that’s what you count as “correct moral views”, then yeah, having them would require high intelligence; even though even then, high intelligence doesn’t guarantee developing “correct” moral views, no matter how high it is.

      Also, which set of moral views is “correct” exactly is still widely argued…

    • Ghatanathoah says:

      As your intelligence grows your ability to engage in moral reasoning grows. But your ability to engage in rationalization and motivated cognition also grows. I imagine which one of these qualities wins out would be determined largely by how scrupulous and honest one is, and whether one regarded obtaining moral knowledge as an instrumental value or a terminal one.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I’m not sure how much of a moral realist I am. On my moral realist days, I would say that it might indicate intelligence in the same way that believing in evolution rather than creationism, or any other example of holding correct views, indicates intelligence – but no more. On my less moral realist days, the answer is a hard ‘no’.

      On the other hand, I do have a totally unsupported theory that more intelligent people are often nicer, based on the biographies of a few geniuses, and a half-baked hypothesis that they’re less able to get away with moral hypocrisy because they see through it too easily, and so they’re forced to pretend to actually try. Also, they tend to already have a good source of self-esteem (being geniuses) and enjoyment of life (grappling with deep mysteries) and the they’re less predisposed to need to put down other people to get it. Also not totally ruling out some kind of General Factor Of Fitness thing where lower mutational load or something causes the moral faculties to work better.

      But if someone says this is all just idle halo-effecting I won’t have a very coherent objection.

      • Nicholas says:

        A theory I heard somewhere is that most people feel an impulse to do good, but are hindered by an inability to simulate others’ mind well enough to find the good thing to do. Intelligence would then correlate with ability to treat people as they would benefit from, with the average disposition experiencing a force multiplier.

      • “On the other hand, I do have a totally unsupported theory that more intelligent people are often nicer, based on the biographies of a few geniuses,”

        I have interacted with one person online who pretty clearly had high intelligence and was not nice (not here). That’s the only exception to your pattern I can think of, and my sample includes five Nobel winners in my field as well as a fair number of other obviously high IQ types.

        I remember reading that someone who had known Smith, Malthus and Ricardo had commented that it was a credit to the field to have been founded by such nice people.

      • Furrfu says:

        Here’s a hypothesis, which you’ll probably be able to assess for plausibility better than I can: most people want to be nice people (and especially to be perceived as nice people) so a lot of variability in niceness (and especially perceived niceness) is determined by how well they achieve their aims. In particular, it’s probably largely determined by impulsivity. Low intelligence tends to be associated with high impulsivity (poor impulse control) and therefore high risk of going to prison. Perhaps high intelligence is also associated with low impulsivity?

        (The research literature supports some kind of inverse relationship between intelligence and impulsivity, and a positive relationship between impulsivity and aggression, but I don’t know exactly how it works out. For example, the relationship I suggested above wouldn’t happen if the relationship between impulsivity and intelligence is causally mediated by lead poisoning, because highly intelligent people don’t differ from normal people in their degree of lead poisoning.)

        More cynically: really brilliant people are usually surrounded by fans who would go to great lengths to whitewash their public image, which could include pretending they are much nicer than they actually are.

    • 27chaos says:

      Some moral views are not just neutrally different but rather stupid. I judge people for holding such views. Deontologists, for example, tend to be just smart enough to be dumb, IMO. That doesn’t mean all deontologists are stupid, or of moderate intelligence, or whatever. But the odds point that way for the typical one.

      • Dennis Ochei says:

        Err, not that I’m a deontologist, (rather, not that I’m anything) but I think that you can frame an intelligent defense of it on the concept of super-rationality. I think the capacity to concoct such a justification requires rare intelligence. Premise: There is a correct answer to the question of what I should do. Therefore, multiple people will come to the exact conclusion that I will come to, thus I should reason as though my will is multiply instantiated –> Kant’s Universalizability. With this sort of reasoning you can defeat prisoner’s dilemma, chicken and hawk-dove, tragedy of the commons, parfit’s hitchhiker, and newcomb’s problem. It allows for collusion without communication and avoids things like the utility monster or being ridiculously demanding. I’m beginning to think that it’s the case that 1 utilitarian > 1 deontologist but everyone being a deontologist is better than everyone being a utilitarian.

        Of course this might be meta-contrarianism. But I submit to you that maybe normal people are deontologists, smart people are utilitarians, and really really smart people think of themselves as (or at least try to approximate) ideal rational agents who must independently converge on a single acausal trading strategy

        Idk, something to think about

        • TheAncientGeek says:

          My current theory is that really smart people are rule consequentialism constructivists, but if I change my mind about the correct metaethics, I’ll probably change my mind what the really smart people think.

      • TheAncientGeek says:

        ” Deontologists, for example, tend to be just smart enough to be dumb, IMO. That doesn’t mean all deontologists are stupid, or of moderate intelligence, or whatever. But the odds ”

        By “deontologist”, do you mean typical religious believer, a philosopher who defends deontology, or what?

    • TheAncientGeek says:

      Correct, or conventional?

  12. llamathatducks says:

    Thanks for this.

    I think part of the problem is that even if I agree that self-worth should not be tied to being good at stuff, it is very hard for me to actually internalize this because in my upbringing, intelligence was basically the most important thing about someone. (The only time “quality of character” could be more important is if someone did something truly awful.) I gather this is true for a lot of people, which means not only that any one person who believes themselves to be of below average intelligence compared to their peers is likely to feel bad, but also that people pick up on other people valuing intelligence even if they’re not mean about it. Sort of an unconscious bias that people may pick up on and be sad about.

    Also, your experience seems to be a bit atypical in that there exist intellectual things you’re very good at and also intellectual things that you’re very bad at. This makes it really easy to tell what your innate abilities are. In my case, I certainly had and have what feel like strengths and weaknesses, but I was never really amazing at anything or really terrible at anything else. Math didn’t intuitively make sense to me, but I got A’s in Calculus anyway. I loved my first two computer science classes (and did well) and then did much worse in two others. Piano was a strength, but it still took discipline (which I often lacked) to get me to practice and it was still really hard and I never once prepared a piece to my satisfaction. Perhaps the only thing that was truly easy was learning French, but that talent didn’t come with any of the other talents I’d need to make that my main focus (like teaching or translation), and anyway I can’t pass for a native speaker.

    Anyway, the fact that the difference between my abilities in different fields were never as stark as yours makes it feel very plausible that if my upbringing had been slightly different, or if I’d had more discipline, I could be markedly better and more interested in lots of things, both things that feel like strengths and things that feel like weaknesses. (Also because I often lack discipline even with things I’m good at, I feel like I’d be WAY worse at everything if I had fewer socioeconomic advantages.)

    (Small nitpick: you don’t have ALL our IQs in a spreadsheet, certainly not mine 🙂 )
    (Even smaller nitpick: you accidentally repeat the word “to” at one point)

    • randy m says:

      There are not intellectual things he is very bad at. A c in calculus ids better than the average persons mathematical ability. Scott is good at things and very good at things, according to this post at least. Ramujan, perhaps, was very good and very bad. some people are terrible at some things and merely sub par at other, too.

      • llamathatducks says:

        Sure, but in the kind of intellectual environment I grew up in (and it sounds like Scott did too), getting only a C after trying extremely hard means being comparatively very bad at something. And this is how Scott described his own abilities. In any case, my real point was that there was a really strong contrast in Scott’s abilities in different fields.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        I was worse than average (at least for my school in a nice suburb) at playing the violin.

        Also at the things nerds are always bad at, which we helpfully wall off into a “totally doesn’t matter!” category but which also provide a pretty good feeling of what it’s like to be bad at something and not really know how to improve even though you want to.

        • haishan says:

          Also at the things nerds are always bad at, which we helpfully wall off into a “totally doesn’t matter!” category but which also provide a pretty good feeling of what it’s like to be bad at something and not really know how to improve even though you want to.

          This suggests that nerds should play more sports or do other activities they’re bad at, as a kind of exposure therapy to the idea of being hopelessly(?) bad at something. My personal experience playing basketball supports this; I’m 5’8″ and overweight and will never be good at basketball in a meaningful sense, but I can contribute with the skills I do have.

          • I thought of myself as bad at sports growing up. I then got involved in what was, in effect, a new sport (SCA simulated medieval combat) and turned out to be good at it. My conclusion was that the reason I was bad at sports was that they were things all the other kids did a lot of for fun and I only did in gym class because I had to.

            Which suggests that what nerds should do, if possible, is find a sport sufficiently new or uncommon that the other people doing it are also new to it.

        • Tom Scharf says:

          Probably one of the worst curses you could wish upon anyone would be for them to never have experienced failure. It is a platitude that failure teaches you more than success, but viewing other’s abilities in the light of your own inadequacies is a powerful viewpoint.

          It is a strange reality that one should keep pressing the envelope until they fail. How else would you know your limits?

    • Anonymous says:

      Okay, so, this is completely off the topic of the original post, and I hope you don’t mind, but-

      way back on the Untitled thread, you left a comment containing a TMI content note. And then comments were closed down for that whole article, so there was no way I could reply at the time. Would you be okay with my contacting you for further discussion about the situation you wrote about in that comment?

    • Linked List says:

      Related to your first point: I’ve seen plenty of people on the Internet imply that intelligent people are the only ones worth befriending/dating. It’s salt rubbed in the wound: so being dumb not only makes me incompetent, it also makes me unlovable??

      • Sophie Grouchy says:

        Actually, I have a slightly different interpretation of this: I think it’s best to date/befriend someone of *similar* intelligence to yourself. It makes relating and holding conversations that both people are interested easier. That means that the further away you are from average (in either direction) the harder it is to find others that would be good dates or friends.

        I actually think my life would have been significantly better if I were of *lower* intelligence. Being on the tail of a bell curve makes it harder to relate and interact with the vast hordes of people in the middle. And it’s not like I *use* my intelligence for anything useful. I’m rather unable to do Real Work, and so I’m a career nanny. I like to clean and organize things. This does not take huge cognitive resources.

        If I were of lower intelligence I could either engage with lower level intellectual discourse (of which there is much more available), OR I’d just end up interested in completely different things. So no loss there, either.

        • Sophie Grouchy says:

          OK, so I just did the thing where you convert your SAT score to an IQ score and a percentile, and it put me in the top 99.8 percentile, and now I feel REALLY BAD about being a nanny.

          • Evan Þ says:

            FYI, the SAT is at least as bad as most IQ tests at differentiating between people at either tail of the distribution. When you’re that far off the mean, a few randomly-chosen questions can make a very significant difference in which percentile you’re nominally placed in.

            Of course, I’d feel just as bad about my current place in life whether I was in the 90th or 99th percentile.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            Are you the same person as the person I know who is a rationalist and a nanny?

            (I don’t want to give too much information in case you’re trying to stay anonymous, but we spoke at Solstice)

          • Sophie Grouchy says:

            @Scott- yurp. 😛

          • Furrfu says:

            I probably can’t phrase this in such a way as to make it believable within our current societal discourse, shaped as it is by our Industrial-age systematic devaluation of caring work (arguably because it’s coded female) and the doomed and dishonest anti-feminist attempt to persuade women that traditional female roles are perfectly good roles and did not need to change, but I will say it anyway.

            Raising kids is very important work, and among the few absolute necessities in human society, along with raising food and keeping the rain off. Those kids are very, very, very lucky to have access to you; what they learn when they are with you will fundamentally shape the rest of their lives.

            You do not deserve to feel bad about being a nanny. You can contribute immensely to society that way.

          • Sophie Grouchy says:


            You know what else is very important work? Trucking. And I’m sure there are some very intelligent truck drivers out there who listen to philosophical podcasts while they drive, and read textbooks at night. But what they are trading on for their jobs isn’t their intelligence. It’s their coordination, and abiility to maintain task focus for a long period of time.

            Sure, being a nanny may be a very important job (So is picking fruit. So is construction work.). But it does NOT require anything beyond middling intelligence. Perhaps the equivalent of IQ 85. (Especially since the best jobs are with babies and young children who haven’t started elementary school full-time yet). What the job trades on is trustworthiness, morality, and a certain type of responsibility. NOT intelligence.

            It’s rather condescending to pretend otherwise.

          • Furrfu says:

            I’m sorry that what I wrote sounded condescending, despite my best efforts, and I think that reading of it is a result of a straightforward misunderstanding of what I wrote; so I will attempt to clarify. I am not optimistic, though, because it seems that the problem is in a sense that you think I’m lying about what I believe; that’s what I predicted when I said, “I probably can’t phrase this in such a way as to make it believable within our current societal discourse.”

            However, I am sincere.

            I agree with you that people don’t hire their nannies for intelligence. What I’m arguing is that they should. I could still be wrong (you almost certainly have more relevant experience than I do, so you’re more likely to be right), but I think the particular condescending point you read into what I wrote isn’t what I was trying to express, nor is it a point I agree with.

            I think there are two very significant differences between caring for children and trucking or construction work. The first is that we can have a society without trucking and without construction work — and we have, often for millennia — but we cannot have a society without caring for children, any more than we can have a society without gathering food (whether by picking fruit or by some other means.)

            The second is a way that caring for children differs from trucking, construction work, and also picking fruit, and that is that the kind of society that we have is crucially determined by how we care for children. It doesn’t matter very much whether our truckers are listening to intelligent podcasts or not, or whether they drive intelligently or more or less automatically. In fact, we can easily imagine automating away that work. By contrast, we have strong indications that children’s intellectual and emotional development, and consequently the future development of society, is strongly affected by how they’re cared for — not in the sense that you could turn every child into a John Stuart Mill, or that you should if you could, but certainly in the sense that you could keep them from turning into either a monolingual person or a Terry Tao or a Charlie Manson. And there is no prospect of automating away childcare and similar caring professions, modulo AGI.

            I’m well aware that society doesn’t value intelligence in childrearing much (“what they are trading on for their jobs isn’t their intelligence”). (Myself, I spent the morning taking care of a couple of children who watched their mother attempt to kill their father yesterday, and another kid who showed up without any parents.) I thought I’d said as much in my comment, but I may have expressed myself badly.

            Now, it may be that you understood me perfectly, and you’re saying that not only does society not value intelligence in childrearing, but also that it should not, perhaps because (beyond “trustworthiness, morality, and a certain type of responsibility”), caretakers have very limited effect on the development of their charges, particularly in the early years you like most. This is certainly a respectable point of view in developmental psychology, but with all due respect to the psychologists who take that view, and to you, who have more experience than I do in the field, I am skeptical of it. You are surely aware that there are other respected developmental psychologists who think otherwise. They, and I, could be wrong — but I don’t think that, in itself, makes us condescending. This faction within developmental psychology is not motivated by an attempt to improve the self-esteem of housewives and nannies. (And that’s why I don’t think this was how you read me.)

        • Deiseach says:

          If you’re dealing with children, even only one or two, as a nanny may I say how impressed I am?

          I can’t handle children at all (it’s not that I don’t like them or find them objectionable, it’s that I can’t handle them as small humans needing a lot of attention, part of my larger problem of not being able to interact with people for very long: ‘fine, you told me your sad life story, now GO AWAY’).

          Why I couldn’t be a teacher (based on my completely unqualified for it in any sense, two-week stint as substitute science teacher) – absolutely impossible for me to stand up in front of a class of 20-30 non-adults and be able to manage them, not simply provide the information in lessons (though weirdly, when I met some of the kids in a different context later, they told me they thought I was a good teacher).

          So if you’re able to deal with small human persons and be successful enough that they don’t hate/fear you, their parents think you are doing a good job, and you would not rather emigrate to Antarctica than face another day of the same thing – I am most sincerely and genuinely impressed!

          • Anonymous says:

            >I can’t handle them as small humans needing a lot of my attention.

            Actually that’s one of the main reasons I’m *good* at childcare. Here is a baby that ABSOLUTELY REQUIRES that you pay attention, interact, and do your job well. There’s no choice to it. You need to show up because the family absolutely needs you to be there, and you do a good job because your charge absolutely requires it. Period. End of story. None of this “self-motivation” bullshit.

            Cleaning and organizing I just LIKE, so long as I can play music or podcasts and zone out. Unpretty thing becomes pretty. Immediate results.

          • Sophie Grouchy says:

            Anonymous above is me. :p

        • For what it’s worth, the one ex-professional nanny of my acquaintance is also a moderately successful fantasy author. So if you have inclinations in that direction … .

          • Sophie Grouchy says:

            I don’t have any particular skill in writing, but even more importantly, writing is the sort of job that almost NEVER has to ABSOLUTELY BE DONE RIGHT THIS INSTANT, and so even if I had skill, I would never get around to it :P.

            At least I can say that I’m generally happier with my job than most high-paid software engineers seem to be (too many job choices and options leads to them always thinking about potential greener grass, I think. Plus they seem to expect self-actualization through work, instead of seeing their job as a not-terrible way to earn a paycheck)

    • is very hard for me to actually internalize this because in my upbringing, intelligence was basically the most important thing about someone. (The only time “quality of character” could be more important is if someone did something truly awful.)

      well, for better or worse, your hunch is correct. High -IQ people seemed to have fared better in the post-2008 economy than those of more modest intellectual means. According to this tedx talk, higher SAT (a good proxy for IQ) scoring people do better in life (or at least better at academic work, creative output, job performance, income, etc). Biological determinism is real, the question is how to deal with it on a personal level? I dunno

      • llamathatducks says:

        That’s not at all what I was talking about, though. I meant “the most important thing about someone” in a sense that how worthy of respect and admiration someone was depended very very heavily on their perceived intelligence.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I will take my name off so this post isn’t seen as bragging but understood for what I mean to convey.

    My IQ is evaluated to be around 160, using a widely-accepted method (e.g. Mensa and the Triple Nine society both accept it) administered by a trustworthy testing body (A national organization with strict requirements).

    I still manage to look at things I don’t understand (mainly because they are out of my field) and feel worthlessly stupid. You cannot trust that feeling.

    • Ashlyn says:

      My brain served me fairly well most of my life, and so at the onset of depression, I believed it when it started telling me horrible, horrible things about myself. “You make an excellent point there, brain. Sounds legit.”

      It took me a long time to figure out how many of my feelings about my own worth were devious, cackling goblins from deep in the pit. I don’t think this problem is limited to people with depression.

      You really, really cannot trust those feelings.

    • Anonymous says:

      I (separately and anonymously for the same reason) totally endorse this. I have a measured IQ over 160. I have a PhD in math from a top program, and am a math professor. And reading math papers often makes me feel really dumb. Because if I were _smarter_ I would just _understand it_.

      In some ways it bites worse because I grew up not having to work to understand it…

      • I suppose it comes down to the type of math paper and your expertise. A PHD in game theory may struggle with an algebraic geometry paaper

        • Anonymous says:

          Oh, no, I’m talking about papers in my field. Lorxus below has it right; I’m smart enough to know what I don’t know. And if I were smarter and knew more things, I would know more things I didn’t know.

          (One of my undergrad profs liked to say that as he learned more math, there were more things he didn’t know. I used to not understand arithmetic geometry. Now I don’t understand p-adic hodge theory or phi, Gamma modules or algebraic K-theory or motivic cohomology).

          I promise you Terry Tao is as frustrated by his inability to prove the Twin Prime Conjecture, and is as frustrated by his obvious incompetence, as most of the people posting here are with their own issues.

      • Lorxus says:

        No matter how intelligent you are, you are just barely intelligent enough to understand just how amazingly stupid you are. The only recourses are irreversible brain damage resulting in loss of sapience, and literal apotheosis. Human-scale intellect is thus that cage whose name I can’t remember where one can neither sit nor stand.

        • Andrew says:

          ITT: smart people trying to show how enlightened they are by pretending they know what it’s like to be stupid.

          • Lorxus says:

            With what little respect is due you, piss off. I’m 21, and I have actual verifiable psychological disorders which make it so that every time I climb out of bed, I roll the dice as to whether or not I despise what little accomplishment I’ve managed to push together so far, and whether not I feel horrifyingly insecure and inadequate by comparison with my peers. It’s not because I’m trying to be enlightened. This is actually how I feel, and it SUCKS. Good day.

            TL;DR, ITT – People who have no idea what they’re talking about and trying really hard to signal sophistication

        • Deiseach says:

          I believe the name you are looking for is the “little-ease”, though I may be mistaken.

          And now I’m wondering how come I know the names of torture methods off the top of my head 🙂

      • Furrfu says:

        Math papers are written to be dense. Maybe Terry Tao can plow through new work he didn’t anticipate at five pages a day instead of one page a day like everybody else. One page a day feels maddeningly slow to me when I’m used to reading and understanding 300–1000 pages a day. But that’s just the way math is written.

        I’ve wondered sometimes if maybe we could write math papers (I haven’t written any math papers, so maybe I shouldn’t say “we”) in such a way that we could actually absorb them more quickly, even if they took more space. I’m not convinced that we could.

  14. atrasicarius says:

    It seems to me that you’re missing a third option. Here’s an analogy I like: Imagine you’re trying to break down a brick wall by headbutting it. No matter how hard you work, you’re not going to break down that wall, and you’ll probably give yourself a nasty headache while you’re at it. But then someone gives you a pickaxe. Now, breaking down the brick wall once again becomes a matter of hard work. Maybe stronger people will have an easier time of it, buy barring some sort of physical disability, pretty much everyone will be able to do it.

    If you’ve never seen a pickaxe before and have no conception of what it is, then it’s not really fair to hold you accountable for thinking that breaking through the wall is an impossible task. And maybe you think that the people who succeeded in breaking through the wall were born with iron plated skulls or something. But in reality, they just had access to a tool that you didn’t.

    People learn in different ways, and that’s something our education system does a really shitty job of accounting for. To stretch the analogy a bit, people need their own, individualized pickaxe. The problem is exasperated by the fact that people tend to develop mental blocks about subjects. Someone who doesn’t get math in elementary school because it’s not being taught in a way that they can relate to will probably think, “Oh, I must be bad at math.” Then, they go into every math class they take with the assumption, “I’m bad at this, I can’t do this.” In reality, they just need it explained to them in a way that makes sense and that they can understand.

    Does everyone have the potential to be a revolutionary genius? No. But there’s a big difference between understanding calculus and inventing calculus. And of course, there’s no reason why everyone has to learn calculus or even should if they really don’t enjoy it. But first they should make sure that it’s actually calculus they don’t enjoy, rather than bashing their head against a brick wall.

    eta: One other point I’d like to make real quick: I don’t think anyone is claiming that losing weight is easy. On the contrary, I think most people acknowledge that it’s on the same difficulty level as quitting smoking. But that still doesn’t mean it’s inherent and impossible to change.

      • ilzolende says:

        The idea that different people learn more effectively via different methods seems pretty reasonable to me. (Then again, I’m hyperlexic and get less information from nonverbal social cues than the average NT due to autism, so maybe I’m a non-representative sample, and only neurodivergent kids have learning styles.)

        If I listen to one piece of text while reading another, the sound gets filtered out every time. I have to ask for spellings in order to pronounce names correctly in many cases. I hate watching or listening to speeches if I could read the transcripts. I prefer to watch media using the subtitles, and I only ever use non-interactive video-based entertainment in a social context.

        All the people I know who claim to like watching TV and speeches and audiobooks (not just for multitasking, but for real) probably aren’t lying and really do retain more and enjoy more when they are exposed to media in the form of a person talking.

        • Anonymous says:

          I’m so glad I’m not the only one who prefers reading to listening and watching a speaker. I detest the shift to video instead of text online. I can sit listening to a speech and almost completely forget it within a few minutes. Give me the same thing in written form and I’ll be able to remember the basic content for a long time.

          That may partially be practice, because one of my main past times is reading for pleasure.

      • atrasicarius says:

        So you disagree with the proposition that schools often convey information in a way that’s difficult for many kids to understand?

        • Anonymous says:

          To the contrary, I agree with that statement! In fact, I think that schools generally teach in a way significantly suboptimal for learning (which, in addition to conveying information, also include imparting skills and making sure the information and skills are retained) for human minds.

          I do disagree with the proposition that “people learn optimally in different ways” (which you never said, although I think that’s what you meant, though I could be wrong.) Obviously, there’s exceptions (e.g. hyperlexic people), but among humans who have sufficiently normal brains, I don’t think the evidence is there to say “A’s a pickaxe learner and B’s a sledgehammer learner, and they’ll have great results if they use their respective tools, but everything’ll fall apart if they switched.”

          That is, I doubt that we can explain Scott’s lack of success in math by “well, he’s obviously a reading/writing-style learner, which is why he excels in English, but in Math, where everything is taught by lecture, he only gets C-‘s, but he’d noticeably improve if he could just read a textbook and do practice problems by writing, but his peers who are making effortless A’s, they’d start making C-‘s if they tried that.” Rather, I think Scott probably would’ve done (marginally) better by reading a (good) textbook and doing practice problems, but because I believe that’s just a generally better way of learning math*, meaning that his A-getting classmates would also benefit from switching to the textbook approach.

          tl;dr: I believe that schools convey information in ways difficult for kids to comprehend. I do not believe that (most) kids benefit from learning in a way tailored to them.

          *Some reasons I believe that reading textbooks is superior to lecture:

          1. In his book, Sal Khan of Khan Academy talks about how a bunch of his friends at MIT managed to take 8 courses a semester by skipping classes and reading from textbooks instead.

          2. Luke claims that textbooks are the most efficient way of learning something, beating out, in particular, video lectures.

          3. This Harvard professor also doesn’t think lecture is an effective way to learn physics. At at least one point, he makes a comment to the effect of “everything I was teaching was already in the textbook, thereby making me kinda superfluous”.

          • Setsize says:

            I find that lectures definitely help for certain types of material — particularly math! This came as a surprise to me, having been homeschooled for all primary school and learning almost everything by reading.

            There’s a certain qualification I need to put there. The style of lecture that works for me is giving proofs at the blackboard, at the speed of writing and copying, not the speed of talking. I usually find math-oriented lectures by non-mathematicians to be useless, particularly if they use slides. With slides there is too much temptation to put formulas up without showing how they arise or demonstrating how they are used.

          • Creutzer says:

            For some people, it’s much easier to go to a lecture and listen attentively for 90 minutes than to force themselves to concentrate over a textbook for 90 minutes, though.

          • suntzuanime says:

            You also learn much more from attending a lecture unattentively than from staring at a textbook unattentively. To a large degree schools are a system for forcing education into unwilling minds.

          • On the lecture vs textbook issue, my feelings are the same as yours, but that raises a puzzle that has bothered me for a long time. Some courses are taught with small classes and lots of interaction, which a textbook can’t provide. But quite a lot are taught as large lectures with an audience often in the hundreds, which means that for most students there is no interaction at all.

            Why didn’t that style of teaching disappear after the invention of the printing press made books a cost effective and otherwise superior alternative?

          • Anonymous says:


            I’ve been wondering the same thing for a while.

            -My understanding of education history (which comes entirely from Sal Khan’s book) is that there’s a several-hundred century gap in between “printing press” and “textbooks legitimate alternative to lecture”; the latter happened (without checking my notes) no more than 250 years ago.

            -Educational institutions (which is where most academic learning happens for most people, regardless of their efficacy) don’t really optimize for learning. And why should they? Professors don’t benefit if their students learn more (they benefit from offering easy classes because that gets them good reviews [1]). Students don’t benefit from institutions where they learn more (they benefit from high grades at high-reputation institutions. If an institution could quadruple the rate at which student learning happened for a 1% increase in student effort, the typical grade-optimizing student wouldn’t be against it, because quadruple the material means quadruple the amount on the test, so they’re expending 1% more effort for the same grade. See also: students who celebrate when class is canceled.) College administrators certainly aren’t optimizing for learning (they benefit from an institution that’s perceived as more elite, which has little to do with learning, because otherwise elite universities would be unusually good at teaching. I have a friend at Harvard who does well in classes where he’s learned nothing. Also, this guy. Also, this

            -A lot of the psychological research which impinges on learning is fairly recent (past 60 years or so; see, for instance, the list of citations here), and hasn’t managed to work it’s way into education systems that do very little to optimize for learning.

            -That style of teaching is disappearing, albeit slowly. See, for instance, App Academy, Rob Rhineheart learning biochemistry fairly quickly, Eliezer Yudkowsky doing mathematical research without so much as a GRE, Duolingo being incorporated into shools. It’s happening slowly, and almost entirely outside of the traditional systems (K–12, college), but it’s there.

            -Organizational inertia. Combination of “this was how the last generation learned it, it worked, why are we changing?” and “I [the professor] am the best in the world at X, this is how I learned X, therefore it’s the best way to learn X” and even “I’m the best in the world at X and I learned it successfully this way, therefore everyone else should be able to learn it this way.” (It really hasn’t helped that most of the relevant research has been done sometime between when current professors took the classes they’re teaching and are teaching the classes they’re teaching.)

            -Getting good at learning is seen as low status. There was an Overcoming Bias post the this effect that I can’t find, but the overwhelming attitude I’ve encountered is that, if you’re actually smart, then you don’t need to optimize your learning strategies, so looking into how to be a more effective learning is a tacit admission that you’re not actually smart (to the point that students will brag about how little they studied, because getting a B with no work means you’re smarter than someone who got an A with a lot of work.) Thus, universities don’t reward professors for looking to become better teachers, and, to some degree, even punish them; my sister had a really great physics professor who was denied tenure for so long he left his position because he was studying physics education (low status) rather than physics (high status).

            In summary: Textbooks are better than lecture for learning, but schools still utilize lecture because they have little incentive to make more learning happen. Alternatives that produce better outcomes have been identified and are starting to displace traditional education, but the research leading to them is recent enough we haven’t seen this happen to any significant degree… yet. However, ceter paribus, a student who’s successfully learned stuff is going to outcompete a student who hasn’t, so traditional institutions will eventually either adapt or die.

