Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

That Sounds Smart

How do you tell if what someone is saying is smart? Most people’s first instinct is to think that things they can’t understand must be smart. After all, to say such things they must have learned them and aren’t people who have learned more about something generally smarter than people who haven’t? Thus the common phenomena of people trusting jargon-laden statements.

One problem with this method is simply that jargon can be faked. It’s not too hard to make up a bunch of longish words that sound complicated. And if you don’t understand them, you’ll have a hard time telling whether they’re real or made up.

But the more serious problem is that this method is exactly backwards. Smart people actually say things that are very simple and easy to understand. And the smarter they are, the more clear what they say is. It’s stupid people who say things that are hard to understand.

Part of this is because stupid people say things that aren’t true, things that aren’t true don’t make sense, and things that don’t make sense are hard to understand. But you can also look at it from the other end: if you genuinely understand something — really, truly understand it — then it doesn’t seem complicated and you can explain it rather simply.

But the larger consequence is that if you’re smart the world doesn’t seem very complicated. This might seem obvious, but the obvious thought is rather different. The obvious thought is: The world doesn’t seem complicated to smart people. But this isn’t what smart people actually think. They think the world isn’t complicated, period.

This is because when they try to explain part of the world they understand to someone, they explain it clearly, and, as a result, that person now understands it. This is proof that it’s not just uncomplicated for them, it’s uncomplicated for everyone.

But, I suspect, for most people the world is a strange and mysterious place, governed by principles they do not understand, which affect them severely but cannot be controlled, only coped with as best as possible. This is certainly how most people regard their computers.

By contrast, when I listen to smart people some part of the world I only dimly understood or never considered becomes immediately clear. Even if I don’t agree, I never have any trouble understanding. Listening to them, is like breathing pure oxygen and I cannot get enough.

This means the tradeoff between being expert and being popular doesn’t actually exist. People who truly understand their subject should have no trouble writing for a popular audience. And, in fact, their writing will probably better than that of the professional popularizers.

A good example of this was the early days of the blog Freakonomics. It had two writers, a successful economist and a popular journalist. The two had worked together on the bestselling book of the same name, with the general assumption that it was the journalist who had made the economist’s work clear. But reading their individual posts on the blog, you could see it was the reverse: the economist was a much clearer writer than the journalist.

Another result is that you find the really smart things in unexpected and undervalued places. Smart writing won’t be in formal and difficult-to-understand journal articles, but in the profanity-laced angry rants you’ll find on someone’s blog. That’s where the smart people are, even if everybody else just thinks they’re dumb.

You should follow me on twitter here.

June 18, 2010


This is incorrect.

Stupid people have no difficulty in seeing the world as uncomplicated.

Exhibit A: Sarah Palin.

Now, it is true that stupid people are unable to produce cogent explanations (see again, Sarah Palin), but that doesn’t mean they don’t see the world as simple.

On the other side of the coin, the more you know about an issue, the more you see the tradeoffs and complications involved.

For example, a moderately bright person might say, “We can use the market to solve the education problem with vouchers.” Or another moderately bright person might say, “The problem with schools is that some parents don’t invest much in their children’s education, so we need strong public schools to level the playing field.”

A brighter person might then say, “There is a deeper problem: different parents invest a different amount in their child. Vouchers will exacerbate this problem by allowing involved parents to segregate their children. On the other hand, it may lead to some general improvements in schools. So, to tell which of these two effects will dominate, we will need empirical tests which will lead to mixed results that we will then dissect and … …”

The world is complicated, and the more you know the more complicated it gets!

Now, it is true that in general the smarter one is, the better one is at explaining a given problem, but on the flip side, the smarter one is, the bigger problems one can tackle, and bigger problems eventually run up against the limits of human comprehension, which means the quality of one’s prose tends to degrade again.

It’s like the old UNIX joke, “You have to be smarter to debug something than to program it, so never program at your highest level or you won’t be able to debug it.” The same thing happens in a lot of other complicated fields. You can just barely work out a solution, but since you don’t have any left over brain power, you can’t simplify it down to be understandable.

posted by Carl on June 18, 2010 #

As above, your theory works well until it breaks down with the truly complicated.

For example Richard Feynman has a famous quote “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

posted by Morfaine on June 18, 2010 #

At the risk of sounding dumb by using jargon, I’d like to refute comment #1 by pointing out that the original proposition ‘smart people see the world as uncomplicated’ (p->q) says nothing about its inverse statement ‘stupid people see the world as complicated’ (~p->~q).

posted by Mike Tung on June 18, 2010 #

I feel more confused after reading the author’s post and reader comments.

