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‘The Intellectual Yet Idiot’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

by Michael Krieger, Liberty Blitzkrieg:

In particular, they all (totalitarian systems) seem to have in common an intense dislike of the more abstract forms of thought –a dislike characteristically also shown by many of the collectivists among our scientists.

– From my 2010 review of F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom

The following is an excellent takedown of the so-called “elite,” the status quo, whatever you want to call them. We all know the type. It’s the self-assured people who constantly get things wrong, constantly screw up on issues of national significance and yet somehow never face any consequences or accountability for their actions.

Here’s the meat of the piece, originally published at Medium:

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 “intelligenzia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence and fall into circularities — but their main skills 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 1/3th 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 wanting to run our lives aren’t even rigorous, whether in medical statistics or policymaking. They cant tell science from scientism — in fact in their eyes 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 call “rational” or “irrational” comes from their misunderstanding of probability theory and cosmetic use of first-order models.) They are prone to mistake the ensemble for the linear aggregation of its components as we saw in the chapter extending the minority rule.

The Intellectual Yet Idiot is a production of modernity hence has been accelerating since the mid twentieth century, to reach its local supremum today, along with the broad category of people without skin-in-the-game who have been invading many walks of life. Why? Simply, in many countries, the government’s role is ten times what it was a century ago (expressed in percentage of GDP). The IYI seems ubiquitous in our lives but is still a small minority and rarely seen outside specialized outlets, social media, and universities — most people have proper jobs and there are not many opening for the IYI.

Beware the semi-erudite who thinks he is an erudite. He fails to naturally detect sophistry.

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.

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. 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 will he vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable and some other such circular reasoning, but holds that anyone who doesn’t do so is mentally ill.

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1 comment to ‘The Intellectual Yet Idiot’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

  • Bob

    The trouble with an analysis like this is it encourages readers to lump all PhDs into the category of “elites” and dismiss the lot of them. No question many PhDs in fields like economics have inflicted unfathomable damage on the world economy, but many of the technological breakthroughs that have made our lives much better–and longer–have come from PhD “elites” who have graduated from the Ivies or Oxford/Cambridge in other fields. To write off elites with nonsense like they watch TED talks or read the New Yorker is the height of arrogance. It’s similar to the uptight clowns who presume to lecture the plebs because they have the temerity to enjoy sports. Lighten up, for God’s sake. There’s nothing new in all this either. People have been sneering at elites for decades.

    I generally admire Taleb’s work, and Krieger’s (even though he was trained in economics), but this particular piece is garbage. They’re both guilty of precisely what they’re moaning about in this article, presuming to tell us how to think about a particular group they look down on.

    PS. How ironic to read about the dichotomy of science and scientism while they dismiss GM foods, which countless real scientists have definitively concluded are not only as safe as conventional food, but much kinder to the environment. Is Taleb’s facile rejection of this not scientism?

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