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. Pingback: The Morality of Marginalism: Risk Aversion versus Aspirational Norms

  2. Mel D says:

    Hey, I like the fact that you focused on people feeling bad because they don’t have acheivements, grades, tests scores, etc. to put them in the category of high intelligence. My personal experience has been that I have a very common autoimmune disease that is not usually simple to diagnose or treat, and it affects memory and focus, as well as energy level, mood, and personality. To the point where I literally could not get out of bed or remember my own name sometimes. Doctors were, in general, useless to my recovery, and it was necessary for me to research wellness on my own in this state…but, I digress. Different things work for different cases, but in my case paleo (grain-free) diet had a huge effect, reducing my symptoms considerably and restoring some of my mental function, and one thing I took from that is that we have created lifestyles and environments so toxic that it’s very hard to tell what our potential is. And on an individual level, this is generally not our fault; AND there may be remedies that aren’t recommended universally by conventional medicine, etc. And most ppl will have no clue about this…

  3. pjmaybe says: …. Just one example of how different types of intelligence/processing/memory are located in different parts of the brain. In this instance Clive’s ability to form and recall procedural memories remains undamaged, hence his musical talent remains, however he has severe (altho not complete) posterior grade amnesia for linguistic/symbolic memory and anterior grade amnesia in the same area i.e. he cannot form new long term memories). Poor chap. :/

  4. pjmaybe says:

    On intelligence

    Hmm, lots of things cropping up there. First off IQ tests how well you do IQ tests, that it happens to correlate at extreme high end with eminent scientists might have something to do with those scientists sharing their environment with the test designers (and the imprints from it on their subconcious processing see e.g.s: how the Cornsweet illusion is stronger among those raised in built environments with many straight lines, and how people raised with non-tonal languages cannot hear tones in tonal languages), they would also share their symbolicum, mythos and logos with the test designers.
    Now let’s say we went to the Kalahari desert and found a few tribes of San bushmen who still live roughly like their ancestors, we asked around for their smartest fellas and got them to design a test to find out how clever people are. Now, as they live in an entirely different context to our scientists, and I am willing to bet that if we took say 1,000 people mixed with our eminent scientists those scientists would not necessarily stand out as particularly smart vs. these tests in an entirely different environment, requiring different subconcious processing, symbolicum, mythos and logos.
    Next: there are different kinds of conciousness and different kinds of intelligence at least some of which are handled by different parts of the brain (see e.g. Clive Wearing below), Scott notes divisions between music, language and maths – these are three different kinds of mental processing: music is perceived (heard) intuitively and non-symbolically and that does not require abstraction, but requires much non-symbolic processing (it can actually work better if you “switch off” the “talking” part of the brain while playing. Zen mind and all that), language including written language that uses an alphabet or syllabary is a linear symbol processing task (closely tied to verbalisation and/or gesture) that operates at least one level of abstraction – it is, in and of itself a “mode” of thinking / almost a “trance” where the speaker once fluent may begin to think in the language (I know I reached a point with my 2nd language where I began to think in it), whereas maths is a multi-dimensional symbolicum that at advanced levels may operate at two or more levels of abstraction (e.g. imaginary numbers, complex numbers – which I only just grasped recently myself, when I saw them graphed – because my cognitive strength/weakness is vizualisation: if I can visualise it I can understand it, and my old maths teacher never graphed them for us!). Just as some people might be born with (genes/epigenetics for) longer legs and others with stronger arms, so some might be born with greater or lesser processing power in different parts of the brain.

    Fair disclosure: I generally score between 130 and 140, and have a biochemistry PhD. I play (and teach) guitar mostly, and speak Spanish fairly fluently tho with bloody awful grammar and it’s rusty atm (and can read and get by in French, and manage a little German).

    Also, some insight from both my learning and teaching, imo, most people’s intelligence is underexploited, because (these points in no particular order):
    a) they’ve never “learned how to learn”
    b) they’ve not learned how to alter their state of consciousness so as best to work with the mental task at hand (some people can do this instinctively, others not, but it can be learned – I have)
    c) they don’t know their own mental strengths / weaknesses and how best to work with / around them
    d) they suffer from way too much negative self-talk (huge!)
    e) their “cup is full” – they think they already know everything so they cannot acquire new knowledge/skills (can be a real show-stopper this one!)
    f) they have forgotten how to learn through “play” / are too frightened of making mistakes / losing “face”
    g) they’ve not had good individual teaching that tried to work with / on all of the above
    h) they only speak one language – this is huge, imo, because speaking 2+ languages forces you to break out of the assumptions inherent in your native symbolicum, so you then become aware of it as being a symbolicum that is between you and reality, rather than a quintessential part of reality – analogous to a fish that learns to walk on the muddy bank and only then realises that water is wet!   (maths and music both count as “languages” to an extent for the purposes of this last point)

    Strongly agreeing with the uniqueness of people (even identical twins, because they have different life experiences) and the value of each individual as a unique perceptor / value of contributing according to your strengths 🙂

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  7. Anonymous says:

    “And God feels intellectually inadequate compared to Johann von Neumann.”

    i giggled. the wikipedia part on things ppl said about him is full of funny statements like this. im adding yous to the collection. one that i remember is where a professor says his mind blazed across graph theory like a meteor. i thought that was funny.

    btw i think this is one of your best posts evarrrr. its such a good blend of a lot of different stuff that i all liked very much. maybe i just like this topic and so i feel like it’s really cool when somebody could come along and write about it so well like you did, but this is one of the best times i had reading something on the internet in awhile so thanks 🙂

  8. Anonymous says:

    tell us more about these state wide essay contests you won 😀

    do you think maybe it helped that your brother started piano at a younger age, so maybe you could’ve been better at it if you had? or do you just think you two really had such different aptitudes from the beginning? this is a real thorn in that genetics argument for intellectual differences you know. you cant have one brother be brilliant at piano and the other one make wounded cat sounds from his violin! i guess next you are going to tell me there is a piano gene that your brother got which you didn’t inherit. that’s awful convenient scott and i have enough knowledge of genetics to know thats not how it works.

  9. anon2 says:


  10. swanknasty says:

    Intelligence is the sine qua non of humanity. Fatness is not. Mental illness is not. To believe intelligence is completely innate is to (for many) believe that one is less or more human than others.

    People like to separate these ideas or to pretend that there is separation. “All men are created equal” is a statement concerning the rights we are endowed with, versus the abilities we are endowed with. But the distinction is unreal. We are endowed with equal rights because we are equally human. Why else would we be?

    Besides, there are other studies of “eminent scientists” that put the figures much lower. Gibson and Light (1967) found IQs around 130 for academics at Cambridge. It’s hard for me to imagine that academics at Cambridge aren’t “eminent,” and Roe’s study doesn’t specify, afaik, how eminence was measured. If an academic at an elite university isn’t much brighter than the average PhD holder, then eminence may not present much of a cognitive barrier.

  11. Elof Carlson says:

    There are several difficulties with using a single number to measure intelligence, in a spectrum running from retarded to genius. Issue one is the diversity of talents. As you point out musical genius is not correlated to IQ test genius because there are many people in the 160 plus range who have little music appreciation n or talent. My mentor, HJ Muller, had a 165 IQ measured by Anne Roe, but he had no ear for music. The same might be true for artistic expression among museum quality artists. It might also be true for creativity. The second issue is the role of home environment. This varies a lot. In general those in poverty have lower IQ scores than those who have wealthy home environments. Premeds who take MCAT Kaplan courses do better than those who do not. Those who go to elite private schools do better than those who go to public high schools. Having a private tutor helps even more. The wealthy can afford such luxuries for their children. The poor cannot.
    A book that changed my mind about the usefulness of IQ scores was Cradles of Eminence by Victor and Muriel Goertzel. They wanted to compare Terman’s study of 1000 high IQ California kids with eminence. They defined eminence as having two or more biographies written about a person who is not royalty or a sports figure. They found that none of the Terman kids had biographies written about them. They mostly became health professionals, CEOs, lawyers, engineers and solid middle class and contented adults. They found that those who had biographies written about them often had unstable middle class homes (e.g., a neurotic or psychotic parent, an alcoholic parent, a financial collapse in business leading downward in social class, a parent who was a zealot for a cause). They argued that it was the conflict at home (the parents were nevertheless loving to their children) that led these students to creative activities that set them apart. The Terman kids were teachers’ pets, loved school, and aced all their tests. The Goertzel biographees often disliked school (they were bored by it), were often misinterpreted by their teachers as lazy or mentally disturbed or nonconforming. Very few of the high IQTerman kids were in the arts or wrote fiction. Many of the Goertzel biographees had careers in the arts (but about a majority of both groups chose science careers). None of the Terman kids won a Nobel or Pulitzer. Numerous of the Goertzel biographees did win Nobels and Pulitzers.
    I hope you will read that book and comment on it. I believe IQmeasures effectiveness in test-taking. That may be innate. It certainly has value in who gets into medical school or who succeeds academically. I believe creativity is independent of IQ score and no one has developed an objective quantitative measure of that creativity in whatever field people excel.
    Sincerely, Elof Carlson

    • JK says:

      Elof, a few comments:

      – Creative individuals are exceptional in multiple dimensions. High IQ alone, for example, is not enough, nor is high musical or artistic aptitude. The convergence of multiple opportune talents and personality features in a single individual is what gives rise to exceptional achievements. This also explains why the children of geniuses are rarely geniuses themselves despite getting the best nature and nurture — they regress toward the mean in multiple dimensions and will therefore not possess the necessary combination of favorable predispositions.

      – Behavioral genetic research has generally found that the home environment has no permanent causal effects on individual differences. Creative individuals may have unstable home environments growing up, but that probably has no effect on how they will turn out as adults. What does have an effect are the genes that they inherit from their psychotic or neurotic or whatever parents.

      – The Johns Hopkins talented youth program has been in the business of identifying kids with 99th percentile IQs since 1979. It has perhaps been more successful than Terman: the program’s alumni include a Nobel prize winner, a Fields medalist, several tech billionaires, and Lady Gaga. Of course, it could be just that they test a lot more kids; Terman’s sampling procedures were somewhat haphazard.

  12. harinee says:

    Mathematicians and great artists are born, you cannot work hard to become either.I have read the history of most famous ones and these guys had it ingrained(galois,newton,bernoullis,euler,gauss to name a few).But one can definitely work hard to become more than average in other fields.
    One thing favouring Ramanujam was despite the poverty etc he belonged to a community(brahmins) who give extreme importance to learning and academics so environment also matters.

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

    Here’s an explanation of your interesting observation: the “humane” alternative is the one that gives the defect the smallest scope. To explain poverty, having a self-indulgent character has broader scope than lack of opportunity. Similarly with a self-indulgent character versus specific biological causes for obesity. Similarly for a time-limited illness versus characterological explanations for depressed behavior.

    But we seem kinder when we say lack of accomplishment is due to lack of effort rather than lack of intelligence. This is because we’re inclined (rightly or wrongly) to judge intelligence even more important than character. For the reasons you’ve covered, it has extreme breadth.

  15. dlr says:

    Just to make the whole talent vs personal responsibility dicotomy even clearer, ‘a willingness to work hard’, and a ‘positive attitude’ are also strongly genetically linked. Conscientiousness, for instance, is strongly genetically linked. Ditto things like self control, (eg, how easily you get angry, how easily you give up, etc). Unlike your IQ level, you do have SOME control over them, you can WORK on self control, but, you also have an innate set point, a baseline level. That initial ‘set point’ is a ‘talent’ too, just as much as IQ or math ability. Lots and lots of genetic determinism in the world.

    That was sort of the point of the famous marshmallow test. The amount of self control you have can be roughly gauged even when you’re a pre-schooler. And it is an excellent predictor for life outcomes. A better predictor than IQ in fact.

    • Anonymous says:

      Re: the marshmallow test, it was later found that self-control was a function of vocabulary size. If so, vocabulary size may explain both the results of the marshmallow test and SAT score/life outcomes. (I know that you wrote “IQ” but I’m not sure whether that’s been estimated from SAT verbal scores or tested directly.)

  16. Great, thought provoking post.

    I imagine that the third servant buried his coin because he would have had no other silver left at all if he’d risked it in any way. The other servants, with more silver, could afford to speculate.

    The cataclysm of curing aging would necessitate every ‘cured’ individual curing themselves (or more realistically, at least one poorer person) of the ability to reproduce. If anybody’s talent seems to be curing aging, they should experiment to see if they also have a talent for extreme sports.

  17. terrymac says:

    Interesting set of posts. I think the research and my observations suggest that yes, genetics and other factors have a major role. If we believe that hormones in the womb influence sexuality, why cannot hormones and/or experiences influence intelligence?

    There a role for “hard work”, but it’s not the only factor. I was a lucky kid – math came so easy to me that I basically put my head on the book and absorbed the contents. I kid, I kid, but I could absorb more by idly flipping through a math text than most would by spending hours trying to make sense of it.

    The odd thing is, I never felt like I was a genius – even when I walked home with a matched pair of 770s on the SATs. I just couldn’t figure out why math and English were so hard for other people.

    What others called “work” felt like play to me. I read books for fun – all kinds of books, both fiction and nonfiction – every night. Stuff was absorbed into my memory. I created math problems and solved them for fun.

    A physics teacher in high school said “Terry, why are you taking no notes?” I replied, “you haven’t said anything interesting.” I mean this in the information-theoretic sense of Claude Shannon – the teacher had said nothing which was both novel and unpredictable. Hence, nothing worth communicating; nothing interesting.

    Why was a high school boy reading Claude Shannon’s paper on Communications? I stumbled upon it when wondering what the phrase “300 baud” meant. Yes, that was the speed of the modem which I used to connect to my one passion: a mainframe computer.

    I think education would be better if it made use of one bit of info: children who follow their passions are really good at learning. Really, really good.

    I have a 2nd generation home-schooled grandson who, at age 6, already knew all the arithmetic which is taught up to 12th grade, and a bit more – and could do it mentally, at speeds which would shock you. He was following his passions, not a curriculum. Ask him a question about math, and he’d dive right in. About 3 years later, he tested at the 18th grade equivalent in all math categories. This is, of course, equivalent to the average of all late-grad students, whose majors may be something other than Math – but it’s still quite amazing. Part genetics, part an environment which allows him to practice his passions. I forget who said it, but practice alone is insufficient; one must practice perfection in order to make perfection one’s own. And so, instead of distracting my grandson with irrelevancies, he is allowed to learn and to practice some really good mathematics, years beyond his “grade level.”

    I despair of my own game of Go, for example; boys scarcely more than a tenth of my age are better players. But I’ve been practicing badly for decades. In the last few years, I’ve learned more about how to play well, and am doing my best to practice playing well. I’ve gained a few ranks; I’ve even beaten some of those small boys (and some grown men) who formerly humiliated me. Who knows what is possible?

  18. It’s quite simple. The “compassionate” outlook prefers to see faults outside the victim. Your effort is regarded as entirely inside you. Your genes are partly the real you and partly something the real you has to put up with. Social pressures are entirely outside you. When the debate is “genes vs. effort,” the compassionate ones will blame genes. When the debate is “genes vs. an oppressive Establishment,” the compassionate ones will blame the Establishment.

    As far as I can tell, most of the people who blame the Establishment for low intellectual achievement are currently allied with allied with people who blame lack of effort (since both sides are opposed to genetic explanations) but if genetic explanations are ever discredited they will go after each other.

    • Anonymous says:

      most of the people who blame the Establishment for low intellectual achievement are currently allied with allied with people who blame lack of effort

      Can you name an example of the latter?

  19. Vilgot Huhn says:

    Oh My God.
    Ken Robinson was right!

