How More Knowledge is Making Us Dumber

post by jdampolargo · 2020-08-20T15:08:50.344Z · LW · GW · 4 comments



This essay was originally published on my website.

The 21st century da Vinci will be a billionaire who combines science and business seamlessly. He is also a master of the latest technology, creating the most surprising companies that look like masterpieces. The 21st century Mona Lisa will not be a portrait, but a groundbreaking company.  

He/She will be one of many new renaissance polymaths—amid a simultaneous rise of uneducated people.

Welcome to the coming intellectual inequality.

And it all goes back to how access to knowledge has evolved. 

Since the beginning of time, there were people more knowledgeable than others because knowledge was not as widespread. This was often the difference between the haves and have nots, creating inequality among people.

Knowledge was stored in our memory and was handed down to generation after generation. This method was ineffective because we had to rely on our memories, and we don’t always remember the little details.

Knowledge went from being in our brains to a form of visual description. What we call writing. This form was more effective as you could include as detail and information as you’d like. Yet, we had an issue sharing these writings to our fellow humans. Ancient Egyptians were the first to use a paper-like material and glued them together to share knowledge. 

In the 1550s, Johannes Gutenberg created the first mechanical printing press, enabling mass production of books. From the 15th century until the 21st century, knowledge was shared and stored using books. Then in the 2000s, we no longer needed physical knowledge as it could be stored digitally more efficiently. 

The change from physical to digital allows anyone in the world with an internet connection to access all the world’s information, mostly for free. 

From now on, you just need the intention and desire to learn to get knowledge. It’s that simple. As knowledge became more widespread, all types of knowledge including entertainment are available.  

The easy access to knowledge will make the extremes more notable. Just as the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer, similarly the smart get smarter, and the dumb get dumber. As a result, there will be a rise of new renaissance people and polymaths as well as a rise of uneducated and only-entertainment people. 

This isn’t new. As extremes have always existed, now they will be more recognizable.

What would the extremes look like?

  1. The lower-end extreme (Ultra-Deprived) will be people who spend most of their time entertaining themselves, either scrolling down on their phones, watching streaming services, or plugging themselves into a virtual reality game. 
  2. The higher-end extreme (Ultra-Learner) will be people who spend most of their time learning. They are always learning by themselves by reading books, taking online courses, and doing whatever it takes to learn more and more.

There will be not just two types of people. I realized I can group most people in this Bell Curve[1]. 

Let’s take a look:

You can find most people (68%) in the middle. The 68% can be split in two. 

I don’t want to be in the 68% because I am looking to be the best at whatever I do. Having that goal changes how I spend my time and where I would like to be at the bell curve. 

Yet, I do not want to be at the extreme of either side, one might think being at the higher-end extreme (UltraLearner) might be great, but the problem with extremes is that both extremes are defeated for different reasons. 

The higher-end extreme is defeated because of insecurities, fear, and doubt because the more you know, the more you realize how much you don’t know. While the lower-end is defeated by mere incompetence. 

For instance, the person with the highest IQ [2] (about 30% higher than Einstein) lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere and has not done anything or contributed to the world. On the other hand, we have Elon Musk [3] who is smart, but not as smart as having the highest IQ in the world. Yet, Elon is capable to make change happen. 

We can decide on which extreme to be on. One is harder because it takes effort and energy, but being extreme is dangerous because it almost has the opposite effect.


Don’t try to be at the 1%, be at the top 10%. 


[1] I received from different people, and one of them was the economist Tyler Cowen. He told me that he suspects book reading and the like are more of a bimodal distribution. He also that the median American reads zero books. However, I still think a normal distribution does a better job accurately describing my idea (the inequality of intellect) because I believe we will have two extremes where most people will be at.

[2] I am referring to Christopher Langan who is regarded as the person with the highest IQ ever. You can read more about his story in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

[3] I’m not saying Elon is not smart. HE IS. What I’m referring to is that he probably does not have the highest IQ in the world, which is fine because it allows him to still have an impact on society. To be “successful” we just need to pass the minimum entry-level.

Thanks to Michael, Zakk, Adam, Rishi, Doc, and Scott for talking with me and giving me feedback.


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Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Vakus Drake (vakus-drake) · 2020-08-27T16:53:00.785Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

>For instance, the person with the highest IQ [2] (about 30% higher than Einstein) lives on a farm in the middle of nowhere and has not done anything or contributed to the world. On the other hand, we have Elon Musk [3] who is smart, but not as smart as having the highest IQ in the world. Yet, Elon is capable to make change happen. 

Essentially every part of this paragraph is wrong or misinformed. Einstein never had an IQ test so estimates of his IQ are little more than baseless speculation (especially if you're trying to compare him to other geniuses).

Any claims that somebody has "the highest IQ" are also universally misinformed and/or deceptive for a few reasons. Firstly is that standard IQ tests have a ceiling and cannot do much to distinguish intelligence beyond the range they were calibrated with. So claims of IQ's way over 170 are always either adjusted upwards because of age (meaning they aren't statistically valid, because they don't conform to this distribution:, or they are using non-standard IQ tests which lack the evidence of efficacy of the standard IQ tests (and are also almost always statistically invalid).

So all of the reasons you gave for not wanting to be at the upper end of the distribution simply do not hold water (like most claims that being a super-genius doesn't make you better off).

comment by TAG · 2020-08-27T17:27:49.589Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In short, almost everything that is widely claimed about IQ is bullshit. "IQ" is indeed an intelligence people don't care about it.

comment by Vakus Drake (vakus-drake) · 2020-08-27T19:51:05.223Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

That doesn't follow from my comment at all.

The fact IQ has plenty of limitations doesn't negate all of the ways in which standard IQ tests have tremendous predictive power.

comment by Vaniver · 2020-08-27T20:54:25.409Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

See Why The Tails Come Apart [LW · GW], which I think is a more compelling take than "if you have too much of a good thing, you get trapped."