The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

What Intellectual Judgment Is

Intellectual judgment is not “common sense”, it is its own thing. Many people with excellent intellectual judgment are lousy at running their own lives.  Instead intellectual judgment is about understanding the limits of intellectual systems.

Every intellectual system has premises, axioms and assumptions. There are some things which simply are not true, or cannot be proved as true. They are often approximations of the truth–they are close enough to the truth under certain circumstances. If you do not understand where and when they break down, you will go wildly wrong when you push discipline towards its extremes. You must also be aware of the fact that other people will game your system, that when your assumptions are known, other people will then subvert them.

Any system which says ALL people are or do X is almost certainly wrong if it’s saying anything that isn’t trivially true. All people do not maximize utility (in fact, no one does). Everyone does not act in self interest all the time. Everyone does not act altruistically. Prices do not always convey information about how valuable something is. Supply and demand do not always determine price. Perfect information is rarely available, and people are not even close to rational, except on rare occasions when they are. Entrepreneurs succeed as much by luck as anything else, compensation has little correlation with how hard people work, many people are willing to die for their beliefs, but definitely not all; etc, etc…

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Intellectual judgment requires knowing the limitations of any system you’re using, what it’s good for, what it’s bad for, where it breaks down. Good policy judgment requires understanding human nature, not in the operational sense that a good salesman does, but in the sense of understanding how people react to incentives, ideas and laws–how they are shaped by them, how they shape them, how they get around them, how they come to believe in them or how they subvert them.

It’s almost impossible to teach this (almost) and learning it requires both real world experience and deep thought on psychology, history, mass psychology, anthropology, sociology, cognitive science and humanities. Start with Machiavelli, and move on.


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  1. Yes, start with Machiavelli.

  2. Qqvl

    Though not quite in Machiavelli’s league, Guglielmo Ferrero, Benjamin Constant, and Ernest Gellner are worth a look.

  3. Ghostwheel

    Epistemology? Philosophy of Science?

  4. Lisa

    Corrected version. Ian please delete the earlier one…sigh. But this is an area I have studied so hard about and love so much and tried, when I could, to apply. Even got drunk with Stafford Beer one time…well I got drunk he corrected my flawed ideas….lol. Such a brilliant man.

    “I’ll add to this and (in the other thread) what I said about the need for good solid knowledge, the ability to work in probabilities (baysian thinking).

    Just about everything is ‘fuzzy’, the data you have is incomplete and often with high error rates (noise). Relationships between factors are probabilistic . Time factors, just because the system was in state ‘X’ when you measured it last month, doesn’t mean it is anywhere near ‘X’ any longer.

    Training yourself to being able to deal with assigning probabilities to data and relationships is really useful. They don’t have to be perfect, even good gussies are very useful (you can show this mathematically) .

    What it means in practise is that ‘judgement calls’ are more likely to be right and you have a better idea of the limits of them.

    If you look at the works of Ashby and Beer they did a lot of work of showing how biological and ecological systems can maintain homeostasis in ‘fuzzy’, ‘noisy’, non-linear, non-gaussian environments, even with incomplete data.

    Beer expanded this work into his viable systems model, which I still think is the tour de force in all this sort of stuff.

    But it also applies to individuals, how to train people, how to give them the appropriate tools (computing and mathematical) to maximise their ability to make correct decisions.

    Hence a term I use ‘semi automation’. I am not fan of total automation because it does not work. You simply move the decision point from a person on the front line to another person who writes the program. Umm recipe for disaster as we all know.

    Semi automation is about understanding people’s (trained) skills and providing them with tools that aid them, not trying to replace them, but trying to improve them.
    Plus these sort of systems are more resilient.

    Extreme chasing of linear efficiency = lower resilience of the system overall. The world is non liner and non-gaussian. ‘Black Swans’ is a misnomer for assuming symmetrical gaussian distributions where they are in fact extremely skewed). I did a paper on that in 2004 which showed that because of these assumptions insurance companies were underestimating risk by 3 orders of magnitude (1,000 times).

    So ‘good judgement’ is making good calls in this non-everything environment. But it can be improved a heck of a lot with proper training and proper tools.

