In case you hadn’t noticed, I haven’t had much time for posts lately. The programming job, Sara’s birthday (for which she chose a family zip-lining expedition over a party), sessions with Chareva to go over her graphics for the book, trying to wrap up a script for the film version of the book … not much bandwidth left at the end each week.

This won’t be a full post either, even though it’s long. Twitter brought me an essay I believe is worth sharing. The author is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, and the essay is apparently from a work in progress titled Skin in the Game.

I first became aware of Taleb in March, when I quoted one of his Facebook posts because it seemed like a perfect comment on The Anointed. Several of you chimed in to say I should read his books, so I did, and I heartily recommend all of them.

Turns out that Facebook post was from the essay below (although I think the essay has since been updated.)  Taleb asked that people who reproduce the essay do so in its entirety, so I will.  The Intellectual Yet Idiot is, once again, a perfect commentary on the people who are so impressed with their own intelligence, they feel qualified to tell the rest of us how to live.  Enjoy.

The Intellectual Yet Idiot

by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

What we have been seeing worldwide, from India to the UK to the US, is the rebellion against the inner circle of no-skin-in-the-game policymaking “clerks” and journalists-insiders, that class of paternalistic semi-intellectual experts with some Ivy league, Oxford-Cambridge, or similar label-driven education who are telling the rest of us 1) what to do, 2) what to eat, 3) how to speak, 4) how to think… and 5) who to vote for.

But the problem is the one-eyed following the blind: these self-described members of the “intelligentsia” can’t find a coconut in Coconut Island, meaning they aren’t intelligent enough to define intelligence hence fall into circularities — but their main skill is capacity to pass exams written by people like them. 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 (or Montaigne and such filtered classical knowledge) with a better track record than these policymaking goons.

Indeed one can see that these academico-bureaucrats who feel entitled to run our lives aren’t even rigorous, whether in medical statistics or policymaking. They can’t tell science from scientism — in fact in their eyes scientism looks more scientific than real science. (For instance it is trivial to show the following: much of what the Cass-Sunstein-Richard Thaler types — those who want to “nudge” us into some behavior — much of what they would classify as “rational” or “irrational” (or some such categories indicating deviation from a desired or prescribed protocol) comes from their misunderstanding of probability theory and cosmetic use of first-order models.) They are also prone to mistake the ensemble for the linear aggregation of its components as we saw in the chapter extending the minority rule.

The Intellectual Yet Idiot is a production of modernity hence has been accelerating since the mid twentieth century, to reach its local supremum today, along with the broad category of people without skin-in-the-game who have been invading many walks of life. Why? Simply, in most countries, the government’s role is between five and ten times what it was a century ago (expressed in percentage of GDP). The IYI seems ubiquitous in our lives but is still a small minority and is rarely seen outside specialized outlets, think tanks, the media, and universities — most people have proper jobs and there are not many openings for the IYI.

Beware the semi-erudite who thinks he is an erudite. He fails to naturally detect sophistry.

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, particularly if they are “red necks” or English non-crisp-vowel class who voted for Brexit. 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. While rich people believe in one tax dollar one vote, more humanistic ones in one man one vote, Monsanto in one lobbyist one vote, the IYI believes in one Ivy League degree one-vote, with some equivalence for foreign elite schools and PhDs as these are needed in the club.

More socially, the IYI subscribes to The New Yorker. He never curses on twitter. He speaks of “equality of races” and “economic equality” but never went out drinking with a minority cab driver (again, no real skin in the game as the concept is foreign to the IYI). Those in the U.K. have been taken for a ride by Tony Blair. The modern IYI has attended more than one TEDx talks in person or watched more than two TED talks on Youtube. Not only will he vote for Hillary Monsanto-Malmaison because she seems electable and some such circular reasoning, but holds that anyone who doesn’t do so is mentally ill.

The IYI has a copy of the first hardback edition of The Black Swan on his shelves, but mistakes absence of evidence for evidence of absence. He believes that GMOs are “science”, that the “technology” is not different from conventional breeding as a result of his readiness to confuse science with scientism.

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 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).

The IYI has been wrong, historically, on Stalinism, Maoism, GMOs, Iraq, Libya, Syria, lobotomies, urban planning, low carbohydrate diets, gym machines, behaviorism, transfats, freudianism, portfolio theory, linear regression, Gaussianism, Salafism, dynamic stochastic equilibrium modeling, housing projects, selfish gene, Bernie Madoff (pre-blowup) and p-values. But he is convinced that his current position is right.