            Suntzuanime also makes a good point.

          • lunatic says:

            My theory is that the role of lectures is partly to provide a social obligation that textbooks (and video lectures) lack. Similarly, my view of my role as a teacher is to be the “selection and motivation” parts of getting people to practise doing things.

            @Anon: My understanding is that superior alternatives are often spoken of but not many are actually well understood. Besides spaced repetition, I’d be interested to know what else you know about.

            This book is presently popular in Australian education circles, but I find the lack of clear questions and explanations means that while the “no effect” findings are relatively easy to understand, the large effects Hattie finds aren’t terribly easy to interpret.

          • Anonymous says:

            @lunatic: I have a very rough draft for you. In short: your basic options for putting knowledge in your head are textbooks and lectures and textbooks are better. There’s only two options, though, so we can’t really optimize there. However, learning consists of more than putting knowledge in your head! That gives us a few more parameters we can optimize across. I give some optimizations that come off the top of my head, but I’m also studying to write a LW post in a few months meant to be comprehensive.


            You will notice I’ve enabled suggesting and commenting. Both are both encouraged and appreciated. I declare Crocker’s rules.

  15. Jon Gunnarsson says:

    Intelligence does indeed have a unique place in our thought. Lacking in intelligence is generally considered far more shameful than lacking in almost any other area of human competency. I once heard it said that intelligence is the only thing in this world which is distributed fairly—no one complains about having too little of it.

    I think the main reason for this phenomenon is that intelligence, above everything else, is what separates us from the other animals. All of our culture, our economy, our science, everything that makes humans the dominant species on this planet is based on our superior intelligence. Seen from this perspective, someone with low intelligence is, in a sense, less human, in the same sense that a bird with broken wings can be seen as being less of a bird. In this light, the discomfort people have with IQ is opposition to putting a numerical value on someone’s humanity.

    • Mary says:

      I wish I could find the article — it was a while back, but memorable — where the writer talked about how his teachers would tell his mother that he wasn’t dumb, but he needed to apply himself, and his mother retorting that he did apply himself, he was just dumb.

      Followed a philosophical reflection about why people prefer laziness, which is a moral fault, to stupidity, which isn’t.

      • Wirehead Wannabe says:

        Regarding that last sentence, I strongly suspect that there’s an innate Ability to Try Hard that’s separate from IQ and conscientiousness. I further suspect that people high in this ability prefer to believe that success is the result of hard work, and people on the lower end of the scale prefer the opposite interpretation. Or maybe both groups are typical minding about how much willpower the human mind has, or something. I definitely feel like my lack of ability to focus on things and initiate tasks has been a fairly major detriment to my life despite my (according to Scott’s statistics at least) high IQ. I have no idea how in the world to even begin rectifying this, since it happens even with things that I consider enjoyable, like posting comments on the internet. The Less Wrong-sphere has spent years ruminating and navel-gazing about these sorts of problems, and I’m beginning to suspect there truly is just a huge genetic component to allowing someone to work as hard as Elon Musk versus being like me pacing around my room wishing I could summon the willpower to fill out job applications.

        • Andrew says:

          I’m lazy, and I’m pretty sure it’s because I’ve never actually _needed_ to work hard (for various reasons I won’t get into).

          At this point it’s something of a habit — if I were somehow transported into a world where real effort was necessary, I might not be able to cope. (Maybe I would rise to the occasion, but I have doubts.)

          I guess another way of putting it is that I’m “spoiled.” The point, though, is that I don’t believe it’s some kind of inborn characteristic. It’s an adaptation to circumstances.

          (Of course I could be wrong. This is just my evaluation of myself. And I could also be unrepresentative.)

    • Lorxus says:

      This would also point to why mental illness is stigmatized. If a person is characterized by eir brain, and eir brain doesn’t function properly… KILL IT BEFORE IT CAN SPREAD!

    • lunatic says:

      I feel like all my posts on this are talking about the same bloody thing, but yes, when I watch students, particularly struggling students, doing what they do at school I think that one of the main things they don’t want to show is stupidity.

      It astounds me how colleagues can say things like “these kids just don’t value learning” when these are kids who will flip desks to avoid having to read in public but in a safe-enough environment will be as proud as anything to show that they can write their own name.

  16. NTG says:

    You mentioned Terence Tao’s blog and he actualy says something related to the subject in one of his posts:

    So it might be interesting for you to read.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Believing Terence Tao when he says you don’t have to be a genius to do math seems like an error on the Wason Selection Task.

      • Sniffnoy says:

        Sorry, what does this have to do with the Wason selection task?

        • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

          The Wason Selection Task is deceptive. People say they understand the problem and that the solution is obvious. And then they get it wrong.

          NTG’s point is that Tao’s high status in the math community makes his opinion especially credible. Scott’s point is that Tao’s opinion is especially not credible (incredible?) since he especially susceptible to the typical mind fallacy (by over-generalizing his innate talent). As Robin Hanson might say, one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens.

          • NTG says:

            I didn’t want to make any point, to be honest. I just shared another opinion from a guy, who is a mathematician, so people could read it and check if they agree or not.

          • More precisely, Tao is both a genius and good at math, so his existence is not evidence that you don’t have to be a genius to be good at math. Nor is it evidence on whether being a genius guarantees you being good at math, which corresponds to the other correct card in the test as described at the link.

        • 27chaos says:

          Scott is saying that if we want to know what it takes to be good at math, we should look at the cases where people fail to be good at math. This is similar to how if we want to know whether the stated rule is correct, we need to try to falsify it.

        • To cite one application of the Wason selection task, to test the rule “If you are drinking alcohol then you must be over 18” you would need to look for violations of the rule. So, checking what beverage a 25-year old was drinking would not be a test of the rule; you would have to check if if anyone under 18 was drinking alcohol.

          By analogy, to demonstrate that “one does not have to be a genius to do well at math,” it would not help to look only at geniuses, one would have to provide examples of non-geniuses doing math well.

      • Lorxus says:

        You are causing me to worry, as I am a somewhat mentally ill senior undergrad in math who was using that as part of a halfhearted justification for continuing to exist meaningfully, held together primarily by duct tape, twine, and hope.

        • Setsize says:

          If it helps, I often find myself thinking “I would major in math if I could do undergrad again.”

          Not because I’m interested in doing math research, but I suspect it would have been a better preparation for any number of things I am interested in.

          • Lorxus says:

            I find myself somewhat regretting how poorly an attempt at biochem went, and considering that I possibly ought to have majored in CS.

        • Deiseach says:

          If the justification was dependent on “At least I’m good at maths, and maths is really important and valuable and you need to be smart to be good at it, so I am important and valuable and smart because I am good at maths”, then I demur.

          If the justification is “I am good at this thing, and people agree that I am good at it and their judgement can be backed up by objective measure not just telling me nice things to be sympathetic, so despite what other problems my brain may cause me, it is genuinely good at this”, then I say hold on to it.

          • Lorxus says:

            The justification was something along the lines of “I may be awful at this, but I’m at least slightly less awful than most people and as such comparative advantage maybe applies a little bit and I have reason to continue existing and hoping to do useful research someday.” Me being good at math never entered into it. I’m merely somewhat less bad.

      • Anonymous says:

        Part of Tao’s point (which of course he’s far too polite to state in such terms) is that “do math” is not necessarily the same as “do math at the level of people like Terence Tao”.

        Actually, Scott, I think you’ll appreciate this paragraph from the linked page by Tao:

        Of course, even if one dismisses the notion of genius, it is still the case that at any given point in time, some mathematicians are faster, more experienced, more knowledgeable, more efficient, more careful, or more creative than others. This does not imply, though, that only the “best” mathematicians should do mathematics; this is the common error of mistaking absolute advantage for comparative advantage. The number of interesting mathematical research areas and problems to work on is vast – far more than can be covered in detail just by the “best” mathematicians, and sometimes the set of tools or ideas that you have will find something that other good mathematicians have overlooked, especially given that even the greatest mathematicians still have weaknesses in some aspects of mathematical research. As long as you have education, interest, and a reasonable amount of talent, there will be some part of mathematics where you can make a solid and useful contribution. It might not be the most glamorous part of mathematics, but actually this tends to be a healthy thing; in many cases the mundane nuts-and-bolts of a subject turn out to actually be more important than any fancy applications.

        In other words, he’s saying that non-geniuses have their place in the world — even in mathematical research — which seems rather consonant with your attitude.

      • Ilya Shpitser says:

        On the other hand, taking sneaky integrals in Calculus I is a very different activity from Real Math that professional mathematicians do (that is, making careful arguments).

    • He is right. Feynman only had an IQ of 125 (although many insist it’s higher). On the other hand, I believe you do need to be a genius to a successful fiction author. I’m not that smart and I was reading advanced college math books at 9th grade. It’s not that hard, really

      • gwern says:

        Feynman only had an IQ of 125 (although many insist it’s higher).

        Yes, they insist for many excellent reasons: such as it being a low-ceiling school-administered ratio IQ test in middle/high school which, if taken at naive face value as 125 rather than >125, is flagrantly inconsistent with Feynman’s performance in high school and later life in every domain.

      • I’m pretty sure you don’t need to be a genius to be a successful fiction author, though I can easily believe it takes being brighter than average.

        I’m inclined to think that being a successful fiction author takes an ill-defined but very specific skill of being able to get a substantial number of people to want to turn the page. It’s probably got something to do with modelling.

        • Richard Gadsden says:

          How does being very physically attractive help with fiction writing?

          Oh, hang on, different sort of modelling.

          Fiction writing, from what I can tell from fiction writers’ biographies, seems to take a significant amount of enjoying writing, a modest amount of talent, and the desire to write a million words and throw them away to get better at it. Most authors claim to write the sorts of books they want to read, which suggests quite a lot of typical-mind in the modelling.

  17. Anonymous says:

    (in real life this doesn’t work for a couple of reasons, most notably the minimum wage, but who cares about real life when we have a theory?)

    As if! Minimum wage has little to nothing to do with it. How much is a coupon to a restaurant that poisons a tenth of its meals (and publicly declares this policy) worth? $0, the same as a worker who is too unreliable or dangerous. If you can’t get paid to do anything today, you can’t lay the blame on the minimum wage. If the task you’re potentially being hired to do is a real part of a production chain, then how much you get paid is about bargaining, not some mythical “marginal product.” That idea leads to nonsense like this. Minimum wage strengthens the bargaining position of some workers, and that’s all. It doesn’t make almost anyone who was useful useless.

    In cases where minimum wage could credibly be a barrier to a production chain’s success, it is trivially circumvented, as anyone who has worked as a low-level contractor/on Amazon Mechanical Turk can tell you. The reason why it doesn’t result in plummeting employment and does result in real money in the pocket of low-skilled workers is that most workers are part of quite profitable production chains that can easily shell out more, but didn’t need to because of the weak bargaining position of low-skilled workers. “Wage = marginal product” my hairy ass.

    Back to the point – some people are well and truly worthless, in the same way that a very possibly poisoned meal is worthless. You never want a worker who can’t meet some minimum standard of reliability, at any price, and a lot of people are just too unreliable. What we need to do is accept that what people “deserve” has to either be untethered from what they are “worth,” or have some sort of floor that’s high enough to allow even the worthless to live reasonably good lives.

    • Anonymous says:

      I’m not sure “worthless” is a good starting word choice here if you want to be doing any untethering.

      • Anonymous says:

        I dunno, though. I think “worthless” captures what some people are and trying to pretend it doesn’t is running from the truth. And the truth has a nasty habit of sneaking up on you no matter how fast you run. You can put things in a less harsh way, but it becomes proportionally less truthful.

        • Corwin says:

          “economically worthless” is more truthful and less toxic. People who can’t compete in the job market can generally still do some things.

        • Richard Gadsden says:

          The economics phrase is “zero marginal product” – viz the damage they do in their failures is more than the value in their successes.

    • Steve Johnson says:

      most workers are part of quite profitable production chains that can easily shell out more, but didn’t need to because of the weak bargaining position of low-skilled workers. “Wage = marginal product” my hairy ass.

      That’s exactly what marginal product is.

      If someone has a “weak bargaining position” and low skill it means they can be replaced by someone else very easily and that the job that they did can be done by many people.

      If someone can be replaced very cheaply by someone else with a similar skillset then their marginal contribution is small.

      • Anonymous says:

        That’s exactly what marginal product is.

        Nope. This is clear not only from the words used to make up that phrase, and the definition for the term, but also from how people use the term (ie to argue that minimum wage will necessarily decrease employment, which only makes sense of “marginal product” actually means “marginal product.”)

        Here, from google: “In economics and in particular neoclassical economics, the marginal product or marginal physical product of an input (factor of production) is the change in output resulting from employing one more unit of a particular input.”

        If someone has a “weak bargaining position” and low skill it means they can be replaced by someone else very easily

        Which does not necessarily have anything to do with their actual product. A worker digging gold out of a vein of the stuff in the ground “produces” a lot of extremely valuable stuff, such that the market wage for that job would have to be absurdly high to make it not worth filling, but their bargaining position is terrible. Their physical contribution to the production chain is huge – their compensation is tiny. Because “marginal product” isn’t what determines wages. Bargaining position is.

        • You are confusing absolute product with marginal product. If the number of workers digging gold out of a gold mine were increased by 1, it is unlikely that the profit of the employer would increase drastically.

          I’ve got an example that helps a lot of people. Batman creates an absolute product of $1M when he defeats the Joker. Robin then creates an absolute product of $100k when he defeats Harley Quinn. The *marginal product* of a superhero is therefore $100k, so we can expect the salary of Batman and Robin to be $100k/each.

          • Anonymous says:

            You are confusing absolute product with marginal product.


            I’ve got an example that helps a lot of people. Batman creates an absolute product of $1M when he defeats the Joker. Robin then creates an absolute product of $100k when he defeats Harley Quinn. The *marginal product* of a superhero is therefore $100k, so we can expect the salary of Batman and Robin to be $100k/each.

            The “marginal product” of the last worker is either next to zero (if the business is erring on the side of overstaffing) or absurdly high (if the business is understaffed.) And that has nothing to do with the salaries of the workers, which are determined by their bargaining power, not their marginal product. We can see this because understaffed establishments don’t have absurdly high wages, nor do overstaffed establishments have absurdly low wages. You’re peddling complete nonsense that has no basis whatsoever in reality.

          • Anonymous says:

            The marginal product of labor and wage converge due to competition across multiple firms. A single firm engaged in sub-optimal employment of labor doesn’t refute that. You may as well be arguing against the relationship between CO2 and warming because it’s cold in Boston. What you’ve just said is one of the most insanely idiotic things I have ever heard. At no point in your rambling, incoherent response were you even close to anything that could be considered a rational thought. Everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to it. I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

      • fubarobfusco says:

        If someone has a “weak bargaining position” and low skill it means they can be replaced by someone else very easily and that the job that they did can be done by many people.

        Two people with the same skill level can have different strengths of bargaining position with regards to the same job.

        For instance, a person with no savings is in a weaker bargaining position than an otherwise identical person with substantial savings. The person with no savings needs to take the first available offer, whereas the person with savings can hold off and collect more offers.

        (Other examples come to mind, such as collective bargaining giving each participating employee a stronger bargaining position than they would have otherwise, without regard for their skill.)

        • Andrew says:

          Actually, the collective negotiation one does not require any explanation outside of marginal product.

          This is because marginal products are not additive. The marginal product of the entire bargaining unit is (typically) substantially greater than the marginal products of each individual worker added together.


          Also, relevant link:

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think there are a lot of people who pass a “won’t poison meals” bar who still have trouble getting work.

      “Minimum wage strengthens the bargaining position of some workers, and that’s all. It doesn’t make almost anyone who was useful useless.”

      My understanding is that if you are “useful” to the tune of $1/hour, it prevents people from paying you this. Mechanical Turk circumvents some but not all of this restriction.

      I might edit the post though just because I don’t want this to be the thing people get hung up upon.

      • Anonymous says:

        (Important note – consider all the below “within first world” reasoning. Different labor markets have different amounts of money flowing through them, and that drastically changes what labor prices can be born. I would say that the core reasoning could still apply to much poorer labor markets, but that’s only if like first world markets most of their aggregate demand comes from wages paid within their labor market, but I don’t think that’s the case.)

        I think there are a lot of people who pass a “won’t poison meals” bar who still have trouble getting work.

        And a lot of people who don’t who have no trouble getting work. Call it “labor market inefficiency.” There’s a substantial element of getting hired that has nothing to do with how good a worker you are, namely luck and social skills. This does not impact my point at all – some people who should get hired don’t, some people who shouldn’t get hired do, they cancel out or close enough to it that we can come to useful conclusions while ignoring the matter.

        My understanding is that if you are “useful” to the tune of $1/hour, it prevents people from paying you this. Mechanical Turk circumvents some but not all of this restriction.

        That understanding is dead wrong, or only right in such a small proportion of cases that it might as well be. Let’s be clear – bargaining position aside, every indispensable part of a production chain (which is all or the vast majority of an efficient production chain) is “worth” exactly the same in objective terms. If you take away any of the pieces – from the workers that truck agricultural produce to the cashiers who operate at point of sale – the entire venture is worth nothing, just as a physical chain with a broken link is worth nothing.

        Some production chains are so impoverished that they cannot afford minimum wage workers – that’s true. But the importance of those particular production chains is nil, or close to it. Important things generally have inelastic demand and will get as much cash as is demanded.

        Here’s the main thing: looking as objectively as we can, which we have to for this sort of reasoning to be useful, people’s $ per hour usefulness is simply dependent on what production chain they’re a part of. Peoples wages depend on the market for their capabilities, and are far below their objective “$ per hour usefulness” (unless they’re part of a very unprofitable production chain, which most aren’t, can only be a temporary state of affairs, and isn’t a variable that’s tied irrevocably to a worker.)

        Anyone who is truly worth the trouble of hiring at any price (for a real job, where they have to show up and be basically competent to not have negative impact) is also worth hiring at $10 an hour in a first world production chain that is doing well and understaffed. And a lack of production chains that can afford $10 an hour workers is not a problem that can be solved or even slightly ameliorated by lowering the price of labor (because the lack of money-flush production chains is caused by lack of aggregate demand and lowering the price floor for labor reduces aggregate demand.)

        • Ben J says:

          “If you take away any of the pieces – from the workers that truck agricultural produce to the cashiers who operate at point of sale – the entire venture is worth nothing, just as a physical chain with a broken link is worth nothing.”

          Sorry, but this is just trivially false. Swap an Apple Store ‘genius’ for Tim Cook and see what happens. Production is not a chain of identical workers, and wages are not solely determined by bargaining power. This is Marxist fantasy.

          • Anonymous says:

            You’ve completely failed at reading. Each necessary part of the chain is equally important – not each worker. If there is no leadership, then the business is worthless. If there is no point of sale, then the business is worthless. The point of sale part of the business requires a lot more people than the leadership part, so of course the people in the leadership department are ‘more important’ on a per-person basis. This is a big part of why they have a better bargaining position, and as a result can command much higher salaries.

            This said, it is clear that the “marginal product” per person of even the most person-heavy part of the production chain is going to be way, way, way above minimum wage in any profitable business.

            This is Marxist fantasy.

            I can tell you have no idea what Marxism is. It is beyond infuriating to be called Marxist for stating basic irrefutable facts – but that is the state of economic discourse.

          • wysinwyg says:

            In context, the comment to which you’re replying is about people working at minimum wage or less. Tim Cook isn’t really in that category so your example isn’t terribly applicable.

      • Andrew says:

        As far as being useful to the tune of $1/hr, if you are legitimately only this useful, then Social Security Disability will supplement your wages and allow you to be employed at that rate in terms of cost to employer.

        If it didn’t, then your $1/hr would be irrelevant as it is below the “iron law of wages” minimum (i.e., below subsistence).

        (Assuming we’re talking about USA here.)

        • Ialdabaoth says:

          It will? I’d love to know how to make it do that. 🙁

          • Andrew says:

            You do have to prove to the satisfaction of the SSD office that you are incapable of working in any market job. I don’t mean to suggest that their judgments are always correct.

        • Viliam Búr says:

          I think this is one of those situations where in reality we have a perfectly working solution, but in practice there is so much “friction” that the usual economical reasoning does not apply.

          (By “friction” I mean situations where to gain $1 you have to do so much paperwork or talk with so many people that the costs of the time and work exceed the $1. So in theory, you can still achieve the perfect equilibrium, but in practice, there are those proverbial $1 banknotes laying on the streets that no one can pick up legally.)

          For example, I have no idea how specifically would one prove they are able to create a $1 value every hour, but not e.g. $1.5 value. Especially if it would not be a manual work, but something creative.

    • Anonymous says:

      This is a very important point that gets missed in virtually every discussion about social welfare. I suspect we have reached a point where a non trivial fraction of society is incapable of providing value to society that merits a first world lifestyle in return. They simply aren’t smart enough to “earn” their keep in a modern world.

      What is our responsibility to these people? I can’t accept the idea that they don’t deserve to exist. In the past these people would be digging ditches, marching in armies, and doing mindless hard labor that was important to a functioning economy. Now, one perfectly average man can operate a backhoe and do more work in an hour than a crew of 20 dullards could accomplish in a day with shovels.

      Probably the moral position is that society ought to take care of these people at a reasonably comfortable level of existence. That means welfare, foodstamps, maybe even a guaranteed income if a political miracle occurred in the US.

      I am fine with the idea of a generous social welfare net. But for that to remain viable we have to maintain a proper ratio of intelligent to less-intelligent. We have two factors pushing that ratio in the wrong direction.

      The obvious factor is that the less intelligent outbreed the intelligent by an alarming factor. Current social welfare policies only exacerbate that problem. I know a lot of you are tuning out now because that sounds like something right out of the neo-reactionary bible. As much as it pains me, I kind of have to concede that they are right on that point.

      The other issue is that, as technology increases, the baseline for minimum productive intelligence keeps getting pushed higher and higher. Those of us who are reasonably smart may feel like we have nothing to fear. No guy with a backhoe is making our ability to contribute obsolete. But when AI reaches a point where a person with a 130 IQ just can’t cut it, what are we going to do with the bulk of humanity? It would be nice to have had a little discussion about that situation before it gets here.

      No side in the US will concede that this is an issue. The right claims that the poor are lazy and violent and get what they deserve. If we only made their lives a little less comfortable, they would be motivated to get up and adopt a proper middle class lifestyle. The left insists that the poor are only poor because of racism and classism and all the other -isms you can think of. The obvious solution is to purify society with social justice while developing evermore expensive and unintended-consequence-spewing government programs.

      Thus, in the US, we end up with a never ending right/left battle over who has the correct methodology for beating square pegs into round holes. I don’t think either side is right.

      The rational approach would be to acknowledge that a lot of people are never going to read or function at much above a high school level. Square peg individuals are still valuable as people. They have a right to exist and even to be happy. They didn’t ask to be born and they certainly didn’t ask to be born with below average intelligence. But we certainly aren’t going to to come up with any decent policies to address this when everyone who even comes near the subject is shouted and shamed out of any further discourse.

      • yes, the IQ requirements to earn a living wage will continue to rise due to automation, outsourcing, and credentialism, and policy markers have no viable solutions to this, assuming they choose to address the problem in the first place.

      • TheAncientGeek says: you post that before?

      • Deiseach says:

        But you are confusing “low intelligence” with doing manual/low-skilled labour. Even skilled trades?

        In your example, where AI takes off and a person with an IQ of 130 can’t find a decent job, are they then to be re-classified as a dullard whose only value in past times would have been to be digging ditches or marching in an army?

        As the requirements for making a ‘decent’ living go up, so too does the level of education (which is NOT the same as level of intelligence) and qualifications required. Automation may take away the jobs of assembly-line workers, but to then retcon social history so that all assembly-line workers were low-IQ dullards who could do no better and should have been humanely neutered before they spread their deficient genes is a fantasy that takes no account of the reality.

        If you’re a person of superior breeding stock, the answer is easy: do your part for humanity by marrying and having as many children as you and your spouse can physically produce. Sure, you may have to give up having foreign (or any kind of) holidays, a bigger house, the newest fancy tech toys, and all the rest of it – but consider the important contribution to humanity you will be making by producing more smart kids!

        • Anonymous says:

          I don’t think anybody is claiming that all the factory workers of the past were slow witted. Even today you will find intelligent people doing manual labor. Maybe they enjoy it or maybe it was conveniently available; nobody is claiming perfect assortative matching of intelligence to career. My point was that jobs that didn’t necessarily require a lot of processing power were more readily available in the past.

          We are reaching a point where we have more people in need of that kind of labor than we have positions available.

          And I am certainly not advocating forced sterilization. I think that would be a serious mistake.

      • Is there any reason why your argument should be limited to the country you live in? If people whose productivity is too low to fund a “reasonably comfortable level of existence” ought to be provided with an income sufficient to do so, does it matter whether they live in the U.S., Mexico, or India? It’s hard to see any convincing philosophical reason to think it does, yet people who argue along the lines you are sketching are almost never willing to take that next step, perhaps because they realize that philosophical consistency would lead to conclusions that they cannot persuade others with and may be unwilling to accept themselves.

        • Anonymous says:

          You are absolutely right. I am a big fan of Bryan Caplan’s writing on open borders. He advocates a libertarian approach that is probably feasible and realistic.

          If it could be achieved, I think I would be in favor of a more proactive, top-down approach like providing a world wide safety net and guaranteed minimum income.

          The problem is that I don’t believe a world wide safety net / first world living standard is logistically viable. We *could* solve African hunger if it was just a matter of money, but corruption and tribalism prevent our best efforts.

          I would also be in favor of everyone in the first world being taxed 100% of any income over $30,000 for one year so that we could invent, manufacture and distribute Star Trek style food replicators to every family on the planet. But I also think that is only slightly less realistic than a worldwide guaranteed income.

          In the meantime, those ideas are viable within the present day United States and most European countries. It isn’t the ideal, but it’s a start.

          How that would work with completely open borders is another question. Part of me suspects that they don’t work together. We are going to have to choose one way or the other. I’m not claiming to have the answers; just adding my thoughts to the discussion.

          • As I pointed out in another comment, the big reductions in poverty over the last couple of centuries didn’t come from redistribution, they came from economic growth. Everything else aside, redistribution makes lots of productive and influential people worse off, so is unlikely to get support at a high level. On the other hand, both freer immigration and better institutions abroad benefit most people, so have more potential support, even if not always enough.

      • birdboy2000 says:

        Regarding the “outbreeding” potential, I’m unconvinced. Even if people on social welfare are more able to have larger families, high IQ correlates with poor social skills. High IQ gets you hired in some fields, and these fields seem to be growing, but poor social skills are a significant barrier to a ton of occupations and not ever genius chooses science.

        Automation of manual labor is a growing problem. It doesn’t change that a lot of people on welfare are very smart people who for other reasons are far from the first pick for jobs. No one ever accused the stereotypical basement dweller on NEETbux of having a low IQ.

  18. Steve says:

    Thanks for the post, Scott, you really got the wheels turning. To my mind, you are touching on a core paradox of socialism/communism. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. Such a society is always doomed to fail economically because it doesn’t provide an incentive for those with talent to produce.

    This led Rawls to propose that a just society is one where there is just enough incentive given to the producers to maximize the size of the pie while recognizing that one’s station in life was essentially due to luck and that things should be distributed as evenly as possible after that. Of course, the tricky part is trying to work out if the incentives are truly optimal (neither too little or too much).

    Spurring people to do better is just one way that society creates such an incentive. Yes, it sucks to be on the bottom of every category (and there are so many ways to excel) but society does not do very well when you teach people “its ok to just be you”.

    On a personal note, I was “that guy” that had a lot of innate gifts – in music, sport, academics (quant and qual courses). I’m not perfect though – far from it. I don’t write as well as you for instance. Funnily enough I always felt like an under-achiever. I don’t think I’ve really tried that hard – it just came naturally. I was incredibly bored in school and i feel I missed a lot of important lessons about being disciplined and giving a sustained effort. It’s all relative of course. I started feeling a bit better about things when I received my first endowed chair -but, you know, it’s not Harvard or Oxford, sigh.

    P.S. Did you see Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing beating himself up in the Imitation Game because he’s no Newton or Einstein. The recent movie Whiplash is also an amazing psychological study of what it takes to be the best in the world (and my movie of the year).

    • ddreytes says:

      “Such a society is always doomed to fail economically because it doesn’t provide an incentive for those with talent to produce. ”

      I’m not sure this follows from this blog post, since it seems like most of the examples cited are of people who are interested in pursuing things for reasons that aren’t centrally economic

    • “This led Rawls to propose that a just society is one where there is just enough incentive given to the producers to maximize the size of the pie ”

      Arguably that’s what Rawls should have proposed and it’s what Harsanyi proposed if we measure the pie in utility, but it isn’t what Rawls actually proposed, which was, in my view, very much less defensible.

  19. Ashlyn says:

    It seems likely to me that the degree to which people are innately compassionate has a hereditary component. That being the case, I hope you won’t mind if I praise you for being one of the kindest writers and thinkers I have ever encountered.

  20. While I agree with the main message of your post, I don’t understand the emphasis on the causal determinants of intelligence. People who feel depressed upon learning that success in an intellectual endeavor is largely determined by intelligence will experience this feeling whether or not they believe that intelligence is biologically determined, since they would be powerless to do anything about it in either case. What matters to this people is not what causes intelligence, but what intelligence causes.

    • Linked List says:

      Yes! I think the typical rationalist thinks in a different way than most people, such as me.

      I want things that are pretty much only accessible to smart people. I want to be a successful software engineer, I want to enjoy Proust and David Foster Wallace, I want to understand physics so that the universe makes sense to me. If intelligence is improvable, then these goals of mine are still possible. If it was fixed in the moment of my conception, then I’m condemned to frustration. If Scott is right about IQ, I should just give up on chasing what I want.

