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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Beware of "Geniuses"

There are no true geniuses, only acts of genius.  What do I mean by that?

The fact of the matter is that most people -- even very smart people -- do not always get it right.  I'll concede that all other things being equal, smart people are more likely to "get it right" than dumb people.  But the problem arises when we decide that what smart people say is "right" simply because they are smart.  When this starts to happen, the smart people start to think that they and their intelligence are infallible.  And if we've put them in positions of power, then that's going to be a problem for the rest of us.

Take Alan Greenspan.  If you met him, you'd probably think he was one of the most intelligent people you ever met.  No doubt he's smart.  But at some point, he started believing that he was some kind of permanent genius.  Maybe it was when Bob Woodward wrote "The Maestro" about him (nice job, Bob!).  With hindsight, it's now easy to show that Greenspan was spectacularly wrong about a whole lot of very important things.  (Read Matt Taibbi's "Griftopia" or any other book about the financial crisis.)  And that had a lot to do with where the economy is today.  And now it's obvious to everyone that Greenspan isn't all that smart.  In fact, the slowness with which he has come to realize how wrong he was comes across as something like stupidity.

And take Einstein.  Yes, the theory of relativity was a work of genius.  But his addition of a cosmological constant to make the universe stationary was, according to him, a blunder. (As it turns out, there may be a cosmological constant after all -- to account for cosmic acceleration -- but that's not what Einstein was thinking.  But at least Einstein was quick to abandon the constant in the face of Hubble's evidence.)

In other words, while there may be really smart people among us, we can't assume that everything they do is "genius."  Better to focus on their individual accomplishments, in isolation.  If someone has done a lot of "genius" things, that's great.  Call those accomplishments acts of genius -- but please don't call him a "genius."  It may go to his head, and will only encourage him to stop checking his work.

Was Napoleon a "genius"?  He might have been smart, but he got a lot of people killed, and lost everything in the end, perhaps because of his own belief that he was a genius.

How about Newton?  In some respects unquestionably.  But in others, not so much.

Were any of the 100 authors identified by Harold Bloom in his "Genius" true geniuses in the sense that they were always right about everything?  I doubt it.  They were just talented writers and thinkers who now and then managed to produce a work of genius.

And then there's Larry Summers.  When he first started out (in the 1980's), he questioned the ability of financial markets to regulate themselves (referring to it all as a shell game), and proposed a tax on purchases of corporate securities.  (I have this from John Cassidy's book about market failure).  But then he changed his mind, had some prominent government positions, made tons of money, and kept right on supporting Greenspan's policies up until the moment everything blew up.  So that's a really smart person who thought carefully about both sides of the issue, and picked the wrong side.  Could he have made that kind of money if he had stuck with his original view?  Probably not.  But I'm sure he thought that it was logic, not money, driving his thinking.

And how about the managers of LTCM (Long Term Capital Management)?  Their "genius" was validated by Nobel prizes and academic accolades.  And yet, they put the world economy at risk for the sake of a few nickels.  Here's a quote from wikipedia:

"LTCM's strategies were compared (a contrast with the market efficiency aphorism that there are no $100 bills lying on the street, as someone else has already picked them up) to 'picking up nickels in front of a bulldozer'[29] – a likely small gain balanced against a small chance of a large loss, like the payouts from selling an out-of-the-money option."

Of course, since they're so smart, they may well have realized that even if everything blew up (which it did), they personally wouldn't suffer all that much (which they didn't).  See Roger Lowenstein's "When Genius Fails."  But the lesson for the rest of us should have been STOP TRUSTING THE SMARTIES!

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