The IYI is member of a club to get traveling privileges; if social scientist he uses statistics without knowing how they are derived (like Steven Pinker and psycholophasters in general); when in the UK, he goes to literary festivals; he drinks red wine with steak (never white); he used to believe that fat was harmful and has now completely reversed; he takes statins because his doctor told him to do so; he fails to understand ergodicity and when explained to him, he forgets about it soon later; he doesn’t use Yiddish words even when talking business; he studies grammar before speaking a language; he has a cousin who worked with someone who knows the Queen; he has never read Frederic Dard, Libanius Antiochus, Michael Oakeshot, John Gray, Amianus Marcellinus, Ibn Battuta, Saadiah Gaon, or Joseph De Maistre; he has never gotten drunk with Russians; he never drank to the point when one starts breaking glasses (or, preferably, chairs); he doesn’t even know the difference between Hecate and Hecuba (which in Brooklynese is “can’t tell sh**t from shinola”); he doesn’t know that there is no difference between “pseudointellectual” and “intellectual” in the absence of skin in the game; has mentioned quantum mechanics at least twice in the past five years in conversations that had nothing to do with physics.

He knows at any point in time what his words or actions are doing to his reputation.

But a much easier marker: he doesn’t even deadlift.

51 Responses to “The Intellectual Yet Idiot”
  1. bill says:

    Does that mean he’s pleased with the election
    outcome, or am I showing my IYI colors for
    even asking this question?

    • Tom Naughton says:

      He tweeted rather a lot on election night. I don’t want to put words in his mouth and say he was pleased, but he seemed to view the results as a rejection of of the Intellectual Yet Idiot class. One of his tweets was a link to the essay.

  2. JillOz says:

    This piece starts off well and then descends into – dare I say it – idiocy.

    Really? So an Anointed One hasn’t read certain authors – in the opinion of Taleb – or got drunk with a Russian? How on earth does he know?

    A little too specific in the last para. Promising piece, needs editing.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I don’t think he meant us to take him literally. He was describing a type of person. I’ve never gotten drunk with Russians either, but I don’t believe Taleb would put me in the Intellectual Yet Idiot class.

      • Lori Miller says:

        I used to work at the Air Force Academy, where snowy hillsides made for difficult driving in winter. This was back when four-wheel drive, if you had it, had to be engaged from outside your vehicle. Everyone I ever saw there who stopped on a slick hillside in a snow storm to get out and engage their four-wheel drive was an officer. And of course they all ended up stuck. I never thought about it before, but maybe they were also professors.

      • JillOz says:

        Getting drunk with Russians seems to me to be the crux of this identity! 😉

  3. Lori Miller says:

    To a lot of people, the election was about the holier, smarter, better, and more sensitive than thou against the rest of us. The IYIs who get this know they’ve gotten a collective slap.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I think that figured into it, but I don’t want to make too much of it either. Flip a percentage point here and there in a few states, and we’d be preparing to inaugurate a self-appointed member of The Anointed.

  4. Orvan Taurus says:

    Sounds like what used to be mocked in cartoons when an ‘educated’ character follows the “book learnin'” but doesn’t adjust for actual reality. Eventually things all fall down (or, being cartoon, blow up) and another character (directly affected by the preventable calamity) remarks, “You! And your ‘education’!” in disgust.

    Haven’t seen such cartoon in ages. Perhaps they were something of a warning, and the lack of a warning… well, the results speak for themselves.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I of course have nothing against book learnin’. I read a ton of books myself. The problem is when people with book learnin’ fail to grasp just how much they still don’t know.

      • Sky King says:

        I think it also has to do with too many people just being followers and accepting everything they read and hear and believe them to be facts without questioning anything.

        People go to college to learn facts, become “educated intellectuals”, but they’re not taught how to engage in critical thinking and problem solving skills. They need to to be taught how to weed through the information they gather and not just passively accept it.

        As for the election…. very few people out there were able to predict that Trump would win. But those who did were able to see past all the bullshit they were fed by the pollsters and the pundits in the media who predicted that Clinton would surely win. Michael Moore was one of them:

        • Tom Naughton says:

          Given what’s happening on college campuses these days, I’d say engaging in critical thinking would get you brought up on charges for encroaching on someone’s safe space.

          • j says:

            But protesting legitimate election by blocking highways..totally get a pat on the back

            • Tom Naughton says:

              I seem to remember the mainstream media got all in a tizzy when Trump wouldn’t declare ahead of time that he would accept the results of the election. The protesters don’t exactly seem to be accepting the results.

              • j says:

                Some say the protests are orchestrated by a certain shadowy figure..but thats a whole other tangled ball of yarn to get into..

      • JillOz says:

        You’re right about this Tom, but tons of people who talk about “reality” also don’t understand it and think their narrow experience of life is the only measure of it..
        Scads of them also seem to think that because they don’t approve or like something that no one else should approve or like something. They are not automatically virtuous or correct just because they invoke “reality” or “real life”.

        • Tom Naughton says:

          I think it’s safe to say nobody can claim a 100 percent accurate perception of reality. But I personally don’t care what others like or approve. I only ask that they don’t try to impose their preferences or Grand Plans on the rest of us.

    • JillOz says:

      I’m not sure what you’re trying to prove with this link.

      I don’t know about the Voltaire case, but the Dreyfus case was definitely a case of injustice and prejudice.