      As much as I love this blog, it has severely crushed my growth mindset. I’m not very smart. I have no common sense, I’m permanently hopeless at any games that involve strategy and, to quote a tumblr text post, “I’m always that person that has no idea what’s going on”. I keep hearing these stories that rationalists tell about being put in gifted classes or receiveing high IQ evaluations as children and can’t identify with them at all. However, my parents raised me to believe that success is a function of effort and (social and economic) opportunity. Whenever someone outperformed me in school, I didn’t think “This person is smarter than me”, I thought “This person has studied harder than me”. And you know what? It always turned out to be true. And motivated to study, I have always done reasonably well academically.

      Now I find myself constantly wondering if I have sufficient IQ to be good. I procrastinate more because I interpret struggle as “Bayesian evidence” that I’m not smart. I’m studying to be a programmer now and it terrifies me that I will eventually run into an impenetrable wall in my skill progress.

      I don’t understand why rationalists find the idea of fixed abilities comforting. It’s like they don’t actually *want* to be successful, they just want the social validation that comes with it, and are relieved to find out that they can get that validation without having to achieve things.

      • cypher says:

        “Excellent at strategy games” isn’t needed to be a decent programmer, IME. The key is abstraction, so you don’t have to keep it all in your head at once.

        • Linked List says:

          From my experience, designing algorithms demands a good amount of “holding a lot of things in your head”, since you need to keep track of what each code line does to your variables. If you think that’s trivial, it’s probably because you’re smarter than me.

          Although, just to be clear: when you say abstraction, do you mean in the sense of “encapsulating procedures into modules so you don’t have to think about what they’re doing” or in the sense of “abstract concepts – the opposite of concreteness”?

          • FullMeta_Rationalist says:

            I’m studying programming too, and I get the feeling that the pseudocode, flow charts, and UML’s are more important than memorizing each and every try-catch block.

            I think the goal of “opposite of concreteness” is “reducing mental RAM requirements”, though it comes at the cost of learning something new. Recently someone shared this neat intro to functional programming on HN. The part where Cook refactored the car program helped me understand the functional mindset a little more I think. It was also really neat where a for-block was reduced to a one-liner with “map”. I think the reason people say everybody should learn lisp at some point is because it shows people the evil of implicit state, and helps people mentally condense for-blocks into a single map statement.

            I get the feeling that Proust is not something I would enjoy. Too subtle. I remember Aaronson once said he got confused by Shakespeare’s The taming of the Shrew”. This perked up my ears, because I remember this as the one novel that I “didn’t understand at all” during an English class I had otherwise excelled in. Aaronson’s point was that Shakespeare’s message was too interesting to be condensed down to a boring “yes/no”. Once I looked it up on spark notes, I realized Shakespeare was pretty cool.

            Simultaneously… while admit I Shakespeare had really neat things to say, I don’t have any qualms not reading him. You know, since I had to struggle to pierce his Middle English. As Gwern said, we have enough awesome novels to keep us busy for a lifetime, even if we don’t get to the high-brow. Another point Gwern made was that books are about clubs and status games.

            I haven’t read Infinite Jest like our dear host. But I’ve read an essay or two, and it’s pretty lucid and enjoyable. I know, this surprised me too given Infinite Jest’s post-modern flavor (per Scott’s review). At least for his shorter works, would recommend.

          • Kevin says:

            Designing algorithms does require some ability to keep track of code in your head. Many programmers (myself often included) rely heavily on keeping track of things mentally. However, this eventually becomes unsustainable. It’s called the curse of the gifted: (emphasis added)

            When you were in college, did you ever meet bright kids who graduated top of their class in high-school and then floundered freshman year in college because they had never learned how to study? It’s a common trap. A friend of mine calls it “the curse of the gifted” — a tendency to lean on your native ability too much, because you’ve always been rewarded for doing that and self-discipline would take actual work.

            You are a brilliant implementor, more able than me and possibly (I say this after consideration, and in all seriousness) the best one in the Unix tradition since Ken Thompson himself. As a consequence, you suffer the curse of the gifted programmer — you lean on your ability so much that you’ve never learned to value certain kinds of coding self-discipline and design craftsmanship that lesser mortals *must* develop in order to handle the kind of problem complexity you eat for breakfast.

            Your tendency to undervalue modularization and code-sharing is one symptom. Another is your refusal to use systematic version-control or release-engineering practices. To you, these things seem mostly like overhead and a way of needlessly complicating your life. And so far, your strategy has worked; your natural if relatively undisciplined ability has proved more than equal to the problems you have set it. That success predisposes you to relatively sloppy tactics like splitting drivers before you ought to and using your inbox as a patch queue.

            But you make some of your more senior colleagues nervous. See, we’ve seen the curse of the gifted before. Some of us were those kids in college. We learned the hard way that the bill always comes due — the scale of the problems always increases to a point where your native talent alone doesn’t cut it any more. The smarter you are, the longer it takes to hit that crunch point — and the harder the adjustment when you finally do. And we can see that *you*, poor damn genius that you are, are cruising for a serious bruising.

            At some point, it always becomes necessary for even the best, brightest programmers to offload mental computation by following standards, using management software, or even drawing pen-and-paper diagrams. My high school programming teacher recognized “curse of the gifted” behavior in me immediately, and forced me to diagram several projects before writing a single line of code. It’s a very useful lesson to learn.

          • Deiseach says:

            “The Taming of the Shrew” is a play, not a novel. I’m not surprised you were confused 🙂

            Though the more serious point is indeed that being very intelligent does not mean you will appreciate Proust, or Mozart, or Raphael. Or jazz (sorry, Scott’s brother: I liked your performance of the Debussy pastiche, I can’t manage more than listening to about six bars of any kind of jazz) or anything else.

            Not even on the level of Jazz Club appreciation.

          • Viliam Búr says:

            From my experience, designing algorithms demands a good amount of “holding a lot of things in your head”, since you need to keep track of what each code line does to your variables.

            Being bad at holding a lot of things in your head could make you write better code. There is a complexity that comes from “the problem is intrinsically complex”, but there is usually much more complexity that comes from “the programmer didn’t bother to simplify things”.

            Problem is, in team environment this skill would probably work against you, because other team members would enjoy reading your code, but you would have problems reading other people’s code. And managers usually don’t care about the quality of the code; they would only see that you are slower than others.

            Only if you would work on a project alone this trait could become an advantage. Or if you would write a library for other people, so others would use your code, but you wouldn’t use their code.

      • Tom Scharf says:

        “I want to enjoy Proust and David Foster Wallace”

        Why? To impress others? To impress yourself? I have no shame in saying that Harry Potter is some of my all time favorite “literature”. Clearly they won’t be torturing our youth with this in the future of high end learning…but maybe they should. I would suggest that classic literature drives many more away from the love of reading than drives them to it. I had to rediscover this love to read after this torture.

        • nydwracu says:

          I bet I’d read a lot more fiction if not for A Separate Peace and that Sandra Cisneros garbage and so on, and I’m absolutely certain that I’d read more poetry if not for all the utterly meritless shit they forced on me in school.

          This is partially a problem with progressivism — Sandra Cisneros and Maya Angelou sure as hell aren’t part of the Western Civ canon — but they fuck up Shakespeare too.

          Then again, Shakespeare is probably the result of an earlier attempt at throwing things into the canon that aren’t very good for reasons of identity and then making everyone think they’re the best thing ever. I’d say we should replace him with Chaucer, but everyone else in my high school hated him when he came up — to the point that they forced the teacher to switch.

          I still don’t understand that. Canterbury Tales is literally the only thing I had to read in high school that I liked. (Animal Farm was tolerable, but there’s no way anyone could say it has positive merit. It’s not well-written or anything — it just manages to avoid being actively bad. And it beats you over the head with its message in every single sentence, which is a good thing for a book they make you read in English class.)

          • Ghatanathoah says:

            I remember the kids in my class liked Chaucer better because they translated his Old English into Modern English. It was actually much more readable than Shakespeare for that reason.

            They also liked the twist in the Pardoner’s Tale.

          • Ahilan Nagendram says:

            That’s probably true. There are innumerable works that are not amazing on the face of them, but are propped up as amazing by society / cathedral for reasons not related to how good said works are.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Shakespeare is amazing, but it’s not optimized to be read in English class, it’s optimized to be watched performed. I was lucky enough to go to HS within a bus ride of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater so I managed to avoid hating him.

          • Scott Alexander says:

            I dunno, I agree with Robert Graves when he says that “The most remarkable thing about Shakespeare is that in spite of all the people who say he’s very good, he really is very good.”

            I had trouble enjoying Chaucer because the modern versions had no beauty/craft to them and the ancient versions were mostly unreadable to me. You seem to be pretty good at very old English dialects so maybe you had more luck.

          • Kevin C. says:


            Just a minor bit of pedantry, but Chaucer is not Old English, but Middle English. “Old English” generally refers to the period before the Norman Conquest, and includes the likes of Beowulf.

          • Tom Scharf says:

            “Shakespeare is amazing, but it’s not optimized to be read in English class”

            Exactly my experience. I could never get past the text decoding. Way too much mental work required for every sentence. Then we saw a movie of Romeo and Juliet and it was a totally different experience. I thought, wow, that was actually good.

          • At a slight tangent, you are offering an argument for unschooling, which is what we did with our kids—no curriculum, throw books at them and see which ones stick.

            I had the good fortune to discover poetry as a result of spending a year in a house that contained complete volumes of Kipling and Tennyson, well before I encountered poetry in school.

          • nydwracu says:

            We read Chaucer in translation. I don’t remember finding the translation particularly bad, and I hate most translations, so it was probably alright.

            I don’t think there was any need for a translation — footnotes, sure — but even though this was an honors English class there were people in it who could barely read. So.

          • ADifferentAnonymous says:

            I can’t guarantee it’ll work for everyone, but Wilfrid Owen is my one-stop cure for doubting the value of poetry:

          • nydwracu says:

            Mine is Marinetti.

        • Linked List says:

          Imagine that there was a type of food that lots of people describe as amazing, but you need to have a certain kind of tastebud to enjoy it. This is how I feel about art pieces that demand a bit of intelligence to be enjoyed. It’s a pleasure of life that I have no access to and wish I did.

          Not everything is about status.

        • Eli says:

          Wait, wait, wait. Canon “Harry Potter” is one of your favorites? Like, not the good stuff like “Harry Potter and the Natural 20”, but the cruddy canon version that never showed us anything about magic and turned out to be a Catholic allegory?

          • Deiseach says:

            Canon “Harry Potter” is not a Catholic allegory; J.K. Rowling is Anglican (raised Church of England, now a member of the Scottish Episcopal Church, which is more Presbyterian-flavoured).

            That may be all one to you, but there is a bit of a difference in fact 🙂

      • stubydoo says:

        “Proust and David Foster Wallace”

        I’m a bit puzzled by putting these two together. I don’t regard DFW as even slightly difficult, while I’m pretty sure Proust is totally beyond me. I purchased Proust once though never really made a serious attempt at reading it, but since I abjectly failed to get James Joyce at all, I’m not optimistic.

        I have been lucky enough to encounter an author who was right at my sweet spot of maximum difficulty without completely defeating my ability to appreciate – that was Thomas Pynchon.

        Also, re “I want to understand physics so that the universe makes sense to me” – at the level that I’m at, the more physics I learn, the less the universe makes sense to me. I’m sure there is a hump that be climbed which will get things back to making more sense, but I know that hump is located at least in graduate school level physics.

        • Corwin says:

          Fyi, Proust is boring as fuck. It’s pure style, his novels don’t really have much in the way of narrative content.

          There are people who, actually, really like books written like that, but intuitively, that’d be a smaller set than that of people who would like to like them for signaling reasons.

        • Linked List says:

          I struggle a lot to parse DFW’s text. His non-fiction is not that bad, but reading Infinite Jest feels like deadlifting to me.

        • I did enjoy about a volume and a half of Proust. It seemed to me that even though the narrator’s life rather sucked (surrounded by boring people whose interactions were kind of entertaining), he went on to triumph after triumph of understanding what was going on. Also, I find the inside of my head rather fascinating, and he found the inside of his head rather fascinating, so he and I had something in common.

          Then I found out that the books were semi-autobiographical and that was too depressing, so I stopped reading them. Perhaps I need less empathy.

          Have a cheerful fanzine about Proust— people trying recipes and doing a Proust seance and such.

      • Geirr says:

        >I want to be a successful software engineer, I want to enjoy Proust and David Foster Wallace, I want to understand physics so that the universe makes sense to me.

        As to the first, prepare to apply to, and continue to apply to App Academy until you get accepted. Start with codecademy then move on to learn x the hard way. I can’t speak to literature, I’m not sure enjoyment of it is trainable. I didn’t enoy it until my twenties and some of it is just a bore, a matter of taste. Austen, Nabokov, Bret Easton , all too boring to ever read again. I don’t know anything past university first year physics but have heard wonderful things about the Feynman lectures.

        >Now I find myself constantly wondering if I have sufficient IQ to be good. I procrastinate more because I interpret struggle as “Bayesian evidence” that I’m not smart. I’m studying to be a programmer now and it terrifies me that I will eventually run into an impenetrable wall in my skill progress.

        Struggle and failure are a sign of actually trying. If you never struggle you really will never achieve anything. Everybody hits their wall in the end. Von Neumann didn’t defeat death single handed. He just died.

  21. Princess Stargirl says:

    This is really a wonderful essay. Thank you for writing it. I have spent months of my life depressed because of my IQ not being high enough (in my estimation) for pure math research. I know this sounds silly but I am not a rational person.

    Thanks alot Scott.

    • The fact that so many folks here report having felt depressed as a result of thinking they weren’t smart enough suggests that the position Scott argues against might not be wrong after all. I mean, if as a matter of fact people are going to feel depressed upon learning the truth about the role of intelligence in human accomplishment, even the ultra-rational people that frequent this blog, it seems to matter little that this feeling isn’t justified and that it might disappear once people reflect very, very carefully about it. “Your worries that x will cause people to feel bad about y are unfounded, because y doesn’t follow from x” is an argument that works only if one assumes that people won’t draw invalid inferences, and it seems we have some evidence that the inference in question is one that even good reasoners are apt to make.

      • Princess Stargirl says:

        I am pretty reading about intelligence research has made my life significantly less pleasant. Its also probably reduced my motivation levels (the plausible mechanism is the growth mindset is gone).

        This does not seem to be a rare reaction I guess. Even among those who score relatively well on intelligence tests. You are probably right that if Scott’s position on intellegence is the truth (this is not certain) then alot of people are not going to be able to handle it.

        I don’t mean this in the sense “the masses cannot learn of this but we elect can.” I definitely didn’t handle it well. It probably cost me several months of my life (spent lying in bed) and at least one romantic relationship (see lying in bed for months).

        Maybe though a better ideology can be constructed around intelligence. Scott’s essay is maybe a step toward this.

        • Linked List says:

          I mentioned in another comment that I also didn’t handle the knowledge about innate intelligence very well. I don’t know about you, but this thread made me think that I should adjust my belief system to optimize for growth mindset, not for truth. I’m not a rationalist. I don’t value truth that much.

        • Anonymous says:

          I think the reason people have trouble with this is that they were told, over and over and emphatically, that your potential is how hard you work rather than what you’re born with. This is a lie – possibly a useful lie, but very clearly a lie. I think when people are forced to either realize that it is a lie, or consider themselves lazy, it’s a hard realization.

          I think that telling the lie is the big mistake – I don’t think it actually does much to motivate people to do great things as it is intended. Like Scott says above, people who are talented at stuff generally find doing it enjoyable, which means they don’t need to be told flowery lies in order to keep at it.

    • ” I have spent months of my life depressed because of my IQ not being high enough (in my estimation) for pure math research.”

      And the mirror image to that problem is feeling depressed because you haven’t accomplished as much as you think your IQ should have let you accomplish.

  22. tom says:

    Speaking of donating to charities, how about setting up some way to donate to you? E.g. Bitcoin/Paypal/something, buying books for that purpose feels extremely inefficient.

    • zz says:

      Well, if you up and follow Scott’s buying algorithm, then you can donate 5% of the money you spend for free AND never need to go through the hassle of shopping. (I cannot comprehend people who go out shopping when they can get stuff delivered to their door.)

      And, I get supporting Scott, but I don’t think marginal money going to him will result in marginal posts (or marginal site uptime or even better load times), so why exactly would Scott want to enable his readers to donate to him when those donations probably funge against donations to MIRI or CFAR or whatever GiveWell’s recommending at the moment? And why would you donate to him rather than there?

      (Related: as most, but not all, of you probably know, CFAR’s in the last hours of their winter fundraiser. They’re significantly behind their target and donations are being matched.)

      • tom says:

        The probability MIRI’s doing the right thing is hardly one. And if you consider the impact of an effort on making the world better assuming no singularity, Scott is already much more influential than CFAR. If I was a king, I’d totally make him a court philosopher and the modern society’s equivalent is donation or Kickstarter, isn’t it?

        • Susebron says:

          Scott is opposed to donations to him for various reasons, including but not limited to replacement of charity. It’s come up before.

          • If Scott is worried about replacing charity, he could just donate his readers’ donations. And it’s likely that this money would have been donated to less cost-effective charities in the relevant counterfactual scenario (since Scott is more familiar with the EA literature than his average reader is), so by taking donations he would be increasing the amount of good in the world.

            You do mention other reasons, though, and these may be decisive.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Still not interested in accepting donations (give to charity if you want), but if you change your Amazon bookmark to my affiliate link (it’s on the orange Amazon ad on the sidebar) and buy your Amazon stuff through there, I’ll get a cut.

      • tom says:

        OK. Here’s one more idea if you don’t like donations, how about a book wishlist on amazon/somewhere, surely book giving is an activity to be promoted?

      • This looks as though it ought to be the subject of its own essay—is there one on the site?

        Why do you feel differently about donations than about the Amazon cut? Would you feel differently about people expressing their appreciation for your writing in a non-monetary form–a gift, taking you out for dinner, or the like? I ask in part because I have long been intrigued by the bias against cash in social interactions that seems nearly universal in our culture.

        • onyomi says:

          And other cultures, such as the Chinese. Many famous Chinese painters, calligraphers, writers, antiques experts, etc. managed to make a living while never “charging” anyone anything.

          If anything, being okay with it seems to be the exception, on Deirdre McCloskey’s reading of history.

  23. Sam Hopkins says:

    I think you successfully argue for the proposition that attributing a person’s abilities or actions to things outside of their control (e.g. their genes) is *not* a compassionate response. Indeed, it would hardly be a show of compassion if I don’t get mad at a boulder that falls on my house because the bolder had no choice in the matter. Compassion is about accepting a wide range of human experiences as normal, and wanting to help everyone out whether they are badly off through their own fault or not.

  24. somnicule says:

    What about executive function impairment? Functionally this can amount to being lazy, making poor decisions even with high intelligence, “not reaching your full potential”, etc.

    I do not think it is fair to judge people for not working hard either, if they are incapable of doing so. But on the other hand, the threat of judgement might be a productive motivating factor for others. So I’m basically holding out for your bit on growth mindset, because whatever you come up with to reconcile intelligence biodeterminism and growth mindset should help solve this problem too.

  25. Izaak Weiss says:

    Scott, I have a question for you and anyone else who knows anything about IQ.

    I took a real IQ test (wisc-iv) when I was very young, and I recently looked at the results again. I had scored so well on one section that I had gotten every question right (and answered nine more questions right from another IQ test that my tester had on hand). On another section, I scored extremely poorly (somewhere in the bottom 10%). This massive distance between scores in each part means that some people and psychologists think that the IQ test should be re-scored using something called a GAI (general ability index).

    Does anyone know anything about this? I did some research, and although it sounded a bit to me like it was a “special snowflake” thing to appease parents of children who didn’t like how their child did on the IQ test, I also wonder whether it’s simply a more complex but also more accurate way of scoring IQ tests that only really makes a difference when there is a massive discrepancy between scores (a la the difference between calculating a trajectory using newtonian physics and general relativity).

    I’ve also been called “twice exceptional” because of this. Does this actually mean anything? I get the same sort of feeling from this as I do from the GAI, but that doesn’t mean that feeling is right.

    • People with nonverbal learning disabilities can have this kind of difference between different subsections on IQ tests. This does make the IQ test much less useful as a measure of their intelligence. High IQ children with autism are often called “twice exceptional”.

    • Cognitive tests can be divided into reasoning and process measures. The reasoning measures are better measures of intelligence, and the general ability index is based exclusively on those. Tests such as working memory and processing speed are omitted from the calculation.

      • somnicule says:

        How do we know the general ability index is a better measure? Does it correlate with life outcomes better, or other intelligence tests, or what?

      • Eli says:

        Shit… really? So… my mediocre reflexes and slow processing speed don’t really count, and I’m actually a genius like my reasoning scores said?


  26. John Schilling says:

    It’s a good thing that we are now, many of us at least, sufficiently enlightened that we understand things like intelligence and mental health and perhaps obesity are largely either hereditary or driven by environmental influences beyond the subject’s control, that we no longer ridicule, punish, or otherwise harshly judge people should they come up short in those departments.

    To what extent ought willpower itself be treated similarly? There is I believe evidence that genetics and/or early childhood environment plays a critical role here, though I haven’t seen anyone even try to quantify it in the way that e.g. hereditary effects on IQ have been sort of quantified. Probably that would be an even more controversial sort of research. But it may be that expecting or demanding that people try harder, is as unreasonable as expecting or demanding that they be smarter or stop being mentally ill.

    Pragmatically, of course, one of the environmental effects that almost certainly influences available willpower is the extent to which an individual is “punished” for giving up. From a consequentialist standpoint, I don’t think we want to give up on that tool entirely. But maybe we ought to feel sad, rather than virtuous, when we have to employ it on those who demonstrate less willpower than ourselves. And not consider any problem “solved” when the solution identified requires more willpower than the target population can actually bring to bear.

    • Sparky says:

      Thanks for this comment. To an old softy like me, it certainly feels more virtuous to feel sad rather than virtuous when encountering those who are struggling with a will-responsive problem. From a consequentialist standpoint, I think there’s evidence that shame can be unhelpful for those struggling with will-related problems. Also, again addressing potential consequentialist concerns, ameliorating the punishment side of the equation does not mean lessening the reward.

      I have two caveats to the above. The first is purely anecdotal, but speaking from personal experience, there have been times when I have been entering into a shame spiral of procrastination and dysfunction when a well timed “Sparky, suck it up” talk has snapped me out of my rut. The second caveat is less a warning and more of a prescriptive. It might be helpful to define these “will-related problems” as ones where there is a dis-junction between intent and will (e.g. problems that involve some form of “I want to do X [loose weight, be on time, etc.] but can’t”). I think there is a place for virtue and a shame taboo upon problems such as slapping a person with deliberation. Also, I think there may be moral degrees of difference between how we treat someone who has struck another with deliberation and someone who is struggling with anger issues and who struck another.

      I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the above.

      • John Schilling says:

        I think about a hundred generations of Jewish mothers might take issue with shame and guilt being unhelpful but it’s very context-dependent. For best results, I think the shame needs to be applied in small doses, from someone the recipient respects, in support of a clearly achievable goal and with a credible promise that shame will be replaced by admiration as progress is made towards the goal. As you note, sometimes a little bit of “suck it up” can work wonders, and I assume that’s coming from friends and family.

        Random fat jokes to passing women on the street, much less likely to be helpful.

        So, as a consequentialist and out of respect for the demonstrated success of a hundred generations of Jewish mothers in producing successful Jews, etc, I think we want to treat willpower as being under conscious control within broad limits and to keep shame, guilt, and other such punishments in our toolkit. But if they are the most-worn tools in someone’s kit, with a bunch of shiny barely-used praise and reward tucked away unused in the corner, yeah, that’s not a sign of virtue.

        As for your second point, I agree that we want to treat failures of will differently than failures of intent. I’d also suggest that if reward and punishment are still on the table, we want to look more at the first derivative than the present state. Someone who is trying to do better, and making any reasonable degree of progress, ought not be subject to punishment (at least not for their own sake; if they are actually going around hitting people society will have a legitimate interest in stopping them).

        At the other extreme, the people who have been doing extraordinarily well but have started backsliding, particularly if this is a matter of deliberate intent or just not caring any more, that’s a place where intervention can do some real good. But again, if you find yourself offering them shame and guilt for backsliding because you weren’t there with praise and support when they were being extraordinary, you’re probably doing it wrong.

  27. T. Greer says:

    I have mixed feelings about this.

    On the one hand, you are obviously right. I read between 60-80 academic books annually and for the last two years I have been posting lists of these books once the new year rolls around. Once in a while people will ask “how can I read as many books as you have here?” My answer is usually: “Well, I set aside the last two hours of my night—from 10:00-12:00 for reading. That does it for me.” But of course for a lot of people where this does not do it for them. They can’t read as fast as I can and there is nothing I could tell them that would make them read as fast as I do. It would be a lie if I told them otherwise, and even sillier if I expected them to accomplish what I have by “trying harder.”

    So I get where you are coming from on this on this one Scott.

    But I am not ready to retire the “you need to work hard to have success” line either.

    The problem with this discussion is that you have divided the world up into two groups: those who naturally grasp and master a task with little effort—let’s call them “the naturals”—and those who are not and never will be capable of accomplishing the task. Would it be too rude to call this group “the unqualified”? So when it comes to snagging an A in a math class, you have the naturals, who don’t need to study much, or in some cases at all, to understand the material, and the unqualified, who have to put in a marathon effort to just get a C.

    I think this leads out a key group: those who put in a marathon effort and get an A.

    I noticed back in the good ol’ days of high school that you can break down any high school AP class into two groups: the brilliant and generally lazy kids who were just naturally adept—brilliant even—in the subject chosen and the determined hard workers who buckle down, plow through the course with hours of homework and effort, and emerge with an A. Lets call this second group the grinders.

    The message of this post is great for the unqualifieds—in our high school example, those kids who can’t get into the AP class at all. But I think it is horribly destructive for the grinders to hear. The truth is that their hard work can compensate for a lack of brilliance. They are not smart enough to learn on the fly but they are smart enough to master the material if they can be motivated and disciplined enough to spend hours reviewing the material.

    In high school I was a natural at history, English, biology and social science. I never studied. I didn’t need to. When it came to history, especially, I usually knew more than most of my teachers did. Like Scott, I had a very different experience with mathematics. Part of the problem was that I was not studying and was not used to doing it—I am not sure I knew how to study; with most classes I did not need to. So when math came around I applied the same lack of effort and got horrible results—a big red D on my Algebra II grade, if I remember correctly.

    From that point forward I had this idea in my head that I just couldn’t do math. I was too dumb, it was not my natural talent, I should not waste time doing it, etc. I found this particularly sad, for I knew how important mathematics was, but that is just how things were.

    This was all incorrect. Math was not my natural talent, and I would never be in the top % range of math test takers, but there was more to my score than natural talent.

    In college I took another math course. I remember being physically afraid of that course—literally sweating in fear when I signed up for it. I did not think I could do it – or rather, I did not know if I could do it. I had some life experiences in the meantime that had taught me the importance of hard work, however, and I vowed I would put in whatever effort I needed to get a least a B. This translated to hours and hours and hours of math. I was the first one into every test and the last one out. I spent my afternoons in the university math center with the math tutors, and blocked out entire evenings to finish math assignments that other people were finishing in 30 minutes time. One week I timed it: I spent more time doing math than I spent sleeping. *

    I got an A.

    My experience is not everyone’s. Some people could not get the A no matter what they do, while others might struggle with the class but still pull away with an A grade with more sleep and less practice. But you understand the point. I am not naturally gifted fiddler of numbers. But if I worked hard I actually could get the A I was hoping for.

    I think there are a lot of people out there like this—I suspect that the majority of kids who get into a university are of this type. But if I had read this post back in those days, before I had signed up for this class— well, I suppose I never would have signed up. I would have accepted that I did not understand mathematics and that I never could understand mathematics and leave it at that.

    *To be fair to myself I was also a bit out of practice – I had done real math for five years at this point, and was very out of practice. “Not remembering how to multiply fractions” out of practice. The learning curve was steep.

    • onyomi says:

      Yes, also even if Scott struggled to get a C- in calculus due to less-than-stellar innate math ability, he still arrived at a better outcome than those who neither had innate ability, NOR worked hard to make up the deficit. Those people probably failed. Red tribe seems to therefore have some justification in saying effort is rewarded in our current society since maybe if Scott had gotten an F in calculus instead of a C- he wouldn’t have gotten into a good college and a good med school etc. etc.

      As a teacher myself, I’ve come to notice the obvious difference between people who do well because it comes naturally and people who do well because they work hard. If anything, I tend to respect the latter group more than the former, though there is also a big overlap, probably due to the whole “talented people find it fun to do things they are good at” factor.

      • Linked List says:

        the whole “talented people find it fun to do things they are good at” factor

        What about the reverse? i.e., “People like doing thing X and end up becoming good at it kinda by accident because they practiced it so much”. Do you think this is common in your class?

        • onyomi says:

          Yes, I have often thought about the “chicken-egg” aspect of the problem: do I like languages because I’m good at them, or am I good at languages because I like them?

          On the one hand, it’s clear to me that I have always grasped verbal stuff faster than most. On the other, it is also clear that I have always been interested in language for its own sake: figuring out some weird linguistic point gives me great pleasure even if there’s no obvious way to make any use of the insight to better my life.

          As with many things, it’s probably a little of both, but I tend to put more weight on the innate talent side in terms of determining achievement, because there are also things like dancing and martial arts which are extremely fun and interesting to me, yet which do not come easily to me.

