Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Taleb And IQ

Nicholas Nassim Taleb gets a lot right in this string of tweets discounting the importance of IQ.  The strength of his argument seems to be that he knows lots of high-IQ people who are pretty useless, or don’t get the right answers to complicated questions, while also knowing people with average IQ’s who do get the right answers, making them useful.  As a person with a high IQ who is pretty useless, I see what he means. There is a good deal that is valuable in this short analysis. I think he is giving evidence for three related and slightly different points, but I don’t think they combine into the single idea he puts forward.

He is making the case that IQ is not a standalone ability for much of anything.  It’s hard to argue with that.  I can’t think off the top of my head of any standalone ability. Though that is obvious, that doesn’t make Taleb’s point ridiculous, as there are people who seem to think it is a standalone ability that can take you places. They can be pretty annoying, also, especially when things go wrong and it is everybody else’s fault.

Next, he thinks there is a type of intelligence not measured by IQ that works much better in uncertainty.

Third, he thinks the two types of intelligence are not merely different, but antagonistic to each other.  He thinks the standard, IQ-type intelligence that allows one to succeed in school pushes out the other, uncertainty-based intelligence.

School and standardized tests do ask questions in which the answer is known, and a lot of reality does not fit that. Sometimes we don’t know if an answer is even knowable, as there are variables acting so quickly on each other that no one even could know the answer. I do recall from standardised tests that there was sometimes the possibility "One cannot tell from the given information," but I think those were entirely in math.

As SAT's (essentially an IQ test) are fairly good predictors of college success, it is likely that if there is any split between these types of intelligence, what one learns in college, and how one learns in college, is going to be on the IQ/false predictability side of the scale. Operating on the cliche of "it's not what they don't know, it's what they think they know that ain't so," could indeed mean that college makes things worse.

You can likely sense that I am working toward my disagreement with NNT, but don't get impatient here.  There is, as I noted initially, much that is good.  I work in a field where the primary beliefs of the experts when I started are greatly overthrown at this point. Not merely that we have new data, such that old theories have to be reworked or sometimes discarded, but that the previous ideas were stark raving mad, so to speak, and yet asserted with certainty and a condescension. A lot of those ideas of how to treat psychological problems are still hanging around, though mercifully less powerful each year. The idea that schizophrenia, autism, bipolar disorder, OCD, etc could be medical disorders was sneered at by many (though the change was already occurring in 1979).  Christian counselors were especially and openly despised. Those were in retrospect less badly wrong. One third of the field seemed to go nuts in the 1980's about recovered memory and satanic ritual abuse, and there are still some who won't let those go. At all points, the views of the experts were asserted against the knowledge of outsiders as if it was ridiculous to even consider such a thing.

All that before the words "replication crisis" were even uttered.

A Master's in Social Work is much concerned with political training. A very narrow set of boundaries for one's politics is not-very-subtly announced in the NASW ethics statement.

Historical Linguistics continues to sneer at the Greenbergs and Ruhlens - not to mention all those Russian Nostraticists - of the field, forever focusing on relatively unimportant problems in the service of rejecting a whole new way of doing business.  Because it's just not the way things are done. Unfortunately, Greenberg has proven out in Africa, and the genetics of the North American tribes are showing in just about exactly the same way as his theories for the new world would suggest. Anthropologists can still insist that primitive man was largely peaceful, twenty years after Lawrence Keeley's War Before Civilization, but the cracked skulls (and sucked marrow) at archaeological sites will render that less and less likely going forward. I will grant that some archaeology seems to be taking the right attitude, that new information is coming in so fast that all theories must be held lightly, and even very odd ones are deserving of at least a look.  I may delude myslef on this, though.  I don't really know.

The college experts are worrisome, in field after field, and they are passing this knowledge on.  The method of attaining advanced degrees does favor people who have both tenacity and an ability to not point out the obvious (they tell themselves they will revert when they get out from under that control) - to know a great deal that is not so. Taleb goes after economists in particular.  I can't refute or support him there, because I know nothing, but he certainly seems plausible.

If the conservative press focuses too much on the extreme examples of academic experts believing and teaching amazingly stupid things, that is still in response to a public that largely believes "but she's a history/sociology/English professor" as an assurance of correctness. In mathematics, I think the universities can fairly claim they've got a corner on the experts.  I suspect it is much the same in some sciences.  But does anyone believe the best musicians, actors, writers, designers, dancers and other artists are to be found at the universities? Business, eh, no.  Programmers? Please. Jonathan? What's up with geographers? Is that one of the fields that experts really have no place to go but colleges, and thus academics still own the field? More to the point, the fields where the experts, academics or not, indisputably know the most are also fields completely overrun with fashions. History.  Literature. Cultural and Social Anthropology.

