Friday, April 10, 2020

The Power of Idiot Intellectuals

Here, for your edification and enlightenment, a few words from Nassim Nicholas Taleb. They derive from his book Skin in the Game. It dates to 2016, thus, before the Trump election. At the least, it helps us to understand the problem of granting authority to elite intellectuals, a guardian class of philosopher kings. As you know, these people, who Taleb calls intellectuals-yet-idiots disparage any appeal to any authority-- except their own.

By the theme of his book, our philosopher kings have no skin the the game. Theirs is abstract theorizing, based on whim, fantasy and fiction. And yet, they insist that they can tell us what to do, what to think, what to eat and so on.

Without further ado, here is Taleb:

What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for.

But the problem is the one-eyed following the blind: these self-described members of the “intelligentsia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities — but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.

He continues:

Indeed one can see that these academico-bureaucrats who feel entitled to run our lives aren’t even rigorous, whether in medical statistics or policymaking. They can’t tell science from scientism — in fact in their image-oriented minds scientism looks more scientific than real science. (For instance it is trivial to show the following: much of what the Cass-Sunstein-Richard Thaler types — those who want to “nudge” us into some behavior — much of what they would classify as “rational” or “irrational” (or some such categories indicating deviation from a desired or prescribed protocol) comes from their misunderstanding of probability theory and cosmetic use of first-order models.) 

Obviously, he is thinking especially of the behavioral economists, a group that gained great power and authority during the Obama administration, and that is totally appalled to have discovered that the common people do not respect their wisdom:

The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated”. What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences. While rich people believe in one tax dollar one vote, more humanistic ones in one man one vote, Monsanto in one lobbyist one vote, the IYI believes in one Ivy League degree one-vote, with some equivalence for foreign elite schools and PhDs as these are needed in the club.

Describing the IYI, Talen writes:

More socially, the IYI subscribes to The New Yorker. He never curses on twitter. He speaks of “equality of races” and “economic equality” but never went out drinking with a minority cab driver (again, no real skin in the game as the concept is foreign to the IYI). Those in the U.K. have been taken for a ride by Tony Blair. The modern IYI has attended more than one TEDx talks in person or watched more than two TED talks on Youtube. Not only did he vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable and some such circular reasoning, but holds that anyone who doesn’t do so is mentally ill.

The IYI has been wrong on just about everything. It reminds us of one Gordon Chang, a man who is trotted out as an expert on China, and who has been saying for at least two decades that the Chinese regime is going to collapse:

The IYI has been wrong, historically, on Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, election forecasting models, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup) and p-values. But he is convinced that his current position is right.

Nothing quite like depth of conviction to establish truth.


David Foster said...

It's not so much intellectuality that's the problem as a certain kind of academic rigidity.

An interesting interchange took place between Picasso and Monet as the German Army advanced through France in 1940. Monet was shocked to learn that the enemy had already reached Reims. “But what about our generals?” asked Monet. “What are they doing.”

Picasso’s response: “Well, there you have it, my friend. It’s the Ecole des Beaux-Arts”

…ie, formalists who had learned one set of rules and were not interested in considering deviations from same.

It was an astute remark, and it fits very well with the observations of Andre Beaufre, who before the invasion had been a young captain on the French General Staff. Although he had initially been thrilled to be placed among this elevated circle…

"I saw very quickly that our seniors were primarily concerned with forms of drafting. Every memorandum had to be perfect, written in a concise, impersonal style, and conforming to a logical and faultless plan–but so abstract that it had to be read several times before one could find out what it was about…”I have the honour to inform you that I have decided…I envisage…I attach some importance to the fact that…” Actually no one decided more than the barest minimum, and what indeed was decided was pretty trivial."

We have a lot of primary concern with forms of drafting and speaking today. Most at my post The Costs of Formalism and Credentialism

trigger warning said...

"The IYI has been wrong, historically, on...".