Smart is an abstract notion and will and could be tumbled around in the minds of hot air machines forever.

posted by Tom on June 18, 2010 #

Hum, I have to take issue with this: in my experience most of the smartest people I know are painfully aware of how LITTLE they know of way the world works - especially in adjacent sub-fields, but also experts in string theory will admit cluelessness in European regional politics and vice versa, and there is a fractally enormous and practically infinite knowledge-space to navigate: the ‘internalising’ you talk of (which, OK, is key to enabling good education of others in the subject) is something that unavoidably takes time to aquire.

posted by Ian.S on June 18, 2010 #

“stupid people say things that aren’t true, things that aren’t true don’t make sense”

You are assuming that people try to make sense of things. Most people, stupid or not, happily take whatever comfort their vision of the world or reject facts that would disprove it; and try to make sense of neither.

And yes, stupid people (ab)use common sense instead of trying to make sense.

Take any “argument” from Palin, or “You have to be a little suspicious of any study that says children being raised by same-sex couples do better or have superior outcomes to children raised with a mother and father,” she said. “It just defies common sense and reality.” For instance.

posted by xavier on June 18, 2010 #

In defense of people who succomb to the “I don’t understand what he’s saying so he must be smart,” there’s probably often an element of remembering not understanding stuff in school. Also, some truths are counterintuitive, e.g. in statistics.

posted by binky on June 18, 2010 #

For example Richard Feynman has a famous quote “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

But that wasn’t because it was complicated, it was just because there was nothing to understand — it’s just weird.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 18, 2010 #

The world is very complicated. Ideologues are the only class of people who could think that the world is simple. Some of them are smart, and even if they are, they can be extremely stupid (see the post).

posted by Jeremy on June 18, 2010 #

Aaron, I studied physics, I was a military officer, I studied medicine, and I’ve taught myself enough about computing to start working my way through SICP. I’m pretty sure I can at least follow most conversations in hard and soft sciences and national and international politics. Let me share a few things.

First, as Einstein said, make things as simple as possible, but not simpler. The implied admission: things are complicated. Experts have the capacity to deal with the complications. Doctors aren’t doctors because they can determine that if you have high blood pressure then you need a beta blocker. You can figure that out on your own. Doctors can anticipate and deal with the complications most likely for your high blood pressure. Physicists spend a vast amount of their time struggling at the boundaries between physics and some other domain (chemistry, electrical engineering, computing): where do the quantum systems become so complex that they become something else?

The previous Palin examples are great counterexamples to your postulate: any idiot can sound simple.

Your conclusion that the smart people hang out in blogs is also easily dispatched. Maybe you should try reading the literature, and hanging out with some smart people in hospitals and research universities.

As for the Feynman quote: quantum mechanics is complicated. It’s not just weird. The mental gymnastics necessary to work out quantum physics is staggering. And that’s after making as many simplifications as we can possibly justify. Feynman diagrams are a great example of just how complicated quantum physics is. The math is so hard we wash away piles of paper and think about ultra-simplified diagramatic representations of a small subset of the reality instead.

posted by Niels Olson on June 18, 2010 #

The world is complicated, and the more you know the more complicated it gets!

Nope, I actually think it usually follows a hill pattern. It initially seems simple. Then, with a little bit of knowledge, it seems complicated (since you don’t really understand it). Then once you understand it really well, it seems simple again.

My answer to the specific question of education is the subject of the book chapter i’m currently working on, so I hope you’ll excuse me if I don’t get into it here.

The mental gymnastics necessary to work out quantum physics is staggering.

Well, yes, doing hard math is hard. But that’s different from it being complicated. I’m talking about conceptual understanding, not the actual work involved in applying it.

posted by Aaron Swartz on June 18, 2010 #

Weirdness is not an intrinsic property of things. It is simply evidence that your intuitions are wrong.

posted by on June 18, 2010 #

Try learning some foreign languages and see how one-sided this discussion actually is. The world isn’t only about nuances articulated in elegant simplicity, it’s also about getting a message across, even when clumsy and complicated is the only option. People learning and speaking foreign languages often forces this clumsy, complicated expression as they can find no other means at particular instances of communication (or its attempt). This is why I think it’s stupid to say that stupid people express themselves clumsily, with excessive complication, and because they have nothing to say.

But yeah, everybody MUST learn English. Just don’t expect English native speakers to learn any other language: oh yeah, that’s right, they might look stupid doing so… I forgot.

No ill will though, man. I see what you’re saying, but it only applies to exclusively native tongue domains. You should travel more.

posted by Mark on June 18, 2010 #

While I understand your point, I have to disagree. Defining complexity and dumbness through the invention of new words naturally comes with the specialization in a field of knowledge. True, there might be people (e.g. doctors) who misuse special terms to sound smart in front of their patients, but that has nothing to do with him being more or less intelligent. Used in the correct context (e.g. in a discussion with another doctor), the complex words are more than appropriate and may clearify things more than describing them in simpler words.