    Great post Scott, I really feel like this is the right way for me and for us, as a society, to view this issue. Whenever I don’t get the highest grade at a test I go into a silly sort of depressive state where I’m convinced I’m a worthless stupid person. The state usually clings on for a couple of days. I’ve long recognized that the problem isn’t that I’m actually stupid (though I seem incapable of realizing this when my mind is in that shitty I’m-stupid-and-thus-worthless-state) but rather that I’m tying my self worth to my intellectial ability. This realization hasn’t really solved things but I think this post may have helped a bit. 🙂

    I still believe it’s important to believe that you can achieve things if you try hard, but maybe it’s time for me to abandon that perspective. (I’m pretty attached to it so that’s gonna be hard…)

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  21. Besserwisser says:

    I’m currently looking for what my talents might be. Biology is also a field I tried and like Scott here I wasn’t really keen on the experimental side of it. However, I have no trouble at all with all the theory behind it. But when I go into more theoretical fields, it quickly becomes too abstract for me. If I should do what best suits my talents, I have no idea what that should be.

    • Alexander Stanislaw says:

      What do you get high marks on in school? Or what do you enjoy doing (for example a hobby?)

      • Besserwisser says:

        I was good in biology and history but there’s not much you can do with history and I found out about my dislike of lab work while studying chemistry. There’s not much else I enjoy that would help me in life.

  22. Viliam Búr says:

    In addition to talent and work, there is also this thing called environment.

    Sometimes people do not develop their talent at X because they do not have an opportunity, money, time, or all their friends consider X to be low status, etc.

    Just felt like saying the obvious.

    • terrymac says:

      No disputing! There’s a “two book case” rule, for instance. There’s also the question of one’s upbringing; see the “30 million word” research; parents who converse early and often with their children, instead of just ordering them about, boost the measured IQ and vocabulary of their children, when tested at age 3, compared to other parents who are more taciturn.

      I grew up in a pretty homogenous whitebread working lower-middle-class neighborhood, and my fellow students were pretty much the same Socio-Economic Status. Yet a few of us stood out. Our parents had books, and conversed about many things. It wasn’t always education; my mother had only a high school education, my dad dropped out of college.

  23. Shenpen says:

    >and it made me frustrated, and want to practice less, which made me even worse, until eventually I quit in disgust

    And that is also how people get obese or generally out of shape. This is why I think the fitness industry is fucked up. At best, it can help the kind of people who already like to lift weights or run, are fairly good at it, and enjoy the intermediate results they get. Which means it cannot help the people who need help in these things the most.

    It is especially bad that the fitness industry does not seem to have any idea of innate talent – apparently they think anyone can lift dem weightz, earn dem gainz, what role does innate ability play? When I explain that I every time I lift I feel stiff like a rock, with creaky joints and aching all over, and generally feel like someone who got beaten up, had a one night stand with a train engine and and then slept on the floor – they are saying that is just not stretching enough. Yeah, no. There are folks who never stretch and have not this problem. They are also half my age – yeah, things like aging count as “innate ability”.

    A good fitness industry would help each individual find ANY sports-like activity they don’t suck at and / or enjoy it, and slowly turn on a virtuous cycle.

    At one point I figured I am terrible about all kinds of sports but still I may be enjoying some, and one way to find out what you would enjoy is to see what do you and did you fantasize about. I used to fantasize about punching bullies. So I went to a boxing class and indeed I enjoy punching sandbags. I am terrible at it, I get those condesdencing praises those rare times where I don’t trip over in my own legs or not forget to pull back the hand after a jab, but if something meets your fantasy, you can glean some enjoyment out of it even if you suck at it. The Star Wars Kid was horrible at “lightsabre fencing” and yet seemed to like it!

    So I guess that is another way to turn on a virtuous cycle. Do something you are terrible at, but enjoy it because it matches your fantasies.

    That is how I would reset the fitness industry! The unfit and obese are generally terrible at all sports, but still have fantasies. I would make a list of activities people fantasize about and make a cross-fit of it, generally the easier kinds of introductory activities, but all kinds of activities that are enjoyable on a fantasy level. I don’t mean nerf sword battling. The point with my punch-the-bully fantasy is that boxing is real. It is a serious combat sport, one of the hardest sports. It gives real self confidence. It has to be similar real stuff that earns similar self-esteem.

  24. Shenpen says:


    It’s funny that based on the tests you mentioned, you and I have similar abilities, and instead of both of us doing the sensible thing and becoming a professional historian or suchlike, you became a doctor and I became a business software guy. My excuse is that I am from a poor-ish country where historians and suchlike are paid peanuts. What is yours?

    (My excuse is less than perfect. I know a guy who studied to be a professional historian, became the history fact-checker for a company developing a WW2 videogame, from that on went on the become a succesful project manager in videogame development. However a career like this sounded to me terribly like an extrovert’s career who makes contacts and networks and utilizes his social ability and network to make such opportunities come his way. I am a terrible introvert, I wanted a degree with which I can have a career with zero networking: like, companies advertise we are hiring XYZ and I could apply with a degree showing I studied exactly XYZ. Now at 37, every time I need a new job, my job-seeking is _still_ about searching for matching keywords in job ads. I am terrified that 50+ this is not going to work and we will starve or something. I will have to learn to like people and network or something…)

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  26. Shenpen says:

    Offtopic: @Scott now it seems the bug with Amazon JavaScript code is resolved, I no longer get unresponsive script errors on this blog site in Firefox. Good job!

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  28. Anonymous95 says:

    Awesome. I really appreciated this. I get why you put a content note for growth mindset, but this post was actually a big help to mine.

  29. Norbert the Anonymous says:

    “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.”

    Well thanks a lot.

    I AM cut out for biology research. And I have wanted to tackle anti-aging research since I was 10. But I dropped out of college twice, only finally finished the B.S. in my early 30s, and now have an academic record such that no graduate school I could tolerate enough to graduate from would accept me.

    I’ve long known I was a mass murderer but didn’t know the number.

    (Not quite serious)

    Edit to add: Terence Tao has two brothers, one of whom is excellent at the piano. 🙂

  30. And says:

    Can we also acknowledge that things like ‘trying hard’ and ‘willpower’ are not entirely under one’s control either.

    • Tom says:

      And unlike intelligence, these things are explicitly tied to notions of ‘moral worth’ (at least in every culture I have been a part of).

  31. Harald K says:

    When you express surprise that biological determinism “bucks the trend” re. intelligence/IQ, I got to wonder how history-less you are. IQ was formulated and promoted by people who were, to put a nice word on it, radical antihumanists. It was supposed to be irrefutable scientific proof that “their kind” – upper class, British/German descended, and (early on) men, were superior beings, who deserved to rule.

    The big difference between them and you “rational giving”-crowd, was that no one of them argued that this meant they had greater obligations, in anything but the most transparent “white man’s burden” ways. Compassion for the retarded was not on the agenda. IQ was one of the main tools of pushing social darwinistic values.

    The thing is, with some modest moral assumptions – dangerously close to your moral assumptions – that works. You call yourself an utilitarian, so you ultimately judge things by their outcomes, right? And IQ helps more than anything with predicting outcomes. So, you’re morally more valuable. Your life is literally worth more. The imbeciles on Titanic ought to give up their space in the lifeboat for you, because you’re going to be better at making lots of money and giving to the most efficient charities.

    Of course, you’d balk at that. This is the big difference between your rationalist clique and the social darwinists: You are, thankfully for the rest of us, plagued by guilt. They were not. Guilt is just a feeling, after all, and they had the supreme intellectual confidence to convince themselves that their feelings were wrong and their thinking was right.

    But if you are an intellectually superior being, better at predicting the outcomes of actions and thus morally superior, who says you have to be honest to the morons about this? They may be dumb, but they’re many. If they knew you valued them less than yourself, they might foolishly take away the power and influence you have gained with your intelligence (or, in Effective Altruism world, the money you’ve hoarded to give intelligently to charity). That would be foolish. You are right to deceive them – granted the assumption that you are really smarter in the absolute sense, and outcomes is what matters. (A neoreactionary is a person who’s “smart” enough to believe in such things, but not smart enough to keep it to himself.)

    All this is true independent of IQ’s scientific merits, by the way.

    • JK says:

      IQ was formulated and promoted by people who were, to put a nice word on it, radical antihumanists.

      No, it wasn’t, and no, they weren’t. The IQ pioneers were social reformers who wanted to reduce human suffering. Their political views varied but none was a “radical antihumanist.” In our current affluence we have forgotten how wretched life was for most people until quite recently — Megan McArdle’s recent article is a good reminder. In such circumstances, eugenics seemed like a great humanist idea.

      Here’s a thought from the eugenicist Edward Thordike:

      [S]elective breeding can alter man’s capacity to learn, to keep sane, to cherish justice or to be happy. There is no more certain and economical a way to improve man’s environment as to improve his nature.

      Does that sound like radical antihumanism? Nope.

      Or think about the argument that mentally retarded criminals should not be executed because they have no capacity to tell right from wrong. Who came up with this decidedly humanist idea? Henry Goddard, the man who brought IQ tests to America. He appeared as an expert witness in a number of murder trials, always making this argument. Goddard also “helped to write the first U.S. law requiring that blind, deaf and mentally retarded children be provided special education within public school systems” (Wikipedia).

      • Harald K says:

        The IQ pioneers were social reformers who wanted to reduce human suffering.

        Oh sure. By turning as much as possible of decision making over to them, or resisting efforts to take away the privileges they already had, i.e. egalitarian efforts. I don’t hold much faith in the good will of US eugenicists, any more than their German cousins. The decision of which of other people’s genes deserve to survive to the next generation, is one which every human is hopelessly biased, and every decision is hopelessly corrupt.

        Sure, many socialists were fooled too by the eugenicists’ crocodile tears for humanity, but it’s an inherently and irreparably selfish practice, only morally compatible with every man for himself/might makes right morality. I could have told them (and many DID tell them).

        Binet can get a pass, sort of. His concern was mainly about who would do well in the French school system. Goddard imported the Binet test before Terman turned it into the first IQ test, so hardly “the man who brought IQ tests to America”. I wonder who can look at Goddard’s wikipedia page for arguments that he had such noble intentions, and overlook how he argued that Americans were unfit for democracy, or how he let first and second class skip the intelligence testing for immigration demand on Ellis Island.

        IQ tests were invented in America, by Lewis Terman. From the moment Terman touched the test, it was conscripted to the service of racism and elitism.

        Does that sound like radical antihumanism? Nope.

        Yes, it does. Note how it promotes the welfare of humanity in the abstract, at the expense of concrete humans living here and now. But as I’ve argued, even that is just a fig leaf for the crudest power-grab a biological human can possibly make.

        • JK says:

          The problem with discussing the early IQ testers, eugenicists, “social darwinism”, etc. is that many people’s understanding of those times is filtered through the socio-political agenda of various influential post-WW2 writers, starting with Richard Hofstadter and continuing to Kamin, Gould, and others. Even though better, nuanced, non-partisan research on these topics is available, the views of these writers continue to dominate the discussion.

          Sure, many socialists were fooled too by the eugenicists’ crocodile tears for humanity, but it’s an inherently and irreparably selfish practice, only morally compatible with every man for himself/might makes right morality.

          Back then, socialists were murdering people in the millions in order to bring about their dream society, so to suggest that they would have had to be “fooled” into supporting the comparatively mild views of eugenicists does not make sense. In reality, eugenics meshed nicely with all kinds of political persuasions.

          Binet can get a pass, sort of. His concern was mainly about who would do well in the French school system.

          That’s just another one of Gould’s misrepresentations. This is what Binet actually thought:

          It now remains to explain the use of our measuring scale which we consider a standard of the child’s intelligence. Of what use is a measure of intelligence? Without doubt one could conceive many possible applications of the process, in dreaming of a future where the social sphere would be better organized than ours; where every one would work according to his known aptitudes in such a way that no particle of psychic force should be lost for society. That would be the ideal city.

          Back to Harald K:

          I wonder who can look at Goddard’s wikipedia page for arguments that he had such noble intentions, and overlook how he argued that Americans were unfit for democracy, or how he let first and second class skip the intelligence testing for immigration demand on Ellis Island.

          I have read widely on Goddard and the other early IQ testers, both their original works and secondary literature, so I am in a very good position to know what is or is not relevant in the Wikipedia article on Goddard.

          Goddard was not responsible for intelligence testing on Ellis Island. He published one small study of immigrant IQs where he put low immigrant IQs down to bad environment and said that “we may be confident that their children will be of average intelligence and if rightly brought up will be good citizens.” Nowhere in Goddard’s published works is there any suggestion that intelligence innately varies by ethnicity.

          IQ tests were invented in America, by Lewis Terman.

          What did Terman (who, incidentally, was decidedly left of center politically) call his test? The Stanford-Binet. The reason for the name was that his test was an update of Binet’s, containing many items devised by Binet (in fact, some of Binet’s items survive in today’s IQ tests). There is no clear-cut definition of what an IQ test is, but it is generally agreed that Binet’s tests which were administered and scored in a standardized way were the first IQ tests. The concept of IQ as the ratio of mental to chronological age was invented by William Stern in Germany, but it was directly based on Binet’s concept of mental age, and Terman adopted the idea for his test. You could argue that Terman’s test was an IQ test while Binet’s wasn’t, but that’s just semantics because the purpose of both tests was the same, as were their contents.

          Yes, it does. Note how it promotes the welfare of humanity in the abstract, at the expense of concrete humans living here and now. But as I’ve argued, even that is just a fig leaf for the crudest power-grab a biological human can possibly make.

          Balderdash. There are any number of policies that infringe on individual rights in the name of some abstract ideal and are commonly characterized as blatant power grabs by their opponents. Is Obamacare fascism? Is taxation theft? Is welfare for single mothers a deliberate dysgenic policy?

          • Ahilan Nagendram says:

            Interesting, for all I know and have learned about the technical aspects of IQ testing, psychometrics, and general psychology, I have not studied the history of it, or specifically the early pioneers of IQ. Would be so kind as to pointing me to the relevant literature that you allude to in your comment?

            I sincerely await your telegram.

          • JK says:

            @Ahilan Nagendram, these should get you started:

            Binet and Simon’s “The Development of Intelligence in Children”, which is available here.

            Fancher’s “The Intelligence Men”, a decent history of intelligence testing.

            Degler’s “In Search of Human Nature: The Decline and Revival of Darwinism in American Social Thought”, a more general intellectual history.

            Snyderman and Herrnstein’s “Intelligence tests and the Immigration Act of 1924”, American Psychologist, 38, 986-995, is a good study of how IQ tests did not influence immigration policy. Franz Samelson has covered similar ground, e.g., Samelson (1975). On the science and politics of the IQ. Social Research, 42, 467-488.

            Hodgson and Leonard show how Richard Hofstadter more or less invented a supposedly right-wing intellectual tradition of social darwinism in his book “Social Darwinism in American Thought.”

            Leila Zenderland’s biography of Henry Goddard is very well researched and debunks all sorts of myths.

          • Harald K says:

            I explained just why eugenics is a power grab: you judge the worthiness of genes, when you’re a sack of genes yourself. If you have a child beauty pageant where your own children are competing, do you think you’re an objective judge? Eugenics is the same, only with incomparably higher stakes. So no, not balderdash.

            And no, it’s nothing like Obamacare or tax-as-theft or whatever questions you’re desperately trying to divert the discussion towards either. None of those issues have the rotten conflict of interest at heart.

            Goddard was not responsible for intelligence testing on Ellis Island.

            So? He defended it, as well as defending (well, maybe more stating the self-evidence of) that only the lower classes would be tested. It’s right there on the wiki page you yourself brought up.

            Nowhere in Goddard’s published works is there any suggestion that intelligence innately varies by ethnicity.