Here is an interesting group that I think would somewhat agree with NNT, though they would have some sharp correctives:  people in the high IQ societies.  I don't know about that vaguer category of "people with high IQ's," but for the joiners, there was remarkable clarity what the ability was and wasn't, it's limitations, its advantages, and its sometime parlor-game quality. A story I had long forgotten: during my brief tenure as president of the Prometheus Society, Paul Ehrlich qualified and joined. Some fawned over him immediately (pathetic, I thought) and others wanted to have a go at what a fool he was straight off. For my part, I thought the work he was known for foolish, but thought he might have interesting things to say about other subjects, and was conscious of my role, recognising that criticism from me might have a stamp of authority that would be unfair. I thought it might hurt the group and said nothing.

Ehrlich may be exactly the sort of person Taleb is talking about.

Here's where I think Taleb goes wrong. He generally does not know the IQ's of the people he is talking about, and is making assumptions. That people who did well on school testing and in academic environments have high measured IQ's is a fair assumption, and if they are often fools that is evidence that IQ isn't everything. Differentiating among who was high and who was very high is another matter. On the other end of the argument it is even worse.  He can think of Fat Tony and people like him as people who have only average IQ's, but he doesn't know that. For this alternate type of intelligence that operates better under uncertainty there may be a floor, and it may not be 100. That they are uninterested in the most obvious set of endeavors related to IQ, deriving from school success, does not mean they don't have high IQ. To my knowledge, no one has even approximated a measurement of this success under uncertainty, never mind what overlap it might have with school smarts.

To be fair, that may not be NNT's point. This series of tweets may simply be a more emphatic version of what he has long said, that those we consider experts get things horribly wrong, while some people we consider less intelligent actually have a good practical track record.

18 comments:

james said...

Perhaps one could think of theorists and experimentalists/phenomenologists. If the theorist's model is good, within the limits of the model, the theorist's predictions can be superb. With air at a given density and a given viscosity function, if you give the baseball such and such an initial position and momentum and spin, you can predict very well where it will wind up. The calculation may not be quick if the non-uniformity of the baseball's surface matters. OTOH, the phenomenologist will say: if it looks like it is moving in such and such a way, take a tight swing. It's a more probabilistic approach, and doesn't claim great precision.

One of the challenges in elementary physics courses is designing a setup that lets the students focus on one aspect at a time of what is really a complex situation. People who are very good at abstracting away the minor details can get good results when the details really are minor--I think that maps roughly into a lot of the academic high-IQ use. It demands a lot of intellectual horsepower to run the machinery, but it isn't the same as building the abstraction machinery for a system from scratch.
Other people can be better at spotting critical details on the fly, like "Fat Tony." It seems at least possible that both types of skills could be taught. OODA?

Grim said...

Philosophical pragmatism holds, essentially, that it's only true if it works. It's a particularly American philosophy -- founded after the Civil War, through the early 20th century -- which to a certain degree squares the circle NNT is describing.

I find NNT's theories about uncertainty plausible, but his investment strategy turned out to be unsustainable. That isn't to say he was wrong. He was right. It's just that no one could afford to sustain the slow, steady losses for years in order to be able to be positioned to take advantage of the massive windfall when the market did the unexpected. The principles were quite correct, but the thing didn't work for practical reasons.

Texan99 said...

IQ is both easily measured and solidly predictive of academic success. It doesn't follow that it's entirely predictive of academic success, just that it's somewhat more predictive than any other single factor we know how to measure. One reason schools look at other qualities is that some of them are mildly predictive, too; GPA, for instance, tells us something about persistence and ability to go along with social structures, for whatever that's worth--and it's worth something, or college entrance committees would just throw dice instead, or judge by how many Bible verses a candidate has memorized, or how many shelter dogs he's adopted. Alternatively, colleges that value IQ test results would get out-competed by other colleges that used a better predictor, such as the ability to pay, or some other conveniently and even more easily measured quality.

Again, it doesn't follow that the kind of academic success we're talking about is itself the be-all and end-all of human life. Colleges aren't looking for an entering class that will make good fathers or the next great inventor or saint or sculptor or movie star. Nor should we be looking at either colleges or IQ tests to judge who will most likely excel in those areas. But the importance of academic success is an assumption that undergirds our whole system of higher education. If we ever stop believing in that, we might as well ditch universities along with IQ tests. If succeeding at university academics is meaningless, why do we assign grades? Why do people pay tuition?

It often seems to me that as a society we're trying to believe simultaneously that academic success is both critically important and an unjustified distraction from everything that's truly valuable.

Donna B. said...

The boarding school I was at when I was 14 tested IQ. Apparently I was having a good day.

Later, in another state, when I took the ACT and SAT, 'good days" became apparent again. The SAT was geographically further away. For whatever reason, my parents allowed me to spend the night on a college campus with an older cousin before the SAT. Oh my... I got me some education that night and, possibly still drunk, took the SAT test. I did not do well, though my score was still high enough to get me into any college I was interested in at the time. My ACT scores (parents drove me to nearby testing after a good night's sleep) prompted a high school counselor to ask me how I managed to cheat.