          That said, it has often subjectively seemed to me that I am bad at math not because I am incapable of understanding math, but because every time I try to think about math I find it incredibly boring. Therefore there is probably also something like a “natural predilection” factor: one can imagine a graph with a “natural interest” axis and a “natural talent” axis. The highest achievers will be in the “high interest and high ability” box. I put myself there for studying foreign languages. For dancing, I put myself in the “high interest, low ability” box, and for math, the “high ability, low interest” box. And my dancing and my math are both decidedly mediocre, albeit maybe for different reasons.

    • randy m says:

      not b to take b away v from your point or experience, but to speak in terms of scholastic grades v obfuscates it a bit, because much of those grades are awarded based on effort rather than understanding or achievement.

      • onyomi says:

        Well there’s also the issue of what, exactly, we are grading as teachers–a point which has never been made entirely clear to me during my experience as a student or as a teacher, most likely because most people aren’t sure: are we grading achievement or ability in the subject area? degree of improvement relative to ability at the start of the course? degree of effort the professor perceives the student is expending?

        In practice it is probably some combination of all of the above. I tend to lean towards the second parameter because the first seems unfairly biased toward the naturally talented and the third overly subjective, but of course, a big improvement relative to the start of the class could also just be a result of talent. For this reason, though it is more boring for me to grade, I tend to create tests which require less that one have a high general ability in the area, and more that one has taken notes, done the homework, etc.

        I don’t really see it as my role to rate the student’s abilities in a more general sense, and Bryan Caplan argues pretty persuasively that a big aspect of the function of higher education today is just as a way of giving a “stamp of approval” saying “can learn; can follow directions; can show up.” The stamp doesn’t say “has a high level of ability in x,” because people in the working world don’t believe that anyway; they believe that when they see it, so all they really want is the stamp saying “can show up; can learn,” etc. I am more than a bit uncomfortable with this, since I don’t like the idea of wasting my time or the students’ time teaching them a subject they don’t find rewarding or useful for its own sake, but it’s not much under my control.

    • Yes! This is incredibly important, not just to the abstract question of grades but to the broader social questions of poverty, criminality, mental illness, etc. There are people who just can’t do it, but there are a lot of people who can do it if they put forth enough effort. Proclaiming the gospel of biodeterminism might help the self-esteem of the first group, but it’ll wreck the motivation of the second group, with deleterious consequences.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      I spent more time doing math than I spent sleeping.

      Note the sheer inefficiency here. You spent an incredible amount of effort for what was, in an absolute sense, only a modest improvement in your mathematical ability. One of the takeaways of this post is that such an abysmal reward-to-effort ratio is simply not worth it. It is not your comparative advantage. There are a bunch of other things you could have been doing instead; fields in which you were naturally talented or interested, areas in which the same amount of discipline and dedication would have gone much further.

      • But the ‘A’ gives you a better GPA, which means a better grad school, which means a better job, which means more income, an earlier retirement, and more time to do that stuff that you find interesting.

        • onyomi says:

          Yes, but note that the “A” doesn’t actually do anything for society, other than provide a “seal of approval” that this person can spend a lot of time doing something he hates, isn’t that good at, and will probably forget later on. This was why I so much more greatly enjoyed and benefited from college than high school: I could actually take subjects that interested me. It was pretty clear to me that I wasn’t going to go into a math-heavy field from as early as eighth grade, if only because I always hated doing it. Why couldn’t the educational system have taken that into account earlier and said “you know what, you are obviously good at and love doing liberal arts and hate math, so here, take some extra literature and history courses and drop math.”

      • But T Grier learned 2 things:

        First, some calculus, which he has probably since forgotten.

        Second, that seemingly insurmountable problems can be solved with hard work, which is almost certainly more important to him than the underlying math.

      • T. Greer says:


        You are right, it was inefficient. But I think you understate the benefits I gained from taking the class. I could have read another ten or twenty books in the time it took me to learn statistics and matrices and all that jazz. It was hard to learn them. But once I did an entire world was opened up to me that was quite relevant to the things I normally studied. Know I could read a paper in psychology that used regression analysis or an essay in political science or economics that proposed a formalized model and understand what was going on. That was worth the effort.

        Learning a foreign language might be a good analogy here. I have many friends from East Asia. Many of these folk are brilliant at math but not too good with languages. English posed a particular problem. Now a high school adviser following Scott’s advice might have said to them, “Hey, look, you are very good at mathematics, and chemistry, and you want to be a scientist. Learning foreign languages is not your natural talent. The opportunity cost of studying English–instead of mastering your science stuff–is extremely high. You will never be as good as those people who just get it all naturally. Why don’t you just quit and focus on what you are naturally talented in?”

        I think we can all understand why this would be disastrous advice to give them. Our adviser is obviously right — they are not natural language learners, and even if they were, every hour spent learning English comes at the cost of not studying the subjects they are naturally brilliant at. The problem, however, is that the international language of science is English and if they do not learn it they cut themselves off from a great deal of the cutting scientific research of our day. The rewards for reaching a “functional” level of fluency in English are more than just an A.

        The same applies to mathematics. You don’t need to be a math genius to benefit from understanding what terms like “p value” or “confidence interval” mean. Understanding these terms, however, opens up a very large range of research to you that you would never know otherwise. The math used in the best formalized model to come out of political science over the last twenty years is not too difficult, but it sure looks that way to someone who has not had a math problem for five years.

        I’m not going to try a career that uses advanced mathematics. But I am glad I had the grit to get through that course.

  28. Steve Johnson says:

    If everyone is legitimately a different person with a different brain and different talents and abilities, then all God gets to ask me is whether or not I was Scott Alexander.

    Must feel strange to end that essay with your pseudonym.

    • Corwin says:

      I use my pseudonym more than my real name even in meatspace, so just to inform you, some people might indeed find it strange to use one’s real name to end one’s online essay.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      My pseudonym is my real first name + my real middle name, so it’s not exactly foreign to me.

  29. onyomi says:

    You start out saying that it’s progressive and empathetic to think of levels of success as predetermined, but end by pointing out that everyone can do their own little share by means of comparative advantage and maximizing innate potential. I think in most cases, the right-wing people who cast aspersions on the people on welfare are not saying “they could have been great mathematicians if only they’d worked harder.” They are usually saying “they could at least get a job at McDonald’s and contribute something, but they are too lazy, and the choice of whether or not to actually go out and apply for jobs/show up on time, etc. is under their control.” I’ve never heard a right-wing person look at a construction worker with disdain and say “tsk, tsk. If only he’d studied harder in school, he could be curing AIDS by now.”

    The blue tribe member could respond that even the ability to stop drinking, get off the sofa, and show up to work on time is itself genetically and/or environmentally determined. But that takes us into the territory of denying free will entirely. And while I’m not sure free will exists, denying it seems to produce consequences few are willing to accept: that literally no one is morally culpable for any wrongdoing and that not even the greatest humanitarian or innovator is worthy of praise. But I also wonder whether it’s even possible for the human mind to think of free will as an illusion (that is to grasp that fact on an intuitive, visceral level, assuming it is a fact), because it seems to be an illusion that requires our participation, since our very sense of existing at all is tied up in it.

    I’m not sure what your (Scott’s) view on free will is, but it seems like you either have to accept that it does exist, and that therefore people have some, if not total, control over (and therefore responsibility for) how much they contribute to society (and how fat they are, etc.), or else that it doesn’t exist, and that there can therefore be no comfort in striving to “be the best version of yourself” or “live up to your potential,” since you have no way of causing your potential and your outcome to diverge, in any case. I guess you can take comfort in having no responsibility for your own outcome, but that’s a different matter.

    • Princess Stargirl says:

      I actually do think that no one deserves moral blame or moral praise. This is a view I adopted after seriously thinking about innate differences and free will. I am not sure its that hard of a view to adopt. It even has “nice” implications like that the only purpose of punishment is deterence.

      I agree its almost impossible to really accept the non-existence of free will in one’s daily life. But I don’t see why this is a problem. I “know” a table is really made of atoms and there is a blind spot in my visual field. But tables seem “solid” and I don’t notice the blindspot. In most cases the non-existence of freewill is not important. However it IS important when we consider moral judgement so we should remember to override our intuitions before we “judge” people. But most of the time its fine o pretend free will exists.

      • onyomi says:

        It feels pretty subjectively problematic to me to assign no more blame to Hitler or Stalin–by all accounts reasonably intelligent, mostly sane adults–than one would to a rabid dog, or even a falling rock, though, as with the free will thing, it may be an issue of “we must pretend there’s something different about Hitler and an unusually deadly earthquake because of the way human social brains are wired.”

        • Anonymous says:

          I don’t think contemplating Hitler or Stalin will be very helpful for understanding intuitions here. There’s a rather strong cultural norm of hating those two and anyone would feel uneasy with saying or thinking anything that breaks from that norm. I don’t think they are more deserving of moral blame than a falling rock but I sure as hell would never admit to that in public, under my own name, because someone would inevitably misinterpret that as Hitler-apologetics.

          Do you find not blaming Chad, the generic car thief equally problematic?

          • onyomi says:

            Not equally problematic, since car theft is not as bad as genocide, but perhaps problematic in the same way, if not to the same degree.

        • doe says:

          In my experience it feeling wrong is overcomeable. Being wrong can feel exactly like being right and all that.

          • onyomi says:

            Perhaps “feel” is not the right word. One can become inured to almost anything. But one can still “see” with the rational faculty that something is “wrong” or “right.” But then, I’m a moral realist.

      • TheAncientGeek says:

        Do you think ptausecand bane can play useful roles as correctives, even they’re not deserved?

      • “so we should remember to override our intuitions before we “judge” people. ”

        What does “should” mean in a universe without free will?

        • onyomi says:

          Yes, this is exactly what I’ve been trying to get at, but expressed much more succinctly.

        • Princess Stargirl says:

          I don’t really know a good answer to this question. I am pretty convinced that free will is not true. However I don’t know how one can really internalize the non-existence of free will.

          One explanation is that my basis for saying you “Should” suspend all moral judgement (if this is reasonably easy for you) is based on the non-existence of free will. However when I say you “Should” do X I am back to pretending free-will exists. Which does not seem that weird to me as I am almost always pretending free will exists.

          But the real answer is I do not know how to resolve this difficulty.

    • Wrong Species says:

      Discussions about free will are tedious. I prefer to think about it as internal vs. external. If someone is poor because of external problems(discrimination or lack of opportunity) then that’s a serious problem that should be fixed. But if someone is poor for internal reasons, that doesn’t really concern me(besides giving them some minimal welfare). And if rich people are rich because they happen to be inherently talented that doesn’t bother me even though they didn’t “choose” their genetics.

  30. Waffles says:

    I enjoyed this post. Thank you!

    Does this mean we should revisit that theory about General Factors Of Intelligence? I mean, I’d be happy to concede that (eg) malnutrition and or lead exposure erodes all types of intelligence, and so people might have a General Factor Of Not Having Their Intelligence Screwed Up. But your story about math vs English, and your story about Ramanujan, make me feel like intelligence might not actually be that general.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Various forms of intelligence are correlated but not perfectly correlated.

    • Princess Stargirl says:

      The usual term for general intelligence is “g” in the literature. Whether “g” is a good concept or not is a complicated and debatable subject. What is true is the following. Across a fixed population almost every meaningful measure of intelligence* is correlated. This is sometimes referred to as the “positive manifld.” The positive matrix is not really contestable. However concepts like “g” and “g-loading” are on sketchier ground.

      Here is a link with some chats showing the correlations between sub-tests of intelligence tests. WARNING I do NOT endorse the views of the authors of that site.

      Whether a general intelligence factor exists is not super relevant to your point. People can very different ability levels at math/music/verbal. However what is true (but to some counter-intuitive) is that someone with high math ability is more likely to also be talented at music or verbal than someone with an average math ability.

      *These include: Memory, musical ability, GRE Scores, IQ, visual spatial ability, analogies, SAT verbal, measured writing ability, etc

      **Though different populations can have different strengths. For examples Native Australians score very low on IQ tests but score very highly on measures of visual spatial memory.

      • Scott Alexander says:

        Does anyone know whether Native Australians have been tested to see if their unusually high spatial abilities hold up after they’ve lived in cities for a couple of generations?

        I’m tempted to say this is one of the strongest arguments for ability of education/training to affect IQ, since their hunting-gathering is heavily reliant on excellent navigation.

        (which would also explain their deficits; mathematical logic problems are rare in the ancestral Outback)

        But if I did that right now, JayMan would show up and point out that they’ve had 50,000 years to adapt to an environment where they’re heavily reliant on excellent navigation, so it could be genetic as well.

        I bet someone has studied this and I should look for it.

        • Ahilan Nagendram says:

          This may be true. I believe the Inuit have high scores on visual spatial subtests as well.

          • JayMan says:

            Lopsided visuospatial ability has been found in virtually all peoples historically bordering the Pacific Ocean (i.e., East Asians, Australian Aborigines, Native Americans – not sure about SE Asians and Pacific Islanders, though).

            At some point, I will cruise through the Human Varieties stuff to see if that continues to hold up in additional studies.

        • Sparky says:

          Hey Scott,

          I did a quick a quick look around the literature for some research on the question of whether native Australians have been tested to see if their unusually high spatial abilities hold up after they’ve lived in cities for a couple of generations but found nothing. I don’t think this is surprising, however, since the connection between native Australians and spatial ability was initially made known in academic circles (anthropology/linguistics) in a paper supporting the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (a theory that language informs cognition). In short, the link drawn between the native Australians studied and their spatial abilities was theorized to be language. The dialect of the particular native Australians in question used absolute referencing (e.g. “east,” “west”) and did not use relative referencing (e.g. “left,” “right”).

          The paper was published at a time when the credibility of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was waning. Most of the subsequent research that I have found has been aimed at sussing out how much “culture” as opposed to language can account for this advantage in spatial reasoning. No attention (that I could find at least) addressed how long lived the advantage was either across individuals or generations once the people in question either (a) picked up a new language or (b) moved to a new location with new practices (or both). Also, because the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis can be a hot button in linguistic and cog-sci circles, I would caution you to keep your antennae for sloppy research up if you do any digging.

  31. haishan says:

    I’ve had the same thought about the inspirationality of comparative advantage; it feels awesome knowing that I independently had the same idea as Ozy, because Ozy is awesome.

    I’m a little worried that this passes the buck onto worrying that you’re the guy burying his talent in the backyard; at least, this is my problem. And I’m not sure that you can keep passing the buck, saying “it’s biology all the way down,” or you’ve painted yourself into a corner where you feel it’s impossible to improve yourself. And this seems sub-optimal.

    • Corwin says:

      You can improve yourself, but the degree to which you can do so is also (at least partially) biologically determined… No conscientousness/willpower and you’ll be too flighty to keep doing something as soon as it stops being fun, even if the unfunniness would have not lasted long.

  32. onyomi says:

    This post was also very interesting to me because I had a very similar experience in school with respect to verbal and mathematical abilities. Probably the area in which I am more talented than most to the highest degree is studying foreign languages. I always found studying foreign languages to be extremely easy, rewarding, and fun, and therefore it never felt like a chore, and so I spent more time on it, etc. Even now I go to a bunch of language tables at my school just to practice languages I have studied in the past. Whereas many of the students seem to feel it’s like pulling teeth, for me it’s just extremely entertaining and comes easily. Conversely, I’ve never felt that math is beyond my grasp: if I sit long enough with a problem or concept I can usually get it, but the sitting with it always feels like a huge chore and does not give me any pleasure in the task for its own sake.

    Since part of my professional responsibility now includes teaching a foreign language myself, though, I have had to become better at understanding that it doesn’t come nearly as easily to most people as it does to me. The analogy I created for myself was to think about me swing dancing. I find swing dancing very fun, but I do not have much talent for it. I have taken tons of swing dancing lessons and been to many dance events, but it still doesn’t come naturally to me. When teachers tell me “just move your feet like this” I process on an intellectual level what they are doing, but I cannot easily make my feet do what I’m seeing. I try to make myself remember that some of my students are to foreign languages as I am to swing dancing.

    That said, with any subject, there usually IS a way to get the slow learners to get it: it just takes more work and more clever, carefully-prepared pedagogy. In my time teaching foreign language I have learned all kinds of tricks of explaining grammar to people that I would never have learned on my own because understanding grammar comes to me like a vision of a Hindu god.

    This gets me to an idea I’ve had since as early as grammar school, when I already struggled with math relative to English: people who get a job teaching a subject tend to be (unsurprisingly) people who are good at that subject. But precisely because they are naturally good at the subject, that in some ways makes them bad teachers. I think teachers in general probably should realize this about themselves and take more steps to overcome it, though it can be quite hard.

    I also got a perfect verbal SAT score, and a less-than-perfect but still very good math score. That is, though not amazing, my math SAT score was much higher than my grades in math class reflected. I always felt that I could have been much better at math if only I had had better teachers, though I probably was never destined to go into any profession that required a deep understanding of it.

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      Your comment reminded me of something I’ve experienced in my own life. I love languages. I love studying them, I love trying to speak in other languages. I learned the IPA (international phonetic alphabet) so that I could learn how to pronounce words from random obscure languages without having to find a teacher or a recording. I even create my own con-languages for fun.

      But I suck at languages. The hardest I ever have worked is in language classes, and I’m happy when I get a C on a test. (On one final exam for my spanish class, I did worse on a multiple choice section than chance.)

      So I think we really have to recognize that the variables Funness and Easiness, while they may be correlated, aren’t identical.

      • onyomi says:

        Yes, I think this is right. Just a moment ago I wrote something similar in a different thread:

        “…it has often subjectively seemed to me that I am bad at math not because I am incapable of understanding math, but because every time I try to think about math I find it incredibly boring. Therefore there is probably also something like a “natural predilection” factor: one can imagine a graph with a “natural interest” axis and a “natural talent” axis. The highest achievers will be in the “high interest and high ability” box. I put myself there for studying foreign languages. For dancing, I put myself in the “high interest, low ability” box, and for math, the “high ability, low interest” box. And my dancing and my math are both decidedly mediocre, albeit maybe for different reasons.”

      • nydwracu says:

        oh what the hell is there anyone around here who *doesn’t* conlang

        • Fazathra says:

          I think this should be added to the next survey just so we can admire the no-doubt-high percentages.

        • onyomi says:

          I actually don’t, even though I’m very good at learning foreign languages. I do like to read dictionaries, however. I tried to learn Esperanto once, but found myself very uninterested due to lack of native speakers or a culture/literature, etc. attached. For the same reason conlang doesn’t really interest me, though I do think it’s really cool when someone else does it in a way that attaches that language to a culture, history, etc. like Tolkien, creators of Klingon, etc.

          It does seem to be true, though, that a disproportionate number of Scott’s readers possess the “verbal” kind of smartness, as opposed to the “math” kind of smartness, though I’m sure many possess both. I think maybe facility in philosophy and facility in language can be correlated, since putting thoughts into writing disciplines them. Disciplined writing may therefore be a sign of, if not a cause of, rigorous thinking?

      • Ahilan Nagendram says:

        I collect the numbers 1-10 of all conlangs. Can you please send me the numbers of 1-10 from your conlang. I will waiting your telegram.

        • I’m fascinated by your collection and would like to contribute (hoping I don’t forget to check back to this sub-thread; SSC gets a mind-boggling volume of comments, and here I am, making it worse).

          Unfortunately, for kendaneivash, I’m going to have to ask what base you want them in (1 < n <= 20).

          (I don't expect you to answer, by the way, I took your statement to be at the very least slightly tongue-in-cheek, but the opportunity to bring the joke was too good to pass on.)

    • ddreytes says:

      “But precisely because they are naturally good at the subject, that in some ways makes them bad teachers.”

      It’s almost a truism in sports that extraordinarily good players tend to make rather bad coaches. The archetypal example is Ted Williams in baseball – one of the greatest hitters of all time, but he was a horrible manager. He was just unable to understand why batters just couldn’t achieve the same results he did. Because it turns out you can’t really teach someone to have such extraordinary reflexes or vision.

    • MicaiahC says:

      Hm, what languages do you know and what order did you learn them in? Judging by your name, you know Japanese, and I’ve had a sneaking suspicion that the Romantic -> East Asian language gap is much harder than the East Asian -> Romantic gap and I kinda want to see if you picked up Japanese as easily as a romantic language. (I’m in a weird position where I can sort of do Japanese but that was mostly riding off of my childhood Chinese)

      • Lorxus says:

        I speak English and Korean, both heritage, though the Korean is much weaker. I also picked up French and some Lojban. If there’s anything you want to ask me, go ahead.

      • onyomi says:

        I can speak Mandarin and Japanese at an almost-native level; I can speak French and one other Chinese language at a good enough level to have a reasonable conversation or read a book with aid of a dictionary; I can read Sanskrit with heavy use of a dictionary. That once was the case with Latin also, but it’s been a very long time.

        The order I learned them in was French and Latin (high school), Japanese and Mandarin (college plus grad school and study abroad), Sanskrit (grad school), and other Chinese dialect. My parents are monolingual English speakers.

        I would agree it’s a much bigger time investment for a native English-speaker to become proficient in an Asian language than in a Romance or Germanic language. Certainly Mandarin and Japanese were much, much bigger time investments for me than French, though learning another dialect of Chinese was much easier after speaking Mandarin, as I believe it would now be fairly easy for me to learn Korean, already speaking Chinese and Japanese.

        I’m pretty sure it’s also more difficult for a native Chinese or Japanese speaker to learn English than it would be for say, a French or German speaker to learn English, but a little harder to say, coming from my perspective, and having no experience teaching ESL to Europeans (I have taught it to some Chinese and Japanese).

        • MicaiahC says:

          Hm, noted.

          One thing I believe, and I really shouldn’t be asking this because you’ll probably fall to whatever biases I am falling prey to, is that Mandarin / Japanese isn’t actually impossibly hard to learn. I think both of them are far more composable than English (see: 量子物理学 vs quantum mechanics) and far more regular (conjugating the end of sentence to change tense vs changing the entire sentence structure in English), and that, yes there’s a difficulty hump much earlier w.r.t. vocabulary, but once you’re over it (say, 500 or so kanji/hanzi) you start benefiting from the above advantages.

          Has this been true in your experience?

          • onyomi says:

            My experience with languages is that while there may be such a thing as difficulty in absolute terms, most of the perceived differences in difficulty of learning various languages depend on which language(s) you already speak. If your native language is Vietnamese, Chinese will be easier to learn than German. If your native language is Korean, Japanese will be easier to learn than English.

            The reason is that most languages which are simple in one parameter compensate by being complicated in another. Modern Japanese, for example, has a very small number of possible phonemes (only 5 vowels, for example), but compensates with a lot of very long words. Chinese has a lot of short words, but compensates with complex pronunciation (tonality, in particular). And Chinese tonality was itself a response to loss of more complex consonant clusters that existed in Old Chinese, which didn’t really have tones as we understand them.

            This happens all over the place such that it’s very hard, if not impossible, to find a natural language that is truly simple or truly complex in all parameters. It is a natural process, as there is always a natural inclination on the part of speakers of all languages to drop distinctions which are not necessary for intelligibility.

            So the more important question is never “are Chinese and Japanese hard languages,” it’s “are Chinese and Japanese hard languages for native… speakers.” For native English speakers I think the answer is “yes.” The grammar may be simpler, but most English speakers have a very hard time learning to recognize and reproduce Chinese tones, and to remember Chinese characters (though I think that’s a bit of a challenge even for the Chinese themselves, who take longer to arrive at the “can read a newspaper” level of literacy than their English-speaking counterparts, I believe). For Japanese there is also the issue of honorific and humble language, and both languages present the very big difficulty of few cognates.

            What you bring up about how compound Chinese words are much easier to parse and understand etymologically than English words is interesting, because Chinese, especially as a written language, has not absorbed a lot of outside influences, at least since as far back as we can tell. This contrasts strongly with English and Japanese, both of which are “Creoles” (English of a Germanic language with a lot of French vocabulary and Japanese of a possibly Turkish-type language that absorbed a lot of Chinese vocab.). Being heavily creolized may contribute to “absolute” language difficulty, if such a thing exists. For a fun imagining of what English might look like if it had never absorbed any Romance vocab, see:

          • MicaiahC says:

            Ah! I see. Thanks for your response. Especially for that conlang post.

  33. onyomi says:

    Last point: I think it’s hard not to associate intelligence with self-worth because intelligence, more than any other trait, is what makes humans different from other animals. And as elitist as this probably is, more intelligence (and I think also will power, a la the gom jabbar test) seems to make people more different from animals, who generally have little ability to plan, defer gratification, etc. (traits we also tend to associate with people of low IQ). Thus, whether explicitly or implicitly, I think people associate intelligence with “human-ness,” which most cultures privilege over “animal-ness.” Not that I disagree with the worthiness of the goal of decoupling intelligence and self-worth; just stating a reason I think it may be hard.

    • Paul Torek says:

      Well, yes, but that’s something worth getting over, too. We don’t have to make animals out to be zeros to make ourselves heroes. To do that denigrates human qualities we share with animals, which is a crying shame.

      • onyomi says:

        Well, but I didn’t say it had to be humans 100, animals 0. What if it’s humans 100, chimps 80, dogs and cats 50, insects 5, etc. in terms of the respect we accord to them? By this same logic, “smart humans” could get 105 and “dumb humans” 90 or something. Not saying we should do that; just that we don’t have to choose between according animals the same level of regard as humans and according them no regard whatsoever.

        • Paul Torek says:

          To clarify, it’s not that I want to give animals the same regard as humans. I eat fish, but not humans. It’s that I want to respect animals for what they are, and for that, comparing them to humans is irrelevant. And the same goes for humans, with comparing them to other animals, including other humans.

          • onyomi says:

            But why isn’t the comparison to animals appropriate, given that human and animal IQs are, in fact, so far as I know, comparable? That is, it is possible to make calculations like “the average adult chimp is as smart as the average human 6-year old,” or “the average adult dolphin is as smart as the average human 4-year old.” I’d say my cat is probably as smart as a 2-year old human. Don’t know where that puts his IQ in terms of an adult human, but maybe like 30? Animal intelligence seems to be different from human intelligence in degree, not kind.

            Why should we not, therefore, respect a cat’s wishes as much as we’d respect a 2-year old’s, say? That’s pretty much how I treat my cat: as an entity with its own feelings, motivations, desires, even plans–just very simple ones that shouldn’t always be respected, like those of a 2-year old human.

            Of course, this kind of thinking may lead to vegetarianism (which may, in fact, be morally correct, though I haven’t become a vegetarian yet), since you wouldn’t eat a baby, but in terms of eating there does seem to be a difference reminiscent perhaps of incest taboos: it’s not that we won’t eat a baby because it’s smarter than a pig–it probably isn’t. We won’t eat a baby because eating people seems disgusting to most cultures today.

            Now I’m not necessarily saying I endorse this rubric of “more IQ points=more respect, more consideration, more reluctance to harm, etc.” just saying it seems to be one many implicitly hold.

          • Paul Torek says:

            I’m not denying any of that. I think we’ve gone off topic though.

      • houseboatonstyx says:


  34. mb says:

    Scott, thank you.
    I work in a creative field and so far have had little success. “Your work is crap” “you are wasting your time” and similar ideas often float through my head.
    This was comfort. It means even more coming from someone whom I respect so much.
    I am weeping.
    Thank you again.

  35. Dave Rolsky says:

    I was going to write a comment to the effect that becoming more intelligent would not make you happier. However, a quick bit of googling does suggest that intelligence may be positively correlated with happiness, and almost certainly does not reduce happiness.

    That said, my own personal experience suggests that simply being intelligent does not make one happy. I’m of above average IQ (not a genius, but pretty high). I spent my pre-college years in gifted programs at school, and people often praised me for my intelligence. I was proud of that intelligence (which I now realize was ridiculous because it’s just something I was born with), but I definitely was not happy because of it.

    I think the combination of my intelligence and getting way too much praise for it as a child led to me being incredibly alienated from most of the people I went to school with. This definitely didn’t improve my happiness. Things improved once I went to college and after graduation, when I was much freer to consciously associated with others based on shared interests rather than proximity. That said, I still feel somewhat alienated from other, and I remain unable to relate to many people I meet (I think my EQ is well below average 😉

    The other downside of high intelligence is a keen awareness of how much you don’t know and will never know, as well as how much you won’t do. I know with great certainty that I will never be Mozart (despite a Masters in Music), Ramanujan, or Elon Musk. I sometimes wonder if I were less intelligent whether I’d worry about this stuff less.

    The upside of high intelligence is that it does make basic success (getting and keeping a decent paying job, etc.) easier. But anyone reading this blog is almost certainly well above the threshold of intelligence needed for that level of life success.

    TLDR: The grass is always greener. You’re smart enough to live a reasonably happy life. Focus on being happy and contributing what you can to the world, and don’t worry about what you could do with ten more IQ points.

  36. Texfan says:

    I remember hearing an athlete saying something along the lines that he always competes always against himself, and he is a winner if he is able to do better than his previous record (of course he also happened to be a winner competing against all the other people).

    I can really relate to that quote. From my own experience, I have never had any musical education as a child. Yet in college I picked up guitar and started practicing. In a while I started to like it a lot and signed up with an instructor. After several years I was much better than when I started and that felt really good. I was still amazingly horrible compared to anyone who actually started young. No one would probably enjoy listening to me play. There were probably lots of kids who could learn to play way better than me in a much shorter period. Not that it mattered. As soon as I took other people out of equation and started to compete against myself – there was good progress and it felt really rewarding. Was it effortless? No. It did feel like work, but it was really rewarding as I was getting results and I wasn’t held back by an expectation to be better than someone else.