            The old trick of denying the client is guilty of theft, when what he stands accused for is arson. Yes, Goddard may have generously conceded that European races were equal in intelligence, but he also must have explained economic class almost entirely with intelligence, since he considered first and second class travellers unnecessary to test. (Other ways, Goddard argued for racial superiority too – just see the wikipedia page again).

            socialists were murdering people in the millions in order to bring about their dream society

            However morally bankrupt they were in practice, in doctrine socialists asserted that men were morally equal. Eugenics is fundamentally incompatible with that belief – see the argument at the top of the post again. You need to fool a socialist to make him think otherwise, even more than you need to fool him to think genocide can advance it.

            You could argue that Terman’s test was an IQ test while Binet’s wasn’t, but that’s just semantics because the purpose of both tests was the same, as were their contents.

            First, Terman was the one who claimed to have identified and proven that the test measured general intelligence, his infamous g. Binet had the far more modest goal of assessing maturity for the purposes of the French school system.

            You’re looking increasingly like you’re not so concerned with the truth as making these policies look more good. Which makes sense to me. As I said, a prudent person who believes what eugenicists believed, has little reason to state his beliefs honestly. If you don’t believe humans have the same inherent value (I wouldn’t mind a straight answer from you on that, btw), there’s no reason you shouldn’t misrepresent.

          • JK says:

            And no, it’s nothing like Obamacare or tax-as-theft or whatever questions you’re desperately trying to divert the discussion towards either. None of those issues have the rotten conflict of interest at heart.

            You are trying to make eugenics into some unique evil. That’s nonsense. As an argument it’s not more persuasive than the libertarian claim that taxation is theft. Think about the fact that the majority of Down syndrome fetuses are aborted these days. That’s eugenics. What do you think about it? Personally, I think it’s ok. Eugenics per se is not more morally problematic than, say, taxes. Societies always constrain reproduction in different ways. The way that it is done in each historical context is what matters.

            Yes, Goddard may have generously conceded that European races were equal in intelligence, but he also must have explained economic class almost entirely with intelligence, since he considered first and second class travellers unnecessary to test.

            No such claim is made in the Wikipedia article. What is claimed, correctly, is that the subjects of Goddard’s study were steerage passengers, i.e., those with the cheapest tickets. Goddard never argued that only them should be subject to tests. AFAIK, steerage passengers generally constituted the majority of passengers on trans-Atlantic voyages.

            Refusing entry to immigrants with apparent mental or physical deficiencies was a long-standing American policy which predated IQ tests, and IQ tests were never widely used by immigration authorities. Goddard’s study was a pilot experiment of using IQ tests to screen immigrants, but nothing came out of it, not least because Goddard himself didn’t find the results informative.

            (Other ways, Goddard argued for racial superiority too – just see the wikipedia page again).

            If Wikipedia claims that, it’s wrong. I’m not saying that some of the IQ testers weren’t racist. My point is simply that that doesn’t characterize the intellectual movement as a whole, or individuals such as Goddard. It’s ironic that you blabber about treating people as individuals, yet try to shoehorn Goddard into your cliched idea of an evil white man.

            However morally bankrupt they were in practice, in doctrine socialists asserted that men were morally equal. Eugenics is fundamentally incompatible with that belief – see the argument at the top of the post again. You need to fool a socialist to make him think otherwise, even more than you need to fool him to think genocide can advance it.

            No true Scotsman fallacy. Eminent socialists from Karl Pearson to H.G. Wells to Hermann Muller found eugenics to be a natural fit with their political views, so your protestations to the contrary are irrelevant.

            First, Terman was the one who claimed to have identified and proven that the test measured general intelligence, his infamous g. Binet had the far more modest goal of assessing maturity for the purposes of the French school system.

            Again, you are relying on the fictions of Gould and co. In fact, Binet stated that the purpose of his test was to reveal “the natural intelligence of the child, and not his degree of culture, his amount of instruction.” And while Terman thought his test measured “general intelligence”, his approach to cognitive testing was rather atheoretical and he was sceptical of Spearman’s conception of g. I don’t think he conducted a single factor analysis in his life. To speak of Terman’s “infamous g” is like speaking of Einstein’s quantum mechanics.

            If you don’t believe humans have the same inherent value (I wouldn’t mind a straight answer from you on that, btw), there’s no reason you shouldn’t misrepresent.

            I believe that people should be afforded the same rights (I’m not sure what “inherent value” means, it sounds like a religious idea), but that certainly doesn’t mean that they are equal in their various heritable qualities or that those qualities should not be improved. That could happen by, for example, offering screwed-up individuals cash rewards to get sterilized, and giving paid maternal leaves and tax breaks to others for having children.

    • Shenpen says:

      > It was supposed to be irrefutable scientific proof that “their kind” – upper class, British/German descended, and (early on) men, were superior beings, who deserved to rule.

      And ended up making a tool that predicts that the Chinese and Jews should be doing it instead of them. Sounds like a really lazy conspiracy.

      Especially if you consider that back then the white folks in the US were in a much bigger majority than today. They could just justify their rule by democracy.

      Putting it differently, back then black folks were so powerless, there would be little point in making up a tool just to supress them even more. Especally such an easily back-firing tool.

      Back then black people hardly competed with white people for positions of power. Jews did. So why didn’t these clever conspiratorists make some other kind of tool that puts gentiles on top? How comes these folks were jealous of their power with regard to blue-collar Blacks with low IQ but not jealous of their power with regard to high-IQ Jewish lawyers and bankers? Does that computer for you?

      For example, a test that would gentiles on top for claims of power could be courage/testosterone. I am half-Jewish and looking at me and my friends, we are not very good at that. If these clever conspirationists would make up stuff like “to be a good leader you must be a manly man who competed in college in that weirdly brutal group wrestling that Americans for some reason call football” we would nope the fuck out of the competition with the gentiles. (This is not a made-up example, I hear that a reputation for having played college “football” is indeed helpful for ones career in Corporate America.) Or hunting. Or serving a stint as as a military officer. (They are again not made up examples but well known gentile ways to form old boys networks. And again we are no good at this, dislike seeing blood and all.)

      These are real-world examples of justifying power with macho narratives. And this tends to put gentiles on top of the real competition, like us. Why wouldn’t it make more sense to invent tools that deal with the real competition instead of tools that deal with people who are much lower on the social ladder?

      • Harald K says:

        “And ended up making a tool that predicts that the Chinese and Jews should be doing it instead of them.”

        Ah, here it becomes relevant that the IQ of today isn’t really Terman’s IQ. Today’s test make Chinese people look good, but Terman’s test didn’t. It didn’t try to be culturally independent at all, so if you administered it to a Chinese person, he’d score horribly. There were even questions which obviously coded for social class, like where would you go to buy certain products.

        It was in response to such criticism that they gradually tried to make the tests more independent of culture and language. It was not such a great sacrifice for them to open up for the possibility that some groups may on average do slightly better than your group, once the tests had scientifically established that they, individually, were superior beings.

        But as they did so, the tests became less useful for prediction of success. (It turns out upper class white kids are more successful than kids who go to the liquor store to buy sugar, even if the latter kids are otherwise clever. Who knew?).

  32. amiwelcomehere says:

    I have a question about genetic determination of obesity. I am sure we will make great strides in understanding the role of satiety centers and gut bacteria and all sorts of things that are out of people’s control re weight gain. But, this:

    It is widely reported, and easily observed, that there is an epidemic of obesity in the country nowadays, including obesity in children (which was rare in my childhood, in the 1950’s) and morbid obesity. People’s genes haven’t changed, their behavior and diet has, so how can genetics be the major cause?

    The other reason many people are skeptical that obesity is genetic, is that as you age, your metabolism slows way way down, so each and every one of us sooner of later is confronted with a biological setting that would make us fat, unless we actively, many times a day, fight the impulse to eat as much as we would like. so it’s hard to hear that the people who give in and get fat shouldn’t be held accountable for eating too much for their metabolism, when we are struggling so hard to hold ourselves accountable. saying that the people who do get fat try just as hard or harder not to, is not born out by experience – we all of us can observe overweight friends or family members who indulge themselves and then wonder why they are fat.

    • JK says:

      When it is said that weight is “genetic”, what is actually meant is that it is highly heritable. This means that weight differences between individuals in the currently existing environment mostly reflect genetic differences. Change that environment and the average weight and the variance of weight will change, too, as has happened in the recent past. Scott wrote about these issues here, a quote:

      Dr. Claude Bouchard and his team stuck 12 pairs of male identical twins in isolation chambers where their caloric intake and exercise could be carefully controlled, then fed them more calories than their bodies needed. All sets of twins gained weight, and in all twin groups both twins gained about the same amount of weight as each other, but the amount of weight gained varied between twin pairs by a factor of 3 (from 4 to 13 kg).

      A lot of the sites that talk about this thing are careful to say that people “can’t blame” genes for their obesity, because obesity levels have been rising for decades and genes can’t change that quickly. I think this is wrong-headed. True, genes are not the source of the modern rise in obesity levels. But it’s entirely possible that a globally rising tide of obesity has disproportionately affected the people with the wrong genes. Just as Bouchard fed the same amount extra to all his study participants but some of them gained more weight than others, so if you put an entire civilization worth of people in an obesogenic environment, some of them might be genetically predisposed to do worse than the rest.

      While genetic differences in self-control may explain some of the heritability of weight, it’s also clear that the same amount of extra calories may cause one person to gain much more weight than another person because of genetic differences.

  33. JohnMcG says:

    Very thought provoking; here’s one:

    The post seems to suggest that the most moral thing for us to do is to maximally focus on the areas in which we have talented, and then share the results.

    I understand that this is likely the most altruistic. I would probably be more effective by working 10 extra hours a week and donating the extra money (or even part of it), rather than volunteering that time doing something outside of my wheelhouse.

    But that doesn’t maximize my happiness, does it? We seem to derive satisfaction from accomplishing things that are a little bit outside of our comfort zones. You’re still proud of that C-minus in calculus! Your career choice and writing interests still deal with a bit of math — it’s not like you’re doing creative writing or literary criticism. You may not derive joy from being praised from your writing, but I bet if someone told you, “I know you worked your butt off for that C- in calculus. You should be proud of yourself,” it would have meant a lot to you.

    It seems like this is telling us something other than that we’re doomed to be unhappy. It seems that nature does nudge us toward trying to do things and develop skills beyond our primary innate talents.

    Or maybe this is just advice for the scrupulous who struggle with whether they’re making enough of a difference.

  34. pliny 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.

    This seems like a gratifyingly low bar.


  35. lmm says:

    I feel this discussion is stunted, because we’re not seriously contemplating the alternative. At least, I’m not. I don’t have a line of retreat for if I did. I’m not able to say that I’ve honestly weighed up the possibilities and decided that everyone is worth something, because that would require me to approach it in a neutral frame of mind. And I don’t want to believe that some people are worthless, and I don’t know what I could do if I did. Which means I can’t feel confident that it isn’t true.

    • pinkocrat says:

      No, I’ve looked into it objectively and while most people are intrinsically valuable, about 3-4% are not.

    • Norbert the Anonymous says:

      I’ve got a philosophy that might help:

      Sentient beings, and human beings in particular, are those which create worth and value by assigning said value to object relations.

      It is always the relations or the context between objects and subjects which get assigned value. Not the objects and subjects themselves.

      Think of Robinson Crusoe as an example. He had no context of relation to anyone else, so nothing he did generated a value appraisal from anyone else, yet he was still creating value by his appraisal of his surroundings.

      Not only is it impossible to assign value to an object or subject (since the value is actually being assigned to the relationship/context between the assigner and the object/subject), but it also seems intuitively (to me at least) meaningless and circular to think that it is possible to assign value to another value generator – another person. Fonts of value assignment – the creators of value – cannot be assigned value themselves without delving into the logical absurd.

      This still leaves a lot of ethical and moral issues to figure out vis-a-vis interacting with other people and with the world, but it at least resolves any idea that some people are worth more or worthless.

  36. Kaa says:

    Your deeply personal account of your feelings about ability, failure, and talent have really brought me to do a lot of thinking about my own experiences with mathematics.

    I never thought I was particularly talented with math, though I ended up entering a PhD program at a University of California. I always felt a little inferior to my peers. It was very hard for me to relax and just be content with learning things at my own pace. I also had a very difficult time actually focusing and consistently doing work. I found many of the topics too difficult to really engage myself with. I would get distracted, and do other activities, like sports, or programming, or dating. Looking back, my feelings are still muddled. I finally dropped out after losing my TA-assistantship funding, and started working as a web developer.

    Now, many years later, part of me wishes I had stuck with it, yet part of me is happy how things turned out instead. Having worked for several years and proved that, yes, I can be moderately successful at a career (in tech) and this has made me think that maybe it would be possible now, feeling a little less pressure and less insecure about my general lack of genius-level talent, that I would be able to enter a program again and return to the church of maths.

    The thought experiment I perform is, given an unlimited amount of time and resources, what would I like to devote my attention and time to, and what would I like to be able to share, the most beautiful selected bits, with my friends, or perhaps my offspring. Part of me says math, even though I know I’m not particularly talented.

    I’m further inhibited by a mindset that sees this as an all-or-nothing endeavor. Maybe there is a middle ground where I can continue to work on things that generate wealth and enjoy some math on the side as a hobby. And maybe still someday my children can be better at math than myself.

    So maybe your post isn’t anti-growth mindset, at least in my case.

  37. Frederick326 says:

    I am very good at math. Very, very good. But I certainly don’t feel like I deserve any credit for it. Most of my life I wished I had never heard of math and physics. There were so many other things I could have done with my life. Instead I have done very little with it, apart from thousands of pages of math and physics notes and a job in IT that i can do with my eyes closed. Lately I think I am finally at peace with it. It is just a fact of life for me that just as I need food, exercise, sleep to be well, I also need to spend at minimum one hour per day doing math. When I do, I’m full of joy. Sometimes so happy tears come to my eyes. But until recently, I always resented that it was so.

    I never felt superior to people who weren’t good at math. More often I felt envious. It seemed like one more thing that separated me from those other people who seemed to be having a much better time than I. And back when I taught college algebra or statistics, I mostly felt sympathy for those students who had to take those classes for a requirement when they really brought them nothing but grief and a waste of time. Those classes are worse than worthless for most people.

    Nowadays in my free time I am working on one of the Millenium Math Problems. not because I really expect to be able to solve it but only because I know it will keep me busy (and happy) for years.

    Since I’ve become nihilist, it’s much easier. Since nothing matters, I might as well enjoy math.

  38. PJ Eby says:

    When I was a teenager, I tried to learn about accounting. I stared at a book until my eyes glazed over.

    A few years later, I was working at a software company, one that actually published a piece of accounting software. And it was based on a concept called “money-transfer accounting”, which I picked up instantly and have never forgotten.

    Except: money-transfer accounting and regular accounting are the *exact same thing*, using different words. Money transfer accounting replaces the word “credit” with the word “from”, and “debit” with the word “to”. That is it.

    A small thing, but it opened my mind to something that I would have otherwise been destined to suck at. It was a “holy sh**” moment for me, that made double entry bookkeeping finally make *sense* to me. Of course everything adds up, when you realize there’s conservation of money.

    Anyway… the point isn’t about accounting, or even that disciplines can be revealed through One Weird Trick invented by a New Jersey CPA (accountants hate him!).

    The actual point is that oftentimes the difference between people’s skill has nothing to do with an inherent difference between the people *or* the amount of work put in. Rather, it’s a difference in cognitive strategies.

    The NLP folks say they can teach anyone to be a good speller, by using a particular cognitive strategy that involves remembering words visually, rather than the ineffective sound-it-out strategy that a lot of people use by default. Is this claim true? Dunno. But I do know that *I* used this strategy “instinctively” since I was a kid, and by fourth grade I was the kid who was grading everybody else’s spelling tests. Could the other kids have been taught to do the same? I don’t know, but it’s worth considering.

