A possibly severe case of intellectualism

Courtesy of reader and friend LastRedoubt, I came across a rather amusing article by Nassim Taleb concerning the dangers of the Intellectual Yet Idiot- the acronym for which sounds remarkably similar to a Yiddish expression of annoyance:
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. 
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.) They are also prone to mistake the ensemble for the linear aggregation of its components as we saw in the chapter extending the minority rule.
Dr. Taleb correctly identifies the problem of intellectuals who have their heads so far up their own arses that they are unable to understand the difference between basic category errors. They are so impressed by their own intelligence, and they are so involved in listening only to those who think and act more or less exactly like them, that they cannot comprehend the difference between a Type I and a Type II error of observation.

These are terms in statistics but they apply just as well to real life. A Type I error is made when one asserts that which is absent- for instance, one starts with the assumption that the sky is blue, but rejects this assumption in favour of the sky being yellow. A Type II error is made when one fails to assert that which is present- for instance, when one argues that the sky is yellow and has always been yellow when it is in fact blue.

Intellectuals, who are in my experience often deeply dishonest with themselves about their own lack of foresight and humility, are highly susceptible to these sorts of errors. This is because they think themselves to be so smart that they are above the rules of logic and empirical verification that govern the rest of us mere mortals.

But, in fact, they are not smart. They are actually merely bright- and the distinction between the two is important, if subtle. As my father taught it to me many years ago, that fine line between bright and smart comes down to whether a bright idea passes the "real world test": quite simply, does that ever-so-elegant theory actually work in the real world?

The vast majority of intellectual ideas fail this test. Miserably.

Yet intellectuals never seem to learn from those failures. They go on blithely failing as before, never taking their lumps and adjusting their paradigms the way the rest of us have to.

Of course, all of this is old hat to people like us- we're used to seeing intellectuals fall flat on their foolish faces repeatedly. What interests me about Dr. Taleb's screed is the way in which he goes about documenting how to identify an IYI.

In the process, he has evidently come rather close to classifying a rather nasty and mostly terminal disease, which I'm going to simply call "intellectualism" for brevity.

As Dr. Taleb points out, sufferers of "intellectualism" are marked by an entirely unearned and totally unjustified sense of intellectual superiority that makes them exceedingly dangerous to their fellow man when given positions of power and influence.

If you happen to come across an IYI in real life, the recommended treatment usually seems to be a severe beating (with boxing gloves, of course- you don't want to go catching the dreaded disease yourself, after all).

The problem for me is that, apparently, I match quite a few of the identifying marks of the IYI. Here is a condensed list of those identifiers, combined with a true-false statement as to whether I personally match each one. The results indicate that I might, potentially, have a rather nasty case of intellectualism myself:
  1. Subscribes to the New Yorker [False]
  2. Never went out drinking with a minority cabbie [True]
  3. Attended more than one TEDx talk or seen more than two on YouTube [False]
  4. Voted for the Hilldebeast, and argues that anyone who didn't is mentally defective [SERIOUSLY False]
  5. Has a first-edition hardback of The Black Swan [False]
  6. Usually confuses science with scientism [False]
  7. Advocates the removal of dictators because reasons without stopping to think about the consequences [used to be True, not anymore]
  8. Historically wrong about: Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low-carb diets, gym machines, behaviourism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, election forecasting models, Bernie Madoff, and p-values [um... True in 5 out of 23, I suppose...]
  9. Member of a club for traveling privileges [True]
  10. Uses statistics without knowing how they are derived [False]
  11. Goes to literary festivals whenever in the UK [False]
  12. ONLY drinks red wine with steak [True]
  13. Used to think fat was harmful, doesn't anymore [True]
  14. Takes statins because a doctor told him to[False]
  15. Fails to understand ergodicity [False]
  16. Doesn't use Yiddish words even in a business context [False]
  17. Studied grammar before language [False]
  18. Never read a whole bunch of highfalutin' authors' works [True]
  19. Never gotten drunk with Russians [True]
  20. Never gotten completely shitfaced, full stop [True]
  21. Doesn't know shit from shinola [False]
  22. Doesn't understand the difference between a "pseudo-intellectual" and an "intellectual" [False]
  23. Mentioned quantum mechanics at least twice in conversations which have nothing to do with physics [False, as far as I know]
Crap... It's not looking good.

I nail 8.3 out of 23 possible identifiers, so apparently I am more than a third Intellectual Yet Idiot.

Not good at all. Evidently I need to check myself into the nearest boxing gym and get pummeled until I can't see straight for a week.