    So it can be really rewarding to just ignore other people’s skills and just enjoy doing what you like doing, work on it, and witness the improvement – see yourself getting better. I feel that it’s a great attitude (at least regarding hobbies and such).

    PS: I guess this is somewhat tangential to this post; Scott seems to be talking more about general social worth which of course is a much more serious topic

  37. Alsadius says:

    I really, really like that comment about comparative advantage. I’m totally going to steal that, actually.

    Edit: Also, a thought on innate skill. In highschool, I was awesome at math but pretty bad at English class – couldn’t focus, didn’t care, wrote bad essays, and got marks in the low 70s. In university, I took an English class with 80 students, and had the best assignments of any of them. If grade-12 me had read this post, I’d probably have identified strongly with the “good at one, not so much at the other”. A few years later, it wasn’t true any more.

    I’m not trying to say that different levels of talents don’t exist(because that’d be ridiculous), but sometimes other problems can look a lot like a lack of talent.

  38. Jon Cantwell says:

    I think this – and Burdens – are probably two of the most powerful and important things you’ve ever written. I’ve fumbled towards expressing this, myself, at various points in my life; it feels really good to read this, especially from you.

    (Also, on a purely personal note, re: good grades in English, being terrible at maths but really wanting to not be terrible at maths: I KNOW THAT FEEL. I so, so very know that feel. I’ve got perfect-scoring essays out there being used as example essays for the IB and AP exams, BUT THAT DOESN’T HELP HUMANITY NOT FAIL, AAAA.

    Yeah, no, let me tell you: the writing you do /hell of/ helps humanity not fail, please never think otherwise. Not to mention the fact that you’re in medicine, which I could not do in a billion years and have nearly infinite respect for anyone who can.)

  39. Silicon Golem says:

    Interesting. My self-worth is eroded by the fact that I am very intelligent (almost certainly 99th percentile in IQ), yet twenty years after college (an opportunity which I largely wasted) I have no achievements to show for it.

    Mostly this is because I never seem to do anything. I think the rationalist crowd calls this “akrasia”, but they seem to apply the word to much less extreme cases of getting nothing done. I’ve spent literally months getting nothing done at previous jobs; a couple of times it’s gotten me fired.

    I currently have a fairly high-paying job (top quintile, but not top decile), which I know I’m qualified for when I’m actually engaged. But one year of unemployment in every five is like a 20% pay cut, and the insecurity is bad along a number of dimensions. I don’t think I suffer from impostor syndrome: when I don’t think I can do something at work, it’s typically because I’ve never done it before; any actual performance at something boosts my confidence at that activity.

    And yes, I know that there are people with average intelligence who would be happy to trade places with me; if they had my intelligence, they’d probably far surpass what I’ve done, and even at average intelligence, they might do better than I have. For that matter, there are probably people smarter than me who would be glad to trade places (I’m thinking here of Ph.D.s who discover too late that there are no jobs in their field).

    I guess it’s relevant that I tend not to judge other people’s worth by their intelligence, but somewhat paradoxically bolstered my self-esteem all the way through school and college by telling myself I was smart. I think for many people, how hard they try doesn’t make much difference in their circumstances—but in my case, it’s most of the picture.

    At any rate, looking down the IQ scale is, if anything, more dispiriting to me than looking up it.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Any possibility you have something depression-like or anxiety-like enough that it can be solved with antidepressants or anxiolytics?

      • Silicon Golem says:

        I knew I was forgetting something:

        Yes, I have chronic depression, starting around age 12, diagnosed around age 30, and treated with drugs since around age 33. The drugs are incredibly helpful (one kills the downward spirals, the other keeps me from feeling like my fuel gage is on empty all the time), probably as much as the psychotherapy, and the fact that I’m alive and employed is a sign of progress.

        But there’s still enough anxiety there to throw me off doing what I need to do, and upping the anti-anxiety meds just makes me not care about it (a contributing factor to one firing). And I can’t fall back on the patterns or habits of consistent engagement that others typically build up, because I don’t have them.

        I’m actually pretty good at not ruminating over my failure to get anything close to what I could have out of college and my twenties (and the failure of mental health professionals I came in contact with to diagnose an obvious instance of the smiling depressive). But the fact remains that I’m missing developmental things that most other people achieved during that time; it’s in some way like I’m waking up after sleeping (or being paralyzed) through a couple of decades.

      • doe says:

        Question: in your post about antidepressants you said they admittedly have a small chance of giving you permanent problems like loss of sexual function. Why do you think trying to solve your problems with them when it’s not a last resort is worth that chance? And should you not at least add it as a disclaimer when you recommend them?

      • Silicon Golem says:

        Also: thanks for the suggestion, Scott. Any other advice you or anyone else have is welcome.

        In particular, my current trap seems to be: realizing the results of depression on my life is leading to the return of depression (or an incomplete remission).

    • Arcaseus says:

      Thank you very much for this comment, it got me to stop lurking here because of how close to home it hit. I’m still in graduate school but suffers from an extremely similar problem in how my akrasia depresses me (and makes it hard to make any kind of progress on my PhD). I am terrified of wasting my life in this way, never achieving anything near my potential because of it.

      One difference is that I started taking anxiolytics + antidepressants a couple weeks ago (after being diagnosed as depressive), and while the antidepressants have not had any noticeable effect yet, the anxiolytics work as magic pills of happiness/serenity.

      I guess there is not much of a point to this comment, apart from noting that other people have self-worth issues similar to those described in this post because of their (lack of) willpower instead of IQ.

      • Silicon Golem says:

        I’m not really sure why I posted my comment, but I’m glad you found some value in it; it honestly makes me feel a little warm feeling, which surprises me. I’m sorry you’re depressed, though.

        I started off with one antidepressant, and it took the usual several weeks to have noticeable effects. Interestingly, the first effect I noticed was how I felt after too little sleep: all my life up until that point, getting up after only six hours of sleep would make me feel like I’d pulled every muscle in my body. (I wonder if it was analogous to the feeling fibromyalgia sufferers have.) On the SSRI, that feeling was gone (though I still felt the slowness and fuzzy-headedness that everyone else feels). It was the first indication I had that something I had thought was normal was far from it.

        Some years ago, I added another antidepressant, which affects not only serotonin but norepinephrine. After just a few weeks, I found myself doing things, instead of thinking I should do them: putting something away, carrying something upstairs, unloading the dishwasher. The best way I have of explaining it is this: you know how you feel after moving, or helping a friend move? Completely tired, like you couldn’t do anything more energetic than stand up? I used to feel that way almost all the time. It was like I had a fuel gage in my head that was always (and usually erroneously) reading “Empty”, and now all of a sudden it worked.

        That was the second thing where I realized my idea of normal was way off. I wonder what else I think is normal that just isn’t. The typical mind fallacy is strong.

        I’m not sure what I think about willpower. In some ways, I have a lot: not eating various things, not doing drugs (because of a promise, not because of bad experiences), holding my tongue when I’m angry instead of lashing out or venting. But that all seems like “negative willpower”: not doing things. “Positive willpower” does not seem to be a thing I have, though I’ve been sporadically trying to cultivate it, mostly by running (which is also helpful against depression). It’s also possible I have executive function problems: I was terrible at practical planning before the antidepressants; now I’m just bad at it.

        In the back of my mind, I, like you, am scared of wasting my life. But I have some day-to-day fears that kind of screen that fear off.

        I feel like I owe you some advice; it’s this: fight the depression. Use meds. Use psychotherapy. Use stupid life hacks. Run or swim or row or just walk. Get pissed off at it. You’ve just hit it with anxiolytics, so it’s weakened, vulnerable. Soon, like the cavalry, the antidepressants will ride to the rescue. Fight it, fight it, fight it.

  40. Ian James says:

    Let me try and restate the central question. Why people don’t get that considering intelligence to be innate is a sympathetic, tolerant, progressive, etc., position?

    I’m hesitating because I know that disputes of this kind are usually stale, but this is my honest, intuitive reaction to the post: I think it has to do with the ordinary meaning of “intelligence.” For better or worse, we tend to use the term holistically, in order to evaluate whether other people have a generic “good” quality. This ordinary meaning may include creativity, compassion, “emotional intelligence,” “street smarts,” quick-wittedness, etc. One way to adumbrate all these meanings is to consider “intelligence” as an antonym to “stupidity” in all its forms–we habitually call people “stupid” when they’re banal, insensitive, socially inept, naive, flat-footed in conversation, etc.

    When we call someone less intelligent, then, in most cases we’re not saying that they have a lower IQ or a steeper hill to climb to become Elon Musk. Much more often, we’re calling them less interesting, less worthy of our time and attention, and less competent in human affairs, broadly speaking. This matches up with the insecurities people tend to have about intelligence: most of us aren’t worried about killing the population of Canada via failure to cure aging (just listen to how that sounds out of context!); rather, we’re worried about our peers disliking or ignoring us. If we do feel a longing for greater intelligence-qua-IQ, it’s probably in order to gain money, status, etc.* And to address Scott’s other concern, when we use this ordinary definition, we’re designating a cluster of things that really can (I think) be improved with practice.

    Of course, it’s possible to accept that the broader definition is meaningful, while simultaneously agreeing with the argument in this post, as far as IQ in particular is concerned.

    *I don’t want to overstate this, because I do actually care about knowledge “for its own sake” (or via some “sublimated” desire–I don’t really know), so abstracting from that feels artificial to me and could be condescending as a description of “real folks.” Not that I don’t see the appeal of money and status… 😉

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I feel like if we talk about “IQ”, that limits us to the strictest meaning of intelligence, but that if anything that is even less progressive.

      • Ian James says:

        Sorry, I wasn’t entirely clear. I think people are touchy about IQ research precisely because they don’t make the same distinction in theory (between IQ and intelligence broadly construed) that they do in practice. That is, when people see “IQ,” their System 1 automatically substitutes the broader meaning of intelligence. At the same time, they see no contradiction in identifying a person of middling IQ as “intelligent in other ways.”

        That’s why I believe rigorous discussions of IQ should start by acknowledging that, in determining a person’s IQ, we’re not passing the same sort of sweeping judgment that we do in ordinary language.

        Of course, there’s the dark possibility that we actually are doing this and that IQ is correlated with every other desirable human trait. I feel convinced that this isn’t the case, and that IQ is obviously biased towards abstract/mathematical intelligence (regarded as a quasi-discrete capacity), but to be honest I haven’t looked into it much.

  41. damn, scott, you’re a writing machine. I’m gonna have to reread your excellent post later to glean the details.

    I happen to have all of your IQ scores in a spreadsheet right here (remember that survey you took?). Not a single person is below the population average. The first percentile for IQ here – the one such that 1% of respondents are lower and 99% of respondents are higher – is – corresponds to the 85th percentile of the general population. So even if you’re in the first percentile here, you’re still pretty high up in the broader scheme of things.

    There is probably a self-selection bias at work here. People with lower IQs may be less inclined to answer the survey.

  42. Vegemeister says:

    I don’t know how much of a barrier you intend there to be between this blog and your IRL identity, but you should be aware that the quoted article about your brother is sufficient to discover your real last name.

    • Susebron says:

      He’s linked to things that reveal his real name before in I Am Being Framed. I think he mostly wants it to be the other way around (i. e. people who know him in real life can’t necessarily find this, using only Google).

      • Not Robin Hanson says:

        Would a SSC meetup be an acceptable breach of this objective then? Or would a SSC meetup be organized in such a way that nobody except him knows who at the meetup is him? (A thought that I find unreasonably amusing.)

      • Anonymous says:

        I believe the pages linked to were redacted to remove his name. And he need there was more pressing.

  43. Vaniver says:

    I once heard a friend, upon his first use of modafinil, wonder aloud if the way they felt on that stimulant was the way Elon Musk felt all the time. That tied a lot of things together for me, gave me an intuitive understanding of what it might “feel like from the inside” to be Elon Musk. And it gave me a good tool to discuss biological variation with. Most of us agree that people on stimulants can perform in ways it’s difficult for people off stimulants to match. Most of us agree that there’s nothing magical about stimulants, just changes to the levels of dopamine, histamine, norepinephrine et cetera in the brain. And most of us agree there’s a lot of natural variation in these chemicals anyone. So “me on stimulants is that guy’s normal” seems like a good way of cutting through some of the philosophical difficulties around this issue.

    During a sleep deprivation experiment, I had this experience in reverse. Basically, I was trying uberman, and so only sleeping ~20 minutes at a time, and I appear constitutionally unable to nap, so it did not go well.

    I started out with the mental ability to read books, then lost that and could only play strategic video games, then lost the ability to play strategic video games and watched television, and then lost the ability to watch television and could only exercise. (Basically, if I wasn’t actively moving somewhere, I would probably fall asleep.) It was… interesting to have a sense of what it’s like to be lower on the IQ spectrum. (Of course, it’s not the same for a number of reasons, but I don’t think I had ever had the experience of “I don’t have the mental resources to read this book” before instead of just an experience of “that book doesn’t look interesting.”)

    • Corwin says:

      I’m afraid of how much it does matter, the difference between “nope, my brain won’t parse that” and “nope, not interested right now”? In both cases, I’m not doing the thing and not practicing doing the thing.

      (context: I’m afraid to even try things that I keep deciding to not do, because I might well find out that I can not do them at all, even for things that I know for a fact that I have done before.)

  44. anon says:

    Recommending Michael Young’s “Rise of the Meritocracy” for speaking to basically this subject. A lot of it is extremely dry pontificating on education policy, but at it’s core there’s the belief that yes, people with high IQs are going to be more useful to society, but IQ is innate and mostly heritable and thus it’s unhelpful to blame people for their lack of intellectual prowess. Basically it advocates for a society where everyone is sorted by the education system to tasks based on their IQ, but the proletarians assigned to grunt labor at least enjoy universal employment and some measure of esteem due to valuing things besides intelligence, IE hard work or physical skills.

    It was intended as a satire and a warning about a bunch of worrying trends Young saw going on at the time, but plenty of people took it completely seriously (he invented the word ‘meritocracy’ as a joke, but of course everyone started using it sincerely)

    • Kevin C. says:

      I’d add to this another recommendation, particularly in light of Mr. Alexander’s paragraph at the end of part II (“social norms as contracts”): Justus Möser’s 1772 essay “No Promotion According to Merit.”

  45. Adam Casey says:

    >The obvious pattern is that attributing outcomes to things like genes, biology, and accidents of birth is kind and sympathetic. Attributing them to who works harder and who’s “really trying” can stigmatize people who end up with bad outcomes and is generally viewed as Not A Nice Thing To Do.

    >And the weird thing, the thing I’ve never understood, is that intellectual achievement is the one domain that breaks this pattern.

    Not sure that’s quite the pattern I see in the left. Obvious example: why do poor people commit crimes? The progressive response isn’t “their bad genes made them do it” or “they chose to”, it’s “bad society made them do it”. I think “hard work explains everything” makes sense if you want to say “high achievers deserve praise”. But not every denial of the latter is the same.

    The left seems prone to think that biological factors don’t exist and social factors are omnipotent, but again, only for some areas. Things were this assumption seems to hold: Earning money, committing crime, being generally successful whilst any of {disabled, mentally ill, women, minority, etc}. Things where the biological assumption holds: weight, having disability and/or mental illness, being LGBT. It seems like how you are is the fault of biology, and how you interact with value systems is the fault of society.

    We do see progressives trying to overcome these social factors by denying them. “Girls can do math too”, representation in media, role models, etc. It might be that telling people “even if you’re low IQ you can still succeed if you work hard” is in the same category as “even if you’re black you can be president if you work hard” (or indeed “you can beat cancer”). The point being that these statements aren’t supposed to be believed as true, and if they turn out not to be it’s not because you didn’t try, they’re supposed to be semi-effective self-fulfilling prophecies.

  46. Deiseach says:

    they get conditions like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia that actively lower IQ for poorly understood neurological reasons

    Holy crap, hold on a minute here. Remember Scott made a passing mention about the Irish (at one time) being a low-IQ (scoring) people?

    Well, the Irish also allegedly suffer – or used to suffer – from schizophrenia at a high rate. As in, figures from a 2013 Irish psychiatric in-patient census:

    Almost one-third (31%) of residents on census night had a diagnosis of schizophrenia; 16.5% had a diagnosis of depressive disorders; 11% had a diagnosis of organic mental disorder; and 8% had a diagnosis of mania. Patients with a diagnosis of schizophrenia had the highest rate of hospitalisation, at 16.4 per 100,000 population, followed by depressive disorders, at 8.7, and organic mental disorders, at 5.6.

    On the other hand, at least one researcher says we should blame it on our diet of spuds (note: I am from the south of Ireland myself – does this explain much about me?)

    So maybe our historically low IQ was because we were crazy, not stupid? 🙂

    Then again, our rates per population – if I’m working the figures out correctly – seem to run at around 1%, which is the global average, so we don’t have a high percentage. Maybe it’s that we have ‘normal’ rates per population, but of the rates of mental illness, we have higher rates of schizophrenia as a disease than elsewhere?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I don’t think Ireland is known for especially high rates of schizophrenia.

      I question the utility of hospital admission proportions, because it’s too easily affected by the culture of who hospitals will or won’t admit.

      I worked in the Irish mental health system for a little while, and I got the impression that you guys were a lot more stoic and a lot slower to go to the psychiatrist than people here in the US. You’re also a lot more religious, which decreases suicidality.

      So maybe the depressed and anxious people don’t go to the psychiatrist as much, and there aren’t a lot of suicides you have to treat, which means the hospitals are disproportionately full of schizophrenics.

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  48. Anonymous says:

    From someone having a really bad day trying to make a fiction story just come out, thank you very much. I can’t say why, but this helps a great deal.

  49. Tom Scharf says:

    “How is a person supposed to stay sane in a culture that prizes intelligence above everything else”

    This isn’t really true if you examine K-12. Athletic performance is glorified far more than academics. Check the local newspaper. Try to find a report on a physics or math competition.

    What I find odd is how some people strenuously object to ranking people by grades or SAT scores but do not bat an eye when this same thing happens in basketball and soccer. Athletic performance is based on the same parameters on the high level, innate ability and work ethic. Does anybody object to “high stakes” testing that occur during basketball games and soccer tournaments?

    I think there is a big dose of envy here, that someone isn’t the best at all things. One may be a county class basketball player but not great at academics or vice versa. It’s the human condition to self evaluate on your weaknesses instead of your strengths.

    “Sometimes I see depressed patients whose families really don’t get it.”

    Well this is me. I have battled depression for at least 20 years now. My wife simply doesn’t understand it. I would admit that myself at 25 years old wouldn’t have got it either. My daughter went through a depression battle in high school and we both got it and shared it. It likely helped.

    Now I want to say that I am from the other side of the aisle here, and I don’t expect or desire society to fix this for me, take responsibility for it, or try to even the scales of justice. I simply consider it an obstacle to overcome. To the extent that it handicaps me, that is for me alone to bear. I accept it. It took me forever to get help for it. Pride. I understand it much better now.

    “financial success is the result of hard work”

    It is. This doesn’t dispute that some people are pre-wired to do this better, it is only an obvious observation of one of the things that leads to “success”. I do not look down on people who don’t want to do this and find happiness without it. OTOH denigrating those who do work hard is a bit mysterious. I have known many successful small and large business leaders and they all have a very strong work ethic. So what? Aren’t these exactly the right people to do these jobs? It is a good idea to have a system in place to put these hard working talented people in these places of authority. It works.

    “success is determined by accidents of birth”

    Probably to an extent. What I really find offensive is when the best and brightest are somehow restricted to getting to the top. This is really the proper framing for arguments to make the system more fair for a conservative mindset. Equal opportunity, do not restrict talent.

    “warning us not to “stigmatize” the less intelligent as “genetically inferior”

    They are inferior….in this measurement. Ouch. Of course many of us are genetically inferior in many ways. Strength. Specific athletic talent. Empathy. Social ability. Theater. Singing. BEAUTY. BEAUTY. BEAUTY. No backlash against this innate beauty talent, eh? Why is intelligence trampled upon? Inappropriate.

    I accept my faults. I accept my strengths. We do not need to equalize all things.

    “I don’t know which part bothered me more”

    Try to find a leading scorer on any basketball team who apologizes for their talent. This guilt complex for ability just seems out of place. Dumb jocks and spastic nerds are part of the diversity of evolution. The fact that you won one category of the evolution lottery is nothing to be ashamed of. The proper response is to use your talent to the greatest extent possible. That is how evolution works, let it work. Construct a society that maximizes it (which is not to say a social safety net is not appropriate).

    • onyomi says:

      “They are inferior….in this measurement. Ouch. Of course many of us are genetically inferior in many ways. Strength. Specific athletic talent. Empathy. Social ability. Theater. Singing. BEAUTY. BEAUTY. BEAUTY. No backlash against this innate beauty talent, eh? Why is intelligence trampled upon? Inappropriate.”

      I agree here. Can we avoid the corollary of not thinking less of people who are stupid being not thinking more of people who are smart, oneself included?

    • Paul Torek says:

      Does anybody object to “high stakes” testing that occur during basketball games and soccer tournaments?

      Does any powerful politician propose to disband high schools that perform poorly in basketball and soccer? Or drastically narrow the sports curriculum in order to boost the basketball and soccer scores? Context, man, context!

    • Amanda L. says:

      Probably to an extent. What I really find offensive is when the best and brightest are somehow restricted to getting to the top. This is really the proper framing for arguments to make the system more fair for a conservative mindset. Equal opportunity, do not restrict talent.

      That’s interesting. Do you think talent is primarily inborn? Because if it is, then saying a fair society should reward people primarily for talent seems… and not-fitting with most people’s moral intuitions, which laud hard work, self restraint, and other self-chosen actions as the highest moral good.

      It seems to me that “talent is genetic” suggests that equal outcomes are more fair, and “talent is based on hard work” suggests that equal opportunity is more fair. Even taking morality out and looking at it more pragmatically, it’s more effective for society to incentivize qualities that people can actually change.

      This is a source of great internal conflict for me, because I do think talent is largely genetic, and yet I support meritocracy… completely out of selfishness, from what I can tell :/

      • Wrong Species says:

        If talent is genetic, I don’t see why that means equal outcomes are more fair. If there is one kid who is really smart and manages to get A’s and one dumb kid who fails, is it fair to average it out to a C?

        • Nita says:

          I think Amanda is talking about outcomes like quality of life and moral judgement by others, not grades at school.

          By the way, there are different opinions about the purpose of grades, which result in different approaches to teaching and grading.

      • Fazathra says:

        I think we must have very different moral intuitions. To me, a society is fair if it doles out rewards in proportion to value created. If someone is better at something, it’s fair that they get rewarded more than someone who is worse at the same thing, even if the reason they are better is wholly innate.

        • Multiheaded says:

          What do you think should be done to people who cannot produce “value”?

          • Fazathra says:

            I think there should be enough welfare for them to live a basic buy comfortable life. This is because I also have a moral desire not to see people dying due to lack of resources, and I am willing to trade off some fairness to achieve that.

          • Nothing at all should be ‘done’ to them. The null action is absolutely nothing whatsoever. Just as nothing should be ‘done’ to people who do produce ‘value’ either.

            In fact, I find even the prior premise untenable. ‘Society’ doesn’t ‘dole out’ anything. If you can do something I really want and I can pay you for it, and it’s something you accept, that’s that. If you can do something lots of people are willing you pay you for, or a few people are willing to pay a lot for, that’s that, too. (And if there’s nothing that you can do that anyone wants to exchange anything for, that’s that as well.) In all of these scenarios, nobody is ‘doling out’ anything, nor are they ‘doing’ anything to anyone else based on some abstract notion of moral worth or deservingness. The holistic approach, and presuming that ‘society’ is some kind of atomic entity with agency, does not correctly describe reality.

            In this perfectly fair world where, if nobody wants to trade with you, nobody trades with you, there is obviously the problem of what happens to you. In my ideal world, the government would create a tax for N years (probably less than five to ten), all of which goes into the endowment of a massive charity that can simply use the earnings on its capital to take care of such people. That way, fairness is sacrificed exactly once and for a limited time, the people who were taxed for this can be given nice certificates saying that it’s their tax money that’s taking care of such people forever, and everyone else doesn’t have to deal with situations that cause their tribal or empathetic emotional responses to cause them to feel bad. I personally think this is a far more moral approach than any continuous redistributive scheme.

          • Princess Stargirl says:

            I do not know really what “produce value” means. Seems to me everyone produces value.

            However I think all else being equal we should have 100% equal distribution of resources. In practice this means we should have to weigh re-distribution against things like total production (And stopping non-consensual death etc). Though empirically I think current society is not nearly re-distributionist enough.

            Though the fatal issue in the USA is that the tax money is spent so poorly, not that taxes are too low. The USA is a very rich country so it should be able to support a decent lifestyle for all its people without insane taxes but it wastes so much money on the military. Another example of waste is that the US government hilariously spends more on healthcare as a percentage of gDP than European (never-mind singapore) nations with similar health outcomes and universal healthcare. Of course I do think the ideal level of taxes is higher than the current usa tax level.

            The re-distribution should be done in ways that (if possible) maximize autonomy of the recipients and minimize the power of the state (it will get abused). Though re-distribution is important enough I can tolerate some state power abuses if we have to (and we do).

            Interestingly this used to be considered the standard utilitarian position. As it comes out of the theory if you assume diminishing marginal utility.

        • At a slight tangent …

          Consider the virtuous/wicked category rather than intelligent/stupid. The fact that someone is mean and dishonest might be attributed to factors outside his control—must be if you are a full blown determinist. But when you are making a moral judgement, you are not judging the disembodied potential person who, before he was born, didn’t deserve to be born into the particular environment with the particular genes that he ended up born into. You are judging the actual person as he turned out, for whatever reasons–who is in fact dishonest and mean.

      • The meritocracy can be reconciled with biological determinism by creating economic environments where the best and the brightest can thrive, such as the implementation of a high-IQ basic income, more money for gifted education, etc.

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  51. Liz Calkins says:

    I have an entirely different problem myself; I have the raw innate ability AND the ability to work hard, yet what I’ve never been able to understand is how to get the opportunity to actually use any of it.

    Last time I took an IQ test, I got somewhere in the 140s. I got straight As in Honors and AP classes. I always tested ceiling level on those assessment tests that told you what grade level you were ( I think I tested at college level back in grade 5). Etc. Etc.

    And when it comes to working, I’ve always been punctual, diligent, and devoted to doing everything as efficiently and correctly as possible, even beyond the minimum requirements for the position.

    And yet here I am, flat broke, no degree, a string of terrible-paying jobs that mostly wasted my skills, and now stagnating in my mid-30s as a live-in caretaker for my mom in a dead-end city with no way to get myself back on track. And I look at all those smart people, especially kids, who graduated from college at age 18 or got to build great inventions or have their ideas heard by science communities, or work in Silicon Valley, and generally actually making a difference in the world, and the part where I fell down is because I couldn’t figure out how to get those opportunities.

    My teachers recognized that even my honors and AP classes weren’t even coming close to fully engaging me, yet nobody really knew what to do about it. The most I got were these “Gifted and Talented Programs” that actually were just a couple hours here and there faffing around with fun but frivolous stuff like calligraphy and logic problems. When I went to college (and community college at that), I could only go for a year before I had to drop out because it was clear my family couldn’t afford it. If I had ideas for any inventions, I certainly had no idea where to get the money to do anything with them. If I had ideas for less tangible things, I had no venue to express them that wouldn’t earn me tumbleweeds in response. The reason why I had cruddy jobs that wasted my skills is because if I applied to anything better that actually looked like it would use my skills, I’d get rejection letters saying I “didn’t meet their qualifications” even though I knew I actually did have all the skills they listed as requirements in the want ad (and said as much on my resume).

    Part of the problem was, of course, lack of money. The other part was a lack of social skills. I was weird and didn’t really understand people as a kid, which led to my being viciously bullied, which of course made it even harder to develop the social skills so vital to getting opportunities. I eventually developed depression and anxiety that was mismanaged, so I dropped out of school despite being a great student. And my attempt to rectify that by going back to school was of course stymied by a lack of money.

    So… I guess what I’m saying is, I feel even to frame the question as being “intellectual ability” versus “hard work” is simplifying things too much. Because both can also be stymied by things like lack of money, lack of opportunities, lack of talent in creativity or social skills, and so on. So it gets even worse when you’re both intelligent AND hard working AND still don’t get anywhere, since you get to be insulted as being both stupid and lazy.

    • Anonymous says:

      A somewhat common bit of advice floating around this community is to try programming. There are ways to demonstrate your skills in that other than getting a bit of paper from a college and you can supposedly get a career in the field without credentials.

      • Liz Calkins says:

        The problem is that unfortunately I lack structural/spatial intelligence, for lack of a better way to put it. My intelligence tends to be more in terms of researching and analyzing facts and patterns in observations, or optimizing existing methodologies.

        So I can handle things like HTML and CSS and XML/XLST where you can compartmentalize the programming into little chunks and modules and then slap them together as needed. But any time I’ve tried actual “real” coding, I get bogged down in the fact that you basically have to plan everything out at once where Thing A fits into Thing B and C, which connects to Thing E and F and G and there reaches a certain point where I can no longer hold the whole structural chain in my brain properly and figure out how to get the code to fit together properly. Maybe it’s somehow related to the fact that my spatial sense is absolutely horrible (insert jokes about typical female traits here).

        Maybe I’d be able to overcome this if I had an instructor that could figure out the right way to teach me to get my brain to latch onto it correctly, but… no money, of course.

        Unfortunately this sort of thing cuts me off from a lot of the types of “smart person” stuff that let you get away with a lack of networking interpersonal skills.

