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September 26, 2008


"This, I suspect, is one of those truths so horrible that you can't talk about it in public."

Charles Murray talked about in "The Bell Curve."

This is very true. When I first interned Congress, I was amazed that everyone who worked there was several cuts above the median in intelligence. Plus, most people were genuinely dedicated and well intentioned. Even many of the lobbyists honestly believed that they were just trying to ensure that the business they worked for got its fair share.

The reason things go wrong, I believe, is the process of Adaptive Fiction. ( see http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2007/07/democracy-as-adaptive-fiction.html ). Let's say you have 100 very smart people. 99 out of a hundred of these people do not believe that giving more money and power to Washington will make the world a better place. One person honestly does believe it. Because of this, he ends up running for office, while the others end up in science or business. Since this person is smart and sincere, he wins, and now is in Congress. Now as Congressman, he votes the government more power. As part of this funding government, there is more money for schools. These schools in turn teach people that government is good and great. Repeat this cycle enough times, and you have systematic delusion across the country and all throughout government.

BTW, how does this insight change your view about Aristocracy/Monarchy versus Democracy as a form of government?

I don't know what to make of the claim that everyone who writes "books," or "reporters," or any group of great interest, generally acts as if CEOs, the "world's upper echelons," and the "power elite" are a bunch of mental defectives. It doesn't seem remotely plausible to me.

Is this really a critique of academic intellectual culture? Academics probably do routinely underestimate the intelligence & competence of businesspeople. I don't have the sense that most of the rest of the civilized world does.

I'm curious: what would you say about the writings of Paul Graham on this topic? It seems like he has a lot of evidence and experience in the field and his opinion differs drastically from yours.

Boris, yes, Paul Graham was one of my sources and seemed trustworthy. That's why I was surprised not to see any of what he described. Maybe I'm just seeing a cherry-picked selection of venture capitalists? Maybe they turn evil when the moon comes out and the term sheets are being negotiated? I really don't know.

Devin, as awful as democracy is, I don't see any reason to doubt the verdict of history that monarchy is worse. Important question: Are Congressional staff brighter than the actual Congresspeople?

Christopher, the objection is not that reporters make out the power elites to be stupid, but that they don't particularly emphasize their intelligence, even though this is one of the most important facts about them.


In my experience, smart people have many original theories. They likely hold these theories because they know they are smarter than most people, and so don't see any reason to trust common knowledge. Also, holding original and complex theories make them seem more intelligent. Most original theories are of course incorrect, even when they come from smart people. Intelligent, charismatic people are very good at convincing themselves and others they are correct.

IMO, this is one of the main reasons those, smart, competent people in charge screw up so often. They don't do it because they aren't smart or competent, they do it because they have a bias in favor of their own ideas and theories, just like everyone else.

Eliezer, thanks for sharpening the point for me. Still, I'm used to your posts catalyzing so much insight that this one continues to strike me as remarkably banal, even naive. I'm probably missing something. Do all that many educated people really think that CEOs of mid-to-upper-level corporations and hedge-fund managers are not generally more intelligent than average?

Equally importantly, the question that this point raises but doesn't address at all: do you think that intelligence dominates driving force behind ascension through corporate hierarchies? My instinct is to think that you've got to be smart to succeed, but you've also got to have a certain kind of power-loving personality, and be charismatic, and have at least a few other qualities.

To put it another way, when you say, "There's another world out there, richer in more than money," that's obviously true; but isn't it just as obvious that plenty of people with that kind of riches aren't in business, government, or the power-focused professions?

but isn't it just as obvious that plenty of people with that kind of riches aren't in business, government, or the power-focused professions?

Sure, but often they don't accomplish as much. People with high intelligence and low drive. And they aren't as concentrated. Generally, the only way you can really get smart people together is if there's an economic reason. Otherwise they're distributed rather evenly throughout the population. (I would say universities count as economic.)

Christopher, I was surprised by the lack of backlash to this post; I expected much more. In fact, I really don't understand why the Jaynes post got backlash and this one didn't. Maybe all the people I warned not to read it, really didn't. So maybe this was all known to everyone except me.

The men at the power-elite gathering were also noticeably taller than average, so unless that actually correlates to intelligence, there are forces besides pure competence at work.

Devin: Don't forget that Hitler was "genuinely dedicated and well intentioned", too. The road to hell and all that.

