The Genius Cat Lady

This is one of those sites that is so full of nuttiness it almost feels like satire, but it is completely serious. Obviously, a site calling itself “Brain Pickings” should be brimming with sarcasm, but this one is brimming with unintentional comedy. For starters the blogger describes the site as “a human-powered discovery engine for interestingness.” There is a better than even chance that Maria Popova is going to end up living with 50 cats. It juts has that sort of vibe, based on the first impression.

The “about” section is a bit sad. Anytime you see someone claiming to be in “search for meaning” you just know they are acquainted with the psychiatric industry. Women seem to use that expression a lot and almost always they are single, childless and full of feminist nuttiness. Women with kids and a husband have all the meaning they need. They don’t have blogs where they talk about their feelings and pretend to be free spirits. Perhaps there are exceptions, but that’s the general rule.

Anyway, The post is about someone called Angela Duckworth, who appears to have been given a MacArthur genius grant for telling people things that are mostly false. Her claim to genius status is a new book explaining  how “self-control and grit — the relentless work ethic of sustaining your commitments toward a long-term goal — impact success.”  While that is largely true, you are born with these qualities, or not born with them in the case of people who lack those qualities.

Is there anyone who does not know that successful are blessed with personality traits like determination and a relentless work ethic”? Now, the blank slate people don’t accept that these are innate qualities, for the most part. Instead they think they are the product of environment like good home habits and good schools. There’s money in selling people books about how they can acquire the skills that will make them successful, so it makes sense that people write such books. A genius, however, should know better

Now, Miss Duckworth is not dumb. According to the post, she thought about starting a school to put her theories to the test, but decided the “model did not hold much promise” so she “decided to pursue a PhD program at Penn.” It’s always better to be someone offering novel, untested theories that confirm the deeply held beliefs of the ruling class, than to be the person trying to make those novel ideas work. The former pays better and has little risk, while the latter pays poorly and usually ends in tears.

Another amusing tidbit from the post is this weird way of avoiding the obvious. “She found that the students’ self-discipline scores were far better predictors of their academic performance than their IQ scores.” This is certainly true, but the correlation between IQ and impulse control is high. There’s a very good chance that the kids with poor self-control also happened to be black. They were probably from poor families. It’s hardly a revelation that poor impulse control, low-IQ and poverty are features of black communities.

This is the trouble people often have when thinking about this stuff. The the traits associated with high achieving people tend to be clustered together. That is, there are few high-IQ people with poor impulse control and high time preference. On the other hand, there are people with self-control, but a low-IQ. Intelligence is still the main factor in life outcomes, but self-control can either mitigate or amplify it. A dumb guy with self-control is going further than a average guy who can’t control himself.

A better way of stating it maybe is to think these various traits as forces pushing in either direction on a person. Some push harder, because they have greater value in current society. Intelligence means a lot today, but not as much in the tenth century, at least with regards to life outcomes. The mafia used to say you get further with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word. Today you get further determination and high-IQ than just determination. That’s strangely difficult for modern people to accept.