Oh, wait a second- I do deadlift. Actually I deadlift quite a bit- 405lbs for a set of 3 just this past Sunday, for instance.

(And I also get my face punched in on a regular basis, which I suppose means that I'm self-medicating.)

Phew! That was a close shave there. I do not, apparently, suffer from terminal intellectualism!!!

Despite the satirical tone- which evidently a bunch of readers of Dr. Taleb's article failed to understand- there is in fact a serious point to be made.

Intellectuals who have no skin in the game have absolutely no business lording it over the rest of us. Their lack of exposure to the devastating consequences of their own stupidity disqualifies them completely from pretending that they know better.

More to the point, most "intellectuals" aren't actually that smart.

Don't get me wrong, they have nosebleed IQs in many cases. To which I respond: so what?

It takes rather more than just a high IQ to impress me. I've known and worked with plenty of smart people in my time. Brains alone are not impressive; what people do with them is what determines whether or not they are worthy of respect.

Consider the following: I have a reasonably high IQ; last time I checked it was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 135. That's at or slightly above genius level, I think.

I also happen to have a Master's degree from an Ivy League university- and not in some fluffy-bunnies-and-unicorns subject either.

But, so what? LastRedoubt, for instance, has an IQ north of 150. Vox Day has an even higher IQ than that. There are regular readers here whose IQs are easily in the 140-160 range- they're smarter than me, and they and I know it.

Having a high IQ does not make one qualified to adopt a position of intellectual superiority. The difference between most midwit intellectuals and men of real learning is that the latter have learned humility and restraint from observing how their ideas work in the real world.

The IYIs of the world have suffered a number of stunning reversals of late- well, stunning for them, wonderful for us. They were totally blindsided by their own ineptitude thanks to the well-documented Dunning-Krueger Effect.

The critical question is whether these numpties are going to learn from their failures. But then, we've all seen these people flailing around in the days since the God-Emperor's victory, so we know the answer to that one already.


  1. I assume you've read the afterword to H Hour, yes? It's on my site for free.

    1. Indeed, sir- sometime last year, as I recall. I went back and re-read it earlier today.

      As you say, intellectualism and intellect are often quite separate and mutually exclusive. It is all too easy for intellectuals to fall in love with their own theories because they fail even to consider the three key questions that you had posed:

      1) Would the philosophy depend for its continued existence and prosperity on a particular kind of society, which society is its antithesis?

      2) Would it undermine the defense of the very kind of society it requires to continue to exist and prosper?

      3) Having undermined its home society, would it need universality to continue to exist and prosper while having no credible way of attaining that universality?

  2. Yes I did - and thank you for posting that where you had. In many ways the series has given me more food for thought than your more explicitly SF books, even if I like the Carrerra ones more.

    1. Honestly, I think the M Day books are more _fun_. Still, there's a lot more philosophical meat in the Carreraverse.

  3. Also - I know commenters at Vox's, and at MGC/Sarah's, that humble me for their recall and breadth of knowledge. Sometimes I forget that my "I've had three careers in twelve years" line about my time in the Navy is not just a joke.

  4. The one thing I don't understand about intellectuals is why they love marxism (or communism). Christopher Hitchens said he liked Fidel Castro along with many other intellectuals. How can a man like this guy like communism is beyond me.

    1. A lot of this has to do with a very nasty side-effect of intellectualism, which is a willful blindness caused by getting too caught up in elegant theory at the expense of paying attention to the inelegant reality.

      This is exactly why so many Soviet leaders regarded Western communists, intellectuals, and pro-USSR journalists as "useful idiots". Most of those intellectuals were very bright people, but they were not at all smart. As a result, they couldn't separate the factual reality from the fictional narrative that the Soviet leadership was selling them about how great Communism was.

      The entire facade of Communism was, as LTC Kratman put it, "something profoundly intellectual, and profoundly unintelligent". Unsurprisingly, the IYIs of the world found such a thing very much to their liking.

    2. Apparently they sort of still do. For every 'holocaust denier' you can find ten 'socialist oppression deniers'.

  5. Just for the amusement I qualify for one, maybe two of these, seeing a number of Ted Talks though the TedX are better and neither should be taken seriously

    I have to abstain on all alcohol based ones as I'm a nearly teetotaler and have never been in a purposeful bar or gone drinking with anyone. I don't actually have any friends or family who use alcoholic or any non prescription drugs these days.

    As for #23- I might qualify as an idiot there though the conversation was about metaphysics which is arguably a subset of physics


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