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Christopher B said...

Grim - The principles were quite correct, but the thing didn't work for practical reasons.

So does Taleb recognize that he falls in the group of people he's railing against?

Grim said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grim said...

You'd have to ask him. It's an interesting question. To a certain degree it's contingent, though: if he'd started the fund in 2008 or 2018, he'd have made a vast fortune (especially in 2008 given the high degree of leverage at work in the housing bubble, but to a lesser degree last month). But that doesn't make it a workable long-term strategic approach to what he calls 'fourth quadrant' market instability. It was a good application of all of his theories, but ultimately it depends on the same guesswork about the market cycle that all the other theories depend upon. I still think it's a sharp approach, but I can't make investments according to it because my resources are too limited -- and that will be true for almost all households. The only people who could leverage the approach to make fortunes are those who already have fortunes.

dmoelling said...

I work in the power industry where many plant managers rose up from technician ranks quite successfully. Many such "mustangs" were told they needed to have a college degree so they did on-line ones (I see a lot of University of Phoenix degrees). Now I think the on-line schools can do a good job, my real point is that it seems the college degree is not required to provide the skills to run a billion dollar industrial facility. This was the norm in the USA well up into the 1960s. Since many of these managers may never have taken the SAT but could have some military equivalent, we cannot say anything about their IQ's. We can say they are alert, smart enough to handle technical and commercial concepts and manage people.

RichardJohnson said...

Texan 99
IQ is both easily measured and solidly predictive of academic success. It doesn't follow that it's entirely predictive of academic success, just that it's somewhat more predictive than any other single factor we know how to measure.

A family friend's doctoral dissertation attempted to find out what best predicted college freshmen academic performance. In addition to high school grades and SAT/ACT scores, he looked at a battery of psychological tests. His conclusion was that the best predictors of freshmen academic performance were 1)high school grades, 2)SAT/ACT scores, and 3) a psychological attribute he called "stick-to-it-iveness," which could also be defined as the ability to persevere in the face of initial discouragement. Don't give up, in other words.

RichardJohnson said...

Paul Ehrlich qualified and joined. Some fawned over him immediately (pathetic, I thought) and others wanted to have a go at what a fool he was straight off.

Had fertility rates continued as they did in the 1960s, Paul Erlich would probably have been correct. But they did not. For example, in the 1960s, the fertility rate in the US declined from 3.65 in 1960 to 2.46 in 1969. But this trend was not as evident in the Third World. From 1960 to 1969, the fertility rate in Low Income countries went from 6.57 to 6.69- no demographic transition by 1969 (4.32 in 2016). East Asia: 5.81 in 1960 to 5.89 in 1969 (1.85 in 2016.)

As Yogi Berra said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

World Fertility rate, total (births per woman)
1960 4.98
1961 5.01
1962 5.04
1963 5.06
1964 5.07
1965 5.05
1966 5.00
1967 4.97
1968 4.92
1969 4.85
1998 2.72
2016 2.44


World Bank: Fertility Rates.

Texan99 said...

"We can say they are alert, smart enough to handle technical and commercial concepts and manage people."--Right, I hope there's no one who genuinely believes that a random college degree could conceivably be necessary (let alone adequate) to such skills. On the other hand, employers like simple tests that will enable them to sort through a pile of resumes and reduce it to a manageable size. As long as they think there's even a rough correlation between a college degree and the ability to run, say, a large industrial concern, they may default to demanding the degree.

At some point, we may find that there's no useful correlation at all between the skill and the diploma--I mean, not just that the diploma test needlessly causes the employer to miss out on some excellent candidates, but that the diploma is so irrelevant that it's a complete waste of time to consider it. I assume employers will then give up on the diploma and figure out another approach to hiring, or universities will start offering a degree that provides more useful predictive power. We may already have reached the point where the degree tells an employee very little beyond whether a candidate is likely to make good tenured professor material. They say employers already are really using college degrees mostly as legal substitutes for the IQ tests they'd prefer to rely on if they didn't think they'd be sued. As proxies for IQ tests, college degrees aren't awful even if they're not particularly reliable. They're better than nothing, anyway.

To Richard's point about perseverance, a college degree, like high school grades, does tell an employer a bit about that quality. Maybe no more than an employer could learn by seeing that someone established a successful business or made it through Ranger school or the like, but a degree is a metric that's easily available and simple to express as a job-pool qualification, and almost certainly won't buy you a disparate-impact lawsuit.

I haven't done a lot of hiring in my time, but I have often tried to train informal paralegal assistants. Because I was dealing with potential candidates one by one, I couldn't have been less interested in a college degree, which couldn't tell me anything I couldn't establish more reliably by trying someone out and seeing how he learned things. But I wasn't trying to hire several dozen paralegals a year from a pool of 1,000 candidates, which is another task altogether.