        • Linked List says:

          Maybe data-science-type jobs? It’s supposed to be a promising career path, especially if you’re in the US.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            Yeah, Scott mentioned that elsewhere too, and now I’m kind of excited because I always before ran into the problem of, “Even if I did figure out how to afford to go to college, what would I even take? Maybe Accounting? I literally have no idea what uses my skills and doesn’t require a minimum of a PhD to be marketable at.”

        • nydwracu says:

          So I can handle things like HTML and CSS and XML/XLST where you can compartmentalize the programming into little chunks and modules and then slap them together as needed. But any time I’ve tried actual “real” coding, I get bogged down in the fact that you basically have to plan everything out at once where Thing A fits into Thing B and C, which connects to Thing E and F and G and there reaches a certain point where I can no longer hold the whole structural chain in my brain properly and figure out how to get the code to fit together properly. Maybe it’s somehow related to the fact that my spatial sense is absolutely horrible (insert jokes about typical female traits here).

          I can’t keep track of that stuff either. The trick is… well, that thing you talk about for HTML, that’s what you do in real programming too. And if you ever need to hold more than two things at the same time… maybe other people can hold that sort of thing in their head, but I always write it down.

          I also have no spatial sense. I navigate exclusively by landmarks and get hopelessly lost in grid cities all the time. Maybe that’s part of it.

          (edit: This is actually one of the ways App Academy teaches recursion: you don’t think of it as recursion at all. Whatever function you’re writing, if you can break it down toward the base case, you need a function to break it down, and that’s what you’re writing, so pretend you already have that. But I’m not explaining this well.)

          • Liz Calkins says:

            Hmm. Well, maybe I will keep that in mind, then. I just wish us geeks were better at writing documentation; trying to look up computer-related stuff can be baffling.

            I’m the opposite when it comes to navigating, though; I need to go by precise street signs and numbers, which can be tricky when you’re in New England where street signs and house numbers are considered quaint notions and road design consists of “wherever we felt like sticking one”.

          • Ahilan Nagendram says:

            Personally, I’ve come to think that “navigation” applies to other spaces than meatspace. For example, I think that how one navigates the internet, or through a textbook, or whatever else, is similar to maneuvering in person. Anyone think this applies?

        • jaimeastorga2000 says:

          So I can handle things like HTML and CSS and XML/XLST

          Become a web designer?

          • Liz Calkins says:

            Need art skills for that one.

            (When you stop to think about it, there’s a lot of “smart people” jobs that actually require a lot of talents beyond just the “smart people” ones. If you’re a smart person who lacks one or more of those secondary talents, you run into issues.)

        • Kevin says:

          I’ll point to my above comment about the curse of the gifted, because it’s relevant here as well.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            Yeah, bingo. I don’t really “get” how to diagram stuff, because my mind has trouble visualizing stuff like that even with actual visual aids.

            I tried teaching myself how to work with SQL a little while back for a little personal project and promptly got hung up on figuring out stuff like how relational tables actually, well, relate to each other. It took a lot of copying and modifying existing code and scratching my head at it before I sort of got it. Well, part of it. So now it’s sitting on the backburner until I’m ready to start trying to figuring more of it out again.

        • Tom says:

          Have you tried functional programming? For me, one of the biggest advantages of this is that the techniques make “you can compartmentalize the programming into little chunks and modules and then slap them together as needed” very easy. Once you decide “I want a function to take an x and give me a y” you can focus only on writing this function and once it’s done, treat it as a black box/chunk that does only what you want.

          (I personally hate unsolicited advice, so if this is unwelcome, apologies in advance!)

        • Tom Scharf says:

          Database work. MIS. SQL.

          This isn’t “real” programming and most programmers absolutely hate it. It’s not really that hard but requires a real grinding effort to get things done.

          Database design requires some talent, but there is a lot of room for optimizing inventory systems, creating middleware to link two disparate data systems a company uses, etc. It also pays pretty well.

          Possibly database administrator would be a good fit.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            Heh, well, see my comment above. I’ve actually been trying to teach myself SQL but it’s been hard to properly visualize how things fit together and relate to each in a virtual spatial sense versus a pattern sense.

        • “and there reaches a certain point where I can no longer hold the whole structural chain in my brain properly and figure out how to get the code to fit together properly. Maybe it’s somehow related to the fact that my spatial sense is absolutely horrible”

          When I was doing some programming I was mildly surprised to run into the “can no longer hold the whole chain in my brain” problem. The solution seems to be to break the program up into pieces that you can hold and structure the pieces in a way you can hold—and, I suppose, do more layers of that if the program is sufficiently complicated.

          I also have terrible spacial sense. I have a WoW character who warns people he is doing things with that he can get lost on a tabletop.

          And I’m male.

          • I’m not sure how far your exploration into the topic went, but you might be interested in programming metrics like ‘cyclomatic complexity‘ (and related metrics like C.R.A.P.) and arguments made around it.

            An often-used cut-off point for the cyclomatic complexity at which point it’s recommended your method/function should be split into smaller components is 10. The reason is essentially related to the phenomenon you describe: The more your code does on a fundamental level, the greater the need to reduce it to a concept that stands in for the things it does.

            This is one of the reasons why I consider naming so pivotally important when programming. Packing a couple of lines of code away into its own unit is easy. Describing that unit sufficiently and unambiguously with its name is not.

        • BillWallace says:

          I was also going to suggest accounting. It has several benefits given your situation.
          – It can be largely self/internet taught
          – Based on your self-description is it an excellent fit for your talents. I would say the #1 requirement is ‘attention to detail’. The thing that is listed as a requirement for every job in the entire world but for accounting is actually the crucial thing.
          – The job market for accounting is almost always solid, even in down markets. There is also likely to be a job market for it even in small towns.
          – There’s often part time work for getting experience

          Happy to expound more if you like.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            Are you sure about the self-teaching? Most want ads I see with an accounting requirement want some sort of degree to show for it.

          • BillWallace says:

            Well I don’t have an accounting degree and I made it pretty far. You’ll want to be on the bookkeeping side rather than the tax/audit/cpa side. A cpa firm likely won’t hire you without an accounting degree, but bookkeeping is different. There is a lot of small-time bookkeeping work in every part of the country.

            You may need to start in something of a clerical type of role, something where you’re just handling accounts payable or something similar. Honestly I’d hire anyone with reasonable intelligence and work ethic for that. Other people may claim to want experience for that sort of thing but it will often not be a deal-breaker. If you can get something like that then sort of use that as accounting experience on your resume and bootstrap from there.

            You may also pick up work as part time bookkeeper for really small businesses, they often advertise on craigslist. They may even try you out just based on you claiming to know what you’re doing. Once you get even one gig and you can legitimately say you have bookkeeping experience then imo lack of a degree will be of little importance.

            The path I described is basically what I did. I had a math degree but went to an accounting temp firm looking for work. They placed me in a clerical role from which I learned on the job. I moved on to small-time bookkeeping, then up the chain to bigger roles in bigger companies. But you don’t even have to be ambitious with it. If you’re a bookkeeper for 20 years that’s solid work.

            Frankly, bookkeeping is a profession with a low bar. Not a lot of highly intelligent people go into it, so expectations are not overly high. Strong social skills are not expected. People generally want someone they think is reliable and smart enough.

    • self-actualize by:

      learning to code
      self-publishing on Amazon

      You can be a competent coder, especially considering how smart you are. All you need is time, tutorials, and computer access.

      If you want to get a degree, there are plenty of financial aid programs, I know

      • Liz Calkins says:

        Coding: See reply above for why this isn’t feasible.

        Self-Publishing: I’ve thought about doing this if I can ever think of a good topic to make an original essay on (usually I just write lengthy responses to things). Though I’m probably going to run into not having an audience thanks to my no social skills/resulting lack of a network.

        Consulting: Pretty much impossible, again thanks to my no social skills/resulting lack of a network. Nobody will hire me because I have no formal credentials (due to no degree) and no references and so they have no way to know me from any other person.

        Financial Aid: I’d need something that 100% covered both tuition and living expenses that’s not based on minority traits or academic milestones. I’d also need a solution for what to do about my mother that wouldn’t cost money neither of us have and wouldn’t leave me up the proverbial creek if I couldn’t find work and needed to move back in with her again.

        I dunno, this is why I hate posting stuff like this, because the focus always ends up away from the point I was trying to make via using my personal experiences as a data point to challenge an assertion and into people trying to “fix” my situation in ways I’ve 99.9% of the time already thought of and either already tried and didn’t have it work or had to reject as not being feasible, but will then get nothing but endless insults about being “lazy” or “stupid” or “self-victimizing” or “making excuses”, etc. when I point that out.

        • Linked List says:

          Well, now I feel like a prick for giving you advice – sorry. It’s hard to control the impulse to try make strangers feel better.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            No, it’s OK, I just jumped the gun way too much and assumed I’d get the same treatment I have elsewhere and probably came off too harsh in trying to pre-ward it off. I’m really sorry about that.

            Especially since you folks have already given me more useful advice (re: data science and alternative schools) than I’ve gotten in literally years of using my personal situations as data points.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I am sorry for trying to solve your problem since I know it’s annoying when strangers try that and if you tell me to stop I’ll stop. That having been said:

      I don’t know if your problem is a lack of college degree or not, but whether or not it is, I might suggest (if you can get out of the caretaker role) something like App Academy, which my girlfriend is successfully doing right now after facing a situation sort of similar to yours.

      Their business model is basically taking people like you with unused raw intellectual talent, turning them into programmers who can command high salaries, then skimming off the salaries for a while to recoup costs. The program costs – I forget how much, and it’s not insubstantial, but it’s only a fraction of their cost – and then once you have a high-paying programmer job you pay them back.

      I predict this would work well for you as their admissions process is mostly test-based and you would have sufficiently unusual life experiences compared to most aspiring programmers to satisfy the fuzzy non-academic criteria as well.

      If you don’t like coding, there’s a similar boot camp for data science. Maybe there are others too.

      • Liz Calkins says:

        I don’t hate people trying to solve my problems, just that people have a bad tendency to get extremely hostile at me if it turns out their advice won’t work for me (though you don’t seem like that sort of person from your posts).

        Unfortunately I can’t get out of my caretaker role easily, which is really unfortunate because I like the look of what you mentioned. I wouldn’t be a very good programmer, I don’t think, but data science seems like the sort of thing that might actually totally suit my innate skills. Pity. Still, I’ll keep both it and the data science suggestion in mind, if I can figure out some resources to work with.

        I think a lot of my problems stem from being a poor person coming from a small city with family concerns and a culture not suited to the type of person I turned out to be, that is further a company city where the company ran off, and having literally no idea how to get out of all that.

        But even with those issues, I admit that, despite your attempt to cheer us up, I still felt kind of depressed about myself when reading about that mathematician fellow, because it’s like, “Here’s a guy who had talent and was dirt poor just like you and he STILL found the opportunity to improve himself while you couldn’t, so wow, you’re really just a total useless scrub, aren’t you.”

        • MicaiahC says:

          To point out, Ramanujan was nearly on the verge to starving to death himself, until his mother wrote a bunch of letters to mathematicians in England. The only reason he became of note after that was because Hardy took notice of him. He *easily* could have ended up in the same situation as you, if he grew up in America, where there is much less familial cohesion, if some of the mathematicians he wrote to were sufficient acerbic that he gave up (he was notoriously sensitive to perceived social slights, at one point abandoning two dinner guests when he thought they weren’t praising his dishes enough), or if some petty bureaucrat stopped him from leaving the country.

          There still was a lot of luck in getting him out, and I will also point out that for selection bias reasons, any Ramanujan equivalent who WAS NOT successful would be unheard of; just another crank who thinks he has talent! Yes, his ability is good to the point of blinding, but his success was still a very fragile thing.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            Well, that’s kinda depressing too, in an entirely different way. Since it bugs me on just how much opportunities in our world depend on who you happen to know much more than they do actual aptitude.

            (I feel like it’s probably telling that literally the only job I ever got that paid enough to live on, used my skills fairly well, and was enjoyable, was when my best friend worked at the company and he waved my resume under the boss’s nose and vouched for me. Unfortunately the financial crisis killed that job, otherwise I’d be in vastly better shape by now financially even with my mother’s illnesses.)

          • FWIW, I’d probably count as a “professional” programmer, since I work for one of the world’s largest software companies. But I don’t have a degree in CS, and at the beginning of my career the only reason I got a job was because a friend of mine said to his boss, “This guy’s resume looks terrible, but trust me, he’s smart and will get things done.” This was for an unprofitable fringe web company, but from there I bootstrapped myself into successively better positions until I got where I am now.

            The point is, though, that I probably would never have even started if I hadn’t had a friend who was willing to vouch for me.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            Yeah, if I hadn’t lost that job to the crisis so quickly, I almost certainly would have been able to eventually bootstrap myself as well. Instead it’s pretty much hopeless, since I have no more networking to draw on (my friends and family tend to either live nowhere near me or are struggling to find good work just as much as I am).

            I really wish there was someplace where you could just show up, take a whole bunch of aptitude tests, and get place in a job that will use your skills. The current way of getting jobs severely penalizes people who absolutely have the skills for living wage work but either have trouble making friends for whatever reason or don’t end up making friends that have the necessary “connections”.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Possibility that the ability to make “connections” is a very important part of almost any job, and so the screening processes are working as designed.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            Not really, though, IMHO. I literally cannot think of a single job I’ve ever done, including the decent-paying one, where connections beyond the general temporary, rote-script-flavored customer service type of “connections”, had any relevance to the rest of my job duties.

            And really I’m struggling to think of many jobs where connections matter to the actual work as opposed to having to put up with the pointlessness of office politics. I would think generally connections would only be directly relevant if you’re a manager, marketing, or some sort of human resources or extensive public relations job.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            Addendum: I’m the sort of person where I try to be friendly and personable to everyone, but I really only fully befriend and hang out with people I have things in common with.

            Which is hard to do when you’re invariably considered the “nice but weird girl with the strange hobbies” in every office you work in, and generally everyone’s 10+ years older than you are to boot. So it feels like “networking” would involve having to figure out how to be chummy with people that think I’m odd and I have literally nothing in common with, for no real reason but the off chance they might have a job to offer me someday. It’s really frustrating.

          • ” He *easily* could have ended up in the same situation as you, if he grew up in America, where there is much less familial cohesion …”

            On the other hand, the internet makes it easier to get the attention of professionals in a field where you are a very talented amateur. I’m an academic economist, and I was corresponding with Robin about idea futures before he went back to school to get a doctorate in economics. He was obviously a very smart and original guy, hence worth corresponding with.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            @David: Of course, it’s also entirely dependent on luck there. I never seem to stumble across people online who actually share my inclinations. Not even when I hang around with other geeks and nerds.

      • Anonymous says:

        If you don’t like coding, there’s a similar boot camp for data science.</i?

        There is?

    • Anonymous says:

      And yet here I am . . . now stagnating in my mid-30s as a live-in caretaker for my mom in a dead-end city with no way to get myself back on track.

      Hey, me too! We should start a club.

      • Liz Calkins says:

        We should!

        Especially because of the 30-something caretaker part. Because my mom had me late in life, I get a lot of her nurses and other helpers commenting on how young I am, since they’re mostly likely used to dealing with people in their 40s or even 50s.

        Which can make it hard to connect to the elder services people and other caretakers because most caretakers already have established careers and families of their own and whatnot to draw on, while both mom’s illnesses and the financial crisis pretty much derailed me completely right at my prime career-developing (and, uh, family-developing) years.

        • Anonymous says:

          My mom had me at 44. Doesn’t need elder services (yet), so much as someone to be her housewife.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            Man you’re even worse off than me; my mom had me at 35.

            And my mom unfortunately does have just about every old person illness short of Alzheimer’s/dementia at this point. Nothing that’s going to do her in any time soon AFAIK, yet bad enough that she really needs someone around all the time just in case. And unfortunately I’m an only child.

        • Sophie Grouchy says:

          I’m also a 30-something caretaker, except that I take care of OTHER people’s families. I’m currently a nanny, but I’ve also done house-cleaning and disability care. As an FYI, there are actually really high paying jobs in child care if you move to one of the mega high cost-of-living cities (like NYC or SF). Especially if you are or can pass as an educated middle-class white person.

          Unlike the other jobs that were recommended, which require an initial investment of time and money, getting nannying jobs is easy.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            I’ve had people suggest that, but TBH I wouldn’t be caretaking at all if it wasn’t my mother because I’m absolutely not suited to it skill or personality-wise. (I tend to gag uncontrollably at the sight and smell of any body fluid other than blood, for starters…)

    • Emp says:

      My generic answer for people in this situation is speculate on capital markets, even if you start very small. That or play poker/sports-bet and then speculate on markets. All you need is a (very small) starting stake. Cards, sports-teams and stocks don’t care who you are, or what you’re credentials are. If someone is really smart, and has access to the internet and even a minimal amount of capital (of the kind one can even accumulate in dead-end jobs and the like) one can make a fortune in markets (unless you believe in EMH and similar nonsense).

      • Liz Calkins says:

        No capital.

        Plus, I admit I just don’t understand stocks at all. It seems to me like people just playing around with completely imaginary money that has zero correlation to actual useful productive of goods and services or to any objective measure of success or performance. Stocks seem to me to go up and down based solely on human whim alone rather than anything tangible I can wrap my mind around (which I guess ties into my problem in my OP of “I don’t understand how people work”).

        (Personally I think the stock market is the core of many of our economic problems and we’d be vastly better off in the long run if we did away with it and related things like interest-bearing personal credit, and rebuilt our economic model and wages to be based on actual properly equitable trade of labor for productivity again, but that’s veering wildly off-topic…)

        • Emp says:

          Fair enough. To be honest, the strongest reason for my suggesting speculation to anyone who is smart, badly off and without societal rubber-stamps is that it’s more about understanding systems than knowing anything about people. Crucially from my perspective, being good is directly correlated to being rewarded, without any need for the intermediary stage of convincing others or having to alter one’s process to suit them.

          I do think stock-markets (and other opportunity arenas) serve a hugely useful social function even if I concede it was entirely speculative and totally gambling, but that’s a highly philosophical discussion that is off-topic, as you noted.

          • Liz Calkins says:

            It’s more that the system of stocks seems to me to revolve entirely around understanding people in other ways, namely the sense of understanding why people suddenly decide to value a certain stock or devalue another certain stock. It doesn’t seem to have any actual direct and measurable correlation to profit, market success, production of goods, or the like, but merely to people’s perception of those things, which can often be wildly wrong or bizarre from a purely rational and objective standpoint.

            Witness, for example, the dotcom bubble bust where plenty of new web companies had wildly high stock shares despite having no obvious legitimate business plan or method of revenue. It’s just unfathomable to me.

    • John Schilling says:

      I missed this subthread the first time through, but I see a number of people have made the good but I think excessively specific advice to consider programming. Let me try to genericize that.

      No, let me start by being specific. I know two people who are doing serious, professional rocket science without engineering degrees, and in one case as a college dropout. They just went and started building stuff. In one case, a small rocket engine that he built in a garage workshop – the performance was laughable, but it was clever, it reflected an understanding of the field, and it worked. I know at least a hundred people who have been in the industry for a decade or more and have never built a rocket engine that works, because nobody told or paid them to and it never occurred to them to do it without being told or paid. The guys who did, stand out.

      If you are smart and hard-working but you don’t have a college degree, your resume can’t be a list of your educational achievements and previous jobs. Your education will be perceived as inadequate, an incomplete college degree will argue against “hard-working”, and your previous jobs are probably in the wrong categories. Your resume needs to be things that you have done, even if not as part of a job.

      So, find something that you can do well without it being part of your job, and do it as best you can in the time and with the resources available. Programming is an obvious example of something that can be done well in a corner of your bedroom in your spare time with a cheap PC, something that fits well into non-traditional employment models, but as you note it maybe isn’t your thing. Which is why, as Scott noted, comparative advantage is your friend. If e.g. rockets are your thing, it doesn’t matter that the rockets you can build in your garage are pitiful compared to the rockets NASA builds in its laboratories, what matters is that they are better than the programs you could write. They show you in a better light, and are closer to being something other people would find useful, so are more likely to convince other people to start supporting your work. With e.g. money.

      Whatever your best thing is, just do it. If you can get paid for it somehow, even a little bit on an informal basis, great. But with or without pay, put it out where people can see it. Then put it in your resume, front and center, not tucked in a little “other interests” appendix like most people do. And find the community of other people who are doing the same sort of thing, and join it.

      Finally, don’t limit yourself to thinking of a “job”, in the traditional sense, as being the ultimate goal of the process (as opposed to just a way to pay the bills in the short term). Smart-but-no-degree is very untraditional, which makes you at least look like you’d be a bad fit for the generally narrow job categories available in most of the market. It’s the economic opportunities that don’t involve showing up at someone else’s place of business to do fixed work for fixed wages that are most likely to require the flexibility that you bring to the table.

      • Liz Calkins says:

        The whole problem is that I have no idea how to find these economic opportunities. All the things I’ve found over the years that halfway use my skills simply don’t pay.

        Your entire post ties into that part of my OP, pretty much. Like, my reaction to the fellow that built the rocket in his garage is, “Where did he find the money for the materials to do that?” and “How did he get to meet people that actually care that he built a rocket in his garage, as opposed to just going ‘oh, that’s nice, dear’ (like my mother would)?”

        So, I don’t mean this to sound hostile or offensive, just pointing it out: to me advice like “find other economic opportunities” is just uselessly vague because I don’t understand the how. How do I do that?

        I can’t be the only smart person who gets tripped up on that issue, can I? Where we just don’t have the social skills to figure out how to, for lack of a better way to put it, get other people to actually allow us and give us the chance to use our skills productively?

  52. philh says:

    I wonder to what extent “being a good person” is a talent (or collection of maybe-correlated-maybe-not talents) in this sense.

    In specific terms of donating to charity, for example: I’ve had people say that they’re impressed by my tithing, but it doesn’t feel like a particular burden to me. I’m impressed by Julia and Jeff, but Julia says their contributions don’t feel like a burden. Do they have someone whom they look at who makes them feel vaguely guilty about how much they keep for themselves?

    Is this a case of something like, you have a biologically determined amount of generosity, and you can exceed that with sweat and tears but it will make you miserable? Or can everyone aspire to be the person that Jeff and Julia look up to?

    (Having a scrupulosity-crutch at 10% seems to suggest the former, but do we have scrupulosity crutches for other areas like math? “You don’t need to be Ramanujan, if you can pass calc I you are sufficiently good at math” doesn’t seem like a kind or useful thing to be say.)

    Being a good person is about more than charity, but would we see the same in other parts of that cluster? Do you have a biologically determined level of empathy?

    When you see someone who is clearly a good person, but who says that they don’t think they’re a good person – is it that they’re attaining the level of goodness that comes naturally to them, which is all most people do? And they’re just high-scrupulosity, and if they did work their ass off to be more good, they would still feel guilty that they weren’t Gandhi?

    And if so, what if anything does that say about the people with low natural goodness, and how we should treat them?

    • Jadagul says:

      “I’m not a hero, I just did what I had to do” is a super overplayed cliche. Which suggests it’s really a thing that happens.

      I know that some of my friends sometimes praise my dating ethics, and my response is basically “who the fuck wouldn’t act that way?” And not, like, oh, look at me, I’m being really good, but seriously, it wouldn’t occur to me to do anything else. I don’t feel like I’m being especially good; I’m doing the obvious thing.

      So basically, yeah, I don’t know if it’s “innate”, or how heritable it is, but there’s certainly something there.

  53. Thank you for writing this. I think our community needs this, and more things like this. I think I need(ed) this.

    The post about time spent on things not funging also seems really important for similar reasons, although I can’t say why.

  54. Illuminati Initiate says:

    You said this much better than I could, of course.

    about the “coasting through school on intelligence without any hard work” thing-

    I know someone who would study alot when they were in school. To the point of staying up until 1 in the morning. And (at least back in High School, Don’t know what they got later) ended up getting roughly similar grades to me- As and Bs and maybe an occasional C. Meanwhile I did very little studying, occasionally I would take a quiz/test and get a good grade without any studying at all. This made it an awkward topic that I try to avoid.

    Now in college though I’m worried that this is going to come around and bite me because I have no drive to “work harder”- I keep telling myself “this time I will put alot of time into it” and don’t. But now I’m starting to run into actual difficulty in classes. Of course drive is partly (probably largely) innate as well. What I’m most worried about though is being simply unable to successfully navigate the system. In work I like being told what to do (within parameters set by myself, obviously). Because I am psychologically freaked out by having to do anything on my own.

    (Also, I have severe procrastination issues, I will even procrastinate on things I want to do for personal enjoyment.)

    Also, the hunter gatherer thing about burdens- why does it matter what people would have been “useful” in the past? What of people with both physical and mental disabilities then? Society should serve individuals and not the other way around, but the state of hunter gatherers is irrelevant to that.

    • Check out Learning How to Learn, on Coursera. Also check out the book ‘A Mind for Numbers’ (which, contrary to the title, is actually about how to study in general). I think it’s (probably) exactly what you want.

      It contains useful information that I wish someone had told me back when I was in fifth grade. I’ve coasted on my innate ability for my entire life, and am still doing it after getting a full-time job; but I want to become better, and now I finally know how.

  55. Anonymous says:

    Well, fuck. You’re emotionally attuned to innate-ability explanations because you’re making the most of your potential. Now I’m left wondering if I’m drawn to the opposite because I haven’t made the most of mine.

    Your math story is a bit disturbing to me. I always assumed you have more math ability than I do. And here you are talking about struggling with math in *high school.* I’m sure you went to a high school with unusually smart people and unusually advanced classes. But still. I definitely didn’t struggle with maths at A level. I didn’t even really struggle with it at university level. But I was psychologically too fucked to study so I didn’t really absorb anything I couldn’t immediately intuit. And you do have more math ability than I do… now, anyway.

    Shit. I knew there was some element of masochism in my fascination with this blog. And maybe I shouldn’t post this comment. I don’t want you to feel bad that you’ve made one reader mad at herself while responding to a different sad reader. You’ve probably done me a favour. The smartest people I know keep on telling me I should be doing more with my abilities but I always assume they’re overestimating me, like maybe my weirdness and odd cognitive leaps are somehow signalling higher levels of intelligence than I really have. But how would I know if people are overestimating me? I’ve never pushed myself in my life. I give up on stuff as soon as things get even slightly confusing. I don’t think I even know how to push myself. And maybe I don’t get to let myself off the hook by thinking that’s just my particular version of being stupid and it’s just as stupid as any other kind of stupidity.

    Thanks, probably. Eventually. I think I might have needed this post.

    • nydwracu says:

      Skill in school math is a sign of talent at math, but absence of skill there isn’t a sign of absence of talent.

      I took a set theory class once. Half the class loved the instructor; half the class hated his guts. I was in the latter half. I couldn’t follow the damn lectures at all — I got lost within five minutes.

      Eventually I decided to tune him out, skip the shit I didn’t care about, and get right to the set-theoretic construction of numbers, which he insisted was too hard to teach in an intro class. I did fine with that.

      The next year, I took a number theory class where everyone but me thought the instructors were the greatest people ever, and I ended up hating their guts too. That time I didn’t bother to try to learn the material, because I figured that if I couldn’t learn it from these supposedly excellent instructors, I couldn’t learn it at all. I haven’t gone anywhere near math since that class — I had to take calculus and statistics, but I bullshat my way through both of them and didn’t learn a thing.

      I could probably learn intro-level calculus in a month, maybe two. Hell, I taught myself algebra when I was in elementary school. But I’ve been through so many shitty math classes that I don’t want to go near it anymore.

  56. JRM says:

    Well-written, as usual. I agree that nature largely controls and that some gaps are unclosable.

    To clarify: *Part* of not stressing innate ability is a psychological good, right?

    In the stathead baseball analyst community, there’s a lot of criticism of baseball coaches who emphasize trying and hard work. Some players who are not big on that do really well. But coaches stress that because that’s what people have control over and it has some positive effect. It seems to me that stressing the things that can be done is important. (But my mother told me I could be an NBA player if I wanted it enough. She was not telling me the truth.)

    But I think you’re right that acknowledging innate ability without making it a point of pride is dead-on.

    Or, take really smart kids who are told (and it becomes really, really clear) that they are way smarter than the other kids. That becomes a point of pride for the kid. Mom says, “Look at Child Genius. He is a genius.” Combine that with everything being way, way too easy, and it’s easy to value oneself for the innate ability rather than trying.

    And then there’s the result: There are lots of obviously very smart people who are underachievers by about any measure; part of this is that schools haven’t and don’t care enough about plus-outliers. Arthur Benjamin, a professor at Harvey Mudd and travelling math showman, says he doesn’t want to know his IQ because he’s concerned he’ll either come out lower than he thought, or high enough that he has terribly underachieved. (And if Arthur Benjamin has underachieved, what of some of the rest of us?)

    And then, there are the very bad habits of many of those who know they are very smart. Privileging one’s own hypotheses seems paramount among them. I think we want to acknowledge innate differences but remember that in lots of fields, hard work beats a lot of IQ points. (That’s certainly true in my field.) Of course, that may be an innate difference too – but it may be harmful to think of it that way.

    Did I get anywhere with this ramble? A smart guy like me really should have done better….

    • nydwracu says:

      Yeah, valuation of intelligence probably funges against valuation of hard work. I remember playing the status-game of making a show of how little I worked all through my time in school — claiming I hadn’t studied even if I had and so on.

      (A lot of times, I really hadn’t studied, or I really had started the paper the night before or whatever. But if I was at all interested in the topic, I’d gone over the readings five or ten times and generated a few pages of notes, or I’d outlined the paper a week before or whatever. That doesn’t register as studying or writing to me, unless I can’t stand the material.)

