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How does it feel?
An inquiry about intelligence

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How does it feel?

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How does it feel?
This email may seem a bit strange but I simply couldn’t resist writing it. I recently visited your website again and realized you added a lot of highly interesting new things such as the 3D particle box or the James Webb tracker, just to name a few. A friend of mine, to whom I drew attention to the web pages was as flabbergasted as I was and replied:

“One can hardly imagine how rich the perceptual world of someone like him must be“. And I thought to myself: This sums it up nicely. It also triggered some questions which I now dare to ask. They are trivial to you and the answers to the question may be too idiosyncratic, but I actually don’t care, I am just curious. So…

- For someone as bright as you, how does it feel to live in a society (or should I say, world?) where, say, 90% of people are below your level in terms of cognitive capability?
I must start by saying there are some misleading elements at work here. When discussing an I.Q. at or above 130 or 132 points, (Wechsler for the first, Stanford-Binet for the second), fully 2% of a country's population meets the criterion. For a U.S. population of roughly 330 million (2020 number), that's 6.6 million people. That's enough people to fill a small country — with what would likely be very frustrated people (even if surrounded by similarly gifted individuals).

I put the partition at what is now called "very superior" only because measurements above that point are notoriously inaccurate. I think my I.Q. is moderately higher than that, but (a) I learned how to take I.Q. tests when I was young, at a time when psychologists seemed constantly to be applying them to me, so over a period of years my score kept creeping upward in a misleading way (even when adjusted for age and experience), and (b) at my age (77) my intellectual acuity has certainly declined.

So ... my point ... I'm perhaps not so special. :)
You probably know the quote by George Carlin: “Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that“. For you, it must be even worse, I suppose. Even for lesser talented guys like me, George Carlin’s 50% are hard to bear, something I had to learn the hard way especially during the last and still ongoing crises (and even while working at a university). I has never become so obvious to me, seriously. But for someone like you, it must be an entire different experience given that you have most certainly experienced that your entire lifetime.

- How does it feel when it costs you a fraction of the time to look through things it takes months or years to understand something?
Honestly? It makes me intellectually lazy. I expect to be able to absorb some new topic in a fraction of the time it takes average people, so instead of learning it in more depth, I may instead absorb it only to the level at which I can discuss it with people of average intelligence, impress them with my supposed intellectual acuity.

This doesn't apply to everything. If I find a topic particularly interesting, I may abandon my normal behavior and learn it in depth, which may serve as an escape from everyday reality, but at the same time may make it impossible to discuss the topic with someone else in a meaningful way.
You must have experienced this kind of feeling, or whatever we want to call it, from an early age on. So, how did you handle these state of affairs? And how did you experience these differences when you were a child? On a related note: How did you not despair? Easily answered — my primary life satisfactions arise in personal pursuits, not activities that involve other people. When I was a child I quickly recognized and adapted to my rocky relations with average people by taking up hobbies and activities I could carry out alone.

While doing this I tried to avoid posturing as different or special, realizing that would generate pointless friction. But one day in elementary school, in gym class, the weather made outside activities impossible, so the teacher (who knew something about me) asked me to explain to the class how a radio worked.

I thought that would be fun, so to the sound of rainfall I filled the classroom blackboard with circuit diagrams and rattled off the basics of a modern radio receiver. Maybe I was smart, but not smart enough to realize what that lecture would do to my already-sketchy social relations with my classmates.

That lecture got me marked, shunned as an egghead or some similarly distinctive term, for the remainder of my time at that school. I was already flunking out of all my classes, which I found completely boring, except for the times when I could correct the teachers' imperfect knowledge of their subjects. I always knew the subject matter and passed the exams, but the school required completion of homework assignments, and I refused to allow make-work tasks to interfere with my precious personal time. So I passed my exams and refused to perform the homework assignments, thinking someone would notice that I was learning the subject matter. But no.