I wonder if there's a way to inject a bunch of stupid-to-average people into Congress, who don't know much but how to read the Constitution.

pdf: No, of course, by definition, people who are less power-loving have less desire to manipulate the world on the medium-to-large scale. (At least that's my working definition of "power-loving.") And so it's not surprising that they do so less.

Depending on what kind of ideas you have, and also what you want to do with them -- refine them, put them into the zeitgeist, get them implemented on a mass scale, enjoy having them praised, whatever -- you will want to introduce them to different audiences, and intelligence is only one of the relevant variables.

Eliezer: I think the Jaynes post probably got more backlash because it violated a social convention about not talking in positive terms about one's own intelligence. (The convention is more complicated than that -- I'm just identifying it, not trying to describe it here.)

You seem to be relying almost entirely on your intuitive sense of people being smart, fast, "sparkly" etc. Yes, people at the top are good at giving other top people the impression they are smart. The question though is whether they are actually more productive in other ways. To evaluate that you need to look at metrics other than how sparkly the seem to you.

Your assessment of the CEOs is based on how impressive they seem. Keep in mind that one of the main jobs of a CEO is being a good schmoozer and an inspiring leader. They are selected for their ability to appear smart, to convince others to follow their ideas, and generally to "sparkle". Of course it helps if they actually are smart, but that's not the primary criterion.

What happens if you base your assessment only what they've personally accomplished or written (as for Jaynes) where it can be separated from their charisma and force of personality? I'm guessing most of them wouldn't nearly do so well.

FWIW, I received a rather negative impression of Steve Jurvetson from his 2007 Singularity Summit talk.

My impression was of a nice guy who had been asked to stand on a stage an talk about something he didn't know much about.

This seems like an odd point in time to be singing the glories of how smart elites are. The presumably pretty smart elites in the financial industry have just screwed up big time. This has become so common that it has generated an entire subgenre of finance books. Are these guys "full of life", or full of something else?

Intelligence is often devoted to optimizing the wrong things. It's overrated. The ability to optimize some quantity is not what you should be optimizing.

I once saw Eric Drexler present an analogy between biological immune systems and the "active shield" concept in nanotechnology, arguing that just as biological systems managed to stave off invaders without the whole community collapsing, nanotechnological immune systems could do the same. I thought this was a poor analogy, and was going to point out some flaws during the Q&A.

Nanotech agents will probably have real immune systems (not merely analogous subsystems) - just as computers have real immune systems today - in the form of anti-virus software.

The men at the power-elite gathering were also noticeably taller than average, so unless that actually correlates to intelligence, there are forces besides pure competence at work.

Height is indeed correlated with intelligence: "A positive correlation exists between human IQ and height".

You might well have been able to make the same observation about the senior planning officials in Gosplan and the Soviet industrial ministries. The problem is that nobody's "smart" and "competent" enough to administer a planned economy, and that's what a corporation is. The question isn't how "smart" or "competent" senior management is, but the nature of the information they act on given Hayekian information problems. More specifically, are they (as Kenneth Boulding said) in progressively more tangential contact with reality, the further up the hierarchy they are, until the guy at the top of the pyramid is living in a completely imaginary world based on information filtered from below. This is how hierarchies work--it's what R.A. Wilson called the Snafu Principle.

We have such large organizations, so isolated from genuine market data, that nobody's smart enough to run them. The solution is not to find the smartest guy you can to make CEO and put in charge of an enormous hierarchy. It's to reshape organizations so that 1) information problems are reduced by putting authority in the hands of people who are dealing directly with the situation, and 2) agency problems are reduced by eliminating the conflict of interest involved in hierarchy as a result of the ability to externalize the costs of decisions on those below.

Robin makes a good point. Whatever your opinion of Brooks and Brooks's vision for AI, the fact remains that the man has been incredibly productive. His position at the top of the AI food chain is not due to his incredible personal magnetism, or not principally. It's due to the fact that he builds real things, that you can pick up and hold in your hands, that do real things, that you can measure. It's easy enough to dismiss his robots, and his vision of intelligence, and his vision for how to get to "real" intelligence, as silly, and counterintuitive.

But of course Brooks has walked the walk. Repeatedly. Which is why people listen to Brooks, and why he is an authority. He produces. Don't think an embodied agent running some flavor of subsumption architecture is a good base for intelligence? All you have to do is build something that works better. Armchair quarterbacking in the sciences is about the most useless thing imaginable, and opining about how to build AI, without taking even the most trivial steps toward producing something real, is somewhere between misguided and masturbatory.

