I am not writing this series because I am a world-class expert on the subject of what constitutes intelligence, but because my views are slowly changing. (I might be a county-class expert on intelligence). Had I not read Taleb’s The Black Swan, I doubt I could have accepted the Palin candidacy with grace. My son Ben is tired of the Palin discussions, and I promise not to stay on the topic long. I fully admit that if the Democrats had done something similar, I would be more likely to consider it a stunt and less likely to consider her candidacy seriously.
But the thought was already growing in my mind that defining pure intelligence as g-factor, that patern-recognition, analogy creating, platonicity was a limitation. I had long been suspicious of top-down central planning, which always looks so plausible but has a poor track record. Taleb’s writing, pointing out the besetting dangers of such intelligence took me a step further. “Smart” people create a different type of errors. They become enamored of a pattern or theory and push it forward in spite of contrary evidence.
Well, sometimes that works. Confidence and perseverance can be good things. But it can also be catastrophic.
Some systems are so complex that patterns do not hold very well. There are weather cycles that are fairly consistent and predictive – seasons, El Nino, monsoons – but even these admit of considerable variation. There are too many interactive variables to make solid predictions. We have gotten much better, but still have surprises.
The economy is even more complex. One of the reasons that Taleb has contempt for most economists is that they believe they can reduce complicated, unpredictable events into some manageable form. They see patterns that aren’t there, or more precisely, are there only in certain circumstances or for a limited period of time. Economists overestimate how well the predictors will work. It is not that there are no patterns, or that there is no value in their knowledge, but that acting as if we know when we have overrun the limits of our knowledge in a crisis is dangerous.
A reasonably smart person who doesn’t have a pattern locked in her head, who is simply looking at the situation cold and trying to manage or adjust the crisis, will do better than the smarter person with a Theory they can’t let go of. The former won’t always get it right either, and will make some errors that the Theory person wouldn’t. The Theory people will then articulate what went wrong and how they would never make that mistake, and convince us that we should stop listening to those seat-of-the-pants people and listen to them, the experts. And this will work great until it stops working, at which point we will have…
You know what we will have: a hundred economists choosing up teams and telling us a dozen different reasons why we had a financial crisis. Each of those explanations will sound entirely plausible while you are listening to it. You will know with assurance that if you got into a live argument with any one of these people they would mop the floor with you, because they know this much better than you do. You would have to leave the debate floor in ignominious defeat, revealed as a fool. And yet… and yet I didn’t recently cost the American people $700,000,000,000, did I? No, it took smart people, Nobel prize winners in economics to do that. One of the small comforts of this whole crisis is also one of the most depressing aspects. There was very little criminality, very little fraud, in this whole mess. People stretched rules, but they didn’t break them. It was bad ideas that brought us to this pass.
No, it was good ideas, arrogantly imposed beyond their usefulness, which brought us to this pass. It wasn’t that these subprime mortgages were all bad loans, which anyone could have seen. Most of them have not defaulted, and will turn out to be good loans. Most of those people are still making payments. They will be homeowners and have escaped from the cycle of poverty (if you’re a Democrat) or become part of the ownership society (if you’re a Republican). It’s just that as a group these loans defaulted at a higher rate, and because we’re not sure what the final numbers on that will be – thirty years from now – we don’t know what complex derivatives that include them are worth, so no one wants to buy or sell them anymore.
Off the rant, on to the general discussion.
Pattern recognition is intelligence*. So is pattern elimination, but it’s usually much less fun. There is a certain emotional kick we get from insight, of believing we have understood some new portion of the chaotic world around us. We like that feeling so much we strive for it. We seek it out, latching on to plausible explanations. Hence, new diets. Hence, alternative medicine. Hence, management techniques, Christian living seminars, EMDR, Values Clarification, new math, tough love, and every other one-step solution that we like.
Eliminating a pattern can have the opposite emotional impact. We move from a place of assurance to a place of doubt, exposing ourselves to the sharp winds of reality. There can be compensations, of course. Eliminating someone else’s pattern, or seeing through a common misconception can be very satisfying. Yet this is chancier. We are still then left staring into the chaos, squinting to see what new pattern might be there, now that the old one is gone.
Some professions actively encourage pattern destruction as well as pattern creation in their training and practice. Medicine is one, most types of engineering another. Anthropology is notoriously resistant to abandoning ideas. New ideas are admitted for discussion, but their proponents usually have to wait until the old guard dies off before they get control of the introductory textbooks. People don’t change their minds a lot. They have their pet theory that they are known for or have sided with, and all their effort goes into defending their idea and attacking the others. This is also true of the arts and literature. A professor who reads from a marxist feminist perspective in 1982 will still be reading from a marxist feminist perspective in 2002 and 2022. She will have added and subtracted a few things along the way, but the central premises will be intact. Religion is a mix, showing both faddism and stability.
Foreign policy is an area where different groups or schools of thought have theories they believe should be adhered to. America should never go to war unless…We should be willing to trade with any nation that…Dictators always…Eastern European countries want us to…All of these are great examples of patterns that work great every time until they suddenly don’t. When patterns suddenly don’t work, the most dangerous person in the room is the one who says “But it has to work. Try it again. Again. It will work eventually if we just keep at it.”
I have a rule of thumb that an expert in any field is defined as one who knows when you can force something, and when you absolutely should not force it. Plumbers, salesmen, coaches, therapists, designers, parents, poets – the expert is the one who knows, partly on the basis of principles but equally on the basis of native intelligence, experience, or intuition, that the standard rules don’t cover this situation.
* Thus the standardised test questions Horse: Colt :: Cow: ? These are pattern questions. Even fill-in-the-blank vocabulary or What Is The Best Title questions are pattern questions, illustrating that you pick up the patterns of language use. The tests themselves are patterns of a subtler type, which is why “test-taking ability” is not necessarily an unfair advantage. After taking a few of these things, you should be picking up what the rules of fair questioning are. When they are asking you for the best answer, they are not going to throw you an all-of-the-above or none-of-the-above. It’s too ambiguous. It’s not clean. This is why these tests measure one type of intelligence very well, but fall short in predicting how people will do in ambiguous situations. As everything in life is patterned and predictable until the day that it isn’t, that’s a serious limitation of the tests.