craziness

Brilliant Crazies

Gregory Cochran avers that “smart people are susceptible to all kinds of ideological craziness.” Cochran’s case in point is Neil Turok, a theoretical physicist from South Africa, currently head of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada. Back to Cochran:

I mentioned that [Turok] was a smart guy. He’s also crazy. He thinks that sub-Saharan Africans today are analogous to Ashkenazi Jews in 1850 or so – ready to explode into the intellectual world and tear it a new asshole.

Wanna bet? With African math scores at the 5th percentile? With their IQ scores two standard deviations below those of Europeans, three below the Askenazim? That low average tremendously suppresses the fraction above a high threshold. With every event in life its own self consistent with those statistics – not just in Africa, but everywhere in the African diaspora?

And he has no excuse [other than his commie family history]. He grew up in South Africa: there are plenty of things he would have seen if this picture of the world were true, and he’s never seen any of them. Did black kids out-argue him, beat him at chess, win the math competitions even though their parents were poor as synagogue mice? No sirree.

A very smart person like Neil Turok is probably eligible for the Triple-Nine Society (as I was before old age set in). That is, his IQ probably places him at or above the 99.9th percentile of the population: the top 0.1 percent. You’re unlikely to run into one of the 0.1 percenters unless you hang around a university, a research lab, a think tank, or a big professional-services company. They cluster in such places like birds on telephone wires.

Such persons usually do well for themselves. If they aren’t in the top one-percent of the income distribution, it’s because they don’t have the kind of personality (or athletic ability or photogenic qualities) it takes to get there. Wheeling and dealing isn’t for introverts, who are more likely than extroverts to be very smart. But very smart people have the wherewithal to make a good living, especially when the kinds of things they are good at and enjoy (e.g., teaching, writing, conducting research, and crafting legal arguments) are subsidized by taxpayers and bankrolled by wealthy clients and foundations.

Thus very smart persons usually have the luxury of thinking impossible things and dreaming impossible dreams. And when they do, they detach themselves from reality; that is, they become crazy. Like Turok, they often make a good living at it. They’re paid and encouraged to be crazy — to treat reality as an option.

Albert Einstein, for example, held a sinecure at the Institute for Advanced Study of Princeton University for the final 22 years of his life. During that time he added essentially nothing to his monumental work on special relativity, general relativity, and early quantum theory. His career played out in a Quixotic fashion: dreaming the dream (perhaps an impossible one) of a unified field theory and trying in vain to discredit quantum theory as it had developed after his early contributions. But Einstein wasn’t entirely harmless in his dotage. He was a socialist and advocate of world government, and should be dishonored for lending his prestige to those abominable causes.

Cochran is right: High intelligence doesn’t immunize a person from ideological craziness. Nor from nastiness. There’s nothing nastier than an intellectual in attack mode. As a denizen of a Ph.D.-laden think-tank for 30 years, I saw a lot of intellectual savagery at first hand. It was ugly, and I’m ashamed to say that I committed some of it.

High intelligence is highly overrated as a virtue. But if you have it you probably wouldn’t trade it for a million dollars. Well, maybe less than that. I’m open to offers.