P.S. Competence can actually be counterproductive, from everyone else's standpoint, when there's a conflict of interest involved.

Even stipulating that (say) Carly Fiorina, Bob Nardelli, and "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap are really a bunch of geniuses, how do you explain the fact that they screw up so bad. Either they really are smart, and are pursuing their self-interest in an intelligent manner that just happens to be at odds with the interest of the "little people" in the company, or they're just incompetent and following the flawed MBA playbook. Either way, what they're doing amounts in practice to the behavior of an Ottoman tax farmer: stripping the organization of assets, gutting human capital, and hollowing out long-term productive capability in order to game their own bonuses and stock options. If the corporate economy requires "geniuses" like this to administer it, it must be really fucked up.

It appears you have a singular definition of competence - obviously successful people are talented in their own field, but what does it mean to be talented?

We are lucky to live in a relative meritocracy. Beyond that (painful) acknowledgment, ranking people is absurd.

Smart, happy, and alive? That fits my observations. Not bad morally? Only in the Bay area. Also, I think that more successful people seem smarter etc due to halo effect, and the ability to seem smart and alive and generally appealing, even moral, is called social skill or charisma and contributes a lot to a person's rise in power. You may have noticed that these people were also much better looking than average.

At the most elite gathering I have attended, the Clinton Giving Initiative, about one person in five was really interesting and shiny.

That said, my impression of start-ups is that relative to their importance the founder/CEO generally gets badly under-compensated. Successful founder/CEOs are generally extremely capable people in their domains.

BTW, there are plenty of management consultants to look over executive's shoulders and pencil in corrections. Also, I keep telling you, Einstein was NOT a deist in the sense that you understand it. I wish someone would ask Carl Feynman why his dad didn't sign up for cryonics given that he knew Drexler.

I don't want to generalize - but I was once promoted to be a manager - and what I discovered is that it became so easy to give some 'out of the box' thinking advices to the other programmers reporting to me then. I explain that by the fact that I was both indeed outside of the box of their task and also having vital interest in their work - so I did pay much attention to it.

Even the Ottoman tax farmer approach worked pretty well with a good CEO/Sultan, largely because it was a fairly flat structure with people acting autonomously. The Sultan provided the right incentives, and right up until Suleiman the Magnificent changed it for his successors the system threw up high quality Sultans. It was pretty much devised by Sultan Orhan's brother and vizier Aladdin.

Robin: I can see how "sparkle" can be used to impress people less intelligent or equal. But how could it be used to fake intellect when seen by somebody presumably smarter? Even somebody who was a fast cache would be limited to the material they knew, and would risk the smart guy recognizing a source. The only strategy I can see is to carefully steer clear of shared competences.

> Because the last news your readers want to hear, is that this person who is wealthier than you, is also smarter, happier, and not a bad person morally.

Don't forget, elites tend to be healthier and longer-lived too.

For me, a highlight of each year is a multi-day gathering of about 40 individuals selected for their intelligence, integrity and passion to make the world a better place. We share our current thinking and projects and actively refine and synergize plans for the year ahead. Nearly everyone there displays perceptiveness, creativity, joy of life, "sparkle", well above the norm, but -- these qualities are NOT highly predictive of effectiveness outside the individual's preferred environment.

It's not hard to imagine that all the power elite people you mention were so much more charismatic than you that you "couldn't discriminate more than one level above" your own charisma. That halo effect that Michael Vassar mentioned. Not that they weren't smart and competent but, charisma can be used to make you seem more smart and competent in the same way that I see you as more charismatic than you really are because you are smarter and more competent than me.

Does the unusual tenor of this post have anything to do with the upcoming Singularity Summit and its potential for fund-raising?

Don't try to fix what is not broken. Would you rather be governed by a moron? And by governor I don't mean any clown TV-splashed politician.

Devin, as awful as democracy is, I don't see any reason to doubt the verdict of history that monarchy is worse. Important question: Are Congressional staff brighter than the actual Congresspeople?

Are you aware that the victors write the history? Pick up a Chinese history book and you'll read about what a swell guy Mao was. Sure some things he did were a bit suboptimal, but in general, he was a great man that was a blessing for China. The United States has a $1 trillion state education system. What kind of myths has it have filled your head with?

