Saturday, October 18, 2008

Intelligence - Part II

We didn't call them SAT I and SAT II when I was in school. We called them boards and achievements, with "college boards" being rather a generic that included them both. I did well on my boards my junior year - never took them senior year. But I did better on my Math I and Math II achievements. A friend introduced me to her sister as "that guy that got xxx's on his college boards," quoting my achievements numbers instead. I liked that new number better, and just sorta shifted over into using that number instead. By college, I had locked it in as a show-stopper.

I don't blame the girl for any of it. I'm sure something similar would have occurred to me on my own eventually. My reasoning was a lot like Gollum's laying claim to taking the ring from Deagol: Well I did get xxx's on my achievements. And if I had taken the boards senior year I might well have gotten xxx's. So taking one thing and another, it's not really, really a lie.

There were other high-ceiling IQ tests that showed up a decade later, by Kevin Langdon and Ron Hoeflin. I took those and kept the higher one. Not dishonest. Just not really honest, either. Because of that higher score I joined one of those obscure groups of people who do that. I wrote for the newsletter, corresponded with other members, and even got elected to office of one of them. I also took a WAIS-R, but knew it was invalid even as I was answering. I had read dozens of psych testing reports that referenced answers in passing. I don't know how much advantage that was, because those were mostly in my strong areas anyway, but it's just invalid.

The whole thing looks even more pathetic when you realise that my bragged scores don't mean anything more than my real ones. They just sound better. Whatever they measure, I've got that. I've got lots of it - and I can assure you it is overrated. I got distracted for years into the argument that the tests don't measure anything real - they do; g-factor has been demonstrated about as thoroughly as anything you can't do a blood test for. But the real thing that they measure is double-edged.

If you were to oversimplify g-factor into a handy concept, it would be pattern recognition. It's useful in a wide variety of areas. Sensing a pattern through the noise and creating an hypothesis to test is what we usually call "smart" in any area. The blue ones hold up best, the green and purple ones hold up pretty well, the red ones suck - I think blueness is the key to stability here. Patterns are what we talk about in arguing economics, foreign policy, demography, crime reduction - all of politics. If you don't do A, then terrorists will B. For every N% you cut taxes, you get M% increase in GDP. Which patterns are real is what we differ about in most areas.

In Intelligence Part I, I noted "Nescience (not having knowledge) can create all manner of trouble, but false pattern recognition (believing predictions that aren't true) will be catastrophic. Such as, oh, believing that subprime mortgages are valuable to hold, if you've got enough of them to distribute the risk. If you see a pattern where there is none, or miss the real pattern, you won't just get a wrong answer. You will keep getting wrong answers over and over, and you won't quit. Smart people can create far more damage than mere fools. They set up government programs that don't work but never end. They run major corporations into the ground.

Anyone who has ever been in conversation with me knows that this is what I do - the second type of fool that is brilliant, provocative, insightful - potentially disastrous. Talking with me will give you all manner of new insights into any topic that interests you. I will hit upon a thread, a pattern, an analogy that creates sudden illumination. Let me assure you that you don't want me to be actually in charge of anything important. I will run a brilliant idea into the ground until all around me is destroyed. I'm a good advisor, a terrible leader. Don't ever do what I suggest. Just take it under consideration. It has not been accidental that I encouraged my sons to make their own decisions and live with the consequences far earlier than their peers, even though I keep giving advice.

Taleb gives a great example early on in The Black Swan. (Keep these three groups in your head: The Poor Reasoners whose opinions are based on random ideas they've picked up; The Smart Guys, who have plausible theories for what they believe; The Fat Tony's, who try not to make theories but just deal with what comes. We'll be using them for the rest of the discussion). Suppose you are flipping a fair coin and recording the answers. If you flip three heads in a row, fools who don't understand probability will say that you are "due" to flip tails, and so rate that as a higher than 50% chance. Four heads? Even more "due." Five? Now you're really, really due. Eventually, a tail will be flipped and the meathead will believe his theory has been proven. People who know probability, the even bigger fools, know that it's a 50/50 chance every time. After seven straight heads? Sure, 50/50. Ninety-nine heads? Yeah, 50/50. Of course.