    One NLP author tells a story about chemistry class, and a professor talking about visualizing some molecule and spinning it backwards, and most of the class going “buhhhh….”, with a handful of people going, “oh yeah, I see that”, and that handful going on to be chemists. In the tech world, I often see discussions about simple tests you can give people to see if they’re ever going to be good at programming.

    In all of these cases, there is more than one way to approach the subject (whatever that subject is), and *most of them are wrong*. It strongly suggests that a lot of what we crudely refer to as “talent” happens to be something like, “luck in selecting one’s cognitive approach to a subject”, because the approach itself is rarely taught.

    For another example, look at “Drawing On The Right Side of The Brain”, which emphasizes learning to *see*, rather than learning to *draw*. Or “The Natural Way To Write”, which shows similarly dramatic differences in student writings after a short practice.

    I’m not saying there are no inherent differences, and I’m *definitely* not saying hard work is the answer. But there is a middle ground, in which explicit teaching of cognitive strategies may erase a lot more difference than is obviously apparent. What if your brother was processing information in a different frame of mind than you? How about Ramanujan?

    I guess what I’m saying is, hard work practicing the *wrong thing* isn’t helpful, in the same way that my hard work studying accounting was useless until I knew how to *think* about money.

  39. namae nanka says:

    The large difference in abilities is a surprise unless you’re trying to play it up. Grady Towers’s essay, The Empty Promise is a good read about why high IQ(>3SD) folks tend not to succeed as much as one would expect from their high intelligence. Letters from Grady Towers also includes his demarcation of verbal, quantitative and spatial abilities which diverge at high g levels besides his observations about how different cognitive styles can predict personalities.

    As for IQ, heritability, achievement and race, here is a little summation of the hereditarian view by Rushton and Jensen:

    Expanding on the application of his “default hypothesis” that Black–White
    differences are based on aggregated individual differences, themselves based on
    both genetic and environmental contributions, Jensen (2003) proposed “two laws
    of individual differences”: (a) Individual differences in learning and performance
    increase as task complexity increases, and (b) individual differences in perfor-
    mance increase with practice and experience (unless there is a low ceiling on

    Consequently, the more we remove environmental barriers and
    improve everybody’s intellectual performance, the greater will be the relative
    influence of genetic factors (because the environmental variance is being re-
    moved). However, this means that equal opportunity will result in unequal
    outcomes, within families, between families, and between population groups. The
    fact that we have learned to live with the first, and to a lesser degree the second,
    offers some hope we can learn to do so for the third.

    If you want to leave out the racial angle, Inequity in Equity by Benbow and Stanley outlines just how brutally US achievement scores of highly intelligent suffered due to stupid egalitarianism in schooling.

  40. Each of us have innate limitations and abilities that seems fair enough to an extent but of course in utero development, early life experiences, and conscious effort can help us make the most of this and also can stunt or emphasize aspects of our genetic heritage.

    So you could have the potential but you have fetal alcohol syndrome and that destroyed it or you were abused as a kid and that gave you mental issues that warped you or you had negative genetic coding but a warm childhood atmosphere and good role models helped mitigate these

    Is it 50/50? less? more?

    We simply don’t know.

  41. JayMan says:

    First, let me say I see what you’ve done here. You have a talent I don’t have, if that makes you feel any better. 🙂

    (Also, do you know if there’s any particular reason that I don’t get e-mail notifications of your posts? With 500+ comments in, this would have benefited from my input earlier.)

    Obviously, the key posts/pages of mine for people here to read would be:

    The Son Becomes The Father | JayMan’s Blog

    (High heritability of all major life outcomes, including of political orientation and religious views, no effect of upbringing/parental environment, explained by additive genetic factors and can be seen as a pattern across the world going back centuries).

    More Behavioral Genetic Facts

    (shows the same is true for mental illness and criminality)

    Obesity Facts | JayMan’s Blog

    (High heritability of obesity, no effect of parenting, seems to be little *causal* role of will power)

    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.

    But here’s the secret: “willpower” is heritable too (76% so):

    Coyne & Wright (2014): The stability of self-control across childhood

    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.

    Well, if this helps you feel better:

    Mosing et al (2014) Practice does not make perfect: no causal effect of music practice on music ability.

    (Self-reported) musical ability is primarily heritable. There is no effect of (self-reported) amount of practice on ability, as amount of practice is itself heritable. There is absolutely no shared environment effect, so mom and dad didn’t do it either.

    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.

    Make no mistake, I’d still take it! 🙂

    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.

    Just for the record, are you aware of the work of Amir Sariaslan et al that shows that neighborhood environments has no effect on mental illnesses like schizophrenia (at least in Sweden)?

    Does Population Density and Neighborhood Deprivation Predict Schizophrenia?
    A Nationwide Swedish Family-Based Study of 2.4 Million Individuals

    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.

    I hate to tell you, for the sub IQ 90 crowd, your comparative advantage may just be sitting on your ass collecting welfare checks – and probably not even then, because you’ll have plenty of company.

    Comparative advantage is a help, but it too is blowing smoke up people’s bums to a degree.

    I think this will be a very useful post. It may help solidify in people’s minds just what we’re dealing with here. Perhaps by cruising through the comments, I can see if it was successful at that.

    • have it on RSS and check the blog a couple times a day

      For the sub 110 crowd, get used to mediocrity. Not a whole lot you can do about it, I’m sorry to say. They will never appreciate terrence tao

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thanks for the compliment, but I don’t write things I think are false and I don’t approve of doing so. I agree that there is good presentation and bad presentation (grey’s comment above is a GREAT example of bad presentation) but I think one can be non-horrible about things without actively lying.

      It doesn’t hurt that I’m legitimately way less hereditarian than you are.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      “(Self-reported) musical ability is primarily heritable. There is no effect of (self-reported) amount of practice on ability, as amount of practice is itself heritable. There is absolutely no shared environment effect, so mom and dad didn’t do it either.”

      Their measure of “music ability” is a couple of very very upstream pieces that may contribute to music ability. Obviously if my brother had never practiced music, he wouldn’t just be able to sit down, read a score even though he’d never seen one before and had only the foggiest notion what ‘notes’ were, and play a complicated symphony. So what the study is showing is that there are at least some subcomponents of musical ability not affected by practice. Or even “we will take the parts of music immune to practice, and call them musical ability”

      “Just for the record, are you aware of the work of Amir Sariaslan et al that shows that neighborhood environments has no effect on mental illnesses like schizophrenia (at least in Sweden)?”

      Yes. I’m not sure what that has to do with the claim that both neighborhood and schizophrenia can affect intelligence (the former probably most importantly through lead, though I know we disagree on that). Especially since in this case I am using “comes from the Detroit ghetto” to also include “the sort of heritable factors that cause one’s family to live in the Detroit ghetto”.

      “I hate to tell you, for the sub IQ 90 crowd, your comparative advantage may just be sitting on your ass collecting welfare checks – and probably not even then, because you’ll have plenty of company.”

      I don’t think this was kind or necessary, and I would note that I have a lot of really low-IQ patients who nevertheless manage to hold jobs. In fact, even subpopulations that average IQ < 90 still have employment rates in the 80-90% bracket.

  42. Unique Identifier says:

    Warning: This is meant to be harsh, but truthful.

    I think there’s a fundamental flaw in this article.

    It is a bit all over the place, and it is interesting, but it tries to establish that you don’t have much control over your intelligence. This happens to be true. It’s supposed to follow, that we shouldn’t obsess over our intelligence or feel bad about being unexceptional. This doesn’t quite work.

    Beauty is a good comparison. Few people think that they have somehow caused themselves to be unattractive, or that it’s about going about being beautiful the right way and working hard at it. (If anything, people understate the importance of clothing, exercise and grooming.) But there’s a full spectrum of negative emotional reactions, to feeling unattractive, regardless.

    This is because all these self-doubts are not about -it’s my own fault, and if it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have to feel bad about it-. The problem is that people really value beauty, and thus being unattractive does matter. It means you can’t approach people of the other sex the same way. It means some people are just out of your league. It means you probably won’t have an acting career in Hollywood, particularly if you’re a girl. It means that the first time someone looks at you, you’re starting from behind compared to the better looking, and you’ll have to compensate for this first impression in other ways.

    We can of course say that there’s nothing morally wrong about being ugly, because it’s not their fault. And there’s no real merit to being intelligent, any more than winning the lottery, morally speaking. We can pretend to disentangle everything about morals from the values everybody care about – being witty, resourceful, good looking, and so on. But it won’t work.

    Because people go on caring about just these things. It follows, of course, that your opportunities are firmly limited by these things. And everybody realizes this, despite this front of -moral correctness-. And when these things really constrain the life you will get to live, you are right to care. Note that people don’t obsess about having been born in the wrong astrological sign, because nobody is going to judge them on that basis.

    Read the article, for instance. It says something along the lines of, don’t beat yourself up over being unintelligent. Then look at the people the author quotes and gives his attention to – people like Elon Musk, Terence Tao and von Neumann, all extremely intelligent people. Terence Tao holds the power to make the author listen to him, by virtues of his intelligence and subsequently his achievements.

    What it really comes down to is, don’t beat yourself up over what your future is going to look like, about what life you are going to live. And this is precisely backwards. Being valuable to other people is really important, in order to have a good life. Optimize for this. Compensate for flaws. There are low plenty of low-hanging fruit, that people of high intelligence or beauty get away with neglecting. Be honest, be a dependable friend, be a good listener.

    Nothing will boost your self-esteem like being someone other people appreciate.

    • Ialdabaoth says:

      Be honest, be a dependable friend, be a good listener.

      Nothing will boost your self-esteem like being someone other people appreciate.

      What if you try to do all of that to the absolute best of your capabilities, and people still don’t appreciate it?

      It IS possible to be socially deficient.

      • Unique Identifier says:

        If you want people to like you, but have nothing to offer people to like about you, then you’re in a bind. There is no easy solution. Demanding that people like you just for being homo sapiens is not likely to work – this is the social equivalent of being a beggar.

        But the list you quoted in not an exhaustive list. It’s unfortunately not feasible to provide a good set of generalized suggestions – solutions are specific to people. But there are a lot of ways to be valuable, without being the least bit exceptional. You can be the person who organizes events to bring people together. You can be the person who volunteers to do uninteresting, managerial tasks. You can be the person who actually listens when someone suggests a book – who reads it and gets back to them. You can be the person who proof-reads, transcribes or translates things for people whose time is more valuable.

        A lot of the above solutions are about making yourself valuable, as lower-status, to higher-status people. Another solution is to engage other lower-status people as equals. If you want to be liked, but aren’t very likable, start out by showing interest in your own reference class of less-obviously awesome people. You can trawl through the countless blogs with zero readers and find something which interests you and engage with the author.

        In a sense, this is a very parallel case to that of dating. Part of the solution is to understand that everybody can’t be with the prettiest girl. But there’s also an important difference, in that non-romantic relationships allow for much more asymmetry in status.

        [I’m now engaging in the lower-status activity of commenting on someone else’s blog, borrowing parts of his readership, in part because I don’t have the outreach where I can put things up on my own website and expect people to come and read and comment. I’m okay with that.]

  43. onyomi says:

    So do people here believe in free will or not? This seems to be the main question, as no one is denying environment has a role in addition to genetics, just debating whether genetics are 50% or 80%. But is the remaining 50-20 all environment or is some of it “individual choices”? This seems to me to be the key question.

    I don’t have a strong view one way or the other on free will, but my current working model is of the conscious mind being something like a captain at the helm of an old-timey ship with sails. He can sort of steer in a certain direction, but has little control of how much wind he gets and from what direction or of how his ship and sails were designed in the first place.

      • onyomi says:

        Not yet, but before I do, would you say that his view is fairly representative of Scott’s and/or that of most of the posters here?

        • Anonymous says:

          See this post by Scott, section “Sympathy or Condemnation?”

          • onyomi says:

            So is “Yvain” on LessWrong=”Scott Alexander” on SlateStar? (Feel free to ignore or delete if this is too intrusive).

          • Sniffnoy says:

            Yes. Definitely not too intrusive; it’s stated explicitly in the “About” page.

            Note that Scott’s real name isn’t really a secret; it’s just, you don’t ever mention it here, because he doesn’t want people doing a web search on his real name to turn up this blog.

          • onyomi says:

            Here’s what I don’t understand, both about that article and, by extension, this one: how can one both say: “everything people do is determined by biology” and also “do this instead of that”? If everything is determined by physics then it seems there can be no such thing as “fulfilling” or “not fulfilling” “potential.” There is merely that which has happened and that which will happen.

            Also, and this may be uncharitable, but considering this article in the light of the other, are we to understand that Scott is here deploying the very method he prescribed for fat people, but for people who feel insecure about their IQ? That is, it’s not about whether or not one actually can “maximize one’s potential,” but about whether or not telling people to do that produces a good or bad result? (I’m not accusing Scott of intentional deception, yet I am also very leery of the prescription in the other article, which seems to me to be a sort of deception, though maybe Scott wouldn’t see it that way).

            There seems to me to be a more fundamental problem here: a biological determinist might imagine that if we could see and understand every neuronal firing, hormone secretion, etc. in a patient’s body, then we could also perfectly predict all their future behavior. Along with this, we might imagine (and Scott seems to in the article on whether obesity is a “disease”) that we can apply the right stimulus to that system to produce a better outcome: say, by saying “get off the couch, you bum!” or “this isn’t your fault!”

            But the problem is, if we ourselves are living in such a fully deterministic machine, then there is never any option for us to make a choice to say this or that. What we will say or not say will itself be determined by our own soup of chemicals and electrical impulses, no?

    • randy m says:

      I think the rationalist conception is like that, only , unbeknownst to the captain the rudder is unconnected to the wheel. Later the captain will describe his heroic steering against the wind and tides, but it’s all rationalization.

      • onyomi says:

        Having had some semi-lucid dreams last night, it made me think of an objection to this, though I’m not sure it’s necessarily the position I hold:

        When we dream, what we do within the dream is out of our control and fully predetermined by habit, given that some part of the brain which I’ll call “the decider” (not the conscious mind, since that is awake during any dream we are aware of) is usually dormant. I’m pretty sure this is subjectively true for just about everyone. Yet, by deciding to create the habit in waking life of checking whether or not you are dreaming, one can ensure that sometimes, while dreaming, that habit will express itself and wake up “the decider” without necessarily waking up the whole person.

        That is, we all experience on an almost daily basis what it is like to have a working “decider” and what it is like to run on autopilot. I have read that advanced meditators always have lucid dreams, if they dream at all, effectively maintaining “decider” activation 24-7.

        Therefore, the state of having an active “decider” seems to me to correspond to what we might colloquially call “free will.”

        Now what if part of the function of this “decider” IS in fact to make rational moral judgments about social life? To determine, in effect, whether other people’s deciders are functioning well or poorly according to a standard which may, in fact, be real or objective (or biologically determined, but I lean toward the former)? Now that still might not justify a transcendental morality, but it would seem to justify a practical level morality, just as feelings of friendship, enmity, love, etc. weave together the social fabric, maybe ethical judgments are a way of punishing, discouraging, or even trying to fix bad “deciders.”

  44. 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 eliezer yudkowsky.


  45. Squirrel of Doom says:

    Do you remember the three words?

  46. Alexander Stanislaw says:

    Your brother is pretty good looking (I think this passes the true and kind gates?).

