Smart people
edited March 24 2018

Ethan Zuckerman’s The worst thing I read this year, and what it taught me... describes a recurring problem common to tech and other social circles full of smart people. It shyly avoids confronting it head-on though.

Maybe a shorter, more direct summary, would be:

Smart people tend to believe that intelligence, and not knowledge, is all that’s needed to solve any given problem.

“Systems people” are especially vulnerable, and smart people tend to gravitate towards systems. After a while, the pattern-matching smart brain begins to identify trends common to lots of different problems. “A-ha,” it says, “I now see that these dissimilar problems share X, and I can solve all X for Y.” (See also, in which a bunch of folks on lesswrong try to understand their superiority by framing it in terms of superior pattern-matching.)

Things get downright frightening when the smart person chooses a specialization. Now they are vulnerable to the same flaws that any other specialist is — “all problems resemble my problems” — and they are still vulnerable to the flaws of systematic thinking.

As this insightful comment describes it:

This habit of consciously processing information via logic, and seeing mechanisms clearly through digging, gives tech workers a view on the world where it is like a big machine, where the causes of things can be uncovered and understood.

The worst of the worst of these are the Silicon Valley business-engineer types, who have mastered both technology and business and, therefore, the entire world, even though they’re still mystified by the average person. The second-worst of these are Mensa members whose monthly journal is full of hilarious examples, but they haven’t been burdened by the kind of success that the SV bizgeneers have, who often mistake success for social validation. Both groups spend a lot of words writing unresearched solutions to other people’s problems.

Maybe this is the result of early childhood development, caused by a kind of exceptionalism that is reinforced over and over by every adult around them telling them how smart they are. They begin to feel intrinsically superior to other people just because of intellect. Y'know, the same automatic superiority that blesses blue-eyed people and other genetically-gifted people.

Naturally, if someone else has a problem, it’s only because a smart person hasn’t applied their particular brain to it yet. There are even problems that normal people aren’t aware of; a smart person is happy to point out those problems, and their solutions, given no opportunity whatsoever.

(I’m writing from some experience here. I was raised as a smart person, by smart parents. Going into adulthood I was lucky enough to surround myself with even smarter people, and now I’m reminded on a daily basis just how dumb I actually am, which I’m genuinely grateful for.)

I can’t tell for sure how smart Ethan is. He teaches other smart people, but there are quotes in his essay from some of them:

I don’t know anything about prisons, I don’t have family in prison. I don’t know if I understand these problems well enough to solve them, and I don’t know if these problems are mine to solve.


Is it ever okay to solve another person’s problem? maybe they’re smarter than the average smart person. Then again, Ethan says,

Why can’t ex-offenders have their primary contact with their parole officers via mobile phones?

...and it doesn’t sound like he has asked a parole officer if they thought that would be a good idea or not. I bet there’s a good reason they prefer to see their case subjects in person. (I also didn’t bother asking a parole officer. I don’t know one, and I’m busy anyway sitting here at a Starbucks and sipping an iced green tea and nitpicking an essay I liked written by someone much smarter than me.)

Another recent example, apologetically plucked from an unsuspecting friend-of-a-friend’s Twitter feed:

Hey, everyone on earth should have 10 randomly assigned penpals around the world. That way, everyone has someone they know - someone in their mental group of 150 - in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East, etc. So when tragedy happens, you aren’t like “oh, random famine in Congo, whatevs”. You go “Oh shit, I should see if my buddy Mtumbe is okay.”

All of the tools for this exist already. Why isn’t this person using them? Because, it turns out, you can’t force close human relationships. I mean, my grandfather has a penpal in Russia. They write eachother almost every day. His Russian friend calls grandpa his “Yankee brother” and has translated my grandfather’s books and lovingly hand-bound them. And yet, they can’t talk about politics, at all. His Russian friend is convinced that everything he sees and hears on Russian media is true, and my grandfather is convinced that everything he sees and hears is true, and their two points of view are irreconcilable. At one point grandpa stopped talking to him altogether and I had to intervene to lift their personal iron curtain.

People are fuzzy, difficult things. They’re quantum: in sufficiently large groups you can sometimes identify some trends in behavior, but on the individual level they defy prediction. Everything in between is difficult to understand and yet also an enticing sand trap for smart people.

If you’re a programmer, I want you to imagine being given sincere and enthusiastic advice from a quilter on the design of a programming language. The quilter, after all, has mastered sewing machines, and modern sewing machines are programmable, therefore quilters know a thing or two about programming. This is the experience of most people receiving unsolicited advice from a smart person.

I wish there could be some kind of cultural shift for smart people. I wish, as a group, they could begin to recognize the merits of sustained, serious effort; that genetics and environment only gives you a head start but it’s continuous dedication that makes someone exceptional. The greatest athletes weren’t just born that way; they may have genetic gifts that gave them the edge they needed to live at the top of their peers, but it’s the training and discipline they dedicate themselves to every day that got them close to the top in the first place.

I wish smart people would learn that to master any subject requires studying it at length. Not just superficially, but deeply. It requires effort. Complicated subjects, like prison reform, require input from a tremendous number of people and deep research into related fields, like sociology, before meaningful solutions can be proposed (or dismissed).

I wish we would develop the humility to shut up and listen, really listen, and consider our own hilarious fallibility, before speaking up to demonstrate our brilliance.

...I say, without a hint of irony.