Enter Fat Tony (a composite of real traders Taleb knows), who is not a fool. "Ninety-nine heads in a row? There's something wrong with that coin. I'll bet it comes up heads again." No, no, Tony you fool! The problem specifies... "I don't care what the problem specifies. You get ninety-nine heads in a row, there's something wrong with the coin." Fat Tony has it right. All the arguments by the smart people that in a limited number of cases, statistically, computers can generate 99 heads in a row if you let them run long enough - those people are going to be screwed, and they will screw everyone who follows them. Fat Tony won't. He knows that the chances are greater that someone has done something to the rules. Something is wrong with the theory. Back off. Rethink.

I spent much of my life trying to be one of the second group - the bigger fools. Now I'm trying to be more like Tony. Not that the Tony's of the world are always right, either. There's no guarantee that just because you avoid being too-clever-by-half that you are really one of the smart ones of the world.

Yes, this has political implications in all the recent discussions about whether Sarah Palin has the goods to be president-if-necessary, versus Obama being president-for-sure. Palin is in either the first or third group. We hope the latter. McCain is in the second group, with we hope some of the third. Obama and Biden are second group to the core. They don't even know the third group exists. Progressives in general believe there are only the first two groups, and don't see that the second is dangerous. Even McCain has far too much of that for my taste. Bush is a mix. The Clintons are a fascinating mix, worthy of discussion in a separate post.

And I willingly concede that Palin might be in the first group of more minor fools, rather than the canny Fat Tony. We don't know. She has shown some of both, the mere fool and the Fat Tony; being a Bigger Fool by birth and training I don't have the skills to sort that out. The frustration is that the argument is being carried on with people who do not see that the third group exists. They think the second group is the height of wisdom.

9 comments:

jlbussey said...

I suspect that I'm in the second group as well, although I occasionally pull a Fat Tony. But mostly a Bigger Fool... sigh.

(Your post is a little confusing in that you don't really define the three groups by name until the end. Luckily I read The Black Swan a while ago and sort of knew what you were talking about.)

David said...

You might enjoy some of the thoughts in this book: the logic of failure.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

jlbussey - fixed. Is that better?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

david - excellent article, the book is now on my wish list.

David said...

In many fields today, abstract thinking is more important than in the corresponding fields 100 years ago. Being an executive at Target, for example, involves the use of abstractions to a much greater degree than running a country store in which you know your customers personally, can visually see the stock levels, etc. It is almost like the difference between flying airplanes in visual conditions and flying them in instrument conditions--in which the first rule is "DON'T trust your senses." Especially in large and complex organizations, the world is largely one of "three dimensioned darkness," to borrow the title of a book by an airline captain.

Many people fail to operate effectively in this abstract world, and I think there are a couple of reasons. One is the reification of abstractions--there are too many people that view a conceptual model of business (for example) as more real than the reality. College should be to a substantial degree an education in how to deal with abstractions properly--"instrument flight rules training," to continue my analogy--but it rarely accomplishes this effectively.

Another source of difficulty is the insistence in using abstrations where more immediate data is available. Too many executives restrict themselves to the data provided by their "business intelligence systems" and fail to develop the *real* business intelligence that could come from spending more and better time with customers and employees.

Even in an instrument approach, there comes a time when you have to shift your gaze from the panel to the windshield and actually look at the runway ahead.

jlbussey said...

Thanks :)

terri said...

Let me assure you that you don't want me to be actually in charge of anything important. I will run a brilliant idea into the ground until all around me is destroyed. I'm a good advisor, a terrible leader. Don't ever do what I suggest.

well...I don't know about your theories, but this made me laugh out loud! :-)

Kurt said...

Of course, another name for what you call Fat Tonys might be pragmatists. And if you must look to a philosopher to espouse pragmatism, by all means look to William James, and avoid Rorty (who really belongs in the second group).

OBloodyHell said...

> College should be to a substantial degree an education in how to deal with abstractions properly

This is called "mathematics".

And the de-emphasis of it at all levels of schooling (including the attempt to shift it to rote mindlessness at the middle levels and higher) is a large part of the problem with dealing with and solving problems in a complex world.