Some people are so dumb it pains me to observe them.
Most of them aren’t actually dumb. They just don’t know how to think critically.
Nassim Taleb refers to these types as ‘Intellectuals Yet Idiots’
The IYI pathologizes others for doing things he doesn’t understand without ever realizing it is his understanding that may be limited. He thinks people should act according to their best interests and he knows their interests […] When plebeians do something that makes sense to them, but not to him, the IYI uses the term “uneducated” What we generally call participation in the political process, he calls by two distinct designations: “democracy” when it fits the IYI, and “populism” when the plebeians dare voting in a way that contradicts his preferences.
Having a high IQ can make you a horrible critical thinker because you’re really good at confirming your own biases with clever rhetoric. But true critical thinking and wisdom are simple. It’s common sense.
People always tell me I’m wise beyond my years. If anything, I’ve learned how to filter out the noise and develop a better understanding of how the work actually works versus the way I wished it work.
If you’ve always had a sense that society is a bit off and the people around you seem to be missing the point entirely, this is the article for you.
“Show me the incentive, and I will show you the outcome.” – Charlie Munger
When you understand incentives, you understand how programmable people can be. Tweak the incentives and you can change human behavior.
Munger uses FedEx as an example. At one point, they charged by the hour. Productivity was lacking, so they switched the pay structure and based it on the number of packages loaded on the trucks. All of a sudden the employees became much more productive.
Incentives explain why communism never works — remove the incentive to work hard and people won’t work hard. It explains why capitalism is the least terrible option we have — incentives for massive rewards drive innovation. Incentives also explain why capitalism is corrupted by cronies and rent-seekers.
I focus on incentives whenever I hear something coming from someone in a position of power and authority. I always ask myself “What are they trying to get out of this?” or “Why are they telling me this?” The answer is almost never benevolence.
Don’t focus on what you think people should or shouldn’t do. Look at their incentives and you’ll know what they’re going to do.
Sometimes it seems as if there are more solutions than problems. On closer scrutiny, it turns out that many of today’s problems are a result of yesterday’s solutions. – Thomas Sowell
Critical thinkers understand that you can’t just stop at the consequences of the first step you take.
Take something like raising the minimum wage. I’m not saying it’s good or bad, but I am saying there are additional consequences beyond ‘people will get paid more’:
Again, the point isn’t to flat out say a course of action is good or bad, it’s just to think about the possible second, third, fourth, nth-order consequences before making a decision.
Far too many people fail to think past the first step. Hell, policymakers and the people who run our country fail to do the same:
Typically, the IYI get the first-order logic right, but not second-order (or higher) effects making him totally incompetent in complex domains. In the comfort of his suburban home with a 2-car garage, he advocated the “removal” of Gadhafi because he was “a dictator”, not realizing that removals have consequences (recall that he has no skin in the game and doesn’t pay for results). – Taleb
Critical thinkers understand the ripple effect and the law of unintended consequences.
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.” —E.F. Schumacher
I love when readers tell me my writing is simple and basic. I aim for simplicity.
If you have to use a bunch of fancy words to explain a subject, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Your typical IYI will use word salads to explain concepts. They’ll use a bunch of complex jargon to seem smart while saying nothing of substance.
Borrowing again from Nassim (pro-tip…once you find someone who seems truly wise, drink from the fire hose of their wisdom:
Beware the semi-erudite who thinks he is an erudite. He fails to naturally detect sophistry.
Critical thinkers can both see through sophistry and avoid engaging in it themselves. Richard Feynman famously had a process for teaching complex topics at a level a child could understand.
I love writing because it forces me to show whether or not I know what the hell I’m talking about. I always try to boil things down to their bare essence. I’m not interested in sounding smart. I want to get my ideas into your brain fast.
The truest sign of intelligence is the ability to entertain two contradictory ideas simultaneously. – Source debated
There’s always a little contradiction to each concept. Either that or there’s some downside, alternative, or opportunity cost to consider.
Critical thinkers know how to hold contradictory concepts in their minds and let them dance with each other.
Some I thought of off the top of my head:
Critical thinkers don’t think in a black and white way. They understand the gray.
“Be very careful about reading other people’s opinions and even be careful when reading facts because so-called facts are often just opinions with a veneer [of pseudoscience] around them.” – Naval Ravikant
Anytime I hear someone say “Believe the science!” my eyes roll all the way into the back of my head. Science isn’t something you believe in. Science is about questioning and disconfirming to the point there’s nothing left but the truth.
Science doesn’t have an opinion. It doesn’t tell you what to do. It can tell you the properties of something or how it works, but it’s not some end-all-be-all ruler of how the world works.
In the age of scientism, you’re supposed to believe what someone says and take all of their recommendations verbatim just because they study a field of science. We are in the age of blind trust for experts. You can’t have an opinion because the experts say so.
Problem is, they fuck up a lot:
With psychology papers replicating less than 40%, dietary advice reversing after 30 years of fatphobia, macroeconomic analysis working worse than astrology, the appointment of Bernanke who was less than clueless of the risks, and pharmaceutical trials replicating at best only 1/3 of the time, people are perfectly entitled to rely on their own ancestral instinct and listen to their grandmothers with a better track record than these policymaking goons. – Nassim Taleb
The point isn’t to become a conspiracy theorist or deny the validity of all expertise and authority. Critical thinkers understand that you don’t have to accept everything at face value just because it comes from an expert. Experts can be wrong. They often are.
“If you need to invoke your academic pedigree or job title for people to believe what you say, then you need a better argument.” – Neil Degrasse Tyson
Here’s where the IYI’s will hop in and tell you that you have no right to have an opinion on [x] because you don’t have a degree in [x] or didn’t spend years studying [x].
You don’t have to be an expert to learn how to think critically or have an opinion on something. I don’t have to study science to understand that scientists can be biased. Doesn’t take a genius to see that a study funded by a company with certain interests will reach a certain result.
In general, critical thinkers understand that credentials don’t make you smart. You can have credentials and be smart, many people are, but they don’t bless you with some untouchable wisdom just because you have them.
In a day and age where almost anyone can get a degree, credentials have become a common commodity:
Acquiring credentials to prove you’re better at operating in the Complicated and Simple domains is increasingly a race to the bottom.
And credentials can often become a prison. A lot of big insights in different fields of study came from outsiders who weren’t worried about their reputations in that field. Reminds me of this:
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”
Many breakthroughs don’t come from experts with credentials. Instead, they come from people who tinker, experiment, and iterate. Never believe you need some blessing from an authority to innovate.
“I appear to be wiser than he, because I do not fancy what I do not know” – Socrates
You’re a critical thinker if you have intellectual humility. You’re trying to figure out how the world works and you seek to become a little bit less wrong every day.
You never fall under the illusion you have all the answers. You also understand that you don’t need to know all the answers to live a great life. I don’t need to study every field to be able to form an opinion because I’ve developed useful mental models.
Also, some things are beyond my knowledge and I’m more than happy to admit that. I’m not going to question a surgeon if I need a life-saving operation.
Critical thinking is all about understanding how the world works instead of the way you want it to work. A big part of that is simply understanding you’re too ignorant to ever be able to fully figure it out.
The dumbest people I know are the ones who are super sure of everything. The type that has opinions on geopolitics and the economy but can’t manage their own lives. Avoid these people like the plague and never become one of them yourself.
Nothing is black and white. Sometimes you should trust the experts and sometimes you shouldn’t. Some ideas and initiatives make sense long-term and some don’t. Often, the best answer to a question is ‘it depends.’
Figure it out. Or try to. That’s the point.