Posts Tagged ‘wisdom’

The persistently stupid idea

by Hang

There are only three types of ideas.

There are some ideas which are really smart ideas that sound smart on the surface and people repeat them to each other over and over again. If you come up with that smart idea independently, then you will tell someone and they’ll go “yeah, that’s already been thought of already, see X”. Using Vitamin C to prevent scurvy, realizing that worrying doesn’t make a situation better and stopping yourself from being a “nice guy” if you ever want success with women are all examples of this. These are not the ideas you have to be worried about.

There are some ideas which are stupid and sound stupid on the surface. If you come up with that stupid idea independently, then you will tell someone and they’ll go “that’s stupid and here’s why”. Here are 10 of them. These are not the ideas you have to be worried about.

There are some ideas which are stupid but sound smart on the surface. If you come up with that stupid idea independently, then you will tell someone and they will go “huh, that’s interesting”. These are the ideas you have to be worried about because they are the persistently stupid ideas. Persistently stupid ideas come to a person, are tried, fail and then disappear, leaving very little trace of their existence after they are gone. As a result, each generation comes up with the same persistently stupid ideas anew and wastes energy and resources chasing the same illusory pot of gold. This is why you have to be worried about them. The only way to avoid persistently stupid ideas is to learn how to become reflexively allergic to stupid.

I harp on this same theme a lot but I’m writing about it today because I was exposed twice in the same hour to two different persistently stupid ideas. Now, since both the people who these came from are personal friends of mine, I want to emphasize that I think the ideas presented are stupid but I, in no way, think the people who sent these to me are stupid. In fact, I discuss this further below. Anyway, onto the stupidities:

The first is an NPR article that repeats the assertion that when our privacy disappears, maybe shame will disappear along with it.

The second is an email in which in which a friend extols the virtue of video chat:

video chat is even better because the software just fades away and it’s true communication. It doesn’t require building software to support intent, it just creates a wide enough channel for communication and gets out of the way.

Both of these are persistently stupid ideas but I’m not going to tell you why they’re persistently stupid ideas.

Because what I just realized about persistently stupid ideas is that they’re perversely more harmful to smart people that dumb people. Each of these persistently stupid ideas has 100 different reasons why they could be wrong. But 99 out of those 100 aren’t the real reason and they don’t stand up to scrutiny.

If you were dumb and you came to be with a persistently stupid idea, I could take pity on you and provide you with any one of those reasons and you would accept it as valid and gently be persuaded from taking the stupid path. However, if you’re smart, I know that you’re going to see through any of the bad arguments and I would be forced to come up with the one correct argument to satisfy you.

But the truth is, I’ve forgotten what the reason is that both of these are a persistently stupid idea. At one point, I had read the literature, carefully constructed the argument, considered it from all sides, correctly rejected all the wrong arguments against it, worked through the implications of the correct reason, concluded that it was a persistently stupid idea, then promptly emptied out my brain of all that datum except that it was persistently stupid.

As a result, I’m not even going to try and persuade you that these are persistently stupid ideas. If you don’t believe me, you’re just going to have to put in your own time and effort to independently investigate them. However, the smarter you are, the harder it will be for you to figure out why they are persistently stupid because you will correctly reject all the utterly random, poorly thought out shit people pull out to justify it’s stupidity.

This is, perhaps, why I’m so fascinated by this topic of stupidity. Because it’s a unique curse that, paradoxically, affects the smartest of us the most.

March 3 2009

The wisdom:bullshit ratio

by Hang

I’m reading a book right now which I’ll name in a later post which contains, roughly according to my estimate, about 80% wisdom to 20% bullshit and it strikes me that this is the absolutely worst ratio possible. In fact, making a mental list of wisdom:bullshit ratios made me think how highly non-linear my personal scale is. So here it is from best to worst:

  • 90:10 – These are the books I most enjoy reading as the amount of bullshit is just enough for you to calibrate your filter and be able to extract out the deep wisdom hidden within. I would say Freakanomics would fit squarely into this category.
  • 100:0 – Although, intuitively, you would think a book with no bullshit is better than a book with some bullshit, it’s actually not because you now no longer have a scale of comparison. Did you not detect bullshit because it wasn’t there or because it was too advanced for you to understand? I don’t think I’ve read any books that fall squarely in this category, at least not for a long time.
  • 0:100 – Simple, skim a couple of pages and throw it away, your life remains unaffected. The Secret would be a good book of this category.
  • 50:50 – These books are challenging and require you to have your bullshit filter on full force. You’re forced to comb through every sentence and carefully consider each statement. Such books can often cause you to radically shift your thinking or at least inject doubt into your process. The 48 laws of power was a book like that for me.
  • 30:70 / 40:60 / 60:40 /70:30 – For the most part, this will be largely everything you read. Most mass media falls into this comfortable middle range and, although it’s challenging to parse properly, you become so used to doing it that it’s routine.
  • 10:90 / 20:80 – These books are frustrating because there’s a hidden core of wisdom surrounded by so much utter crap that they’re emotionally draining to read and yet the small insights urge you to keep going. Atlas Shrugged was definitely in that category for me. I hated it so much, I inexplicably read it again a few years later, gritting my way through the entire book.
  • 80:20 – The 80:20 book is the book that derails people’s lives. Mixed in among all that wisdom is just a few key mistakes that can lead you far, far astray. This is how cults recruit their members and smart financial wizards managed to argue their way into this financial crisis. The wisdom is compelling enough that you let down your guard and don’t realize how much bullshit you let in until it’s too late. I’ll be providing a review of the current book I’m reading in a few days with the case of why I believe it to be an 80:20 book.

In the meantime, I’d like to hear your examples of books you think fit into any of the above categories…

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