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I'm generally a fan of "blurry" definitions where something can qualify as X if it fulfills a few of many criteria. I think trying to create hard rules around blurry areas like race and culture is fool's errand, and Scott does a great job laying out how overly strict definitions can go wrong.


I'd guess the vast majority of you read Astral Codex Ten regardless of whether it gets posted here, but Scott's latest culture war (adjacent) post is not to be missed.

I think I found this more interesting than the original biography review by Scott. There is a lot of distilled wisdom in these posts.

However, there is one area that always rubs me the wrong way. It is smart people who don't know dumb people talking about intelligence.

Where I am now in life I interact almost exclusively with smart people. Not just high IQ wiz kids with no experience. But people that have both the raw brain power, and the life experience to be sharp and wicked smaht. I'm in a rich neighborhood, and wealth has a noticeable correlation with IQ. I currently work for an institution that employs academics who must explain their work to the media (so they can't just sit in an ivory tower and write illegible crap). I use to work at a tech company that for quite a few years basically gave people an IQ test before they could join, and they were willing to fire people who didn't work out (the selection effects weren't perfect but they were certainly noticeable). My college friends were mostly from an "honors" section that got scholarships and accolades for academic achievements.

This was not always the case.

I went to highschool in a nice-ish area. The highschool was pretty decent for where I lived, but it still had noticeable rates of teenage pregnancy, drunk driving fatalities, minor gang fights (no more than temporary hospitalizations), about a fifth of the school below the poverty line, and a racial mix that actually came pretty close to matching America's general racial mix.

This highschool had dumb-dumbs. Probably something close to an average amount of dumb-dumbs. But at the time it was painful how many of them there were. I am smart for the general population, but a bit of a dumb-dumb when I get into smart people circles. 95th percentile on SATs. 1 in 20 seems only ok, but in a random class of ~30 kids I was likely to be the smartest or 2nd smartest. And its not the academic under performance that ever bothered me. I wasn't in any position to judge, I did well on standardized tests, but I was solidly a B student at best. Most of the material seemed dumb and stupid. We were all often doing equally bad at it. It was the everything else that bothered me about interacting with chronically stupid people.

I often heard people brag growing up that they were "street smart" while some academic achiever was "book-smart". This gave me the false impression that there were two kinds of people out there and there was just a trade off between the two. That was badly wrong. Some people are just dumb. They can fail to learn how to read, and fail at not walking into oncoming traffic, and fail at not picking a fight with a group of kids that will kick their ass. There are people that just seem to make repeatedly bad decisions in all areas of their life. I grew to hate these people, because loving and caring about them was too painful. To watch them make terrible decisions again and again, no matter how you advise them, no matter how much you try its like they seem determined to make their own lives a living hell by refusing to understand the world around them.

Bringing this back around to Elon Musk:

Yes he is smart. He is very smart. If he doesn't seem that smart compared to the people around you, then congratulations you live in a smart person bubble. I live in one too, its great! No one is ever making terrible decisions that might casually endanger me. No one is starting physical fights, because words hurt their brain too much. They know all the latest social norms, and when to violate the silly ones to make a joke. I can have deep conversations with them about nearly any topic, they might not know the details, but if I make it interesting they will pick it up and participate. The people around me know how to manage their money, so they aren't ever begging me for handouts, or trying to nickle and dime me on shared expenses.

The phrase "check your privilege" comes to mind, but the tone that people normally use feels very wrong. Just imagine me saying it in the same way a surfer says "kowabunga dude!" while offering a high five.

Scott Alexander’s review of a 2015 biography of Elon Musk. Elon Musk, to me, is one of the world’s most confusing people. He’s simultaneously both one of the smartest people in the world, creating billions of dollars of value in companies like Tesla and SpaceX, and one of the dumbest, in burning billions on Twitter. Scott’s review I think is a good explanation of what’s up with Musk.