Overrated Things (and General "Myth-Busting" Thread)

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But apart from that obvious one, there are:

* Child prodigies. They are irrelevant in fields like literature, world conquest, philosophy, etc. In highly "technical" areas like mathematics, physics, engineering, technical art, they are overrated in the following sense: most of those "child prodigies" would have been better off developing in a broader way (that is, gaining interest outside of their specialty).

* IQ, or just "tests" in general.

First: outside of the formal sciences or highly technical arts -- say in poetry, novel-writing or other literature -- tests don't mean anything (and grades mean very little). One of the reasons for the decline of fields like "philosophy" is the excess importance attached to academic credentials in the subject itself, that usually consists of being a ideologically-compliant kitten to the instructors. If someone who seeks a career in "philosophy" wishes to demonstrate objective *skill*, then take additional courses or a minor in a technical subject. (UC Berkeley has in fact such a graduate-level program, its " Logic and the Methodology of Science " degree.)

In technical fields such as mathematics or engineering, grades mean something for sure, but not what most people think it is. Tests establish a minimal level of competence - and yet the nature of basic exercises (even graduate-level ones) is that they use existing methods. Another way to state this is: basic "exercises" all involve combinations of existing constructions (if you pay attention to what they are), rather than any new constructions. This requires a minimal level of mental discipline (to force your thoughts to focus on certain things, and no other), and power of analyzing objects into their components and "organizing" it in an efficient way (and furthermore analyzing all possible kinds of visual resemblance into only a few kinds of resemblance, in order to "use" things), but certain *not*, say, the ability to make a completely new construction that is also relevant to a given problem.

For e.g., see this guy , who is an example of someone only minimally competent in the first (even if it was just laziness, the laziness itself would be a form of mental indiscipline, since he can't easily "force" his thoughts into a certain track and no other ). (Other examples of people who lacked technical skill, but were deep analysts of particular problems: Newton at least in the beginning of his career, Leibniz in 'traditional' mathematics (basic things like geometric proofs he found difficult even to the end -- he was only the master of his own methods, using his own notation), Hermite, Sophus Lie, Louis Bachelier, Einstein, Grothendieck [he went to the French equivalent of a "community college", which is one of the low-level Universities instead of the Grandes Écoles.) But clearly, there are people who get perfect GPAs in MIT or Berkeley, and then go on to achieve.. nothing, despite their best efforts to become "the next Einshtein" (many of them become quants instead).

And of course, IQ itself is distinct from test-taking ability of the academic sort. This is because "IQ" still does not test the power of analytic thinking, i.e. no questions that require extremely high, continuous concentration on a visually complicated object without any interruptions. That is, none of these problems require you to decompose an extremely complex object and carefully picture *all of the components at once* as you re-assemble and summarize it, not completely losing sight of anything. In that sense, chess is a better test for analytic power (if not cleverness in summarizing things).

Seemingly, what IQ tests is your ability to cleverly manipulate (not simply analyze) things; to wiggle around in a clever way until the problem itself is simpler, to re-frame a problem, to distinguish objects for the purpose of analysis, not to actually conduct such analysis. I don't believe my mind is that highly focused during IQ testing, but I have maxed out the scores in most of the official ones (e.g., the Stanford-Binet), when I took it during high school. Seriously, alot of people I know consider IQ test questions mostly trivial since it's quite easy to max out the scores by simply analyzing a few simple heuristics (the ability to "shift around" and "re-frame" a problem mostly comes down to optimizing the "search space" for pure possibilities, as well as possible analogies and resemblances).

* Human intelligence, or even "talent".

[ Edit: I heavily revise this portion, based on more recent views of mine.]

Human intelligence is complex enough so that there are many ways of thinking about it, other than IQ. But then.. why even think of *success* as a matter of intelligence, i.e. greater capacity? In most cases it seems to be a compatibility between one's style of thinking and how this "hits the weak spots" of current thinking. Or -- if we think "success" is based largely on "creativity" -- then if "creativity" is analogous to some kind of chaos, or balance between chaotic ideas and order, then creativity is not a question of capacity but of being balanced. I suspect that poetic ability is largely based not on any additional mental capacity (say of visualizing things in more detail), but is largely a question of being "well-balanced", being able to generated chaotic combinations, but then not going too far in this.

But it goes further than this.. I furthermore suspect that a very *vigorous* and active sort of stupidity, which generates ideas that are subtly false, is also an essential ingredient in problem-solving ability. 'Mistakes' must be well-controlled, but there's an entire field (" biomimicry ") that attempts to simulate organic forms of error and mistakes.

Or instead of "intelligence" and skill, it is possible to view things in terms of "insight". In this sense, "perfection of skill" is a micro-insight and nearly insensible, acting upon the "details" of analysis in the smallest intervals in time. (That is, every time you "analyze" an object into components and put it together, there are observational details -- spotting this or that possible pattern or shortcut -- while putting things together. There are of course details of the exact where and how, of manipulation.) This leads to elegance in construction, but not to any single big insight. On the other hand, "chaotic" combinations of imagery, often initially false, are much bigger single insights and suddenly cast a great deal of illumination on a subject. Significant illumination (much like a light cast about a dark room) is always "inelegant", while an "elegant" solution in fact throws no light upon anything.