In spite of my supposedly advanced intellectual abilities, I didn't figure out that the school's real study topic was obedience, not anything academic. It was only after years, and only in hindsight, that this came to me.
(On another related side note: How did you not despair given what people have expressed in those conversations on, for example, psychology as a science)? There are times when I can't predict other people's behavior and reactions, or maybe I refuse to anticipate reactions out of a misguided respect for people's intellectual abilities. As to the debate about psychology, I was constantly surprised by people's unwillingness to engage the topic at an intellectual level, preferring instead to tell me how they felt about it. (Interestingly, the German Wikipedia page (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Lutus) on you says (translated): “Although he himself maintains a positive basic attitude, he seems bitterly disappointed in American society and its values and has little hope for improvement“. Well, I guess one could replace “American society“ with ”humankind“ without losing the validity of this assertion, right?) [Note: To my U.S. readers: some time ago I ordered the removal of my English Wikipedia page to keep vandals from trashing it -- details here.]

Yes in general, but American society deserves its anti-intellectual reputation. In this country, people conspicuous for intellectual ability almost need to apologize for this gross character defect.
On a more positive note and to come full circle: Given your ability not just to quickly grasp things but to also look through things how do you perceive the world, excluding the typical dumbness of the populace? The sheer amount of information you can process must give you unique access to experiencing and understanding aspects of the world which makes your life way richer. You may be able to anticipate this reply, but I see society's primary tension being between what can be known, and how much of that knowledge average people can absorb and put to use.

An example is this country's present very toxic debate about abortion. The reason for the debate should be obvious — outlawing abortion deals a fatal blow to the rights of women, and as a side effect it assures creation and replenishment of an underclass of cheap labor to further enrich the already-wealthy top 1% of the population.

And in spite of predictions about automating the workforce, of replacing working-class Janes and Joes with robots, so far it's less expensive to compel people to have more children than they would have if they possessed any measure of choice or control. Therefore abortion is illegal, birth control and sex education are about to become illegal, and if present trends continue marriage will only be between two obedient breeders.

To an intelligent person these facts are perfectly obvious. The problem lies in trying to make Americans aware of the reason for the debate — that it has nothing to do with the sacredness of life, because if that were true, the mother's sacred life, and the sacred lives of the children once born, would be included in the debate, but that's clearly and deliberately out of the question.

I have this recurring nightmare in which, after the right wing in American politics gets everything they want, they'll pass one more law: women can't buy shoes. That way all women will be barefoot and pregnant.

That's just one of many issues, but the meta-issue is a campaign to make Americans distrust ideas and those who have them. This is no accident — a fact-based education creates a population easy to dominate and control. So education must deliver facts, not ideas, and teach obedience, not creativity.

When I was 12 I hated being force-fed facts, but I didn't know why. Now I know why, but I can't explain it to most people.
It also seems to me that the precision and quickness with which you grasp things stands not only for a quantitative difference (i.e., you are smarter than others) but implies a qualitative different way of thinking, which manifests itself in being able to build abstracts models of things or processes. Do you agree here? Yes, for some topics, and for those topics the ability to abstract is essential. But for me the problem is trying to imagine and anticipate the thought processes of people who cannot do that, people for whom a thin film of facts is all they have, floating atop a vast unplumbed sea of ideas. I know fully that my questions appear like a quasi-random collection of unelaborated thoughts, but, please forgive me, I simply couldn’t resist. I regard this as a rare opportunity to get some new merely personal insights. For me personally, watching the present direction of world affairs, the existence of people who can think original thoughts seems to make little difference to events. At the same moment we're anticipating a rich harvest of knowledge from the James Webb space telescope, Russian forces are pounding towns in the Eastern Ukraine, using crude tools familiar to World War II veterans, driven by crude motives also familiar to that group. No role for ideas here.

I have just one more anecdote, from that same period (World War II), about the topic of facts versus ideas. The U.S. military wanted to improve the survivability of the B-17 bombers in use at the time, so they instructed people to look at the damage the returning planes showed, and instruct the people in the aircraft factories to strengthen those parts of the planes that showed damage.

Then a "smart person" appeared and said, "You're doing it all wrong!" or words to that effect. He explained they were surveying damage to planes that were able to fly back from the front lines, when they should instead find out what happened to the planes that were shot down, that didn't make it back at all. Because it was the shot-down planes that experienced serious, fatal, possibly correctable structural weaknesses, not the planes that flew back.

So they began interviewing the crews of the returning planes, asked them what sorts of damage caused other planes to break up entirely and fall from the sky. One smart person was all it took.

When I first read this true story, I thought, "Hmm. I totally didn't think of that."

Thanks for writing.

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