    On topic, its pretty annoying how the nature nurture debate turns into each side caricaturing the other side:

    Terrance Tao (paraphrase): “Yes talent is something, but it isn’t everything, good mathematics is a result of hard work and steady progress not brilliant ex nihilo insights”

    The nature side (sometimes me unfortunately): “Yes hard work is something, but success isn’t just a result of trying really hard, different people have different talents and things that they are good at, and things that they are good at learning”

    Neither side is actually disputing what the other is saying. Which is why I am a huge fan the occidentalist. He never bravery debates or engages in a meaningless debate. He precisely determines how much of success is the result of environment and/or biology given the data we have. He knows its a difficult problem but makes reasonable estimates and error bounds given what we do know.

    • Deiseach says:

      I suppose the “splitting the difference” answer here is that there are various things (which will differ for different people) that the majority will find hard, and that on one side a small few will find trivially easy, and on the other hand, a small few will find impossible.

      For the majority, there’s nothing else to do but buckle down and slog through the work, which is where the “hard work and determination” part come in – do the hours of study, practice practice practice, and you’ll get to a certain standard.

      After that, the ceiling is reached (and again, it will be different for everyone) and that’s where innate ability/natural talent make the difference. The best outcomes will be where a solid foundation of good study habits and hours of practice and developing techniques for crunching your way through the problem is allied to natural talent; talent on its own will get you far, but skating by on pure ability will eventually let you down; hard work will get you far, but there will come a point where you simply can’t bludgeon your brain into managing the material.

      The big debate, then, comes in about “At what point does natural ability outweigh hard work? And what can or should we do about it?”

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I have mixed feelings about Occidentalist. On the one hand, his statistics and scientific rigor are really impressive. On the other hand, he posts them to a blog called “Occidental Ascent”, and so there’s no way I can ever link anyone to them or expect reasonable people to take him seriously. It’s the same frickin’ problem as Crazy Meds, only less excusable.

      “Oh, I’m not a bigot. I just follow the data. Which I carefully analyze at my blog, Occidental Ascent.” Really?

      It’s even worse because he’s one of the most open-minded people out there and occasionally changes his mind and says things are environmental after all, which gives me more confidence when he decides something isn’t – but there’s no way I can convince anybody of that and I don’t try.

      I prefer Meng Hu, whose strategy of “be so densely written that nobody has any idea what he’s saying” keeps him above suspicion.

  47. amiwelcomehere says:

    My experiences are similar in some ways, but essentially different from yours Scott, giving me a different attitude towards high IQ. I know I am an outlier on this site in how I value IQ.

    I went to a special public school in Manhattan for ‘intellectually gifted girls’ and graduated a year early, with the top grades in my class, and a semester of college credits. My score on the GRE’s, my last test, was 800 on everything. I left high school thinking I wanted to be a biologist. It was my favorite subject and I scored 100 on every test and 800 on the AP. So I knew I was smart. As an adult, I still have a deep sense of confidence in my raw brainpower thanks to all these measures.

    All the girls in my school were high IQ, but looking at my fellow students, it was obvious that IQ is not the same as being broadly intelligent, having common sense or good judgment, being a moral person, or having the character traits for success, in either career or marriage.

    I choose friends across the spectrum of brainpower, from very smart to not smart, and points in between, since I value other traits equally with intelligence. I value and admire people for many different reasons – some of my close friends are wonderfully creative, others are amazingly kind and loving, others have good values and politics and drive to improve the world, others are lively extroverts and fun to be with. My most intelligent friends are not at the top of those other categories.

    While high intelligence can translate into career success, it can also be a handicap (you are probably aware of these statistics). Even in STEM careers, I see the highest rungs of success (such as my husband achieved) as very much a combination of IQ with other traits, psychological, sociological, characterological, and of course, good fortune and contingent circumstances.

    While IQ can translate into insight and wisdom, it often doesn’t. People of much more average IQ often leave the purely intelligent far behind in judgment, knowledge and understanding of the world. In my observation, many people who have a high IQ are quite foolish because they live too much in their heads, over-rate ideas, and lack real world experiences that would make them smarter and wiser.

    It is very nice having gifts like high IQ or beauty or sports ability in high school, but none of them even confer across the board self-confidence or regard as you grow older. Perhaps that is the theme of your post. What you miss is that none of t these gifts earn across the board self-confidence and self- regard. That can only be earned by actual life lived.

    My accomplishments in the realm of testing were all decades ago. Real life turned out to have only a partial relationship to any of these things, because character and talent and ineffable qualities of mind and values have proven to be so much more important than pure I.Q..

    As for your critique of ascription of moral agency as unfair – I actually am lazy, and it has handicapped me in using my IQ. I just have to accept that as a weakness. Or I can embrace it as a Thoreauvian value of wanting a broad margin to my life.

  48. Anonymous says:

    So, what about the last 20% then?

    I mean, I will never win an olympic marathon, simply because I have relatively robust bone structure and there are people from Kenya with super-lightweight ankle joints who seem to be consistently faster than anything with my genetic makeup.

    On the other hand, I spent most of my childhood sitting on my arse reading books and staring at computer screens until at 15 I was physically incapable of running 400 yards.

    At 25 I ran my first marathon and at 35 I almost got my Ironman time down under 10 hours. Still not record breaking, but not horrible either.

    So, the remaining 20% means that I can sit staring at paint dry and drop roughly one standard deviation or I can use my head for other purposes than keeping my ears separate and gain one?

    If so, that sounds fair enough to me.

  49. Stezinech says:

    Hello Scott, I’m normally a lurker; this is my first post.

    “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.”

    I think the principle at work here for progressives is actually that “socially undesirable” things like obesity, poverty and mental illness, etc. are the result of accidental genetics. However, socially desirable things like high intelligence, and above-average mental health are due to hard work and effort.

    If you phrase it as “the difference between IQ 70 and IQ 100 is largely genetic”, you will get liberals nodding their heads vigorously, but if you talk about the difference between IQ 120 and IQ 150 and how it is also mainly genetic, and how it makes a big difference in the world, they will most likely balk and have to fight back the urge to argue about the importance of hard work, and how anyone can do anything if they try hard enough.

    This is their way of trying to be compassionate and positive-minded. In order to get the benefit of being kind towards the “socially undesirable”, they feel that it’s ok to give up some reality in the case of the above-average. Liberals generally dislike class distinctions anyway, so much the better if they are ignored. Consistent with the Thrive/Survive theory, they think that we don’t need such class distinctions, such as between the smart and super-smart. We should bury them and not talk about them anyway.

    • If you phrase it as “the difference between IQ 70 and IQ 100 is largely genetic”, you will get liberals nodding their heads vigorously, but if you talk about the difference between IQ 120 and IQ 150 and how it is also mainly genetic, and how it makes a big difference in the world, they will most likely balk and have to fight back the urge to argue about the importance of hard work, and how anyone can do anything if they try hard enough.


    • Elissa says:

      This is a good idea! Good job having it!

  50. Raph L says:

    This essay resonated with me. As a small child, I was labeled as gifted (IQ measured as 179) and was taking college math and physics classes by 9, grad classes by 12. Anything math or computers just made sense to me, while others found it hard. I was pretty good at writing and suchlike, but not spectacular.

    Today I’ve got a great job doing computer things I love (with a bunch of artistic creativity thrown in). Over the years, I’ve worked really hard and also done bunch of things to keep training up my programming skill (I learn new languages and techniques all the time, and take special pleasure in mastering things like SIMD assembly language, which most programmers consider arcane magic). But the motivation to do that has always been strong, it’s never felt like willpower. Meetings and even normal social activities stress me out, and I’ve been to write intricate pieces of code just to relax.

    At the same time, I’ve always enjoyed making music, but was never much good at it (the bits about Scott’s brother Jeremy rang true). I can sort of bang out a tune, but envy people who can really play. When I practice, I can get okay at it, but it’s difficult to keep up the motivation. As it turns out, I’m somewhat known in certain music circles, but that’s entirely because of my hobby work in music software.

    I’m trying to find the right balance, as I strongly feel that I only have so much time. The programming work is immensely satisfying and rewarding, but music has a pull even though I know I will never be really good at it. Right now I’m trying to decide whether to buy a Linnstrument as it feels like something I could learn reasonably well, but worried that it will take too much time from the other things that are clearly my comparative advantage, and which I also enjoy.

  51. Ilya Shpitser says:

    Careful argumentation is the essence of doing mathematics. Most of what you do on this blog is argue carefully. That is, most of what you do on this blog is mathematical activity.

    I appreciate and sympathize that you didn’t have a good time with high school math (a lot of people in technical fields didn’t either).

  52. Princess Stargirl says:

    Can people please stop calling other “Denialists.” Denialist carries the connotation that someone knows (or “should”) know the truth but is intentionally denying the truth. It implies the other person is not just mistaken but intellectually dishonest. Please stop, it really upsets me to see this on a blog like Scott’s.

    *I feel the same way about all uses of X-denialist or X-denier. Unless you are really accuses someone of intentionally spreading propaganda. Accusing the FDA of “marijuana safety denialism” seems warranted. One can argue about the dangers but it shouldn’t be schedule 3. Schedule 3 drugs are, by the FDA definition, not supposed to be medically useful. Marijuana is useful in managing the symptoms of chemo (among other things) in a decent percentage of people. This is not some fringe medical problem. The FDA knows about this use. So I think they are in act deniers actively spreading mis-information. But this is a SPECIAL case.

    • Anonymous says:

      Indeed. If you want to convince people to change their opinion, you should try decouple their opinion and their identity. Using the word “denialist” is going in the opposite direction, it makes the connection between opinion and identity stronger.

    • Well, I take it in stride when people of the other tribe call members of my tribe ‘climate denialists’ or even ‘science denialists’ in regard to creationism vs. evolution. But I think that’s a word that should be phased out, and I won;t use it anymore here.

      • Tom Scharf says:

        Denier has become socially acceptable in the climate wars at all levels. Academics use it, politicians use it, and the media uses it. Kind of curious this is the same crowd who are hyper sensitive about micro-aggressions and triggers. It really doesn’t bother me, as it is is usually an instant queue to stop reading. I doubt this forum will stoop to that level.

        But the Princess is right, it only serves to increase polarization and makes finding a mutually acceptable policy that much harder. Counter productive.

    • suntzuanime says:

      I try to use it in trolling ways, like “chemtrails denialism”

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I endorse this request. Should I add it to the blog’s curse word filter, or would that be annoying?

  53. Primadant says:

    I wonder if Scott hasn’t absolute instead of comparative advantage in mind. One of the implications of comparative advantage is that you should not specialize in the thing that you do the best but in the thing that maximizes agregate welfare. If you’re better at hunting than at gathering but your friend is SO MUCH better at hunting than at gathering then the optimal thing to do is for you to give up hunting completely even though it might make you less happy.

    Comparative advantage is not that great even for international trade because it maximizes static welfare but not necessarily dynamic welfare. We know that in the 18th-19th centuries, non western countries gave up almost completely their industries to specialize in extraction of raw material even though they were sometimes more productive in the secondary sector. But it maximized short term global output because it allowed european countries to specialize in industry. However the first sector is terrible at generating productity gains and in the long run it made them poorer and that explains much of the global inequality we see today.

    So comparative advantage 1. does not allow everybody to specialize in the thing they love 2. might not be dynamically efficient. That does not make me feel good personally.

    Also Scott says that his comparative advantage is at psychiatry but it might not be so, if one of his colleagues is also versed in writing and if Scott has the comparative advantage on this one shouldn’t he give up (at least partly) psychiatry and write more?

    • Paul Torek says:

      Any argument that ends “Scott should write more” is automatically sound 😀

    • “One of the implications of comparative advantage is that you should not specialize in the thing that you do the best but in the thing that maximizes agregate welfare.”

      One of the implications of comparative advantage is that “the thing you do the best” is only defined in terms of different people’s relative costs of doing things. Absolute advantage isn’t merely wrong, it’s incoherent if you think it through, since it necessarily involves comparing apples to oranges.

  54. dave says:

    “The moral seems to be that if you take what God gives you and use it wisely, you’re fine.”

    luck is often confused with wisdom. i think.

  55. Elissa says:

    I am excited about this post! Because I was thinking of suggesting to Ray that “This Little Light of Mine” would be good to sing at Solstice, and now I have a *citation*!

  56. Neurofox says:

    You have an amazing blog and gathered an impressive community. In addition, you discuss topics in a rational fashion, which is rare these days. Very laudable, refreshing and much needed. There is also an inspirational component: Knowing that you are out there wants me to be a better person.
    But I’m not going to lie to you: The fact that you so effortlessly put out high quality content makes me feel extremely inadequate. I suspect I’m not alone. What virtues do you recommend cultivating to banish these feelings? I don’t think rational analysis by itself will do the trick.

    • US says:

      “The fact that you so effortlessly put out high quality content makes me feel extremely inadequate.”

      How do you know he does this effortlessly? Has he told you how long it takes him to write a blog post? (I’m a blogger myself, and I know I can easily spend 4-5 hours on a post people will be able to read in maybe 10 minutes).

      I think this question may be at least part of the answer. Most people find it natural to think that other people who’re doing better than them do so because they’re cheating, because the game is rigged, because they themselves have been unlucky, etc. People reading blogs like this one are presumably more likely to question such (semi-automatic) attribution patterns, even if they actually work quite well (at least in terms of keeping ‘ordinary people’ from killing themselves because they feel that their lives are worthless).

      I incidentally a while back wrote a couple of blog posts about a textbook on self-esteem which you might want to have a look at. It didn’t have a lot of answers (it’s not that kind of book), but it did contain some information I did not know.

  57. amiwelcomehere says:

    Conservative here.
    Scott, I was attracted to this site after reading Haidt, while looking for a place where people on both sides of the political spectrum put name calling aside and try to discuss important issues with a respect for facts, each other and rational discourse.
    I do find that here, but I also find an overlay of casual, persistent, irrelevant stereotyping and demonizing of conservatives. You take these negative generalizations for granted, as if they are obvious truths, ascribing goodness to liberals and badness to conservatives. I wish you would reflect seriously on this, and stop it.
    As I read this post, you’re trying to get your arms around when people ascribe moral agency, the blame attached, and when problems are seen as genetic. These are big, interesting questions.
    For some reason you want to make this a liberal/conservative divide and you praise liberals as espousing the “compassionate/sympathetic/progressive side of the debate” when it comes to obesity, poverty, mental illness but not IQ.
    Why? Why do you use this issue as a stick to hit conservatives with? Can’t genetics v moral agency be discussed with equal thoroughness as two viewpoints held by many individuals? Does it have to be contaminated with mindless political tribalism?
    Does it have to be defined with moral judgement: people who agree with me on genetics are “compassionate” and “sympathetic,” and by implication, those who disagree with me are mean, uncaring, nasty people?
    Am I mistaken that you want this blog to have readers from both sides of the political aisle? If so, the constant casual assumption of moral superiority for liberals is not helpful.
    It is mean and unfair. It is also not rational and not true. And it makes it hard for a conservative like myself to focus on what you are trying to say, because you have aroused my righteous indignation about being gratuitously insulted.
    You are the leader here. You set a tone that other people then follow. So when you write with a bit of nuance that conservatives (or straw conservatives) argue financial success is the result of hard work, your readers glide right by the ‘straw conservatives’ (taking it as the fig leaf it is, a mere pretense at fairness). They glide right by your careful wording about financial success and poverty, and so it immediately turns into: “conservatives are racist and think blacks are lazy.”
    I’ve already written enough, and this probably isn’t the time for a defense of conservative thought on how the War on Poverty instead created a culture of poverty, by providing incentives to not work and not get married. Note laziness isn’t a category we use.
    We do see that these misguided incentives ended up degrading and destroying the very people we all wanted to help. We do focus on how liberals will not learn from these mistakes and adopt new policies that might actually be compassionate and effective in reality, because they like this destructive system no matter the suffering it causes to blacks and poor whites. They like the political power, the federal money (that is mostly spent on jobs for them), and a sense of moral superiority (very visible here) that is unearned.
    Conservative thought on all these things is very different from your injurious labels, which poison public discourse, and keep conservatives contributions on these topics – which are just as compassionate, caring and intelligent as yours – out of the liberal ken.