    The amazing thing, from someone that has been able to do this on a few occasions, it is easier and cheaper to do that, than the current FUBARs (often done many SPITRs ….must trademark that term lol). “

  5. Bruce Wilder

    Two things I have noticed that seem to impair the intellectual judgment of very smart people:

    1. Conventionalism: agreeing on certain conventions helps people to communicate. Thinking is a social activity, something people do in groups, in conversation, in dialectic. Even when some one seems to think alone, to be a lone genius, there is a conversation, a communication. Systems of notation are evidence of this. Even for machines, communication and computation are closely related: two aspects of the same core processes.

    Dumb people depend on convention to act as if they were smart, but even very smart people can become so dependent on convention, that they lose perspective. And, judgement requires perspective, a decidedly individual outlook and detachment from social identification.

    2. Conviction, a belief in the transcendent truth of some argument, of some answer, which then becomes an anchoring idee fixe. Good judgment requires remaining open to, and oriented to, the question. This is the point you seemed to me to be making in your post.

    Convention and conviction can combine to impose some very heavy filters on information coming in, even to the point of drawing off the energy of an individual’s intelligence into the construction of a delusional virtual reality, in which the individual operates without any real demand for judgments.

    Recognizing the conventional nature of our socially constructed world is a pre-requisite for good judgment. It is the essential point behind George Soros’ insistence on the centrality of the reflexive nature of social and economic processes.

    People with good judgment do not hide from the conventional, reflexive nature of the social, political world, but keep their individual detachment. It has been said that great corporate executives think like novelists, observing the drama unfolding.

    Machiavelli? Perhaps. My taste leans more toward Hume, both as philosopher and historian.

  6. Larry Y

    How about this premise: We are rational beings.

  7. Qqvl

    Perhaps the explanation is not quite so far afield as this discussion is casting—

    “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”—Upton Sinclair

  8. RJMeyers

    I’ve actually grown to dislike that quote from Sinclair. It’s true, but too narrowly focused on money. I suspect he did mean it to apply more widely, but it’s almost always used in the narrower economic sense.

    I’d replace that with something like “identity” or “livelihood.” Even better, “status.” Lots of people have social/ideological investment in a particular view of the world and their place in it, and this informs their view of themselves to some extent as well. Ideas that threaten someone’s status, that threaten their position within a community or their sense of self and of what is right and wrong, are the hardest for that person to accept (and note that I think “accept” is better, as someone may understand something but not integrate it). Money is just one form.

    Though I should note that there are some people who relish adapting to a threat and discovering a new way of seeing the world.

  9. V. Arnold

    I’d love to join the discussion; but I’m afraid I lack the judgement, creativity, and intelligence.

  10. Doc

    How about this reality: People be crazy.

  11. Lisa

    Larry people aren’t always rational, they are rationalisers when in Mode #1 thinking. They will make a decision/opinion/action then will be incredibly creative (to extreme levels of sophistry) justifying it.

    Mode #1: is fast thinking, instinctive. A brain shortcut to make quick decisions. Trouble is it is affected by all sort of rough heuristics, including prejudices, incomplete knowledge and so on.
    Mode #2: Is slower more (but not entirely) rational thinking.

    Sadly our society trains and rewards people for copying and Mode #1 thinking. Hence it is dominant in our societies.

    Mode #2 requires training and practice. If this is done then you can switch into it much faster over time. You can also use the results of Mode #2 thinking to re-train Mode #1, so it is more accurate.

    The simplest example of doing this is learning to drive a car, where you start learning in Mode #2, over time it becomes acquired reflexes (Mode #1). You can do the same sort of thing with just about any activity or thought patterns. Takes time though and lots of practise to move what you learn into the ‘instinctive’ level.

    Mental arithmetic is a classic example of something Mode #1 thinking is naturally terrible at. But with practice in Mode #2, then it becomes easier to do in Mode #1. You can do similar things with logic and probability thinking. Again lots of practices is required.

    Probability thinking is another classic, the human brain is naturally terrible at it. With learing and training in Mode #2 then over time Mode #1 will get better at it as well, so you can do much better instinctive probability calculations. Ditto with the practice though.

    Take an example of practice, which if you don’t do then you won’t get anywhere, your Mode #1 won’t improve. I was thinking about a science ficiton story recently and wondered what it would be like to able to accelerate at 100G. So I started to work through the calcs in my head (with reasonable approximations)…it was fun to do so.

  12. X

    Then there is that cosmic consciousness that we may all one day learn to tap into, or be. If we make it. (X)

  13. markfromireland

    First Machiavelli then Hobbes.


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