When I served on my law firm's recruiting committee, candidates didn't even make it to my attention unless some recruiting coordinator had already sorted through them, and often not before an advance team had interviewed on campus and narrowed down the field. Once they got to me, it was of no use at all to me to learn that someone had a college degree and a J.D.; they all did. It was of some use to know where the degrees were from, as a rough guide, but in the end it came down to how smart they were in person. Obviously I didn't expect them to know any law yet to speak of. I normally asked them questions that required them to compare nearly anything to anything else ("How was law school different from college?"), which shows a lot about how someone thinks and and how he expresses himself on the spot. A surprising fraction of interviewees couldn't even attempt an answer, I don't care where they got their degrees.

charlie said...


Assistant Village Idiot wrote:

>> What's up with geographers? Is that one of the fields that experts
>> really have no place to go but colleges, and thus academics
>> still own the field?

On the contrarary, many geographers don't work in academia. Geography is best understood as an umbrella discipline that unites, historically and sometimes in a departmental structure, four different approaches.

1. Earth Science / Physical processes (typically water / soil / climate / meteorology--drawing the line typically to exclude "hard rocks" which is usually geology. Quaternery Studies is up for grabs, perhaps, since it's usually not studying rocks.

2. Area studies (old fashioned area studies)

3. Human Environmental Interaction--how human communties make a livelihood in a physical and cultural setting (such as a Midwestern corn belt farming area or a region of Central Asian pastoralists)

4. Spatial Analysis, which is linked to techniques such as GIS, spatial statistics, and remote sensing.

This is reasonably well illustrated in a classic article by Pattison.

http://geog.ucsb.edu/~kclarke/G200B/four_20traditions_20of_20geography.pdf

= - = - = - = -

In the 1960s and 1970s Some people in Geography (such as David Harvey, who is fairly well known in academia) read Marx and became enchanted with a Marxian approach. In this stream of scholarship, people later went on to read Foucault or similar theorists, and became drawn into the sort of "critical studies" that have taken over a variety of disciplines, often to the detriment of scholarly progress.

Geography is a field poorly understood in the USA, and historically has enjoyed a better reputation in British COmmonwealth countries. This may be linked to the fact that the British at one point administered a quarter of the world's land area and had the most powerful navy.

But no, not all geographers are crazy, and not all of them are in academia, either. Even most of the ones in academia are not crazy or crazy sounding, despite what periodically may get published in journals.

There is a tendency for geographers to maintain a "mutual non-aggression pact" with those colleagues who strike off in new directions. An index of this is the ever-growing number of "Specialty Groups" within the overall membership of the American Association of Geographers.

Kind Regards,

Charles W. Abbott


P.S.: I assume that you are alluding to the _Gender, Place, and Culture_ journal and the hoax article on dog parks. It's not at the top of my reading list. Probably such hoaxing can play a useful role in delimiting the boundaries between useful scholarship and articles that are primarily absurd, bogus, or otherwise questionable.





Assistant Village Idiot said...

We have a geography professor from Texas A&M who has commented here and may still be an occasional reader. I was asking his opinion. Thank you for yours, Charles. There was much I did not know. Marxist/Foucault geographers were not something I expected.

As for the hoax paper, I had known about it but was not thinking of it for this post. Good pickup.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

As for SAT scores, I am guessing that people who can handle technical material would do well on the math, at least. Of course, the math sections are also probably overdependent on verbal skills, as word problems are. I have heard that the ACT is even worse in this regard, but i don't know. If I ran the world, I would double-weight the math portions, rather than adding in a writing section designed to weed out foreigners.

Politicians, journalists, writers, and entertainers, if they did well on the SATs at all, did far better on the Verbal sections.

Sam L. said...

You do know, I trust, that there are some people who have been educated waaaaaaaay past their ability to learn.

dmoelling, there are jobs where "book learning" is not even close to adequate, which is why those "mustangs" do so well. Experience pays off. Unless "management and administration" won't let them.

GraniteDad said...

I was actually considering emailing you this week to say that I don’t think Twitter works well for NNT. This thread actually bolsters my case I think. I don’t think his ideas are easily reducible to 280 characters. And there’s an art to threads that requires each individual tweet to flow into the next, that I don’t see in his work. And he seems to get crabby with people a lot when their tweets don’t have the precision he wants. Which again, is not easily done in 280 characters.

Mahmood Ahmed said...

Why a High IQ Won’t Make You Rich - Mr. Taleb demonstrates how a person with the world’s highest IQ cannot outperform an average person tinkering - https://www.thetreeofawakening.com/the-tinkering-method-how-to-make-money-online-get-rich-fast-easy-earn-ways/