    • Anonymous says:

      I do find that here, but I also find an overlay of casual, persistent, irrelevant stereotyping and demonizing of conservatives.

      Yeah, but then I read the comments and find the exact opposite.

      (I will add that, as a liberal, Scott actually makes the conservative position on this issue more convincing.)

    • Princess Stargirl says:

      The usual model on this blog is there are at least three “important” tribes. The Blue/Red/Grey. Here is Scott’s rough description of the Grey tribe:

      “Grey Tribe typified by libertarian political beliefs, Dawkins-style atheism, vague annoyance that the question of gay rights even comes up, eating paleo, drinking Soylent, calling in rides on Uber, reading lots of blogs, calling American football “sportsball”, getting conspicuously upset about the War on Drugs and the NSA, and listening to filk ”

      In USA politics the Grey tribe doesn’t matter. A small percentage of people are Grey (an honest estimate of libertarians puts them at 2-4%). However intellectually Grey Tribe members matter a decent amount. For decades the Grey tribe had among the most prominent of philosophers and economists (Nozick and Friedman). Grey ideas are a minority but they matter in economics, poli-sci, etc. (Grey ideas don’t really matter at all in the humanities).

      This blog has an interesting population breakdown. The LW survey showed about 80% democrats, 16% “libertarian” republicans, 3% neo-reactionaries and 1% “normal” republicans. This blog seems to have some prominent posters who are religious but still “conservatives” are the “safe to ignore” group on this blog. Idk what percentage of the democrats were “grey” for example I am a left-ibertarian but vote would definitely vote democrat.

      If there is a culture war on lesswrong or Scott’s blog its between Grey and Blue. I personally do not like the dynamic of ignoring and casually denigrating the Red Tribe. But Scott himself seems to buy into it :(. I really he didn’t do this.

      I am not trying to scare you off. I hope you stay. But I am just trying to express my model of how this blog’s “ecosystem” works. And I honestly think when Scott says he is trying to be “fair” he really means “fair to both blues and greys.”

      edit: Sorry if this comes off harsh to Scott. I love Scott’s writing and his blog. Its a miracle to be able to be fair to even 3 groups (I am not going to explain violet but scott is fairly fair to grey/blue/violet) nevermind ALL the groups. Scott deserves a ton of praise for the culture of this blog and I am incredible happy to see so many brilliant people being fans of Scott (the Friedmans, ESR, Caplan, etc). Scott really does deserve it.

      • amiwelcomehere says:

        very interesting. thanks for your honesty.

      • amiwelcomehere says:

        >>I personally do not like the dynamic of ignoring and casually denigrating the Red Tribe. But Scott himself seems to buy into it

        yes, scott is lovable and his aim of policing a respect for rational argument, facts and kindness is laudable. but if its not actually extended to the tribe you deeply disagree with – if an exception is made in that case to allow casual denigration and lack of honesty re facts, then how principled, how kind, how respectful is this whole endeavor?

        • Elissa says:

          Rather than misrepresenting and denigrating them because he deeply disagrees, I think it’s more that Scott thinks of actual garden variety Republicans as sort of quasi-fictional characters typified by NASCAR fans and that guy from Duck Dynasty. This also explains why he has trouble taking seriously anyone who complains about or feels threatened by mainstream conservative ideology.

          • Furrfu says:

            I suspect that Scott’s work brings him in contact with a wide range of people from across the US political spectrum. Perhaps if the only normal conservatives (as opposed to neo-reactionaries) one encounters are hospitalized for mental disorders, it might bias one’s concept of conservatives somewhat.

    • Tom Scharf says:

      I am on the right and would have to disagree with parts of this comment. I would say that Scott is pretty good at actually understanding and articulating the conservative mindset. He also applies more introspection to many of the left’s positions than I have seen almost anywhere.

      For example when I read the “compassionate/sympathetic/progressive” sentence, I took it as this is how progressives like to think of themselves, not that it is an actual verifiable fact. We all know that progressives like to think that they have the moral high ground, and conservatives like to think they are the grumpy old man who has to pay the bills and tell people they can’t have it all.

      Although I would say the commenters here are pretty likely heavily left leaning, it is expected because the content tends to be things that the left likes to focus on. If he was going on and on about the deficit, it would be a different group.

    • Irenist says:

      I’m an ardent, vocal prolifer, and neither Scott nor his commenters have ever been unwelcoming to me.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Two comments.

      First, this post was – to borrow a term I don’t like – calling liberals out. The essential accusation was one of hypocrisy – you say you’ve got the sympathetic progressive position on all of this stuff, but it’s the opposite on this other thing. To do that, I need to get liberals nodding along that they do, indeed, have the sympathetic progressive position before I pull the rug out under their feet.

      Second, I try to tie liberal and conservative narratives together. When I talk about liberal things, I try to do them in conservative terms, and vice versa. I think talking about intelligence being mostly innate ability is usually considered a conservative position, and so I wanted to make extra sure to signal liberalism so that liberals reading this post didn’t just think of me as the enemy defending an enemy position and ignore me. If you stick around long enough, you’ll probably see the opposite as well.

      • Anonymous says:

        The essential accusation was one of hypocrisy – you say you’ve got the sympathetic progressive position on all of this stuff, but it’s the opposite on this other thing.

        To be fair (to liberals), I don’t think their position is so much “You should work harder and raise your IQ,” as it is “We should invest more in early childhood education/eliminate lead/fund libraries/put proper nutrition guidelines in place for children.” In other words, they don’t think low-IQ people can or should remedy their low IQs, they think that with the right environmental interventions, these low IQs can be raised.

      • amiwelcomehere says:

        Yes, I got the hypocrisy charges. Yes, it’s good to get people nodding along, when you’re trying to lead them to follow your line of thought.

        But that’s usually done by finding something that is self-evident, that and you and they do genuinely nod along on, right? You’re not pretending to signal liberalism in ways you actually think are completely bogus, are you?

        So you actually mean it when you say, “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.”

        There certainly is not broad agreement on both sides that the more compassionate, sympathetic position is progressive. Conservatives are very proud that the Red tribe has what we see as a better record on caring and compassion, since in actual behavior as opposed to opinions, conservatives are much more giving and kind towards the unfortunate (see Who Really Cares by Arthur Brooks.)

        Since conservatives value acts of caring count more than declarations of caring, and outcomes of political policies more than aims of political polices, we think we win hands down in compassion contests. I think compassion contests are pretty stupid on either an individual or a group level, but progressives seem obsessed with awarding themselves moral kudos they do not earn in our eyes.

        As for arguing that biological determinism is kinder and more helpful to people – these are very complex questions, and depends very much on how true the assertion is and the particular issue.

        Take mental illness. Thank God we understand the biological causes these days and aren’t blaming mothers for schizophrenia. On the other hand, cognitive therapy has a good record with helping depression through changing thinking. It is technically sophisticated, but not worlds apart from the ‘pull yourself together’ approach of loving but naïve parents.

        I know progressives believe their position – people are victims (of genetics, of racism), not agents – is both kinder and more helpful. Surprise, surprise, conservatives do not agree that seeing people as helpless victims is all that kind. We don’t see ‘tough love’ as being mean, but as being responsible/real world/grown up/ effective/, truly caring love, and that our approach is both kinder and more helpful.

        You also write that you are wading into these deep waters of genetic/social determinism v. individual agency with a personal aim, as a conscientious person: to not feel bad that you aren’t smarter/kinder/more accomplished than your genetic endowment makes possible. You like the genetic explanation because you thinks it will make you feel better.

        That hasn’t been my experience. As the years pass, I believe more and more that thngs are genetically determined, but I also find the secret for peaceful acceptance of yourself and making wise choices of behavior, and better outcomes on attempts for addressing problems are all better served by acting as if you have free will – of course, while realistically assessing who you are and what is possible.

        • Anonymous says:

          I know progressives believe their position – people are victims (of genetics, of racism), not agents

          Tip: It really helps to avoid mischaracterizing your opponent’s position. I’m not even sure what a victim of genetics is (maybe someone with FOP?), but I’ve personally never seen that phrase used by any liberal or progressive.

          Also, racism may actually be a thing. Whether it is or isn’t is largely empirical question. Acknowledging that racism exists does not remove the agency of people affected by it.

      • jtgw says:

        It’s important to remember that it’s not just about determinism vs free will, but a three-way distinction of genetic determinism, environmental determinism and free will. Liberals subscribe to environmental determinism when it comes to IQ, while I would say mainstream “Fox News” conservatives subscribe to a mixture of free will and environmental determinism: they believe in hard work, but they also talk about the harmful effects of liberal culture and education.

        Genetic determinism strikes me actually as a marginal position on the right, more characteristic of neoreactionaries and similar groups than of your average Republican. This actually makes a lot of sense if you consider the role of religion on the right and the fact that religious conservatives were some of the firmest opponents of eugenics back when it was considered progressive in the pre-WWII era.

    • Nita says:

      I don’t want to scare you off, but I was genuinely surprised by your comment, so perhaps you could help me understand something.

      the War on Poverty instead created a culture of poverty, by providing incentives to not work and not get married

      The impression of non-compassion I get is from the proposed solution to this problem, that is, dismantling the welfare system. To me, this proposal sounds like “single mothers should be begging on the streets, not spending our tax money” — and even if seeing them beg would scare some teenage girls into more prudent life choices, that still seems rather uncompassionate.

      So, what’s wrong with my reasoning here?

      • jtgw says:

        I think conservatives would say single mothers should get married and be supported by their working husbands, not that they should be begging on the streets.

        • Nita says:

          How would they compel someone to both marry them and support them financially? Single mothers are a notoriously unwanted category in dating.

          • jaimeastorga2000 says:

            Obviously, a single mother should marry the man who impregnated her, not try to get some poor other guy to care for her bastard.

          • jtgw says:

            That is a good question. A conservative might say that a man who gets a woman pregnant should be compelled to marry her and support her: that was the solution in many traditional Christian societies, for example. Without such compulsion, I agree that a single mother will find it hard to find a husband, but as a conservative I don’t believe just giving public money to the woman is the answer, since that simply encourages more single motherhood and is not sustainable in the long term. A healthy society must have the correct set of incentives and ultimately people who behave irresponsibly need to face the consequences of their behavior.

      • amiwelcomehere says:

        Nita – thank you so much for asking instead of attacking.

        look up the effect of welfare reform. they didn’t just throw people off – able bodied welfare recipients had to either look for work, take classes to prepare for work, or if they couldn’t find work, put in hours volunteering, get their GED, get on the job training and so forth.

        It was a huge success- child poverty plummeted to an all time low.
        see here:

        the conservative hope is expressed well here:

        “One of the most important, if hardest to document, gains from taking families off welfare is their greater self-respect when they provide for themselves. Mothers on welfare convey the impression to their children that it is normal to live off government handouts. In such an environment, it is difficult for children to place a high value on doing well at school and preparing for work by seeking out training on jobs and in schools.”

        the Heritage Institute is probably the go-to site to do a search for very deep, fact based analysis of the problem of entrenched poverty, the failings of our welfare system, and what we can do to help. here is an overview of welfare reform, that is a good place to start:

        you could also read black conservatives who address this topic quite a lot

        • jtgw says:

          From a conservative point of view, working single mothers are better than welfare-dependent single mothers, but better than both are stay-at-home mothers who can devote their time to childcare and leave the bread-winning to their husbands. Family-values conservatives recognize all too well that it is very difficult to juggle work and family, which is why they believe in the traditional gender-based division of labor.

        • Troy says:

          look up the effect of welfare reform. they didn’t just throw people off – able bodied welfare recipients had to either look for work, take classes to prepare for work, or if they couldn’t find work, put in hours volunteering, get their GED, get on the job training and so forth.

          amiwelcomehere: I suspect that we have broadly similar views on welfare, poverty, etc. I think, though, that this may be painting an overly rosy picture of welfare reform. In particular, it seems that a lot of people who went off welfare did not go back to work, but went on disability instead, as discussed in this NPR story:

          • amiwelcomehere says:

            I believe the explosion is scam disability cases happened under Obama, for particular reasons, years after welfare reform. Obama illegally, without going to Congress to repeal the law, suspended welfare reform.

          • Anonymous says:

            @amiwelcomehere, I’d be interested to learn more about this. Can you provide a source?

          • Anonymous says:

            Troy’s link has time series graphs. eg. Obama has nothing to do with it.

          • Anonymous says:

            @amiwelcomehere, Forbes seems to disagree with you.

            Contrary to the hysterics of the Obama opposition, the modification, which allows the Department of HHS to waive certain state requirements under the law, does not make any significant change in the substance of the law. Rather, the modification—which comes in the form of the occasional waiver— is a response to the many states seeking more control over how they administer their welfare program. These states have discovered that the federal requirements are tying up too many welfare workers and resources with cumbersome paperwork, resulting in less time being spent by welfare workers on actually helping those getting assistance find the work they need to keep, and ultimately no longer need, the government aid.

            The waiver would also permit states to tighten up on some language in the federal law that allows welfare recipients to claim unpaid internships and other such endeavors as qualifiers for welfare rather that getting actual, paying jobs.

            I’m shocked, SHOCKED, I tell you . . .

    • Troy says:

      amiwelcomehere: Having been a conservative reader of this blog for over a year, I’ve found Scott to be open-minded and thoughtful about ideas from all over the political spectrum. Neither he nor his commenters are perfect in this respect, but I nevertheless don’t know of a better site for cross-political spectrum dialogue. I hope you’ll stick around.

      • amiwelcomehere says:

        thank you, that means a lot. my problem isn’t with the posts that directly address an issue. it’s the little denigrating asides and assumptions – that reveal and reinforce liberal bigotry against the Red Tribe

        • Anonymous says:

          amiwelcomehere, From what you’ve revealed about yourself, you seem like an intelligent person. When you see comments such as

          Obviously, a single mother should marry the man who impregnated her, not try to get some poor other guy to care for her bastard.

          do you really not understand where this attitude comes from?

          (Also, Red Tribe sometimes refers to social class in the U.S. and sometimes to political ethics. It can be hard to tell which.)

  58. The Estate of Ms. Diana Moon Glampers says:

    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.

    So basically the $3 a month that would otherwise have gone to lottery tickets because the minimum payment the electricity company would accept to turn your lights back on is $5.

    My client, Ms. Glampers, appears in two of Vonnegut’s works. In the best-known, Harrison Bergeron, she is the Handicapper-General and responsible for enforcing norms of mediocrity upon the population. But she also appears in Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano where she works as a maid, cleaning a mansion that is used (at most) one week a year. Every day she goes in and cleans a room whose last occupant was herself. She is, naturally, paid barely enough to live on. I no longer recall whether her race is given. But she asks, in this novel where nearly every job below IQ 125 is automated, the one question that everyone in favor of such automation needs to answer:

    What are people for?

    • Consumer spending, mostly. If people consume more than they take in benefits, they are technically a net positive on the economy. They are also useful for web 2.0 since these apps depend on having a lot of users to maintain their stratospheric valuations. It’s hard to come up with an answer that doesn;t sound dehumanizing

      • Anonymous says:

        Perhaps because the phrasing of the question implies this dehumanizing outlook. If you ask, instead of “What are humans for?” something along the lines of “What output is produced by the system where Humans are the most cost effective cogs?” then it makes it a little clearer. Humans aren’t _for_ anything. They aren’t tools. That’s how psychopaths view other people. I cannot imagine this question gets somehow more profound if humans are critical in fewer enterprises.

      • Noumenon72 says:

        The task of consumer spending could be done by a monkey exchanging coins for bananas. A person who exists to consume only drains the economy, not helps it.