If you actually read the book of someone who lived through the transition of monarchy to democracy, you'll find a quite different story. Read The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig. He laments the destructive force of universal suffrage, and how it led to polarization, racism, and war. Or consider Metternich, the foremost statesman of the early 1800's. Metternich intentionally kept the lid on democracy because he believed that it would lead to rabid German nationalism. Was he right or was he right? And if you study the effects of German universal suffrage in 1871, you can trace out the Blue-Green polarization that led to increasing anti-semitism.

Are Congressional staff brighter than the actual Congresspeople?

Yes, they usually are. And in general, the more isolated from the voters a position is, the more competent and trustworthy it is. For instance, I would trust the Joint Chiefs of Staff decision to go to war far more than I'd trust an elected president. I trust Bernanke more than Paulson more than Congress. If you look at the worst wars in history, you find the masses are usually more jingoistic than the leaders. For example, at the onset of World War I, the monarchs were the least willing to go to war. The politicians were much more willing, the newspapers were all like FoxNews on steroids, and the people were marching in the streets in chanting for war.

Something to bear in mind. There exists a feedback loop whereby social status and the approval of others, (whether justified or not)increases confidence and self-assurance driving that social status higher still.

It seems quite possible that elites are "sparkly" because of their social status rather than the other way around.

> Such is the hideously unfair world we live in

What's unfair? You're saying merit succeeds, that merit isn't a mixed blessing. Seems fair to me.

"This, I suspect, is one of those truths so horrible that you can't talk about it in public."

Charles Murray talked about in "The Bell Curve."

And Ayn Rand wrote about it repeatedly.

There's "smart" and then there's "smart enough for your cognitive mechanisms to reliably decide to sign up for cryonics".
And then there's "smart enough not to use a terribly controversial and questionable position, which has repeatedly been the basis for criticism of my judgment, as an example of an extremely intelligent decision".

As a parting note: some of you, being unaware of the etymology and history of the concept of 'charisma', would do well to familiarize yourselves with its meaning.

Eliezer I'll concede you may even be smarter than House, M.D., can't wait for the series FAI:Blog "that intelligence.." puts on sunglasses "is boxed." credits.

I always thought smart people do stupid things and screw up our world because evolution gave us greed and a sex drive. If there's more to it, _then_ I'd be surprised, perhaps enlightened. But without them I'd be staring at cave walls right now. Interesting post but return to AGI nittygritty soon.

Just wandered in. What an interesting conversation.

Eliezer, perhaps you were expecting them to seem like A-holes or snobs. That is not the case. They are indeed somewhat smarter than average. They also tend to be very charismatic or "shiny" which makes them seem smarter still. That doesn't necessarily mean they are smart enough or motivated to fix the problems of the world.

Perhaps there are better models of the world than the Approval/Disapproval of Eletes dichotomy.

Isn't there quite a bit of selection bias involved here? Perhaps some level of native intelligence is required to be in the elite (or strongly correlated to it at least) but don't you have to see how many equally intelligent people are toiling away outside the elite to determine if greater intelligence is sufficient? Wouldn't Bayes be a little disappointed with thispost? Also, you observe that people who are in the elite seem happier and more fulfilled than the average. That doesn't really seem that surprising to me -- after all they are already pretty far up Maslow's pyramid by the time you can identify them as elite (although I have met a few billionaires and many millionaires who don't seem particularly happy or fulfilled with their lives).

WRT VCs: amongst VCs, Jurvetson is clearly outside the norms, given how quickly he became a partner at a major firm. Better study more typical VCs to draw your conclusion about the class.

Have you ever met and identified a sociopath before? Until you've seen one in action and understand some of their tricks, they can appear to be incredibly smart and effective.

It would be interesting to see some intelligence metrics of:
1. CEOs of big companies
2. CEOs of startups
3. College Professors
5. Computer Programmers
6. Doctors
7. Chemical Engineers

And decide if the CEOs you are talking about are more intelligent (IQ measure) than all the other groups mentioned above. If the mean IQ of CEOs is not more than the mean IQ of say Doctors, then yes, it is legitimate for people to feel that the CEOs don't deserve to be where they are and feel a bit bitter about it. I don't think a story depicting say a neurosurgeon being happy, healthy, lively, tall (who cares?) and rich is unpalatable to the 'masses'. What bugs people is to know that some guy whose competence is not apparent, who is a CEO, has a private jet.