      The author’s pushing of Zola’s championship of Dreyfus as part of a Narrative, his association with a Rothschild etc is ironically a typically Marxist and “intellectual” exercise which ignores the REALITY that Dreyfus was innocent and he was framed and penalised for an offence someone else actually confessed to – but he was still sent off to Devil’s Island!

      Some people are not actually intellectuals, but merely pseuds. The author of this piece, I would submit, is one of them.

      He doesn’t even prove why intellectuals are harmful, just calls them parasites. Name-calling is no substitute for argument and neither is publishing slabs of reflection to no purpose.

      • Tom Naughton says:

        I’d suggest you read at least one of his book before you write him off as a pseudo-intellectual.

        Whenever some group of intellectuals decides to improve society by confiscating and spending more of other people’s money and/or restricting more of other people’s freedoms, they are exactly the Intellectual Yet Idiot types Taleb describes here. Same types Thomas Sowell calls The Anointed. And yes, they are harmful. Just look at what a joke the “Affordable” Care Act has already become, driving insurance premiums through the roof. That was a Grand Plan rammed down the throats of people who didn’t want it. The chief Intellectual Yet Idiot behind that Grand Plan was later caught on tape saying yes, we lied to get the bill passed, but you have to lie to the American public because they’re stupid. Funny how the “stupid” people were better at predicting the outcome of the Grand Plan than the intellectuals who designed it.

        The IYIs were clearly wrong — as they usually are — but as Taleb (and Sowell) point out, no matter how often they’re wrong, the IYIs never lose confidence in their ability to design the next Grand Plan. That’s the “idiot” part.

        • Bret says:

          Tom, the outcome of the “A”CA wasn’t those grand planners’ fault. It was the fault of all those “obstructionists” in Congress and across the nation who didn’t go along with it. If they hadn’t been so stupid and stubborn, it would have been a resounding success. (insert eye-rolling emoji here)

          • Tom Naughton says:

            Of course. If a Grand Plan fails, it was it was either undermined by people who are evil and/or stupid, or it didn’t go far enough.

        • JillOz says:

          My response referred only to the article in the link.

        • JillOz says:

          You may be assuming that the “Affordable care Act” was designed for healthcare to be affordable. It was not.

          Anointed or not, the personnel who instituted it lied about it because they wanted to be in control and make people poorer.
          That wouldn’t have flown with the public if they’d said that so they lied.

  5. Mike T says:

    At least I dead lift.

  6. lemoutongris says:

    That’s another way to put what I’ve been saying for some time: having a lot of knowledge doesn’t make one intelligent.

    The electoral night was such an illustration: I was the only libertarian/anarchist in a room full of hardcore democrats. When Trump started gaining in strength, the bottle of vodka started emptying. Then they started panicking, as if voters were literally choosing Hitler. The older baby boomers talked about plans to leave the country, panicked that terrible programs like Social Security and Obamacare were going to be changed (not the latter one anymore, apparently), etc.

    The same thing goes for food, as you’ve been showing for a long time.

  7. Azurean says:


    He had my interest until his anti-GMO nonsense. GMOs are like high-fat diets : demonized by popular belief despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they’re harmless – and not just studied by Monsanto, but by hundreds of laboratories in massive mata-analysises. That Taleb is as much as an IYI as the people he describes.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      “Wrong about GMOs” means the IYIs don’t understand why they’ll ultimately fail economically. He explained that in one of his other essays.

    • gallier2 says:

      Yeah yeah, same as statins because they were also studied in hundreds of laboratories and found safe…

  8. Ulfric Douglas says:

    Well that was strange : I haven’t heard of half of that crap.
    I don’t deadlift either, twat.

  9. Ulfric Douglas says:

    I almost forgot : yes, I got drunk with Russkis plenty of times : they are almost Irish at heart.

  10. gallier2 says:

    I haven’t read yet the article so may be I will say something that’s in it but one thing that people should be more aware of is that intelligence is not the most important criterium for academic success. Obedience, conformism and hierarchical respect (i.e. playing by arbitrary rules) are factors that will have a much higher part in ones success.

  11. Mark S. says:

    Tom, Did you read Black Swan? I read it about 5 yrs ago or so, It was a OK read but not sure I would recommend it to anyone.

  12. Steve says:

    Remember, 99.99% of the population isn’t protesting or rioting. Media outlets feed us controversy because it sells. Don’t make the mistake of generalizing groups of people because of those clips.

    I want to add if you have ever used the word “Sheeple,” or any derivation of it to the list. Why? Because I think that one needs to believe that everyone else is misinformed and ignorant.

    • Tom Naughton says:

      I don’t think the protesters are sheeple. I think they’re morons and crybabies who feel entitled and lose their itty-bitty minds when they don’t get what they want. I sure as hell didn’t like it when Obama was elected, but I didn’t take to the streets to scream and yell and break things or retire to my “safe space” to pet a puppy and whine.

      This is what happens when universities infantalize people who are supposed to be young adults.

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