That list, should anyone think it comprehensive, is but a good start. I could easily and immediately add Japanese management, artificial intelligence, interferon, global cooling/warming, acid rain, Alar, monoclonal antibodies, fetal stem cells, food pyramids, human genome decoding, End of History, folk medicine, Himalayan glaciers, lungs of the planet, Wise Latina jurisprudence, radon, behaviorism, polar bear extinction, etc etc.

sestamibi said...

One of your best blog entries yet, Stuart, but Taleb is quite late to the realization. My mother spoke of "intellectual idiots" over 50 years ago, and Irving Kristol reported discovery of their existence much further back than that.

My favorite essay of his, "People Who Are S-S-ST" appeared in the Wall Street Journal in 1978. He tells the story of a friend of his (identified to me as Saul Bellow when I once had an opportunity to meet Kristol) who belonged to a Marxist group back in college during the Depression. Each Friday he would bring his friends back to his family's apartment where they would argue passionately about the finer points of dialectics while his mother, an unschooled Jewish immigrant kept them plied with coffee, cake, etc. One night after they had all left she observed "Your friends, such brilliant young people! Smart! Smart! (and then dismissively) Stupid!"

Sadly, Kristol's son seems to fall into that category himself, especially since 2016.

UbuMaccabee said...

Foster, Trigger, and Sestamibi swinging for the fences. Great comments each. Outstanding article by Taleb, thanks for bring it to my attention, Stuart.

“people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.”

I’ll take Montaigne, with or without a filter, over all the humanities professors in America and Europe right now. No contest. Time to reread “An Apology for Raymond Sebond” with a good glass of Burgundy.

Ignatius Acton Chesterton OCD said...

On Good Friday I am usually in church from 12-3 reflecting on Jesus' Passion and the meaning of His ultimate sacrifice. One thing from the Passion (John 18:38) is when Pilate asks Jesus "What is truth?"

This question has never been more important than today. People claiming to be philosopher kings don't know truth. They don't care about it. Everything is relative and irrelevant -- unless it is THEIR beliefs. Then, and there, we find the "sacred." Rubbish.

What is remarkable is the totalitarian bearing of our elected and appointed "leaders" or "authorities" in these "unprecedented times" of SARS-CoV-2. We can no longer say totalitarian temptation or impulse, because it is now in motion. We are living in a time of unhinged panic, and our political class has done what they do best: create drama, spend money we don't have, and put one-size-fits all gimmicks in place to make us feel safe. IYIs, indeed.

What I have noticed amidst all this panic is the inability to be with uncertainty. I've never considered Americans a compliant people. Now it is clear as day. The liberty and freedom that we have ceded to the political class in this panic is absolutely stunning. Fighting the "invisible enemy" has become a license to order citizens around like children.

And who are these people ordering us around? A lot of them are from the IYI crowd. The "experts." It is alarming. The Establishment feels that it has the intelligence to lead us. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am hoping that November will be a great reckoning for a great number of people. I am disgusted. The economic devastation we have experienced is completely out of whack with hypothesized nonsense about the risk. These recommendations -- nay, dictates -- of these supposedly uber-intelligent people. The ones with PhDs, the ultimate certificate of showing that you are a master of a minute, microscopic sliver of human understanding. These are our new gods. After all, "Studies say..." and "Models say..." and "Our algorithms tell us..." Good grief. Can no one think??? And yes, David Foster, the credentialism is rampant.

Most of all, after many decades of demographic tyranny, I say it is high time that the Baby Boomers stepped aside. As a whole, they are the most selfish, self-absorbed, phony generation in American history. And it is on parade every day.

As Pilate said, "What is truth?" It's not what we're getting from our so-called leaders.


Anonymous said...

Give me liberty or give me death! The 2.2 million dead projection is what got us into this mess. Multiple revisions downward, and we still have inflated numbers. Meanwhile we're staring into the economic abyss. Fauci and Birx aren't going to lose their jobs. The federal and state workers are going to get back pay. The schoolteachers will get their money. We in the private sector are the engine that makes America work. We pay public employee salaries. And we are shackled based on wild exaggerated figures, left to stay at home for weeks on end. And the experts will wash their hands and claim victory, never missing a pay check. Something is very wrong in all this. Experts? Idiots is the correct word.