I don't understand why it's something you should 'fix'.

It's interesting that you mention Rodney Brooks. I've always found his work poorly written and lacking in clarity despite being sympathetic to his views. He must come across better in person. As Shane points out though, Brooks' work has the rare quality in AI that it is productive and has found widespread application in industry.

As for the Venture Capitalists, I don't find it surprising that Silicon Valley VCs share some of your interests. It's like discovering that software engineers share an interest in AD&D and collectibles. All these guys are enthusiastic about evolutionary psychology and cognitive science and such. I wonder if your perception of competence is a product of the "keyword search" approach to assessing other people that you frequently apply here; if they mention "evolution" and "probability" enough they get to be smart.

"Hedge-fund people sparkle with extra life force. At least the ones I've talked to. Large amounts of money seem to attract smart people."

That is impossible to dispute. Might the statement, though, indicate the happy glow of survivorship and the survivor bias? After all, what of all the other hedge fund people, smart ones no less, who were also attracted to large amounts of money, but whose fortunes fared less well? Some of the clues include multiple references to "aura," "sparkle," and "life force." Does framing such a group encounter in terms of social signaling help in accounting for these literally glowing impressions? If social signaling has explanatory power here, might it be the case that the signals carry more clearly and deliver more impact in this select, and therefore less "noisy" social environment?

It's true that we don't like to think people better-off than us might be better than us. But two caveats:

1. Just because the cream is concentrated at the top, doesn't mean that most of the cream (or the best cream) is at the top.

2. Causation probably runs both ways on this one. There is a lot of evidence that richer and more-respected people are happier and healthier. Various explanations have been tried to explain this, including the explanation that health causes career success. That explanation turned out to have serious problems, although I can't now remember what they are, other than that I heard them summarized in a talk from a SAGE (anti-aging) conference circa 2004, which I can no longer find any information via Google on because there is now a different organization called SAGE that holds conferences on LGBT aging that totally dominates Google search results.

I think that, if we could measure the degree to which a culture is able to promote based on merit, it would turn out to be a powerful economic indicator - particularly for knowledge-based economies.

My God this is a bunch of crap! What the hell is wrong with you people?

I don't understand why you would find it confusing for the 'elites' to screw up when trying to run governments or otherwise improve the world. Human motivation is the same at any level on the power curve or on the intelligence curve. Those people screw up at improving the world because the goals they're trying to attain is greater wealth, power, and influence for themselves. If those at the top concerned themselves with improving the lot of people at the bottom, maybe they would succeed at it. However, unless they actually make the effort (human nature being what it is, this will never happen), nothing will change.

The observations in this post gel with my experience also.

Middle managers can be the most short-sided, penny-pinching, over-simplifying people in the world. But when you talk to CEOs they are often well-spoken, well-read, philosophical, long-term.

You ask them a business question and expect to get back balance sheets, dollars, etc. but instead you get something surprisingly wide-ranging/philosophical.

This rings true with my experiences in one of the top management consulting firms (both on consultant and client side). The higher up you get, the smarter the people in general become, many of the top brass actually are interested in the big picture much more than the immediate balance sheet (in some cases so much that it becomes hard gathering the hard data you would need now). Many are ready to challenge conventional wisdom or drop their agenda for a while if you present them with a genuinely unconventional idea.
Middle management is somewhat split, there are stubborn short sighted people who likely are stuck on whatever level they are and then occasionally there's the - generally younger than average- very bright guy who's on his way up, eager to learn and share.

There was one element of your article that stood out particularly strongly to me: you seem to recognize that Einstein operated at a level above your own, but yet you appear to mock his deism.

If Einstein functioned at a higher level, how do you know that his reasons for being a deist were not better than your reasons for being a whatever-you-happen-to-be?

It seems to me that there might be an element of bias to your religious (or non-religious) views for such a comment to be tossed out so casually.

I'm not stating with certainty that there *is* bias (I have not read much of your blog), but it seems to be an area that could benefit from further elaboration.

Einstein was a deist, etc.
Except that he wasn't -- 'deist' is a well-defined concept that is not compatible with Einstein's avowed beliefs.

Einstein was an atheist who liked to personify the ultimate nature of reality as a way of blending in with the societies in which he existed.

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