Another way of seeing this is that "chaos" is the opposite of skill (or mental stability), whereas intelligence is just one among other forms of mental stability. *Instability* is also required. There are also many other ways of seeing it.


Bob Dylan Roof

RE: IQ, I agree, but with the caveat that many of the distinct cognitive and non-cognitive abilities you mention are at least moderately g -loaded. Inspiration, creativity, and the ineffable qualities of genius do not seem to exist without high general intelligence. Perhaps genuinely unique minds are greatly skewed toward one aspect of general intelligence or other cognitive and non-cognitive abilities.

The Chakravartin Broseph Niccolo and Donkey

For general "myth-busting", these books are quite helpful:

* Nassim Taleb - Antifragile .

* Nassim Taleb - Fooled by Randomness . Taleb’s book The Black Swan is overrated because (as I understand) most quants already know about "black swan" type events and the usual models they build are not even supposed (or claimed) to protect you against that.

* James L. Adams - Conceptual Blockbusting .

(These are all available from the standard ebook websites .)

That last one is quite important, since it analyses problem-solving ability based on the ability to avoid certain *psychological* barriers. This is partly why having a high IQ does not render you immune from certain heuristic traps (as established by Kahneman, Tversky, Gigerenzer and others). For example, many people have an aversion to strongly analytic forms of thinking (as in abstract algebra) because they are "afraid" to generate a big "mess" visually, when analysing an object. But analysis of certain objects are in fact quite "messy" visually, since they turn out to be more complicated than what first appears — apparently that fact dismays many people, including those with very high IQ scores who expect a quick solution.

William Shockley was someone who consciously used the "conceptual blockbusting" way of framing problem-solving ability. He taught his students in Stanford the techniques in that last book, and he noted that the students who attended his class did much better in their later classes than other students.

Yup, this is true — and based on what I said above [in the revised version of my original post], we at least know a little bit why in terms of problem-solving content. That is, analytic thinking overlaps with pure manipulatory cleverness (as in IQ tests), though they are still not the same. Manipulatory cleverness overlaps significantly with every kind of thinking whether it is analytic, or purely constructive (as in music), or even purely poetic. But from personal experience, I know plenty of people with *extremely* high IQs who are not highly gifted in "densely analytic thinking" of the sort mentioned above. (A little bit of background.. I went to a gifted program in [name of the city omitted], and most of those people there failed in life.) On the other hand, most people who are top students or even researchers only have moderately high IQs — in the 130s or 140s, which is hardly impressive.

A pet theory of mine is that having extremely high IQ (over 160) is often a barrier since it "slants" your habits towards "pure thinking" instead of strictly analytical thinking. Analytic work is actually not pure thinking but does require a certain bit of physical work, of closely moving the eyes around to catch details and to observe a complicated construction.

There is also the question of working memory, which correlates better with academic success (and analytical power) than IQ does.
I noticed immediately how important this was in my first year of undergrad. I knew that weed damaged people's brains somehow and couldn't quite put my finger on it. It became apparent when there was one crowd of people, that when they attempted, could solve simple and mundane programming tasks. The other group couldn't grapple anything. Being in "the flow" of things required juggling many layers of different thoughts.

After some time I've learned to rely less and less on working memory and lean more heavily on properly-constructed abstraction. But I'm a software/programming guy. Working memory remains incredibly important for math.

I am reminded of this quote:

See also the book The Working Memory Advantage . Many "high-IQ" people fail b/c of an unwillingness to memorize things by organizing them into logical-looking pieces in one's head.

So far I have classified several different forms of thinking (far from complete):

1. Purely analytical thinking (heavily depends on working memory).

2. IQ or pure "cleverness" in wiggling around and re-framing objects (not dependent). In theory, high IQ could also lead to self-analysis and the recognition that working memory is important, but there are psychological barriers to this.

3. Poetry (highly dependent on working memory, but of a different kind: not memorizing "logical" pictures but memorizing sensual imagery, combined with the sound of words, that form chains of association). In pure invention of new objects (based on combinations of ideas), Stan Ulam was quite good at this (see the article The Lost Cafe ).

4. Purely constructive thinking, or suddenly exploding from the simple to the complex, and back again from the complex to the simple. Writing ability (of prose and of music) is dependent on this: when writing and attempting to come up with the right phrase, you immediately attempt to "jump" from a simple phrasing to a complicated one. This is literally "anti-analytical", which is one reason why good writers (unlike chess players) are usually incompetent in mathematics: in analytic thinking, when reaching a "barrier" in problem-solving you don't suddenly try to make objects more and more complicated: instead you carefully take the problem into simpler and simpler pieces and analyze the simplest possible ones. Or you attempt to slowly make the simplest ideas a bit more visually complicated.. the last thing you want to do is to chaotically make everything spin out of control, yet that is exactly what good writers do.