So: Don’t judge people because they seem to use complex words in the wrong conversational context. The specialist might just overestimate your knowledge in that field.

posted by derLars on June 18, 2010 #

This is one of those posts you’ll look back at in ten years, and laugh, and laugh, and laugh.

posted by quinn on June 18, 2010 #

The feeling of understanding can, however, be deceptive. There are lot’s of high IQ, well read and honest (as in not consciously trying to mislead) people who disagree about solutions to problems they both feel they understand and have easily explained (tough often differing) mental models of. The issue of vouchers in the first comment is a good example. The “brighter” person does not seem to realize that the greatest benefit of vouchers (according to some, including me) is that they will give an incentive to innovation. This is something that cannot be adequately tested for in small controlled experiments. Your heuristic is great for detecting nonsense but it can’t help you find truth.

posted by Arne on June 18, 2010 #

As the financial crisis eased, I recall hedge fund managers saying of the market: “the first derivative is bad, but the second derivative is improving.” Basically, the market is not falling as fast anymore. I knew then that these guys are morons repeating some jargon they heard their quant guys mumble. They use jargon inappropriately to impress others with their smartitude. This happens everywhere, and I have great fun poking through their paper thin understanding of the topic.

posted by Bob on June 18, 2010 #

Some truth to that. Clear writing and smart thinking do seem to go together often enough. Cutting out mumbo-jumbo is a big part of reaching good conclusions.

But like Arne says, clear thinking can still be wrong. Someone can answer the wrong question or have their facts wrong or leave out important facts/arguments, and what they say can still sound brilliant. Real-life thinking is just so much messier than theorem proving, where you can just read the argument and figure out if it’s right or not. Conversely, smarts ain’t everything, and anybody can have a good idea (and express it well or badly).

(Concretely, a lot of people agree that Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene is a model of clear writing and that the basic arguments about genes and memes work. But people still disagree profoundly about how useful sociobiology and memetics are as models of the world, both as Dawkins lays them out and as others apply them.)

I really don’t want to spend life dividing the world into smart people and dumb people. Not because there aren’t people with different IQs out there, but because it does more harm than good to focus on it all the time. If a genie offered me one superpower, I’d probably want something other than smarts — like being more focused or bold or altruistic or capable of clear-eyed detachment or informed or able to get along with folks.

If I were, say, hiring people, smart would probably be a factor, but it still wouldn’t be the dominating factor and hiring is a corner case anyway — hiring is all about judging people, and most of life isn’t and shouldn’t be.

Anyway, kudos for taking on the topic and being willing to say stuff in an unvarnished way — my carping isn’t meant to take away from that.

posted by RF on June 18, 2010 #

I have never met anyone that I consider smart who actually thinks the world isn’t complicated. I suspect you’re surrounding yourself with people who present attractive, but incomplete, analogies.

You might consider reading Dijkstra’s writings on radical novelties: http://userweb.cs.utexas.edu/users/EWD/transcriptions/EWD10xx/EWD1036.html

posted by Ben on June 18, 2010 #

Or, to put that constructively, some of the things that get my attention in a conversation are useful new information, trains of thought I hadn’t considered (or hadn’t considered enough), pointing out when we need to be considering a different question, making vague thoughts concrete, or edging towards conclusions we were afraid to reach. They can all change the course of your thought process, and can come well expressed or badly by anybody.

Eli Pariser of MoveOn is, incongruously, a fan of Donald Rumsfeld’s phrase about the “unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” Related to the whole problem of how it’s harder to be right than to be smart. He talked about it when his alma mater invited him back as a commencement speaker: http://bit.ly/coId5u

posted by RF on June 18, 2010 #

I’m sort of doubting the smart people think the world is not complicated thing.

And making things very simple is a skill at setting a very simple narrative to something. If the narrative was so smart then maybe it would come up with a simple solution too…but no, the world is complicated, and the narrative is over simplified. Causation can be simplified, but it is incomplete, because the world is complicated.

posted by Marcus on June 19, 2010 #

Richard Feynman and quantum physics is a perfect example of what Aaron wrote in his article. And in fact, Feynman goes into greath lengths to explain what it means (and doesn’t mean) to understand quantum physics in his QED lectures.


posted by Jarno Virtanen on June 20, 2010 #

I kind of agree with what you’re saying, but I’m not sure about some aspects. I agree that people who understand their subject so thoroughly that they can explain things clearly to others are smart. But I’m not sure that means that people who can’t do this aren’t smart. I think what you’re talking about at some level is communication skills which some people might not have. Are you saying that communication skills are by definition part of being smart? If so, you should define your terms because I’m not sure most people think so.

I read somewhere that it took mathematicians a bit of work to validate Grigori Perelman’s proof of the Poincare Conjecture. This was in no small part due to the fact that his proof was confusing and unclear to read — a communication problem (and, yes, also because the machinery he was using was heavy — I would say complicated). I don’t know any mathematician today who would say his proof was simple or uncomplicated. Do you think in a few years, or say 50 years, we will consider it simple?

posted by ps on June 29, 2010 #

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