When Smart People Have Bad Ideas

The last time I watched Curb Your Enthusiasm regularly I didn’t even have a Facebook account. It was was one of my favorite shows, but I’m not that committed to keeping up with TV. So stop me if the following phenomenon is something Larry David has lampooned. It seems like the kind of thing he would. The phenomenon is a very modern form of cringe.

The moment you find a conspiracy theory boosted on your friend’s timeline. You know the feeling. “Ewww. Really? You think 5G spreads coronavirus?”

If this is all too common on your timeline you can just mute them. That’ll take care of the symptoms, but getting new friends is the only cure for that particular affliction. Luckily, this probably isn’t a big problem for most of you. But it’s adjacent to a far more interesting question.

What if the promoter of an awful idea is very smart?

How to think about awful ideas by smart people

Marvel comics’ Thanos strikes me as a brilliant general. He also wanted to see half of humanity die in what sounds like a militantly green agenda. Based on the return of air quality and coyotes during COVID lockdowns, Thanos’ road to hell is not without good intention and grains of truth. There has always been overlap between brilliance and bad ideas. Nazism, religious fundamentalism, the occult have had their share of genius subscribers. The Unabomber’s Manifesto is a fascinating read.

The above examples are extreme. We can lower the stakes and the tension remains. Have you ever dismissed an idea from a person because your entire perception of them is dominated by a bad idea or prediction they had? But you’ve probably heard that “If you are always right, you are not taking enough chances”. Intolerance for bad takes is not compatible with the experiments of progress. So how do we strike an acceptable balance?

Here are a few  ideas on how to come to your own reconciliations:

1) Slatestarcodex on how to Rule Genius In (Link) (With my highlights)

  • On the scarcity of great ideas: “Coming up with a genuinely original idea is a rare skill, much harder than judging ideas is.”
  • On the asymmetry of the problem: “Positive selection – a single good call rules you in – as opposed to negative selection, where a single bad call rules you out. You should practice positive selection for geniuses and other intellectuals.”
  • On “intellectual outrage culture”: “How can you possibly read that guy when he’s said [stupid thing]?” I don’t want to get into defending every weird belief or conspiracy theory that’s ever been [stupid thing]. I just want to say it probably wasn’t as stupid as Bible codes. And yet, Newton. Some of the people who have most inspired me have been inexcusably wrong on basic issues. But you only need one world-changing revelation to be worth reading.”

2) Elon Musk is a lightning rod. From one angle he’s Tony Stark from another he’s a liar in the tradition of P.T. Barnum. Check Morgan Housel on “Natural Maniacs” (Link)

  • No one should be shocked when people who think about the world in unique ways you like also think about the world in unique ways you don’t like. 
  • A mindset that can dump a personal fortune into colonizing Mars is not the kind of mindset that worries about the downsides of hyperbole.
  • Some people are natural maniacs, and you can’t ask for the maniac parts you like without realizing there are maniac parts that might backfire.


My Take

When you meet a person the context gives you a prior about them. If we met in detention vs meeting in a dorm at Cornell I’m going to ascribe a different starting value to your judgment. In all our relationships, we ascribe something akin to Bridgewater’s “reliability scores” to people’s opinions. You continuously update against a prior.

The question is how hard to update. How sticky is the prior? Getting into a selective college is a form of proof-of-work. Same with a strong SAT score. It’s a useful data point. But the usefulness of that data point decays at different rates depending on our own biases or views. There are over 20 years of reasons why nobody cares how a 40-year-old did on a test on a random Saturday morning in a classroom they’d never seen, with a proctor they’ve never met.

Ultimately how I update is usually domain-dependent. If you are innumerate I won’t transfer the demerits to your views on relationships. But I’m probably not asking you for help with my taxes. I am trying to refrain from taking holistic views of people’s opinions. I’ve aged into this approach. My experience of getting older is that empathy usually makes more sense. Once you have controlled for domain-knowledge, it seems that the difference in people’s views is often just path-dependence. Experience. The more dismissive you are, the fewer chances you get to learn from others’ lives. If you start a conversation with “I’m a Capricorn”, I’ll keep listening. But I’ll stop when the subject veers to stock tips (honestly, if that topic comes up you’ve probably lost me no matter who you are — I prefer type II errors in that realm).

The Stars Among Us

Today, I’m far more sympathetic to athletes and movie stars who squander their money. This is also Bayesian. Stars who shine bright burn for the same reasons they ever had a chance to shine in the first place. We should probably be surprised when stars don’t go bankrupt. We all benefit when talented pursue their dreams against long odds. We should root for them to get guidance when they succeed. Nothing will have prepared them for that. And most of us sensible people wouldn’t know a thing about what it takes to fly close to the sun. Housel ties this all back to his “natural maniacs” in a great essay Getting Rish Vs Staying Rich (Link).

This gets very hairy when morality comes into play. The 80s rockstars I like all seem like bad dates. Then you get R. Kelly and Michael Jackson. Yinh and I just watched Louis CK special that he released on his website. I’m not putting him in the same category as these other people. But the question remains, how do we separate the artists from the art? What responsibility do we bear? Truthfully, I have always put my head in the sand. Rationalizing the artist as nothing more than a conduit for the art. As if the art was always awaiting a host. Not how I think it works, but that’s why it’s a rationalization. A logic that allows me to keep enjoying the music. My friend Rebecca is the biggest MJ fan I know. And as sick he was, as difficult as his own childhood was, she can’t help but acknowledge how his fans’ support enabled him. Support that led to children suffering.

Open to perspectives if you got them. Especially how you draw your lines.

Lord Acton Quotes
There is no error so monstrous that it fails to find defenders among the ablest men. Imagine a congress of eminent celebrities, such as More, Bacon, Grotius, Pascal, Cromwell, Bossuet, Montesquieu, Jefferson, Napoleon, Pitt, etc. The result would be an Encyclopedia of Error.
Judge talent at its best and character at its worst.

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