      • Anonymous says:

        They are also useful for web 2.0 since these apps depend on having a lot of users to maintain their stratospheric valuations.

        That’s a damning critique of Silicon Valley.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Right now I think we’re still well above the level where the supergoals all converge into a couple of subgoals.

  59. Anonymous says:

    I think it is a big, big mistake to:

    1) Assume that IQ is either genetic or changeable; and

    2) Assume that the association between IQ and perceived intelligence means that IQ is a good measure of the agility of mind necessary to prove mathematical theorems, or quickly form an effective argument, or any other task that we might associate with intelligence. That eminent scientists have high IQs tells us only what we already know: that these people are smart. What it does not tell us, is whether IQ accurately gauges the innate intellectual abilities of a person who has a low IQ score.

    It’s difficult to have a discussion about what “intelligence” or “innate intellectual ability”, because these are nebulous terms. For that reason, I can see why people focus on IQ, which is defined and measurable. And yet, I have a hard time accepting that IQ measures anything except how well someone does on an IQ test.

    The best evidence I’ve seen that IQ does not measure intelligence is cited in Walter Ong’s excellent Orality and Literacy. Here, Ong cites the field work of A.R. Luria in rural Uzbekistan. The people Luria studied were from an oral (i.e., illiterate) culture. In literate culture, we would expect illiteracy to be correlated with low intelligence. However, in an oral culture where everyone is illiterate, we would expect to find that intelligence spans the normal human range.

    What Luria found is that oral people are just awful at things syllogism, categorization, and generalization. Put another way, an oral person would do very poorly on an IQ test, not because of any innate lack of intelligence, but they don’t think in such a way that would allow them to make sense of the questions. As Ong writes:

    Proponents of intelligence tests need to recognize that our ordinary intelligence test questions are tailored to a special kind of consciousness, one deeply conditioned by literacy and print, ‘modern consciousness’. A highly intelligent person from an oral or residually oral culture might be expected normally to react to Luria’s type of questions, as many of his respondents clearly did, not by answering the seemingly mindless question iteslef but by trying to assess the total puzzling context (the oral mind totalizes): What is he asking me this stupid question for? What is he trying to do? …The people who ask such questions have been living in a barrage of such questions from infancy and are not aware that they are using special rules.

    The takeaway here is that:

    1) IQ, in this case, was culturally biased. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that this is the case in general; and

    2) This is a definite failure of IQ to accurately measure innate intelligence, in one case. How many other cases are there?

    I can already see people brandishing their copies of The Bell Curve, so I won’t distract the issue by pushing the first point; I’ll only say that my opinion is that IQ is something that is imprinted during early development, making it something that is both not entirely genetic, and not changeable through any effort on the individual’s part.

    What I really came here to say, however, is that there is a good, if non-quantitative, measure of innate intelligence: a person’s intelligence is indicated by the intellectual feats they have accomplished. The problem with telling people that intelligence is innate, is that people are highly suggestive, and so a low IQ score or poor grades will discourage a person from intellectual pursuit. A person’s belief in their own, abilities, and the social expectations created by the beliefs of others, play a very large part in accomplishment.

    I’m not saying people aren’t limited; you’re entirely correct that most people will never be great scientists. The problem comes when you tie innate ability to a concept like IQ that is fraught with bias and inaccuracy. This amounts to needless, baseless, discouragement, sometimes of entire groups of people, and that is a Bad Thing.

    • Some IQ denialists get tied up on the idea that some some races possibly score much lower others, thus invalidating IQ, but this is a red herring to distract from their opposition to the idea that some people are simply cognitively better than others. There are culture-fair IQ tests, and IQ tests are most useful when evaluating and identifying talented and disabled individuals from roughly the same socioeconomic backgrounds. You take 1000 white suburbanites and test their IQ; the higher scoring kids will, by conventional measures of intelligence, be smarter. They will also have a greater likelihood of completing higher education and earning more money (when matched with lower IQ students). There are caveats, but an IQ test is a very good predictor of future life performance.

      • Anonymous says:

        I’m sorry; what is an IQ denialist? And how does IQ being a good predictor of “life performance” dispute the claim that IQ is not a good indicator of innate ability? One thing can be a good predictor of another without any causal link between the two.

        By “good indicator”, I (roughly) mean that predictive ability should be balanced against false positives for “smartness” and “dumbness”. For example, a polygraph is very good at predicting whether you will hire a liar. However, it’s very bad at indicating whether a particular person is lying.

        • The statistical significance between SAT scores (a good proxy for IQ) and income is strong. While differences in socioeconomic backgrounds could be a confounding factor, another possibility is that higher scoring people have the skills that lead to better paying jobs, and hence more money. IQ tests measure memorization, ability to draw connections between disparate pieces of information, information processing speed, etc – skills that would seem necessary for success in educational environments, and later at work. And the studies show a positive correlation between high SAT scores and work performance, as this Tedx talk demonstrates

          IQ scores tend to remain remain stable throughout life, lending credence to a congenital, innate factor.

    • Tom Scharf says:

      If you have a test other than IQ or SAT/ACT that better predicts outcomes, we are all ears. The “we shouldn’t test our fragile little flowers” line of thinking is pretty unconvincing.

      Think back to high school. Did you have a difficult time figuring out who the smart kids were? No. Did you know their specific IQ scores or SAT outcomes?

      Your peers already know how smart you are, and all the alleged emotional trauma will still be inflicted regardless of anyone’s desire to hide it and pretend these differences don’t exist.

      If a person’s belief in their own abilities play a very large part in their accomplishment, are test results such as this not a good way to provide the positive feedback necessary to gain confidence? This is vital for many in aspiring to higher education. It’s a two way street.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I agree with a lot of this. It’s really easy for illiteracy (here understood broadly as lack of experience with abstract reasoning and symbol systems) to screw with IQ tests.

      One thing I didn’t mention but which I hope to go into more detail about – when I ask “What do an apple and an orange have in common” on my little hospital IQ test, the upper class people always say “They’re both fruit” and the lower class people always say something like “They’re both round” or “You eat both of them”, and I think this is a real difference between the cognitive styles these two classes are taught to use. And I’m sure IQ tests mostly test the cognitive style of the rich (I’ve heard horror stories about IQ tests very similar to mine, where the scoring rule says to only accept “fruit” and throw out the other answers).

      On the other hand, IQ researchers aren’t idiots, they’ve been working on these problems for decades, and you can get a pretty good measure of IQ just by checking people’s ability to recite a long string of numbers backwards (or any of a host of other things). I agree there’s work to be done in separating out the literacy effect from IQ, but it’s work very much in progress with quite a few results.

      • Ialdabaoth says:

        I always file observations like this under “Foucault had a point”.

        • lmm says:

          Please elaborate, we don’t all know what Foucault said and I don’t think you’ve given enough information to easily find it.

          • Ialdabaoth says:

            Alright. One of Foucault’s more insightful points is that, in many cases, “mental illness” has nothing to do with behavioral aberration and everything to do with status and power. That is, people who are powerful are “eccentric” and “interesting” and “free-spirited”, while the same behaviors in the powerless are seen as evidence of severe character deficiency, worthy of incarceration for their own protection and the protection of others.

        • Shenpen says:

          The issue with Focault is (and that is an issue actually already beginning with Marx) that he takes a certain kind of liberalism already from granted and works from that on.

          In your example below, it is largely the kind of liberalism if idolizing people who are free-spirited, eccentric and rich.

          But in reality this is really just true for the “in” crowd. In a rural working class community a free-spirited rich will be seen with double suspicious: because rich and because weird. Dangerous combo from their angle.

      • Wulfrickson says:

        [W]hen I ask “What do an apple and an orange have in common” on my little hospital IQ test, the upper class people always say “They’re both fruit” and the lower class people always say something like “They’re both round” or “You eat both of them”, and I think this is a real difference between the cognitive styles these two classes are taught to use. And I’m sure IQ tests mostly test the cognitive style of the rich (I’ve heard horror stories about IQ tests very similar to mine, where the scoring rule says to only accept “fruit” and throw out the other answers).

        Have you read James Flynn’s books? He talks about this and proposes greater familiarity with scientific and logical reasoning (as inculcated by formal schooling, dealing with bureaucracy, et al.) as an explanation for the Flynn effect. Flynn discusses at length the Soviet psychologist Alexander Luria, who interviewed peasants in rural Uzbekistan and made very similar observations as you; Cosma Shalizi’s review of one of Flynn’s books paraphrases his essential points pretty accurately. (Do click that link, and this Shalizi article on Luria himself; they’re well worth reading and a good deal more comprehensible than Shalizi’s oft-linked article on g.)

      • Furrfu says:

        So the people who can’t tell you what 100 – 7 is or remember tulips for a minute — what do they say about the apple and the orange? Forgive my curiosity.

      • Shenpen says:

        YIKES! There is either something fucked up with the education in America or something fucked up with social structure here in Eastern Europe. Probably both. But I could not name you any dirt-poor, hardly-educated bumpkin from the worst parts of my Hungary who would not give the fruit answer. This is not why they are poor. They are poor largely because their parents told them at 15 “fucking go and earn some money already, we can hardly affort heating”.

        But really my experience over here is that the poor cannot really afford to be stupid. It takes immense resourcefulness to be poor.

      • Deiseach says:

        Your “only accept ‘fruit’ as the answer” rule reminds me of when my (then) six year old nephew was being assessed for speech therapy (he had something not quite a lisp) and the therapist – in order to test how he said the letter ‘s’ – asked him a question where plainly the answer should have been”Sick”.

        Therapist: So, if your friend had a tummy-ache, how would you describe it? (Expecting the answer to be “He’s sick” and so she can judge how he sounds out “s”)

        Nephew: I would say that he is feeling unwell. (Noticing therapist is gawping slightly at this answer, and thinking he maybe needs to throw in a little variety because that’s obviously too plain and simple) Or I might say that he is ill.

        Therapist looks at my brother-in-law, who shakes his head and indicates my sister: Don’t blame me, he gets it from her side of the family.


    • Shenpen says:

      A’right, then IQ measures not intelligence, but intellectual ability, as in: the ability to be an intellectual. Stuff like reason a lot of books and being very literate is a huge part of being an intellectual.

      How is that exactly useless? If IQ tests how well would one be able to do accounting three weeks after given a book on accounting, that is EXACTLY what I seek when hiring programmers for building accounting software. How is that not useful?

      In an education setting, if IQ measures exactly the ability to do the kind of bookwormish schoolwork, how is that not useful?

      From the schools point of view, everything is innate ability that was taught by someone who is not a teacher, because their viewpoint is about measuring the performance of teachers. If innate ability means e.g. parents pushing kids to read books, that is good enough. From the teachers viewpoint it is the same, it still predicts Jim will be slow on the uptake and Jill will learn new things fast. The teacher finds it hard to work with one and easier with the other.

  60. James James says:

    “Johann von Neumann”

    Actually it’s “John von Neumann”.

    • Raoul says:

      Wikipedia (I’ve not checked the citations):

      “Von Neumann was born Neumann János Lajos […]

      “The Neumann family thus acquiring the hereditary title margittai, Neumann János became margittai Neumann János (John Neumann of Margitta), which he later changed to the German Johann von Neumann.”

      (Though personally I would still say “John”.)

    • Izaak Weiss says:

      Von Neumann was not opposed to changing his name to fit the culture in which he was working in order to try and avoid any stigma associated with it. He changed it from János to Johann when he was a scientist in Austria, and then again to John while he was a scientist in the US during WW2.

  61. Multiheaded says:

    Scott, one elephant in the room here is the disgusting, horrible way that your own beloved Grey Tribe views (and talks about) people of lower intellligence. Kind of like the way HPJEV views Ron. Personally, you are a happy exception, but so many of the people you respect seem to be awful in this regard! E.g. Gwern.

    (Another elephant is that even the economically profitable occupations where people of lower intelligence enjoy a comparative advantage are so horribly stigmatized. It’s not enough to say that a person who digs ditches should be seen as human and worthy of respect as a person who does science; you have to make the actual ROLES more or less equally respected! But that’s impossible in a system where little prevents high-leverage people from stomping on low-leverage ones.)

    • Ilya Shpitser says:

      Are you sure you aren’t confusing tribes as a whole with people who happen to be dicks online?

      • Multiheaded says:

        People who just “happen to be dicks online” don’t have the behaviours/attitudes in question so predictably and openly tolerated by other members of their tribe. (Yes, this applies to leftists and liberals too. Their tribes likewise selectively tolerate/passively endorse completely awful, conceited and dehumanizing shit.)

        E.g. a brazenly homophobic tech-libertarian or a racist feminist would promptly get called out by their peers, but an IQ-ist one and an ableist one respectively would likely get a free pass. I think it’s valid to say, therefore, that the latter two kinds of bigotry are passively endorsed by these respective communities.

        • Ilya Shpitser says:

          I agree that communities of all stripes need to clean their laundry. I disagree that responsibility for someone being a dick is as transitive along the social graph as your original wording makes it sound (although I don’t think there is no responsibility at all):

          “Scott, one elephant in the room here is the disgusting, horrible way that your own beloved Grey Tribe views (and talks about) people of lower intellligence.”

          Not cleaning laundry may imply laziness or bystander effect, not necessarily love of filth.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I think all political tribes do this but in different ways. If it’s Blue Tribe, they just use the words “uneducated” or “ignorant” rather than “low IQ”. Red Tribe is somewhat protected against this through suspicion of intellectuals, but I think it’s there between the lines in some critiques of poor people and minorities.

      Do you think explicit interest in the science of IQ correlates with likelihood of being a jerk to low-IQ people?

      • lmm says:

        It seems plausible. I’d certainly hope that people who think IQ is meaningless aren’t jerks to low-IQ people, and those are (at least largely) the people who haven’t taken an interest in the science of IQ.

      • Multiheaded says:

        >If it’s Blue Tribe, they just use the words “uneducated” or “ignorant” rather than “low IQ”.

        In my experience that’s supposed to stand for “not socially progressive”. A scientist or a CEO charged with racism or sexism is still quite likely to be called “ignorant”. And yes, this does still get called out under “intent is not magic”, which in turn tends to get countered with “some people are ignorant just because they are lazy and need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps”

        So yes, I agree that SJ is still bigoted against low-IQ people – but less blatantly so. While (#NotAll) Grey Tribe spaces signal this the most.

        Do you think explicit interest in the science of IQ correlates with likelihood of being a jerk to low-IQ people?

        Idk, hard to control for politics as they’re so skewed. Often hard to say where bigotry ends and ~legitimate~ political disagreement begins.

        E.g. I grudgingly admit, Charles Murray is so much nicer and less condescending than how he gets painted. I mean, I disagree with him both empirically and regarding the reactionary/anti-egalitarian policy prescriptions, but he sure seems to be less arrogant than many elite liberals. He does really seem to alieve that unintelligent people need to recieve esteem, validation and self-worth, I just think he has some wrong ideas of how to go about it.

        On the other hand, Greg Cochran is a colossal fucking asshole and just an all-around smug bigot.

        I used to have a high opinion of Linda Gottfredson, but after reading some notes on the class she teaches, she comes across as condescending and rather disrespectful, even though she does not seem to sign up with any kind of right-wing political platform.

        Gregory Clark is a progressive of some sort, I think. I just can’t get on board with his extremely strong claims.

        Nicholas Wade certainly qualifies as a liberal… in the “leftist invective” sense, because his book appears so full of horrible, ignorant, Eurocentric Whig history. Probably the single worst work on world history I have ever skimmed though.

  62. Rachael says:

    You’re in awe of people who write things you don’t understand, but I’m in awe of you because you write such engaging and insightful things in a way that I do understand.

