Sunday, January 7, 2018

On bragging: Trump, intelligence, and stability

So... Trump is a "very stable genius."  Yeah.

Bragging.  Trump's favorite activity.  Well, his favorite activity is having other people praise him, but him praising himself is a close second.  This...

Look, I work in academia.  Land of massive egos.  Let's separate this out, shall we?  Intelligence and stability.  Let's start with intelligence.

The average IQ in academia is higher than 100.  It just is.  I've met some not-particularly-impressive people in academia, but it is difficult to climb the ranks with a low IQ.  Academia also selects for big egos.  Part of that is the high failure rate, so people who make it think highly of themselves, even though a large component of success really is luck.  (Yes, a lot of my success has been luck too!)  The other ego factor is that academia beats you down.  People in academia are brutal to each other.  You don't get through that unless you have a very thick skin.  Thick skin is not too far from massive ego.

So, I know a lot of people with massive egos.  (Hi!)  I also know a lot of very smart people.  There is overlap.  The sets are not identical.

I have encountered some people whom I consider geniuses.  I won't name names for living people because... seriously.  My grad school advisor, Nelson Polsby.  He was a genius.  I never would have said that to his face because the last thing he needed was anyone saying that to his face, but it was true.  He also had an ego to match.  It was a strange ego, though.  One of the ways I used to describe him was that he loved to brag about how small his ego was.  That was Nelson.

I've known and encountered other geniuses.  I've read books that clearly demonstrated the authors to be geniuses.  Social Choice and Individual Values.  Read that one and tell me Kenneth Arrow wasn't a genius.  Once you can understand it.

I've also heard plenty of bragging in academia.  Some people in academia are classier than others.  You know what I have never heard, though?  I've never heard a professor self-identify as a "genius."

Sometimes people self-identify as geniuses.  I've seen people take those stupid on-line IQ tests and wave around their scores.  (Um... Richard Feynman, anyone?).  I've... just never heard a professor call him or herself a "genius."  I've heard bragging about who has published more, who has won which awards, who has accomplished what, but... self-identifying as a genius?  Nope.  I've never heard that within the hallowed halls of academia.

Why not?  'Cuz it kind of makes you sound like a moron.

It is possible to brag without making you sound like a twit.  As I said, I do hear bragging in academia, but just of a different form, and no, I'm not going to name names on that.  Usually, it takes the form of who published what first.  Yeah, I'm guilty of this.  Some are more guilty than others.

Musicians, though, have a wide range of bragging options.  Consider Jaco Pastorius.  Of course, I'm going with some jazz here.  Yes, it's Sunday, which makes it bluegrass day, but to make this particular point, Jaco is my guy here.

If you know jazz, or bass guitar, you know the name, "Jaco."  And you know him by his first name.  If not, here's just a taste of what Jaco could do with the fretless electric bass guitar.

Jaco.  Jaco proudly proclaimed himself the greatest in the history of the instrument.  And... yeah, he kind of was.  As of today, is there anyone that good?  I could make a case that Matthew Garrison is on that level.  Jonas Hellborg is fucking amazing.  There are some pretty damned great bassists around, but Jaco backed up his bragging.  He was also a great composer and bandleader.  He was a true musical genius.  Period.  Indisputably.  Fucking braggart...

Jaco was also batshit crazy.  Not, like, Trump-crazy.  More like, tragically-crazy.  His life story was a tragedy.  Homelessness, drugs, early death, all that.

And that brings me to the distinction between bragging about genius, and bragging about sanity.  Trump brags that he is a "very stable genius."  In this post, I have referred to Nelson Polsby as a "genius."  He was a brilliant scholar.  I have called Jaco Pastorius a "genius."  Within his field, he was such a towering figure that he is known simply as "Jaco."  You ask jazz people about electric bass, and the first name everyone will give is, "Jaco."  They might not even bother with a last name.  It's kind of like Jimi Hendrix.  You can just call him, "Jimi," and everyone knows who you mean.

When was the last time you ever praised anyone for their sanity?

Sanity is something you only notice by its absence.  Intelligence, of any variety (e.g. mathematical, musical, linguistic...), can range from very low to very high.  Whether we aggregate all forms into a single measure of "G," or break it down to its component parts, there is a range.  Mid-levels are unremarkable.  Average levels of intelligence deserve no comment whatsoever.  Low levels of intelligence deserve comment because people of low intelligence should not be given positions that require intelligence.  Yes, this is an elitist sentiment, but don't pretend you don't agree with me.  Do you want a doctor with a below-average intelligence?  No.  No, you don't.  You know you agree with me, so shut up.  Intelligence matters.

High intelligence is remarkable in the sense that we remark upon it.  I remark upon Nelson Polsby's intelligence.  I remark upon the musical genius of Jaco Pastorius.  We, collectively, remark upon the intelligence of people like Isaac Newton, Leonardo da Vinci, Archimedes...  High intelligence earns remark.

What doesn't earn remark?  An IQ of 100.  "Wow, that dude has an average IQ!"  Cue reference to Idiocracy...

Now, let's contrast that with sanity.  We don't measure sanity on a spectrum.  Certain things are put on a spectrum.  Autism is now put on a spectrum, for example, but rather than rating people on a scale from sane to crazy, as Trump seems to think in his little Trump-brain, there are a variety of disorders that a person can have, to varying degrees.  A person can have, for example, schizophrenia.

We don't remark, though, on the absence of schizophrenia.

A person can have antisocial personality disorder.  We don't remark, though, on the absence of antisocial personality disorder.

You cannot brag about your sanity without sounding crazy because sanity is not something upon which we ever comment, except to point out its absence.  That makes it fundamentally different from bragging about your intelligence.  It is difficult but not impossible to brag about your intelligence without sounding like a twit.  Trump can't pull it off because... he's a twit.  There is no way to brag about your sanity without sounding crazy because you are acknowledging the question.

For Trump, it's all just bragging.  He brags, and then brags about his ability to brag.  Bragging is so central to what he is that he never thinks about how he sounds.  Doing that would require thinking about things from another person's perspective, and Trump can't do that.  He will never be able to do that.  When he brags about being a genius, he sounds like an idiot, and when he brags about his "stability," he sounds like a loon.  The thing is, in principle, one can brag about intelligence without sounding like such a fuckwit.  One can never brag about sanity without sounding crazy.



    1. I think he was my discussant at the APSA once. Still smarter than a lot of game theorists from Stanford...