  57. Joe says:

    Great post! I have never had my IQ tested. Would it be a good idea to take one or should I remain blissfully ignorant? How does one go about being tested accurately?

    • nydwracu says:

      I wouldn’t if I were you.

      I got my IQ tested once, as part of an evaluation that the public school system forced me to go through. I got a score that I can only interpret as “probably the ceiling of the test”. But what difference has that made in my life, outside whatever influence an easily-legible measure of intelligence may have had on the machinery of the school system? (Not that I think it did — my SAT scores made my high school stop trying to kick me out, and in fact try to bribe me to stay in with promises of new programs, but as far as I know, they didn’t care about IQ at all. Probably because there’s no direct incentive for them to.)

      Incidentally, I managed to steal a copy of my evaluation, and out of the battery of tests that they threw at me, the only result that I could even recognize as being about me as opposed to some random other person is the Rorschach inkblot test — which was optional, and which the evaluator told me no one would take seriously. I suspect it may be more accurate for getting a sense of someone’s general personality than tests that try to be ‘scientific’ and abstract away from the evaluator and so on: the process, as far as I can tell, is “throw a bunch of data at someone and write down whatever you intuit from that, maybe consulting previous intuitively-derived patterns”, and humans tend to be pretty good at intuiting things about other humans.

      But maybe there are studies that completely prove me wrong. I don’t know.

    • ilzolende says:

      To be tested accurately, try to avoid reading anything I say about IQ testing, because I was sufficiently annoyed by being required to take 6 hours worth of such tests from the school district that I’ve talked a lot about details of the test such that someone could potentially cheat using those details. (If you wanted me to keep my mouth shut, you should have had me sign something, the way the SAT does.)

  58. So I’m going to say it again because you made the same point you did in the comments of that last post–I am very, very skeptical of your assumption that writing quality is linked to verbal IQ. That makes no sense. Vocabulary, yes. Fluency–that is, ability to produce many words–maybe. Reading speed, yes. Quality? No. That’s like saying acting is a function of IQ. Sure, being smart helps. But it’s not “the smarter you are, the better writer you are”, as it is in math, as it is to some extent in analysis, and so on.

    Like you, I’m someone who originally scored high verbal who struggled in math (although I passed the AP Calc test). Back when I took the SAT, before they recentered it, my score was not perfect but at 730, in the 99th percentile (since 1995 it would have been 800). My parents weren’t college graduates, my dad began as a mechanic, and neither of them read much. My father’s IQ is around 95, my mother’s slightly higher. My GRE verbal, taken twice for two different grad schools, was 790 and 780, on a test that was never centered, for which 700 is 98th percentile. I did this without any effort; in fact, on both tests all my focus was on math. On the first one, before I’d figured math out, I simply wanted something over 600. On the second, I was applying to the math cohort of a top-tier teaching school, and I desperately wanted an 800 (which I got). But by then I’d figured math out.

    But I was not a particularly good writer until I decided to focus on my writing quality about 10-12 years ago, and the person who most influenced me as a writer is, while well above average bright, not nearly as “smart” as I am. I didn’t change my ideas, just the artistry of my expression.

    I also am not terribly fluent as a writer in my “written” voice–while my “spoken” writing voice, like my actual speaking, is a mile a minute. (I’m using my ‘speaking’ voice now).

    Despite what was clearly dull and often tedious writing, the quality of my analysis (back then, in English lit) came through in both high school and college, and I got 5s on the AP test and did so well in English lit classes in college that I finally, reluctantly, decided to major in the subject, after four years of trying everything else. I then went on to a 15 year career in programming, and whenever people asked me how I did so well as a systems analyst, I’d often say that analyzing systems had much in common with evaluating Shakespearean themes.

    Then I went back to learning math (originally to help my son) and this time, I knew better how I learned, and was able to crack it.

    As I speculated in this essay on these experiences, I suspect that people with high verbal and analytical skills but relatively low spatial skills will often struggle in math. That doesn’t mean we can’t do it. What I did was learn how to compensate. It worked. I would never be excellent at higher math without lots of application and a need to learn it, but I’m now very comfortable with math through analytic geometry and can fake my way through calculus for real (as opposed to faking it without a clue, as I did back in high school).

    I believe we haven’t yet figured out an obvious career/educational path for those with high verbal/analytical skills that doesn’t involve a network of influential friends (journalism, politics, etc). Worse, it’s very easy to “dumb down” English and history that isn’t possible in top math classes, so you see far more pressure to put unqualified kids with the correct demographics in “advanced” lit and history courses, which makes it harder to help the top kids develop their skills.

    As to intelligence, only someone on the left could write an entire blog on why, oh why, do we use a different standard for IQ without ever once mentioning race. The obvious reason we struggle with this, the obvious reason why European and Asian schools track high school kids without reluctance while we don’t, is the tremendous racial imbalances that occur. I am troubled by the people who say that blacks are “genetically inferior”; I don’t know enough about the science, but to me, it’s quite possible that the *average* IQ of blacks and Hispanics could be lower than that of whites and Asians without it being a statement of genetic inferiority. It’s the frequency that sets the average lower, not an upper limit. But in any case, that’s why the reluctance, and I find it hard to believe you don’t know this. So why not mention it? Or did you, and I missed it? Because you make me feel blessedly concise.

    By the way, I’ve noticed before now that a blog’s commenters take on a certain characteristic, and good lord, this blog has a whole bunch of Eeyores. Dudes, perk up. Don’t be so ready to announce your insufficiencies.

    • So I’m going to say it again because you made the same point you did in the comments of that last post–I am very, very skeptical of your assumption that writing quality is linked to verbal IQ. That makes no sense. Vocabulary, yes. Fluency–that is, ability to produce many words–maybe. Reading speed, yes. Quality? No. That’s like saying acting is a function of IQ. Sure, being smart helps. But it’s not “the smarter you are, the better writer you are”, as it is in math, as it is to some extent in analysis, and so on.

      agree. quality is subjective; rules, by definition, are not.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “So I’m going to say it again because you made the same point you did in the comments of that last post–I am very, very skeptical of your assumption that writing quality is linked to verbal IQ. ”

      Correlation between SAT verbal and SAT writing is 0.84.

      I agree that training helps with writing, but I think ability affects whether or not you stick with the training (see my Part III) and how well it takes.

      • suntzuanime says:

        If SAT writing score is correlated with writing quality I suspect it’s mostly because they both correlate with SAT verbal score.

      • But SAT writing has absolutely nothing to do with writing quality. Nor does the essay.

        For that matter, the current SAT reading test is nowhere near as reliable an indicator of verbal IQ as the old one was, so the correlation between writing and reading isn’t all that meaningful. Really, anyone using the new SAT needs to be careful, likewise the new GRE.

        And “training” is a way to improve writing content, just as lots of practice might improve my singing. Still not involved with what you constantly discuss, which is writing QUALITY.

  59. Alexp says:

    I always thought that the parable of the talents would be more poignant if it were the servant who received the most money was the one who buried it in a hole and was punished.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Yeah, me too. Maybe if we start a petition the Pope will change it.

      • Joe says:

        I think it was done this way to show that the person with the least amount of my had the least to risk. He ended up worse off because he wasn’t willing to risk such a small amount. He was a coward.

      • anonymous says:

        The parable is told twice, once in Matthew, and once in Luke.

        The version in Luke is less straightforward: the frame story there (a man going to a far country to receive a kingdom, citizens of the kingdom sending an embassy to protest, the eventual slaughter of those who protested) is more clearly recognizable as allusions to Herod Archelaus (who did indeed go to Rome to be crowned ethnarch, which was protested by an embassy to the Senate of Rome, and who did slaughter those who had opposed him), and Herod Archelaus was removed a decade later, after a more successful embassy to Rome which argued that slaughtering citizens was bad for business (and more relevantly, tax receipts).

        Putting God in the role of a then still-famous tyrant is odd, to say the least. Then again, the event occasioning that parable in Luke is the complaint that Jesus is breaking bread with a sinner and tax-collector: perhaps the point of the parable isn’t that talents shouldn’t be hidden, but rather that the crowd shouldn’t protest forgiveness being shown to the tax-collector, as the more-severe alternative is… unpleasant.

        All of which is a long-winded way of saying that, if you think insufficiently poignant that the servant with the most money was rewarded and the one with the least was punished, or think it troubling that the God-figure in the parable declares that to whomever has, more will be given, and the from one who has not, even that little will be taken… well, perhaps that was the point.

        Or perhaps not. There are other readings, and the one you use in the main post is indeed the most popular.

        • Deiseach says:

          One reading of the parable is as an argument against the blind following of ritual purity laws. The servant who buries his talent says he did so because he was afraid, because the master was a hard man who reaped where he had not sown. So here’s your money back, safe and unharmed.

          And the master is displeased, because so you know that I’m hard? then why didn’t you invest the money to get interest on it?

          The contrast (or one contrast that we’re meant to draw) is within the context of “keep all the rules and regulations and draw a circle around those on the inside and those outside” – like the framing complaints about tax collectors and sinners versus the ritually pure followers of the Law – and those who are more ‘worldly’, who have risked more and lost more, but are more fruitful.

          It’s not about box-ticking and following a list of rules, and if you insist that your master is a hard man who is only pleased by the rules, then you will be judged by exactly those rules yourself.

  60. Toggle says:

    Once upon a time, in between school and school, I did a brief stint as a retail worker selling used books. During that time, I met a guy I’ll call Mitch.

    Mitch was one of the people who probably couldn’t have subtracted seven from one hundred, and then some. I wasn’t quite sure if it was clinical retardation, or whether it was just that he was really slow (possibly there is technically no difference?); there weren’t any anatomical problems to suggest Down’s, but it was a similar experience. He’d come in every couple of weeks, and I’d help him find Chuck Norris movies on VHS. He was a pretty decent conversationalist though, within his limits.

    One day Mitch comes in to the shop looking fairly agitated, and asks for the “most used” Bible we have. So we find him one that was all creased and old and such, basically gave it to him for free. He takes it to the front of the store, and begins to flip through it rapidly. After a little bit of this, he takes out a cell phone and calls his mother, and they proceed to have a loud argument with her. “No, mom, I’m telling you, it’s not in here!” We’re all mystified, of course.

    We asked him afterwards, and apparently what had happened was that Mitch and his girlfriend had had premarital sex, and his mother found out about it some way or other. She denounced this behavior as immoral, and Mitch thought that having sex with his girlfriend was just dandy, so it turned in to a fight. He decided to prove her wrong, so he went to The Moral Authority- except that he knew he couldn’t actually read it in full. So he asked for one that had been read by everyone else; he flipped through looking for highlighted passages, creases where the pages had been read over and over, notes in the margins, figuring that the really important things like having sex with your girlfriend would have been of interest to the other people that read the Bible before him. Since he didn’t find such a passage, he figured that he was right and his mother was wrong.

    This was brilliant, I thought. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t really think of ‘dumb’ as an insult any more.

  61. Corporate Lawyer says:

    I think this post is disingenuous. I think Scott knows, or should know, that the reason liberals do a 180 on IQ is because of racial differences in average IQ. Especially because these racial differences in average IQ go a long way toward explaining persistent racial differences in all sorts of life outcomes, even after massive institutional, legal, and social change. I agree completely with Scott’s sentiment and thoughts on IQ, and do believe that accepting it is largely genetic would be healthier for everyone’s outlook, but you’re not going to get there without dealing with this small little issue of racial differences in averages.

    • Ha! Beat you to it.

      Wish I’d thought of “disingenuous”. What sort of high verbal IQ person am I, anyway?

      • Corporate Lawyer says:

        Indeed you did! My suspicion is that Scott knows race + IQ is the kind of topic that doesn’t just summon spiteful comments, but risks ruining your real life career. Criticize feminism and you’ll get angry tweets and comments, but take a positive stand that IQ is genetic and racial differences exist and are also genetic, and you better have a very good layer of anonymity between your online persona and your real life self, or you’ll be a social pariah in short order. He knows his online persona isn’t hard to trace to his real self, so my guess is he stops himself short of making truly controversial statements.

        Either that, or perhaps he genuinely believes that while individual IQ is genetic, persistent racial differences in average are due to structural racism, stereotype threat, or some other such phenomenon . I’m eager to read what he thinks.

        • suntzuanime says:

          Scott has discussed race and IQ before, so I don’t know that it’s intellectual cowardice at work. It just seems like a topic tangential to the purpose of this post – it might be legitimate to bring up, but it’s certainly legitimate not to.

          • Wrong Species says:

            I think cowardice is the wrong word to use. Is it really worth it for someone to announce those kind of views if the consequences are potentially terrible? I don’t think Scott holds those views. But if he did I wouldn’t blame him for keeping it quiet in the same way I don’t blame an atheist in Saudi Arabia who decides to keeps it a secret.

          • suntzuanime says:

            Avoiding doing your duty because of potentially terrible consequences to you from doing it is what cowardice is, yes. If you stand and fight the enemy army you might get shot to death, which strikes me as a terrible consequence, but desertion in the face of the enemy is the paradigm case of cowardice.

            You have a duty to announce your views if relevant – I am arguing they are not relevant here, and so this does not constitute a duty and so does not qualify as cowardice.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Suntzuanime, We must have completely conceptions of duty because I do not believe that Scott has a duty to tell us his beliefs. Do you honestly think that the atheist in Saudi Arabia is a coward?

          • suntzuanime says:

            If the atheist in Saudi Arabia discusses issues to which the existence of God is pertinent, and fails to mention the non-existence of God, this is dishonest, a dereliction of a rationalist’s duty to the truth, and an act of intellectual cowardice. Saying “but it puts you in danger!” is fundamentally misunderstanding the nature of cowardice.

          • Wrong Species says:

            Maybe you’re right about being a coward. I still don’t blame the guy and I think you hold a ridiculously high standard. If someone came to me with a gun to me and said he would shoot me unless I said I was a christian, I would get on my knees, praise Jesus and never feel guilty about it. In fact, I could probably turn it around and say that I would be morally required to lie if I had children who depended on me. I think people’s lives are more important than always telling the truth.

          • John Schilling says:

            Avoiding doing your duty because of potentially terrible consequences to you from doing it is what cowardice is, yes. If you stand and fight the enemy army you might get shot to death, which strikes me as a terrible consequence

            Which is why actual soldiers dig foxholes and keep their fucking heads down.

            I won’t presume to know why Scott chose to address the subject he chose here, in the manner he chose here. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, keeping your head down is the right move. Chose an objective that is both worthwhile and achievable, take what risks are necessary to achieve it and no more, and move on. And to hell with anyone who calls you a coward along the way.

          • Tom Scharf says:

            Somebody needs to start fighting the thought police. It is out of control in my opinion.

            People allegedly want to have an honest conversation on race, but nobody is allowed to take the other side of the debate, right?

            In a recent NYMag article Jonathan Chait said:

            “Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree.”

        • You’re talking to a teacher who writes about IQ, among other things. Anonymously. I call it the Voldemort View.

          So of course, I understand why he won’t take it on, but at the very least he should acknowledge that this is why we tend not to engage with intelligence on the same terms.

        • Ahilan Nagendram says:

          Nah. Scott’s not a Race and Intelligence denier. Only reason he didn’t bring it up is that the topic is orthogonal to the subject at hand, which is how the individual should deal with the topic of bio-determinism, and determinism in general, and not get depressed.

          But since the topic has come up, I think the hereditarians, contrary to popular belief, have had the most, dare I say it, progressive notions on how to deal with the IQ gap. While the environmentalists go about denying all the data that’s been collected by hereditarians, the hereditarians, in particular, researchers the like of Jensen and Rushton in the past, and many now, have deigned to move on from the premises, which have been settled (race gap is largely genetic), and proposed some very complex policy proposals regarding schooling, welfare and such. The proper opportunities and job training must be provided to low IQ populations since that’s the only way to prevent criminality and provide a comfortable life to all. This is surprisingly…egalitarian, even from people that don’t put their faith in the notion of all being equal. And these are the same people that have been tarred and feathered for arguing for the facts, and the previously mentioned premise of race differences in IQ. I think that’s a little undeserved.

          • Corporate Lawyer says:

            I agree with your second paragraph but don’t agree that the topic of race and IQ is orthogonal to his post. In a strict logical sense, perhaps it is, but if you’re going to broach to subject of social acceptance of the the fact, then avoiding race seems like a huge and willful omission. I notice that he’s also avoided comments on this topic while responding to others. That’s frustrating, but if he’s doing it to protect his career, can’t really blame him.

    • Fazathra says:

      This still doesn’t explain why leftists in essentially all white countries don’t talk about innate IQ either, although this could simply be because of American memetic dominance.

      • Jiro says:

        How many all-white countries are there? Most of them have substantial numbers of Middle Eastern immigrants.

        • Anonymous says:

          Central Europe is all white, very few immigrants. I think it is a good thing, because we have one less potential conflict to deal with. If it weren’t for US and Western Europe’s memetic influence, things that were created to deal with that type of conflict (such as political correctness) wouldn’t even exist here. The topic of group IQ differences is not a thing that would make you shunned in a polite company, unless your conversation partners are strongly influenced by American/Western European memes. However, politicians still don’t talk about IQ at all, let alone group IQ differences, because what’s the point if everyone belongs to the same racial group? There are some groups of people who have lower average IQ, but they live in other countries and are not very relevant for local politics and politicians wouldn’t get any additional votes for talking about things that are of little relevance. Innateness of IQ doesn’t even enter the debate, most people do not have strong opinions about it.

    • Julie K says:

      There has been massive social change, but with 70% of black children being born to single mothers, and many of them attending schools like , it’s hard to tease out how much is genetic and how much is environmental.

      • Corporate Lawyer says:

        I don’t think that’s correct. The entire reason we know IQ is primarily genetic is because we can compare sets of parents with the same IQ with their children’s IQ to see how other environmental factors affect the heritability of IQ. Past a threshold of basic nourishment, everything else has basically no effect. Children born to single mothers likely have lower IQs than the average child because single mothers aren’t a randomly selected group of people. But, they do not have lower or higher IQs than children born to parents who had the same IQs as that of the father and single mother, but who stayed together.

      • Nita says:

        In his senior year at Yale, Josh Kaplowitz ran for president of the student government. If elected, he promised to start a campus “escort” service and moon administrators who objected to his proposals.

        And someone thought this clown was exactly what a failing school full of extremely difficult students needed? I… don’t even know what to say.

  62. stubydoo says:

    Here’s a theory: when people implore you to try harder after getting a disappointing result, they don’t actually mean it, they’re just doing phatic communication.

  63. Anonymous says:

    I feel that I am no longer able to be me 🙁 Sometimes person’s abilities deteriorate for reasons that were in his control. It feels… I don’t know, perhaps like burying talents.

  64. Stephen Frug says:

    Scott, what about the fact that (if I understand correctly — not my field so maybe I don’t) there is a lot of research showing that if people think that success is due to hard work they do better than if they think it’s due to intelligence? My sense from the popular press (again, not my field) is that this is true across a wide age range.

    Now, obviously, we don’t want to lie. But given that *both* are relevant, maybe it’s more beneficial to people to stress the hard work factor?

    Also, one thing that interests me is that you focus entirely on two individual factors — hard work and innate ability. It seems to me that a third major factor is environment. This affects both hard work and innate ability (your one nod to environment was when you noted the environment lowering some IQ scores), but it also is a huge factor on its own. People flourish in a nourishing, rich environment; an impoverished (culturally as well as materially) they don’t do as well, *whatever* their potential and *however* hard they work. (Not going anywhere with this thought, just mentioning it.)

  65. Your musings about how you did in school reminded me of one of the worst things that happened to my development in my life. I’d like to share them, since I think it’s perhaps an interesting combination of factors that lie somewhere in between the patterns you mentioned.

    My parents moved around a lot. I spent nine years of my life living in South Africa, usually going to the German School of Cape Town (but also for a few months to the German School of Johannesburg). I progressed eagerly and easily there.

    Then, however, my parents returned to Germany, and a very unfortunate sequence of things happened.

    First, I was enrolled in a school in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which knocked out all of my desire to do maths, since they were just a few months ahead of me, and those were unfortunately the crucial months where you’d first learn about the binomial theorem. Now, I’d won a maths competition back in South Africa (first place in Western Cape), so needing to be taught something that the others in the class thought was basic basically raped my maths self-esteem, even though the teachers were supportive and no one laughed at me.

    Second, and far worse, we did not stay there; we moved to Schleswig-Holstein instead, and with that came another change in school. I was wrong to feel relieved (I was relieved because their physical education course was completely brutal compared to what I was used to, and it scared me, since I hadn’t even been good at what I was, well, used to). The school we went to was behind me on everything. Absolutely everything. It had a poison education culture where the children were more or less collectively refusing to do their work and the teachers helplessly graded the class by giving the best exam results from it a B which by all normal standards should have been a D.

    It took me so little effort to be ahead of everyone in the class that I stopped investing any. And I think somewhere along the line, I also lost much of my ability to motivate myself, since there was just no reason at all to exercise it.

    The combination means I think I might have a talent for maths and I’ve completely squandered it. I can’t look at any maths problems but for the most basic ones any more and solve them.

    But I think one can tell still that I’ve got the general intuition for the necessary groundwork down, if only I dared to go to back to it. I’m in computer-science, and while that’s not nearly as math-heavy as people outside the field might think, the manner in which I program is, as far as I’m aware, fairly unique. It’s almost entirely instinctual. More notably, I write code that others like reading (if you’re in the field, you’ll know how surprising this is; there’s a saying that goes around that goes “hell is other’s people’s code”). I make well-structured programs without thinking about them; I often go back to change my code months later and am completely baffled how easy it is to make the change, as if my past self anticipated this strange, obscure use case that cropped up.

    Don’t get me wrong, I am not good at comp-sci. My work is comprehensible and extensible, but it takes other people to solve new comp-sci problems to me. My boss frequently has to tell me how to go about deconstructing a frustrating comp-sci problem, because my brain does not do it by itself – but those are the actual technical aspects, such as ‘monitor network traffic to figure out what the nasty JavaScript that is preventing your screenscraper from working is doing, silly – stop trying to look through the JavaScript source code, that approach will take forever’.

    But there seems to be a fantastic instinct for logical structures in me somewhere. And I feel sad that I can’t seem to motivate myself to put it to proper use.

    I’m not beating myself up over it to the point of depression (though perhaps it factors into the bouts of depression I get? I have no idea, I don’t actually know why I get depressed), but it still seems like a bad choice. I can do hard work. I can do effort. But I can’t do either of those things on a subject that I used to be amazing at but lost my motivation to do years ago. It’s a strange hurdle to have. I look at mathematics from afar and think it’s beautiful, but I cannot seem to get myself to pick up where I left off. If I reach into my brain and try to figure out why, the best guess I seem to come back out with is that I’m scared I’m not actually good at it and it’ll have been a waste of my time. But it’s not like I rationalise this. It just happens.

    (Bonus points for currently having one of my boyfriends be a complete math-aholic. Yes, obviously he makes me feel stupid. But the reverse is also true on other topics. In an ideal world, neither of us would feel stupid, of course.)

    • Linked List says:

      Maybe you can’t answer this because it’s a System 1 skill for you, but… how do you make code readable? I always hear about this necessity but nobody can define “readability” or give guidelines.

      • nydwracu says:

        Formatting, good variable names, and so on.

        I got myself to hate ugly code enough that I can’t convince myself to leave something alone that I just wrote if it’s ugly. Same thing with Github commit messages: I don’t want shit in my logs. I think my commit messages are bad, but whenever I see anyone else’s, half of them are totally undescriptive.

      • For me it really is sort of tacit knowledge beyond the basics everyone will tell you, unfortunately. This is really quite frustrating to me since people at work have come to me about this sort of thing before, asking me: “So, how do you do it?” and I really want to be able to answer their question.

        Some things that I’ve decided are probably the best advice I can give is:

        1) to never be afraid of making your method or variable names too long (not because they can’t get too long, but because most people err heavily on the side of too short, so following that rule of thumb tends to have good results)

        2) to never be afraid of renaming something several times in a row. Naming is one of the most important things you can do. I am still trying to come up with a good name for a class I extracted months ago (not actively, but whenever I see it, I spend a minute or two trying to figure out what it ought to be called), because it’s currently terrible.

        3) don’t tell yourself you’ll clean the code up later. You won’t. Do it right from the beginning. It’ll make you slower, but it’ll be worth it. Resist the pressure to get something done sooner than you can; I find it a valuable insight that one is not doing anyone a favour by trying to hack something together, usually not even the stakeholders.

        Though #3 probably only applies in an IT company. If you’re stuck in a place that only coincidentally employs a handful of comp-sci folks, like a marketing company, I’m not sure it holds. (I mean, it would still be a good axiom in measure of productivity, but in scenarios where one is not surrounded by fellow comp-sci folks, it can be social-status-suicide, which can have nasty consequences.)

        But I have no idea if following these Three Easy Steps will be enough to result in good things. They’re just only the Three Easy Steps I know to dish out as advice, sadly.

        (Also, an amusing footnote I need to edit in here just because I can’t resist stirring a bit of bewilderment into things: I currently primarily develop in PHP, of all things, and I do it gladly. I just don’t fit the PHP developer stereotype that seems prominent in comp-sci circles even remotely.)

      • Richard Metzler says:

        “Nobody can give guidelines”? Actually, quite a few people can, and have. I highly recommend Steve McConnell’s book “Code Complete”. It’s a well-written, systematic treatise on how to write readable, maintainable code.

        Neike’s recommendations are a good starting point.

    • Johannes says:

      sorry double

    • Johannes says:

      But did you stay at this bad school all the way through Abitur? Or did you change for the last 2-3 years? I can imagine very slack schooling during say 8-10th grade, but in the final years? And did you do maths at university or how did you acquire computer science skills?

      I do not want to doubt your story, but it sounds strange and very unfortunate to me.
      FWIW I often have the impression that people are almost as likely to undersell/underestimate their skills as to brag about them. We are all familiar with persons who cultivate a “lazy genius” persona. Or tell you that they sucked at math (or sometimes another hate subject) but are very successful in spite (or because) of it. I don’t doubt Scott either but I cannot really imagine someone struggling with High School calculus (unless it was a really elite school) and aceing med school and showing such a broad understanding of all the statistics-laden topics at his Blog.
      Either it must have been a really tough HS or (more probably) the instructor(s) sucked. Which is not at all rare, probably less in math than elsewhere.

      In any case, I think the value of education should not be lessened because of hereditary factors. It still seems important to give gifted students hard nuts to crack on a broad range of cognitive abilities because those on the right side of the distribution will otherwise ace most subject without really finding out where they are strongest. And it is even more important to identify weaknesses of other students, find out how much can be egalized with hard work, but also when someone should be discouraged from setting his heart on something he just lacks the ability to be ever good in.

      • “But did you stay at this bad school all the way through Abitur? Or did you change for the last 2-3 years? I can imagine very slack schooling during say 8-10th grade, but in the final years?”

        It did pick up a very slight bit in the final years, but it was a terrible school, and I wouldn’t say it picked up enough as that I feel a need to qualify my general statement about it. Having been in four schools in my life, the one in St. Peter-Ording was really terrible. If you want to know what to avoid: It’s the Nordsee Gymnasium. Though I do hope they’ve improved since I was there.

        “I do not want to doubt your story, but it sounds strange and very unfortunate to me.”

        I didn’t even realise that there was anything doubt-worthy about my story. I find that an insightful part of your comment, actually. It shows me that I either need to work on my comments to provide more (or better) information, or that I should perhaps reflect more on this part of my life as to whether it was perhaps a bigger deal than I normally make it out to be. I mean, despite the environmental misfortune I mentioned, I feel the blame lies almost entirely on me (I think that’s clear from my old comment, but I think it’s a good part in this comment to stress that), because I really screwed things up by just going with the flow. I do believe this is the first time I’m even mentioning it to anyone but my parents and life partners as ‘something that had a bad effect on my development’.

        “And did you do maths at university or how did you acquire computer science skills?”

        And now we get to the uncomfortable part of this comment, where I have to toot my own horn in a roundabout way. I’m going to try doing it without throwing in a gazillion qualifiers. I apologise if any of it sounds awkward (it is for me).

        I mentioned it in the top-level comment, but I don’t actually find that computer-science has as much to do with mathematics as people seem to think – or rather, not in the branch of it that I work in, which is back-end web-development. (That being said, ironically, right now I’m in Business Intelligence / Analytics, but purely on the technological side of the coin, not on the crazy high-mathematics statistics side of it.)

        But to answer your question (sort of), I don’t remember a time when I didn’t have them. That’s what I mean when I say I have an instinct for the necessary logical structures. It’s extremely tacit knowledge for me, but it feels like it was largely always there. I ‘taught myself’ programming (right along with rigor, testing, documentation and modelling, which I guess other self-taught programmers frequently seem to miss?) in my spare time, but it always just seemed like an exercise in typing things I already knew.

        I do have a formal education in computer-science, mind you. I’m a Diplom-Medieninformatikerin (FH). I studied in Wedel, near Hamburg. Their studies were brutal for their combination of breadth and depth (thus touching on several subjects I had less affinity for than pure computer science in greater detail than I could handle; audio editing and 3D animation being the most prominent examples – I managed the maths, but I would have been screwed if the focus on it had been higher), but also very fun.

        I had the impression it didn’t help me all that much with the parts I felt I was already good at, though.


        Originally (before I sent it), this comment had some more rambles about my life, but they were all kinds of digressing and sounded a bit pathetic, balancing between insecurities, pride, and total confusion about my luck in life. I had it in here because I felt it was making a statement about why I even think I have skills in comp-sci at all, since obviously that’s a point of potential contention for someone who doesn’t yet know me, but it didn’t come out right.