    CS Lewis wrote that true genius authors have the gift of making their thoughts intelligible to common people, and the lesser minds who write secondary literature attempting to explain the great thinkers are actually harder to understand because they don’t have that gift. He said that people read the secondary literature and fail to understand it, and feel too intimidated to tackle the original, but actually they’d probably understand it better.

  63. Intelligence to me is what makes humans distinct from animals, and what makes human lives more morally valuable (and I think thats a fairly broadly held position)

    As a result it seems like more intelligent humans should be more morally valuable, which is why the idea of having innately low or capped intelligence is unsettling. People who are innately more intelligent than me are innately more valuable and more important than me.

    • Multiheaded says:

      Cut this motherfucking quitter talk, mate.

      *hugs iff wanted*

    • I feel like I don’t actually have a very good model of what IQ equates to in real world ability, anyone help?

      I have a vague intuition of what a clever or not so clever person is like, but I’m not sure how much difference a marginal 10 iq points either way makes?

      Also I think a lot of my intuition of how clever people are is based on their conversational and verbal fluency?

  64. Nicholas says:

    A few thoughts occur.
    One is the idea, waved at in the previous post on weight, that while all that matters to performance is practice, capacity to practice is inborn . You literally can’t make yourself focus with the kind of mindset that leads to developing further skill, but if say a transcranial magnetic pulse could temporarily adjust the capacity for practice in the brain, then you could wirehead yourself into a nerd for anything until you got good enough at it to go back to yourself.
    A second idea. Something I remember in passing from my Psy BSc is that IQ tests have a problem with retest reliability because when you take classes, stimulants, or the test more than once your score goes up. Which isn’t supposed to happen with inborn traits.
    Third idea. The answer to an inherently inferior population (by ingroup consensus) has not historically been to remove that measure of value from the consensus, but to remove the failures from the group. And while few people are worried that the poor or the fat might be singled out for genocide there are persons in my state who remember when being mentally disabled was a sterilizing offense. The mentally ill are regularly attacked because they are viewed as inherently less valuable, and pushing the message that cognizance is inborn means going through a local minimum where everyone feels okay about euthenizing their disabled neighbor.

  65. Michael Watts says:

    On a tangential note, I have the conversational habit of assuming that the other person knows the things I know. I received a lot of criticism for this during my K-12 career, and fair enough; if it makes communication more difficult, it’s a communication problem. But the criticism always took a particular form.

    Specifically, I was told, over and over again, that I was “arrogant” for assuming that other people remembered class material, understood allusions, could see the first steps of how to solve problems, and the like. To this day I don’t understand why. As far as I can see, the philosophy backing my approach is something like this: “everyone else knows at least as much as I know. I am the last person to hear of anything interesting or to read any particular work. If I remember something the teacher said, it’s because it was sufficiently emphasized that everyone in the class, including me, remembers it.” Obviously, that was not actually true, but if you’re going to talk about it in terms of arrogance and humility I don’t see how else to characterize things. In contrast, I view the approach of “oh, you probably don’t understand what I’m thinking, so let’s go back to step negative sixteen, and take baby steps from there” as more inherently disrespectful of the other party to the conversation. And I don’t see how the advice “keep in mind that most people don’t know the things you know and don’t understand things that are obvious to you”, which I was repeatedly given in so many words, is supposed to cure an arrogance problem, or be a pro-humility outlook.

    • suntzuanime says:

      Arrogance is not about thinking you’re smarter than everyone; arrogance is about trying to take credit for it. Acting in such a manner as to expose those who are at a lower level than you by their inability to keep up with you can be seen as a status grab, while taking the baby steps necessary to leave no child behind is properly egalitarian.

    • randy m says:

      You were seen as arrogant because you made them realize how much they didn’t know and were assumed to be doing it on purpose

  66. Seladore says:

    It seems that the ‘symmetry’ of the compassionate/progressive position is that *negative* things are seen as fixed and innate, while *positive* things are seen as resulting from willpower and work.

    So I don’t think it’s strictly true to say “The obvious pattern is that attributing outcomes to things like genes, biology, and accidents of birth is kind and sympathetic”. I think the obvious pattern is that attributing ‘failures’ to genes, biology, and accidents of birth is kind and sympathetic, while it’s kind and sympathetic to attribute successes to hard work.

    Being overweight is due to immutable genetics, but being an ideal weight is down to having a healthy lifestyle. Being poor is due to unfortunate circumstances out of your control, being rich is down to your hard work.

    I think that explains the apparent asymmetry. The compassionate narrative is “if you’re at the bottom of the pile, must have been a bad situation that left you there. If you’re at the top of the pile, good job for reaching it”.

  67. Robert Gabriel Mugabe says:

    mon deiu that’s a long post. is it just for you?

    are you a shrink or what?

    me get only 760 on SAT V but get 800 on GRE V. me math major and get 800 on SAT M and 800 on GRE Q and GRE A. etc. etc. so me in BGI study.


    your slip is showing in your statements about heritability. very very few people have the mathematical and conceptual sophistication to understand this issue and none of those is a psychologist. not even the BGI folks understand it.

    to say as you did that IQ is 50-80% heritable is a meaningless statement.

    i won’t get into it, but you can see geneticist Steve Jones on Charlie Rose following Charles “the cross burner” Murray and you can listen to the BBC 4 In Our Time programs on “Genetic Determinism” and on “Intelligence” to get an idea.
    in general genes have no independent effect on any psychological trait. even in the case of SCZ, the most heritable of psychiatric conditions they have zero independent effect as evinced by the following abstract:
    the very idea of heritability h^2 is only meaningful within the phenotype = genotype + environment, additive model, which is simply FALSE.


    i and another among the cognoscenti actually shut down the most learned hereditist blog. the exchange starts with “First Ypres”.

    • Ahilan Nagendram says:

      My god, the anti-HBD troll is here! Scott, for the good of SSC, please just ban this drunk idiot outright.

      • Robert Gabriel Mugabe says:

        “revolver” and i are not the same person.

        but he had the good sense afaik to stop talking to you jive turkeys.

        in short:

        there’s no nature vs nurture debate.

        this is a bogus framing of the issue.

        there are no Skinner-tards or “environmentalists”.

        but, very sadly, there are hereditists.

        when Cahrlie Rose pushed Jones on Murray’s assertions he responded, i paraphrase:

        it’s not wrong. it’s meaningless. you can’t slice the cake. you have to un-bake the cake.

      • Robert Gabriel Mugabe says:

        and thanks for the compliment Indian guy.

        i’m totally chuffed.

        was it O’Toole or Richard Harris who said alcohol was permitted in India only to alcoholics.

        if they catch you sober…

        and Chomsky said of the Faurisson affair, “the French can’t understand freedom of speech.”

        ban me. but not you? i’m sure you add so much to this blog’s comments.

    • Sophie Grouchy says:

      Oh hey! I almost never come across other people who like In Our Time. Hi there!

      (I’m currently about to re-listen to ep 1 of the Royal Academy series while I fall asleep 🙂 )

    • >the very idea of heritability h^2 is only meaningful within the phenotype = genotype + environment, additive model, which is simply FALSE.

      How so? what is the correct model?

      • Furrfu says:

        Nobody knows what the correct model is, because nobody understands intelligence yet, much less the ontogeny of intelligence in humans, but Cosma Shalizi’s explanation of how the additive model fails in phenylketonuria, which is a case where we actually do kind of understand the ontogeny, is a pretty convincing explanation of the shortcomings of the additive model.

        The problem is that once you start getting beyond super simple models, you start needing overwhelming amounts of data (that your model can actually predict usefully) to avoid overfitting them.

  68. Qiaochu Yuan says:

    Thanks for writing this; I think this is a really important subject that’s really under-discussed.

  69. Julie K says:

    > The evidence that Jeremy [Alexander] …

    By the way, as an (amateur) researcher into the history of Jewish names, I like your choice of a pen name, Dr. [Alexander].

    • Scott Alexander says:

      If you’re referring to the Jews’ love affair with Alexander the Great, I wish I could take credit, but my pen name is just my first and middle name.

      I don’t think my parents had the story in mind either, since they’re not very learned in Jewish lore and everyone in our family has very common American-sounding middle names.

      • Julie K says:

        No, no at all- I was referring to the fact that there is a correspondence between “Alexander” and your actual last name, i.e. many men with the name Alexander used that other name as their secular name (kinnui). (Alexander has been a Jewish name for so long that it can function as a “Hebrew name.”)

  70. Jiro says:

    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”.

    Telling people that it’s okay to give 10% reduces the guilt from not giving everything, but can your moral reasoning actually support the idea that it’s okay to give 10%? Because it doesn’t look that way to me.

    I’m just surprised that so many people recognize this, but when forced to choose between “maybe this reasoning is flawed” and “I am bad for not giving everything”, choose the latter instead of the former.

    And as for heroic responsibility, I’l give a much more cynical explanation. The community doesn’t harp on heroic responsibility because they are scrupulous. The community harps on heroic responsibility because Eliezer sees himself as a hero and “heroic responsibility” 1) justifies Eliezer creating an institute to stop out of control AI, and 2) makes it easier to convince other people to contribute to it.

    • Wrong Species says:

      If Peter Singer followed his thought to the logical extreme, he would never take vacations or buy his kids presents or get coffee because all of those things are as immoral as not saving the drowning kid. The only way he could reconcile that is by saying that every single person with disposable income is evil.

    • chamomile geode says:

      i think ozy came up with this idea, or at least this phrasing, but here goes: while actually *being* a perfect altruist is better consequences-wise than just donating 10% of your income, *attempting* to be a perfect altruist is worse consequences-wise than just donating 10% of your income.

  71. Richard Metzler says:

    Beautiful essay, as usual. Thank you.

    Two thoughts:
    1. Even if “working harder” were an effective remedy for a lack of success in many fields, doesn’t it make sense to count the ability to work hard as just another talent, with people who have lots of it and people who have little? I know “conscientiousness” as a psychological trait is as heritable as the others, so presumably “willpower” is as well. ETA: Not to mention the obvious physical-health requirements, like not having Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.

    2. So what does that mean if you have kids, and want to help them bring out the best in themselves? Do you throw lots of different activities at them, and hope that they become enthusiastic about one of them? What if they immerse themselves in something they love, but it’s obvious that they’re not particularly talented? If you want to instill an attitude of “even if you’re not very talented, practicing will make you better”, at what point do you say “okay, let’s face it, you suck at this, you may now drop it”?

  72. “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.”

    If I can offer a thought or two, perhaps in the spirit of Scott’s answer, but coming at it from a slightly different angle. Imo, you might find a useful philosophical distinctions than can clarify things is the distinction between intrinsic and instrumental values. An intrinsic value is something that is good, not for its usefulness, but because it is or we see it as inherently good. An instrumental value is something that we value or say is good not for its own sake, but for what it gives us.

    Now it’s an unfortunate failing of the human brain that if we perceive something is instrumentally valuable for a long enough period, there’s a part of us that can get a little mentally lazy and starts thinking that thing is intrinsically valuable. So the rule we made about not eating a certain type of meat becomes a ritual, or washing our hands for cleanliness becomes a pathological obsession.

    Intelligence is such a just such a thing. We evolved intelligence to help us gather more food, to avoid predators, to protect and fight human rivals still outside our growing circles of cooperation. In our own lives, we’re constantly witness to the usefulness of intelligence – it helps us get better jobs, we can negotiate complex situations and challenges, we can invent new ideas or technology that makes people’s lives better. And so there is constant temptation to start viewing the instrumental as intrinsically valuable. At first this seems fine, but then as we consider a future where first the stupid, then us, then everybody are no longer useful, this fallacious worldview becomes depressing and dehumanising.

    If you were to ask me for my own solution, it would be this – immerse yourself in a philosophy that clearly understands the separation between intrinsic and instrumental value. Immerse yourself in a worldview that doesn’t dress the instumental up and true value – be it Progress, or Tradition, or anything else. Be part of something that considers you inherently valuable out of the kinship and fraternity of humanity and of life on Earth. We still hold a duty to achieve our best, to pursue wisdom and intelligence as best we can. Yes, human intelligence, and the technology that comes with it, is indeed the key to our future, but in the end it is what it unlocks, and not the key itself, that really matters. The only philosophy worth having is one that seeks to unlock a future for what is instrinsically valuable. That’s my belief – a future for people like you and I, for the human species, for life itself.

  73. CaptainBooshi says:

    I’m sure other people are mirroring this post, but I have to agree that my experience matches yours pretty much exactly. A lot of my classes came super easy to me, but not Spanish. I put more work into my Spanish classes than quite possibly in all my other classes combined (and I’m not exaggerating, it would hours every single night), and I still didn’t get grades as good as in the rest.

    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”.

    Are there really a lot of people arguing this? Usually the argument is about populations, where the conservative is arguing that white men (and sometimes also asian men) are the genetically gifted, and progressives arguing that women and the other races are being held back in some way, which is a completely different argument than the one you’re describing. I can’t really think of any case I’ve seen where someone tries to argue that what you’re born with doesn’t matter at all.

  74. Anonymous says:

    Thought experiment: throughout history, it has been common to provide substandard health care to populations that tend to be obese (poor people or black people or whoever.) This practice is officially abolished but in practice still continues. Ok, that concept might not sound like a wild leap of imagination. But suppose this was historically rationalised by people in authority on the grounds that Group X are fat and their fatness causes their poor health outcomes so investing in their healthcare is a waste of resources no matter how well intentioned and earnest their doctors are.

    I think in that scenario you might find a lot more progressives on the “fat is fixable” side of the discussion. And a lot more conservatives talking about how obesity is obviously genetic and the leftists are too cowardly to face this simple obvious truth.

  75. Raiden Worley says:

    I think a part of the reason that intelligence is perceived as connected to someone’s quality as a person is that intelligence is something that is so pervasive in every part of someone’s life. It can be hard to separate intelligence from other personal qualities, because pretty much all parts of a person will make use of the person’s intelligence.

  76. Elias says:

    I’m most curious about those supposed exceptions to the law of comparative advantage!

    • Scott Alexander says:

      When I tried naming one, people argued about it in the comments, so I decided to de-emphasize it.

      The one I mentioned was minimum wage, but two important ones that other people brought up were transaction costs, and the possibility of a worker being unreliable (ie if you can’t trust someone not to steal your machines, you won’t hire them to do very cheap low-value machine labor)

  77. 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:

        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

        No tests? What did it teach, then?

        Statistics does have this unfortunate problem, though. Truly understanding how the tests and theorems work requires some mathematics (e.g., basic measure theory, integration etc.), which most non-math students can’t or won’t handle. But without that understanding, it all seems completely arbitrary.

        As a result, even respectable scientists can be pretty bad at statistics.

  78. 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.

  79. anon says:

    Where does genetic/environment/upbringing end and personal responsibility start? What’s the Schelling point, if any?

  80. 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.)

  81. 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.

  82. 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.

  83. 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?

  84. 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.

  85. 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.

  86. 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.)

  87. 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.

  88. 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?

  89. 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.

  90. 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.

  91. 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.

  92. 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.

  93. 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.)

  94. 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.

  95. 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.

  96. 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.

  97. 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.

  98. 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.

  99. 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.

  100. 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.)

  101. 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.)

  102. 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.

  103. 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.

  104. 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.

  105. 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.

  106. 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?

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  108. 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.

  109. 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.

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  111. 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.

  112. 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.

  113. 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.”

  114. 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.)

  115. 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.

  116. 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.

  117. 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.

  118. 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.

  119. 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.)

  120. 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.

  121. 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

  122. 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.

  123. 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.

  124. 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:


  125. 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.

  126. 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.

  127. 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.

  128. 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.

  129. 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.

  130. 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.

  131. 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.

  132. 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?


  133. 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.

  134. 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.

  135. 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.

  136. 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.

  137. 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.

  138. 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.

  139. 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.

  140. 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.