In modern America, it is generally assumed that intelligent people are smart about everything, not just a narrow specialty. It is also assumed, with regards to social policy, that smart people are on the “right side” of the issue. Taken together, smart people are general experts, who agree and amplify the current Progressive fads. Whenever the television chats shows want to add weight to some claim, they roll out credentialed experts to repeat what the left-wing presenter just said.
The flip side to this, of course, is that critics of the current Progressive fads are ignorant and primitive. They oppose the current trends because they lack the intellect or proper education to understand the issue. There is an oriental quality to it. The experts are talked about as enlightened, as if years of focus have allowed them to ascend to a high plane of existence. The critics, in contrast, are unenlightened, unaware there is a higher plane and thus ignorant of their own ignorance.
It is a useful social control mechanism, as it puts a tremendous moral burden on the intellectual class. No one, especially smart people, wants to be considered ignorant, so the natural tendency is to conform to the latest trends. Social pressure is a powerful weapon, as humans are social animals. To live as a pariah is the worst punishment in a status seeking community like academia. The result is the people who know better tend to keep quiet, while the rage heads and cranks run free.
There is an exception to this. There are people who seem to be smart, but they also go against the current trends, usually in a flamboyant way. Today that means acting like a crazy homeless guy on-line, screaming about stuff to no one and everyone. A good example is someone like Nicolas Taleb, the popinjay of probability. His latest thing is to gainsay evolutionary biology, by claiming all of it is all bunk. It usually involves attacking people. Here he picks out people at random and calls them names.
Taleb has a special animus for psychometry. Here is a long essay where he claims that IQ is largely a pseudoscientific swindle. This is ironic, given he made his money in a field that does not rise to the level of pseudoscience. Finance is just a swindle, where the “winners” have found a way to swindle the losers. Putting that aside, his essay is typical of his work. Heavy on complicated graphs and meandering logic, all of which is intended to make the reader think the writer is a super genius.
Of course, this is the stock and trade of the intellectual grifter. A pretty good rule is that a graph in an essay better be a highly simplified representation of what the preceding text just explained. If on the other hand, it is a complicated splatter chart following a pile of spaghetti language, the writer is trying to run a con on you. There are exceptions and complex topics can sometimes defy simple explanations. Still, the Feynman Rule and its natural derivatives is good to keep in mind with guys like Taleb.
Another interesting aspect of the Taleb act is that he is extremely ethnocentric. In fact it is his ethnocentrism that drives many of his Twitter tirades. This one is a good example, as it reveals a couple of things. The first thing is he does not know much about fascism or localism. He seems to think the fascists were internationalists. Of course, he assumes fascism is a synonym for bad. Therefore, it must have an opposite, as all bad things are bad because they are the opposite of the good things.
He picks localism as his good opposite of fascism and then makes the claim that the Phoenicians were localists. A popular thing with Lebanese nationalists (Christian) is to claim they are descendants of the Phoenicians. What he is up to here is a sideways celebration of his people. They were the first anti-fascists! Put another way, the root of his political analysis is an extreme pride in his people and culture, real or imagined, not a desire to understand the motivations of those making public policy.
It may be that his attacks on psychometry are driven by his ethnocentrism. Lebanon is a curious place. It is blessed with many natural resources and an ideal location between Europe and the Middle East. Yet, Lebanon is pretty much the ghetto of the Levant. If not for the Palestinians, the Lebanese would be at the bottom of the status pole. Israel, Syria and Iran use Lebanon as a staging area for their proxy wars. The Lebanese live as perpetual victims of their more powerful neighbors.
For a Lebanese nationalist, it is easier to look outside Lebanon for reasons why their country is such a mess. To admit that the Lebanese smart fraction abandoned the place a long time ago, which is mostly true, leaving the less able behind, is not going to fit well with ethno-nationalism. From an ethno-nationalist perspective, it is better to just deny there can be such a thing as a smart fraction. That obviates the need to explain a lot of Lebanese history, as well as Taleb’s personal history.
Now, it is possible that the real motivation behind these frequent rants against biology is just good old fashioned attention seeking. Taleb is a bit of gasbag and he certainly likes himself a lot. On the other hand, he could simply be a great example of someone with one good insight and not much else. Intellectual history is littered with people who had one great insight and a bunch of crackpot ideas. There were a lot of brilliant physicists in the last century, who were convinced international communism was the future.
Regardless, Taleb is a good reminder that smart people are right about things more often than dumb people, but they are still wrong about a lot of things. The further they stray from their narrow specialty, the more certain they seem to be in their wrongness. That and intelligence is a different from morality. Holding the right ideas is a different thing from holding the correct ideas. A guy like Taleb, in addition to providing free entertainment in Twitter, is a good example of how dumb smart people can be when they try.
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