        Nonetheless, it feels courteous to offer: If you want, toss me an e-mail at pinkgothic at gmail dot com – I’ll give you a longer account of my life then and hopefully answer your question more coherently and completely.

        • Johannes says:

          Thanks, no I do not need your CV 😉
          It’s just that I do not really understand the situation when people claim they learned “nothing” at school, but passed all the exams and then also did reasonably well at college/university. Where did the knowledge finally come from?
          (I was an A-student in almost all subjects at a well regarded highschool/Gymnasium, had the best GPA score of a graduating class of 100 students and found university hard, so I simply cannot imagine how people with huge gaps from middle school even manage to accomplish anything there…)
          Last year I helped my brother’s gf with some math/physics in her “Fernstudium” and she claimed all the time she had always cut class etc. but the got the Abitur (with a rather bad GPA though) and also finished a Master’s degree (nutrition science), so I always wonder if those people are either quite smart, just had really bad math teachers. Or if they just faked their way through somehow (which may work in 10th grade, but not so easy at university).

          • Princess Stargirl says:

            I started cutting class in sophmore year of High school. I would estimate I cute 30/60/80 % of my classes in sophmore/junior/senior year of HS. I cut about 75% of my classes in College (with the exception of one required class where good attendence was genuinely mandatory). In grad school I cut 90% of my classes.

            Of course I still attended exams. And in University/Grad School I handed in almsot all of the HW (sometimes I coudn’t figure out how to do a problem in a reasonable amount of time). I studied mathematics btw.

            I learned mathematics from textbooks, lecture notes online and asking my friends to explain things to me. This is also how I learned programming. I did well in High School english and especially history. But when I was younger I loved to read literature and reading did not feel like work (I wrote up my essays very fast). I have always been interested in History and so I never had to specifically study for a history exam in University/HS. For example I used to think the AP US exam covered stuff “everyone” in the US knew! History is so interesting and comes up all the time for me.

            I did poorly in HS chem/biology. And I deserved to fail my language classes very badly. But luckily the eachers gave me a pity 65 four semesters in a row. I probably deserved around a 30 those semesters.

            So I do not think there are too many mysteries about how I learned things. But I learned almost nothing in my physical courses. Mostly because I didn’t go to them.

          • “It’s just that I do not really understand the situation when people claim they learned “nothing” at school, but passed all the exams and then also did reasonably well at college/university. Where did the knowledge finally come from?”

            Two things: Instead of conveying having learnt nothing, I meant to illustrate that I learnt much less than I feel I could have learnt, to the degree where it feels like I squandered something that I heavily suspect was a talent.

            The focus of my comment is about lost motivation. I lost my motivation so strongly that I didn’t even put any effort into retaining the knowledge I did get. That seems a pretty awful way for me to treat a subject that used to be extremely close to my heart.

            Nonetheless, to get back to a point of confusion of yours: The reason I did well at exams in the school I mentioned was because I had a slightly higher work ethic than the other pupils in my class. The bar was ridiculously low. It was easy to do comparatively well. In absolute terms, compared to the rest of the world, it was laughable.

            University I scraped by by the skin of my teeth. They could have easily failed me – I did fail in my oral exam (also thanks to anxiety++ about speaking confidently in German), but they were really impressed with my thesis (I suspect chiefly the presentation of it; I was allowed to write it in English and I illustrated the hell out of it) and let it slide. FH-Wedel is known to be brutal to its students, though, and I’m glad they were – they let me recapture some motivation – but I wouldn’t have done better at any other university.

            I feel a bit like I’m writing in circles, though, which can’t be a respectful way to treat you. Let me try and rephrase the point of my comment:

            I used to love maths and was really good at it. Then I got kicked in the teeth about maths, once, hard, and ran away with my tail between my legs. Then I found a ‘safe space’ where I could be a maths genius (and everything else genius) if I wanted, but it was so safe that I was too much of a douchebag to motivate myself to do it – this attitude regrettably didn’t hurt me because the school this happened in had a really low bar (which is of course related to the first part of the sentence). Then I scraped through university. And right now, I’m at a point where the difference between roots and logarithms is fuzzy to me (okay, slightly exaggerated).

            Unrelated to that core point I was making, I strongly feel mathematics is not as ubiquitous in computer-science as often assumed (at least in the field that I work in), which is why being a mathematical idiot is not hurting me in my job, and why I managed to scrape by university. I do think there’s a strong overlap in the way you have to be able to think about problems to be good in either subject, however. I also think I’m a good software engineer, based on the feedback I get from people. This is something I use as ‘probably evidence’ to say that I could probably get back into maths, if I just stopped hiding from it.

            tl;dr: I may be a good software engineer (purportedly), but sadly that doesn’t change anything about that I screwed up something that I think was a mathematical talent. And I don’t know how to get it back, and if I did, I’d be too much of a coward to try.

          • Nita says:


            If you like concepts like “cyclomatic complexity”, then you definitely have a math-friendly mind 😀

            I’m also prone to discouragement and demotivation. But no matter how we feel at the moment, mathematics is always out there, waiting patiently.

          • @Nita: Your comment is really comforting – and probably the most encouraging observation I’ve heard in a while, despite (because of?) the lack of prompt to do anything about my situation.

            Thank you.

  66. Does this give us any insight into the changes in who is considered naturally good at things over time? The way that Jews used to be the people who were good at basketball and now black people are overrepresented there? Or is the premise wrong?

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I actually didn’t know that and just spent an hour or so researching it.

      The Jew/basketball thing is pretty interesting. I mean, the standard explanation that Jews were originally very concentrated in urban areas where it’s a lot easier to put together a basketball court than a baseball field, plus they were locked out of baseball, plus Christians avoided basketball because it was supposed to be brutal and animalistic – all seem like good explanations. Also, the population of some large cities was like 20% Jewish during that time, so seeing teams with 30-40% Jewish rosters isn’t so weird. Also, this was pre Jackie Robinson, so black people didn’t really have an opportunity to participate much in the Jewish-dominated days, and as soon as the color barrier was lifted they achieved their present level of success pretty quickly.

      But I do find it interesting that pro basketball went from like 40% Jew in the 1940s to something like 5% Jew in the 1950s. Something really big must have happened then, and I’m having trouble figuring out what it was. Possibly the erasing of the color line? But I don’t think it happened that quickly.

      Also, I notice that a lot of the sites mention bizarre racialist hypotheses for why Jews should excel at basketball, and one of them was “Jews are short, and only short people have the balance necessary to excel at the sport.” This makes me think that no one had any idea what they were doing in those days and basketball wasn’t especially competitive, which means first-mover advantage becomes more important.

  67. suntzuanime says:

    I think the fundamental problem with the law of comparative advantage is transaction costs, not minimum wage. Minimum wage does prevent sufficiently low-value work from taking place, but even if you abolish the minimum wage, work whose value is lower than the transaction costs involved will still not take place, and this is a much harder issue to deal with.

  68. John Hall says:

    Great post. You’re a fantastic writer, so it makes me feel slightly less jealous that I’m probably better at math than you.

  69. Lucia Dremsly says:

    How does this work out if all you can really do without pushing yourself is lying in bed and reading while other people take care of you?

  70. DrBeat says:

    All of our abilities and our general outlook and demeanor are innate and genetic and can’t be fixed by hard work.

    I hate myself and I hate being alive and I have for over a decade.

    Now what?

    • Corwin says:

      It seems you can change yourself to a certain extent, but it’s yes, hard work. Or at least commitment. Habits to take.

  71. emr says:

    Why compare two things at all? Curiosity or benefit. A comparison (or measurement, or calculation) that is neither useful nor satisfying is either a psychological spasm, or the result of some conceptual mistake.

    In this case, you can pretty much sit down and enumerate the ways in which a social self-comparison (along any dimension) might be useful: It either reduces uncertainty about some decision, or it provides an emotional nudge towards better decision making.

    If, instead, comparing yourself to other people is “all retch and no vomit”, then you can just stop! Or rather, look for the conceptual mistake that prevents you from stopping: Once you’ve passed the point where a self-comparison is useful or interesting, struggling on towards some further conclusion about your relative self-worth is like trying to measure the aether.

    Unless I’m competing with Elon Musk to build rockets, or with Ramanujan to solve equations, their existence is as irrelevant to my self-worth as the existence of an entire race of alien Super-Musks and Super-Ramanujans putting us to shame in some distant galaxy.

    • Lorxus says:

      Why do you believe that the existence of smarter things is irrelevant? Sincere question as someone whose depression smites his self-worth engine repeatedly with “other people, much smarter than you, exist, not to speak of fiction”.

      • Jadagul says:

        I can’t speak for emr, but why would they be relevant? I sometimes compare myself to other people to figure out, like, what I can accomplish, or whether I’ll win a contest, or something. But if I don’t have something like that, why does it matter how I compare to other people?

        (Note: I don’t expect this to be convincing. My girlfriend and I go round and round on this every couple of days. I can’t figure out why it should matter how I compare to other people, or what they think of me, except instrumentally. She can’t figure out how I can not care about those things).

      • emr says:

        I can’t comment on how depression interacts with all this.

        But, what makes information relevant? Either it helps you make better decisions, or you find it intrinsically interesting. Really: This is a very good definition. So the existence of smarter things is relevant or irrelevant according to that definition.

        If this viewpoint seems strange to you with respect to intelligence, maybe you could think about self-comparisons along dimensions that are less emotionally charged? So when I’m cooking dinner, I only thinking about people who are better cooks than me in order learn something, or to motivate myself to be a bit more creative, or attentive, or whatever (the goal isn’t to be MORE creative than my cooking role models; they’re just a tool I’m using to motivate myself). In a competitive cooking environment, this information might help me better predict my expected standing, but again, this is only useful if I actually use it to make a better decision. The existence of a dead master chef, or super-cooks in a far away galaxy, is only relevant if it somehow fits the criterion of being useful or interesting. And by “being useful” I mean that the information interacts with your brain in such a way that produces better decision making. Even if I was the best cook in the world, I can’t see what change I would make, based only on the information that there is a superior alien cook in some other galaxy. The current top human cook in the world is about as irrelevant to me as this alien cook, except that I might be able to get recipes from the human cook.

        Wealth is more realistic example. It’s a bit like an ordinary talent, in that people develop it and inherit it in different proportions. It’s really good to be rich, because then you could support causes that reduce suffering, or have more time and resources to throw into your own studies and projects, which is like a general skill-multiplier. But no matter how hard I work, I know that I will never be as rich as the Walmart heirs. However, comparing myself to them probably won’t lead to useful tips on how I personally can get richer, and it isn’t that interesting to think about. Under the right conditions, it can even feel unfair and depressing. Maybe that perspective improves my political views, which would count as “making better decisions”, but this positive impact is pretty limited. In the end, I want to make comparisons concerning money if it helps me better make it or spend it. If I just feel depressed and it impairs all of my goals, then I’ve left the arena where I’m “logically processing relevant information”, because the information isn’t relevant according to the most hard-headed definition I know. Instead, something is acting up in my self-comparision-processing unit.

        And of course, there are innumerable possible self-comparisons that you already ignore, because they don’t fit the criterion of relevance. (Length of toenails? Number of goals scored in soccer?) I’m just suggesting that this criterion be explicitly generalized and applied to the dimensions that you do feel drawn to make comparisons along, and that thought patterns that can’t be defended on these grounds shouldn’t be allowed to masquerade as rational.

        (As the other commenter said, I’m not sure this will be too helpful to you.)

  72. Wrong Species says:

    Is it bad that I think intelligence is a big part of moral worth? I don’t think we should kill dumb people or anything but if I had choice between saving 5 people with IQs of 80 and one guy with an IQ of 140, I would easily pick the smart guy. The truth of the matter is that not everyone is equally important. Yes, we need ditch diggers but any idiot can do that. Only a small percentage can be theoretical physicists.

    • suntzuanime says:

      It sounds like you might be mixing up inherent moral worth with net consequentialist effects. Do you consider the ability to do theoretical physics valuable in itself? Or only because it tends to get theoretical physics accomplished, which at the end of a long chain of events impacts on something you care about?

      Like for example, what if you had a high-IQ person who did nothing but make troll comments to psychiatry blogs all day? This person has the raw mental capacity to be a theoretical physicist, but in actual fact is not even managing to get any ditches dug. Would you still save him over the five less-intelligent people who are too busy digging ditches to troll you?

      • Wrong Species says:

        It depends. Is the person a kid? If so, then they still have the potential to do something great. But lets say that the person would never amount to anything and would troll blogs until they die. Then yes, I would probably save the ditch diggers.

    • That’s the disconcerting reality. The socioeconomic ramifications of individual cognitive differences are amplified in the competitive post-2008 economy, compared to, say, 100 years ago when differences in outcomes of a person with a 110 IQ vs an 90 IQ wasn’t as significant. By virtue of the normal distribution of IQs with a a sufficiently large variance, we have a ‘cognitive elite’, without which we wouldn’t have what constitutes modern technology and rising standards of living. The utilitarian approach would be to save the high-IQ person because he has the potential to create more economic value, indirectly, than a low-IQ person.

    • Anonymous says:

      intelligence is a big part of moral worth

      Intelligence helps you to obtain status and status is very important in order to get others to elect you to become a decision maker. Intelligent people are probably better decision makers. Therefore, if we decouple intelligence and person’s worth, we must either decouple decision making and status (which is hard, since it is a part of status), or decouple status and person’s worth (which is also very hard, because they are very similar), but in both cases we still need to find a way to make intelligent people more likely to be decision makers. How? Some kind of sense of duty?

      • Harald K says:

        we must either decouple decision making and status (which is hard, since it is a part of status)

        We can go the tried and true way, and use sortition to do that. Let the average random person decide what we should do.

        Let them also, if necessary, round up some appropriately intelligent people to figure out the best way to do it. If there are no complicating factors (such as the potential executive agent having an ideology saying he’s of higher moral worth), people are generally pretty good at discerning appropriate talent.

  73. Eric S. Raymond says:

    Similar discussions of the interplay between talent, hard work, and luck happen on my blog, Armed & Dangerous. Many of my readers believe I’ve accomplished at least a few things of historical importance (founding and/or revitalizing the open-source movement, writing software that’s deployed everywhere there’s net, etc.) and, not unreasonably, wonder out loud what the prerequisites are for that kind of superachievement.

    I can only speak about my own life, of course. But here’s what I think I know, and I have a strong suspicion that both Elon Musk and Terence Tao would agree. To superachieve: First, you have to be talented. Then you have to work your ass off. Then you have to get lucky.

    I know a significant number of people who are like me clearly in the 150+ IQ range. It’s not a large sample, but it’s enough to demonstrate that intelligence is not enough by itself. Some of these super-bright people are beautiful losers, full of ability but apparently unable to translate it into action. Most have found comfortable niches where their smarts give them an advantage. Very few superachieve; one crude indication of this is how few people who are currently famous are famous for doing something that required a genius IQ.

    (Another reason that I know talent is not enough is that like Scott’s brother Jeremy I have an extreme, freaky musical talent. I’ve been a sideman on two albums and in a couple of bands and in countless jam sessions, but I didn’t superachieve at that the way Jeremy did because in that case I was the beatiful loser, or something close to one. I never did or could put in even a fraction of the effort to bring my skill up to the level of my talent.)

    But to continue: then you have to work your ass off. The beautiful losers are unwilling, or perhaps in Scott’s terms unable, to do this. I spent thirty years from age 12 consciously training to be what Robert Heinlein called an encyclopedic synthesist. During the middle two decades of that period I was also hammering hard at becoming a really expert software engineer and a good enough writer to make the New York Times bestsellers list. Talent alone will not give you these things – you have to invest huge amounts of time in skill development. To superachieve in the way I eventually did required all of these skills.

    (And then, on top of that, after I had my big insight I had to spend about five rather grueling years on the road explaining it enough times in enough different ways that people would actually get it.)

    Then you have to get lucky. If only by being at the right place in the right time so that all the talent and skill is well matched to a large challenge that nobody else has already met. And there are enough capable people in the world that this may be the most difficult of the preconditions! I know very bright, very talented people – brighter and more talented than I am, if I can judge – who also worked hard enough but just never found their moment.

    I trust it’s clear how this relates to Scott’s analysis. I think it’s a good thing when people aspire to be superachievers, because that can be motivation for the sheer amount of hard work you have to put in. But if you beat yourself up because you’re not Elon Musk or Terence Tao or even just “ESR”, you’re doing yourself the same kind of injustice that I would be doing myself if I beat myself up for not being Stephen Hawking.

    It’s not virtuous that I’m talented. I didn’t do anything to earn that; it was a roll of the genetic and environmental dice. Nor am I inadequate for not being as talented as Hawking is; it’s just a thing that happened. It’s not virtuous to be lucky, either; that’s just another thing that happens. Nobody is inadequate because the moment they shaped themselves for didn’t come to them.

    The only component of superachievement that can reasonably be considered ‘virtuous’, or grounds for feeling bad about yourself if you don’t exhibit it, is working really hard. Maybe. But I’m not really sure about that, even. Because when I see how Scott works at being a writer, or I work at being an expert programmer, or Scott’s brother Jeremy works at being a musician, or Stephen Hawking works at being a physicist, the thing that jumps out at me is: how could you stop us?

    I’ve never met Scott, but I’m pretty sure the only way he could be prevented from writing amazing essays is if you crippled his hands, and then only long enough for him to figure out some other way to get text out of his brain and on to the net. Stephen Hawking: even better example. The “work” that superchievers do is in some ways less like effort in the normal sense and more like a kind of semi-involuntary emission spewing out under tremendous pressure.

    Should anybody feel bad for not being that way? I don’t think so, any more than you should feel bad for not being double-jointed or having perfect pitch. These are kinds of superiority in some sense, but they’re not superiority that has moral heft. They’re not about the choices you make.

    Indeed, being compulsive about working at any kind of achievement can make you selfish and ruthless and be pretty rough on the people around you. If there’s a virtue associated with the way compulsive superachievers work at their thing, it’s not being a complete jerk (supposing they actually manage that).

    Most of us have to settle for neither being lucky nor having anything like Scott’s near-compulsion to write beautiful prose, nor his brother’s near-compulsion to make beautiful music, nor my near-compulsion to write beautiful code. We all have to settle for not being Stephen Hawking. The best we can do is to do what we can do – and not be complete jerks.

    • Furrfu says:

      I acquired my name here from that bestselling book, which was mostly written before you started editing it, although specifically my name came from a part you added.

      I think it’s fair to say that the “superachievements” with which you credit yourself are not generally credited to you, partly for reasons like the one mentioned above and partly because things like gpsd and fetchmail are just not in the same league as Untitled or the Anti-Libertarian FAQ. Your case for your very plausible thesis would be considerably stronger if you didn’t keep using yourself as an example of it.

      I mention this partly in order to help you express yourself better in the future, but mostly to keep people who haven’t read your source code and aren’t familiar with your history from placing undue weight on your self-assessment.

  74. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    Interestingly, the rightist side of the poverty debate reduces to the rightist side in the cognitive debate. We believe the poor are poor because of things like low intelligence and high time preference, and we also believe those things to be biologically determined by things like genes and childhood nutrition. The empirical facts of the matter having been established, whether you consider cognitive defects to be morally blameworthy or not is between you and God.

    I note that the fact that Scott and his brother are both exceptional in their chosen fields of writing and music, respectively, is evidence for the thesis that greatness flows in families.

    And since we’re all sharing our regrets here, my personal “I am absolutely terrible at this and there is no way in hell this is my comparative advantage but I still really want to do this and I feel really guilty that I can’t” thing is joining the military.

    • Anonymous says:

      ” we also believe those things to be biologically determined by things like genes and childhood nutrition.”

      Hence, the support from the right for programs promoting childhood nutrition.

      • Jiro says:

        Believing X and believing in a particular policy meant to promote X are not the same thing.

        • Anonymous says:

          They’re not. I am pointing out that their actions are inconsistent with their stated beliefs.

          • Only because your beliefs about consequences are different from theirs, making their policies inconsistent with your beliefs.

            If that isn’t obvious, convert “programs supporting child nutrition” to “programs shifting decisions about children away from their parents,” on the grounds that the people you are criticizing are less willing than you to assume that government programs always live up to the claims of their supporters.

          • Anonymous says:

            “Programs shifting decisions about children away from their parents” sounds a lot like current policy on vaccinations, which conservatives seem to largely support.

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:


        There is your problem. You are thinking like a progressive.

        Invent a cheap Soylent-like concoction which raises IQ in the target populations by providing adequate childhood nutrition and show it to the same people on the alternative right who acknowledge detrimental effect malnutrition can have on life outcomes via lowered IQ. I predict the reception will be overwhelmingly positive.

        • Anonymous says:

          If thinking like a progressive helps poor children have better lives, I will think like a progressive.

          If thinking like an anarcho-capitalist helps poor children have better lives, I will think like an anarcho-capitalist.

          That said, I haven’t seen anything like a Soylent that raises IQ, and I don’t see the incentive structure that would create it and/or get it to those who need it.

          • Different opinions about what approach leads to people having better lives are among the reason some people are progressives and others are anarcho-capitalists.

            There has been a massive reduction in world poverty in the course of this century. Almost all of it was due to economic growth, not redistribution. The society most strongly committed to progressive views on issues such as distribution was also the one that kept more than a billion people desperately poor for about thirty years—and since its ruler died and his policies were gradually abandoned, per capita income in that society has increased twenty fold.

          • Anonymous says:

            Yet, other things I read say that the shift to capitalist economies has caused untold deaths. I’m not sure what to believe, but in terms of raising the IQ of children in poverty, it may not be particularly relevant.

          • TheAncientGeek says:

            ” There has been a massive reduction in world poverty in the course of this century”

            Meaning what, exactly? No one starves? There are more wealthy people? What?

  75. Lorxus says:

    >”Maybe if you were literally the highest-IQ person in the entire world you would feel good about yourself…”

    Doubtful, unfortunately. You’d just feel bad about not being the smartest person in history, ever, more than Ramanujan or Euler or something. And if you happened to also be the smartest person that had ever been, you’d feel like shit about not being smarter than Lazarus Long or a Lensman or even a pathetically small Matrioshka brain. The smarter you are, the more you see. The more you see, the further you are behind other people and nonperson concepts. The despair never ends.

    • onyomi says:

      So pretty much, if you want to find a reason to feel bad about yourself, you always can, and vice-versa.

  76. Asher Benter says:

    Thank you Scott, this post means a lot to me. I’ve been ruminating over subjects similar to heroic responsibility for the past few months. When I ask friends how they approach the subject they often tell me that there is no responsibility to be had in the first place. Which helps me not at all.
    Your “response” is much more…reassuring. Like a dose of soothing validation.

  77. Anonymous says:

    Tangential: I notice that people who don’t excel at mathematics always have a big list of algorithms that they try to memorize and keep track of, and constantly update and correct. When I try to help someone, I am faced with a dilemma: do I help them track down and correct the errors in their list, or do I try to help them recognize the redundancy? Because people ask for help only when they have a test coming up, I don’t have time to do much of the latter, so I will mostly invest in their list, which is just a short-term solution. This increases the sunk costs, making it even less likely they want to do away with the method in favor of something that works in the long run. It often turns out that there are just hundreds of small misconceptions at the lowest levels, and each one of them is enough to cause confusion and make someone switch to the memorization method. If you want understanding, you really have to start over from scratch, and the longer you wait, the less likely you’ll have the time for that. It does not only take time, but also confidence.

    I ask myself: how come I didn’t study this way in highschool? The answer is: because of some coincidence (e.g. initial interest caused by genetic dispositon) I was ahead, which caused me to learn independently, which gave me the opportunity to understand things. One subject I hadn’t learned on my own, though, namely statistics. (This has something to do with reference to an advanced calculator and a confusion stemming from the implication that the world is somehow not deterministic.) And this stayed confusing for years until I read “probability is in the mind”.

    So the lesson is that for at least some things that look genetic, the genetic component may be a very small effect just at a few important moments, not revealed by many studies. I know, you have written about this earlier.

    (By the way, people who are good at mathematics also things memorized, but it’s mostly just a cache.)

  78. anon says:

    Where does genetic/environment/upbringing end and personal responsibility start? What’s the Schelling point, if any?

  79. J Daniels says:

    I’m in a similar situation to what Scott described himself being in: High school, perfect verbal and higher-end but not great math score, don’t struggle at math as much as he describes but usually B+ range. As most people here seem to already have careers, could anybody recommend a field to go into? My parents want me to be an engineer but I don’t know if that would be the right path for me.

    I apologize if this isn’t appropriately on-topic.

    • Tom Scharf says:

      If you don’t like math, don’t become an engineer. I have seen many, many engineers drop out of the profession or eek out below average careers because they simply don’t like their jobs. Being good at math is not the same as liking math. Understand which side of the fence you are on. Engineering is mostly applied math.

      Plenty of opportunities in the STEM world other than E.

      You will tend to excel at a career that you really like. The hard question is what this really is. It’s perfectly OK to not know this answer yet, but try to figure it out and be prepared and willing to change majors as you do.

      My father was a chemical engineer and that is what I originally majored in. I discovered that my utter fascination with arcade video games and how they worked was better suited for electrical engineering. It was the right choice for me.

  80. Pseudonymous Platypus says:

    I haven’t even finished reading this post, but I just wanted to say I find it curious that Scott apparently had so much trouble with math in high school. I’m one of those guys that breezed through Calc I (and mostly Calc II as well) with easy As and got a 4 on the AP calculus test. I then went on to take more advanced calculus and linear algebra and such in University. And yet… I’m pretty sure Scott is much better than I am at statistics. I only took one statistics course and the professor was completely unintelligible, so that’s part of the problem, but I still feel like I have a very poor intuitive understanding of statistics, whereas Scott seems pretty adept with them (possibly through lots of hard work, of course). I guess different kinds of math make more or less sense to different people.

    • Princess Stargirl says:

      I haven’t seen scott talk about doing any complicated statistics. The statistics work I have seen Scott Talk about isn’t really harder than calculus. Though working with statistics in practice requires working with data. Though excel is pretty easy to use and one can do pretty complicated stuff with just excel (alot of serious economics is done on excel, though many consider this not the best choice).

      *Of course maybe I missed Scott doing harder stuff.

      **I know “Harder than calculus” is not precise and its easy to make up very difficult calculus problems.

      • Pseudonymous Platypus says:

        I guess what I’m saying is that even with in “math” there are different sub-disciplines which people can have more or less intuitive understanding of or innate talent for. I’m no math prodigy, but algebra and calculus and even linear algebra were always fairly easy for me. But statistics… there are fairly simple statistical things like the Monty Hall Problem, for which I’ve read dozens of explanations, and rationally I accept them, but they still make no intuitive sense to me.

        • Princess Stargirl says:

          I agree with you. I am pretty bad at abstract algebra. I am however pretty god at Analysis, Linear Algebra and Programming (though I don’t really grok Lisp like I understand C/C++/Python/etc).

          However I still am finding it tricky to see why someone who found Calc easy would find basic stats hard. I know it is “hard” to be intelligent rigorous with Statistics. An example is the “Perceived Genius myth” study authors really should have run the regression using at least A) combined GRE B) Just Math C) Just Verbal. But instead they just went with combined (the conspiracy view is that’s all they published). Another important example is libertarians often regress “freedom” vs “wealth” and never check “freedom” vs “changes in wealth.” However “intellectual rigorousness” does not seem like a mathematical ability to me.

          I think the derivations of alot of basic statistics is not easy to grasp. But neither is the derivation of calculus? At least not if one does it using limits (limits are not easy to grasp). Maybe there is a clear way to quasi-prove calculus results using infintesimals. There might be and I just never saw it. I am “pure math critical” as I think simpler non-rigorous explanations are often better but I personally learned calc from Spivak Calc + Apostal Vol 2.

          However maybe I am just wrong. And having a basic understanding of stats really is harder than calculus for alot of people. Maybe my model is just terrible of how hard stats is. If so this is pretty interesting!

          Can you give some examples of things in stats you find tricky?

        • Nita says:

          Eh, the Monty Hall problem is a riddle in probability, not statistics 🙂

          And you’re in good company – lots of smart people don’t get it. My personal theory is that people leave out / overlook an important detail of the problem statement. The detail is this: the game host does not open a random door. He always opens a goat door, thus eliminating it from your options.

          So, what’s the probability that you originally chose the car door? 1/3. Thus, in 2/3 of cases, you would want to switch, if only you could be sure you’re not switching to the other goat door. But you can be sure, because if you chose a goat door, the other goat door will be opened by the host.

      • Raoul says:

        I haven’t seen Scott do any complicated statistics, but he (mostly) does basic statistics pretty well. That is rare. I’ve encountered far too many people that supposedly know some advanced maths (or economics or whatever) but have no idea what is actually going on. Doing the basics well is much more impressive.

        Maths definitely doesn’t come across as his comparative advantage, but I’m still surprised that he wasn’t getting As.

    • Sophie Grouchy says:

      I took two statistics courses in college. The first was for a liberal arts degree and was “Statistics for Sociologists” or something similar. The second was a Statistics for Engineers class. Although you would expect the first class to be easier, I actually thought it was harder.

      Instead of learning how to actually understand statistics, the liberal arts class taught you only how to run various tests. T-tests, and Z tests, and chi squared tests, and look the numbers up on this magic chart and plug it into this magic equation and if your result was less than x then it’s statistically relevant.

      The engineering class was supposedly “harder”, but it actually taught you how to do statistics and probability in a meaningful way, and I don’t think I saw a single chi-squared test.

      I thought I was terrible at statistics until I took the engineering class. I can totally understand how someone who was good at math could consider themselves terrible at statistics if they’ve only run into the magic-charts-and-magic-equations version.

      • Nita says: