Friday, October 07, 2011

Some thoughts on Stenosophism.

For those who are interested, I just thought that I would try to clarify by what I mean by Stenosophism.

Stenosophism needs to be thought as a form of cognitive provincialism. It is where the mind is limited to grasping the familiar, concrete, proximate and immediate; and it has a hard time stepping outside these boundaries. It does not mean stupid or low IQ, rather it refers to an individuals "breadth" of understanding: their ability to see the context of things.  Stenosophism needs to be thought of as "Narrow IQ", a sort of cognitive aspergism.

IQ for many people is a proxy for intelligence, but nearly all of us know individuals who are of very high IQ and yet failures in their lives. Dorner listed the example of Mozart, a musical genius who was unable to transfer his talents to finance, dying a pauper. Indeed, Mozart is a good example of stenosophism. His enormous intellectual ability seemed to only to apply to the musical sphere of his life, outside that, he really didn't do that well. Another example was Nikola Tesla, a super brilliant physicist/engineer, who ended up dying alone and near penniless in hotel room in New York. Linus Pauling, though a brilliant chemist, was idiotic when it came to Vitamin C and Fluoridation.  And it needs to be remembered that it's not only the high IQ end of the spectrum that has this problem. During the 1930's for example, thousands of otherwise intelligent professional men and women believed that Stalin was some emissary of world peace despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Bruce Charleton has a good name for these type of people, the clever sillies. Lenin thought them "useful idiots".

The phenomenon of the clever-sillies is easily understood you merge the concepts of IQ and stenosophism. High IQ, with narrow "breadth of view" produces a man who is extraordinarily brilliant in his specialty but a bit of failure outside it. Likewise, a man with moderate IQ but broad contextual perception seems pretty good at all things but he won't be winning any Nobel prizes. In my experience, and I don't have any scientific evidence to back this up, it would appear that "perceptual breadth" peaks somewhere between and IQ of 120 and 130. Note, this does not mean that people with an IQ of 120-130  all have a broad perceptual breadth, rather, the perceptual breath of the human race peaks in that IQ band, and that within that IQ band there is a normal distribution of it: A lot of people with an IQ of 120 will be narrow and a few will be really broad. Above an below this range, the "perceptual breadth" is narrower.

Graphing this ability would yield the following (note, they are drawn for conceptual illustration only and are not exact):
Note, that IQ "width", i.e the ability to do multiparametric analysis  peaks at the 120-130 range, but if we were to look at that population within that rage we would get the following:

We see that within the 120-30 range , there vast majority of people are below the "4" range and only a very few above. The group of people in the 5-6 range, who are a small number, are humanity's best generalists, since their ability to perform multiparametric analysis is better than their higher IQ superiors.

In my experience, it would appear that at lower IQ's there may be a broader perceptual range than compared to the highest levels, but there is not enough intelligence to tie it all together. However,  over the 130 IQ range, the rapid acceleration in problem solving ability comes at the expense of contextual breadth: It's a trade off, and one with pretty significant implications.

The scientific method, with its reductionist approach--which aims to limit the effect of confounding variables--is profoundly suited to the stenosophistic mind. Perhaps one of the reasons why the scientific method is so powerful, and has become so widespread,  is because of its reductionist approach which is suited to the average stenosophistic mind. Science is easily understood because the variables involved in an experiment are usually "limited".

Specialisation is likewise suited. Specialisation is to knowledge what Adam Smith's division of labour is to production. By getting a man to devote his brain to only a small intellectual field, he is better able to master it due to his limited intellectual breadth. Specialisation and the scientific method "worked" because they were suited to human cognitive limitations with regard to its "breadth": Narrow minds are suited to narrow specialties. Naturally, those of a high IQ were most likely to be the supreme specialists in any particularly field.

But the problem with the divide and conquer approach is that knowledge tends to become fragmented, especially amongst those who are foremost in their field. The end result being, that the specialists, whilst very good in their specialty, aren't that great outside it. This is not itself bad, provided a specialists limitations are recognised, but people tend to think that high IQ people have an understanding and competency across the board, ............and this is not good.

Our society tends to assume that high IQ individuals are high IQ across the board. The opinion of Nobel Prize physicists is given far more weight, let's say with regard to regard to arms reduction, than a professional soldier. It's  because we assume that just because the physicist has a Nobel prize and hence has a higher IQ he is smarter than the soldier and is able to solve "military problems" better.

In the real word, reality is not neatly fragmented like in the academic disciplines, but integrated, and hence, the specialist is frequently unable to see the practical limitations and other conflicting variables that impact upon his knowledge. In other words, he may be giving us useless real world advice. The problem then is of too much specialisation and not enough integration: we need to bring back, to a degree, the legitimacy of the competent generalist; the guy who see's the big picture and who can relate the parts to the whole.

But the problem, is that the best generalists have IQ's of around 120, whilst the specialists have IQ's above that. Guess who progresses up the academic ranks? Guess who gets all the all the important jobs, and as such, influence on social affairs? The conflicting advice that we get in papers and in the media is due to the fact that our system is biased against the "Broad IQ" individuals. No one see's the big picture because the world rewards, and is run, by small picture men.
TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
 (W.B. Yeats)


Jack said...

Hear, hear!!!

I believe I've been saying the same thing since I was able to speak, though perhaps not as succinctly as you just did.


Assistant Village Idiot said...

I have considerable agreement, and hope to get back to you with comments. But there are a great many topics weaving in and out of this, and I don't want to just ramble. I haven't got the time, and it would bore you to tears. Off the cuff observations: the breadth of perspective seems to involve some level of the moral quality of humility, which may be why it begins to erode as the IQ gets over 140. You think you're the smartest guy in the room because usually, you are. But at IQ 125 (whether measured or intuited), you know you are reasonably intelligent but that you don't know everything - you learn that others are worth listening to, but have the confidence to make up your own mind.

However, I have known people with even ultra-high IQ's who had that quality and were able to understand broadly.

I recommend Steve Sailer's and Nicholas Nassim Taleb's writings on the topic.

Country Lawyer said...

Every politician I have ever known has claimed to be a "big picture" person.

What you would call a superior "generalist."

That alone should give you pause, but it won't.

Again, and to put it simply, there is no one and no group able to control, understand, or predict for all the factors involved in society.

Can't be done, can't be done competently for more than a few variables.

And no it isn't because I am for "perfection" or not at all, it's because the scope of it is to vast.

It doesn't really matter, a system might (and often does) claim to be wiser and run by the wise people, but it never is.

I don't care how beautiful an idea is on paper (communism is arguably a beautiful idea, everyone sharing and singing and living in harmony) if it doesn't accept the basic nature of human beings, it will always utterly fail, just as communism utterly fails.

And that's what all this is SP, a beautiful idea on paper that you're in love with.

If you really want to cure society's ills, you need to think about how people are, how they react, how they are corruptable and why and then organize your society around that.

Any society that lies to keep itself in place fails, just as the west is failing.

Thursday said...

The conflicting advice that we get in papers and in the media is due to the fact that our system is biased against the "Broad IQ" individuals

Two words: Steve Sailer.

chris said...

^ Applicable to your concept of stenosophism?

JMsmith said...

I agree with what you have written. Working at a university, I've often seen brilliant men of narrow expertise make fools of themselves by straying beyond the bounds of their competence.

One comment. The tendency of high IQ specialists to mistakenly believe that they are generalists is, in fact, a general tendency. A great many people console themselves with the idea that they are generalists. It's much harder to sustain the illusion that one is a great specialist when one is not, than it is to sustain the illusion that one is a great generalist. I suspect this is because the theories of the putative generalist are very hard to test, and so his expertise is not so easily disconfirmed.

David Foster said...

Interesting post. Is there a scale for measuring "breadth of view," or is it purely conceptual at this point?

Here's something that may be an example of what you are talking about..On a blog the other day, a woman was discussing the problem of letting a man know she's interested without appearing too forward. She said to one guy: "We should get coffee sometime" to which he responded "I don't like coffee" to which she answered "well, we could get something else," after which he said "Oh, you mean you want to hang out!"

Now maybe he just wasn't interested in her, but it sounded like he was extremely literal-minded, in an almost computer-like way.

David Foster said...

In his book Science and Government, C P Snow suggested that top scientists rarely make good administrators, because:

"To be any good, in his youth at least, a scientist has to think of one thing, deeply and obsessively, for a long time. An administrator has to think of a great many things, widely, in their interconnections, for a short time."

Snow goes on to say that scientists can make good administrators, but usually *not* during their period of creative scientific activity, because of the differing thought patterns he describes above.

The Social Pathologist said...

Thanks Jack. For the record, I like intelligent women as well. Stupid women......well....

Intellectual pride is an interesting topic which probably deserves a treatment all of its own. The concept of moral virtue as a cognitive enhancing mechanism is fascinating; something worth exploring further. BTW, I'd be interested in your thoughts on the matter.

Coming from high school, where I was the smartest guy there, to Med School, where I wasn't, certainly was a shock. I was surrounded by some incredibly high IQ people who were good at a lot of skills, but when it came to "synthetic" ability, i.e "bringing it all together" they didn't seem to have it. They needed to be shown. A lot of them had personal issues which they couldn't seem to work out.

As for Taleb, I've not read him (which I'm going to do) but I've heard the the term Black Swan being bandied about as some form of statistically non foreseeable event. It is.... to the stenosophist. The GFC for instance, was a Black Swan event for a lot of the financial world, (who by the large are thick heads)But it wasn't for a whole lot of other people, for them it was forseen. Still Taleb is to be recommended for recognising the social consequences of stenosophism.


I appreciate that Sailer is batting for the team, but I've never really warmed to him that much. I do appreciate that he has quite a few original thoughts, but he skews too much to the HBD side of things for me. I'll give him another try though.

The Social Pathologist said...


I think it may be correlated. But it's one thing to have a whole bunch of facts in your head, it's another to tie them all together. I do think that some people are better at it than others.


It's much harder to sustain the illusion that one is a great specialist when one is not, than it is to sustain the illusion that one is a great generalist

Agree, and the problem is trying to sort the good ones from the bad. But time and collective human wisdom, in the form of cultural heritage, do help. You've got to be hyper-suspicious of anyone who chooses actions which the past would of strongly disapproved of. Culture is not only a repository of accumulated knowledge, but the end result of the "natural selection" of ideas.

The Social Pathologist said...


Is there a scale for measuring "breadth of view," or is it purely conceptual at this point?

Conceptual. The things is though, I suspect that it cannot be "statically" tested at any one particular point in time, rather, I suspect that the only way we will be able to test it is "dynamically": through time. It's one thing to know not to participate in a Ponzi scheme, it's another not to participate in it.

Talebs recognition that everyone has 20/20 vision after an event illustrates this quite well. Everyone has got the facts in their head, it's just that for a variety of reasons no one took any notice of them. This is why Greenspan is an idiot and William McChesney Martin wasn't. Martin was able to recognise bubbles

Snow goes on to say that scientists can make good administrators, but usually *not* during their period of creative scientific activity, because of the differing thought patterns he describes above

Look, it may be possible that the brain is able to "rewire" itself according to the cognitive task at hand; there is a certain amount of neural plasticity. It may just be that the welfare state, by ridding people of survival problems is actually narrowing their mind.

The Social Pathologist said...

Country Lawyer.

I'm not proposing a SWPL oligarchy. Just as you would want government powers checked, so I would of the mob. Fundamental rights ensure that the mob's power is limited, but only as long as the mob are prepared to respect those rights. The mob is gradually agreeing to the erosion of their rights because they are too stupid to see that they are sawing away at the branch that their sitting on. They're always prepared to trade away a bit of long term liberty for short term security.

Look, the assertion that all men are fit to govern is just as false as the assertion that there is no such thing as genetic differences. Paternalism has its place.

Nicholas Taleb weighs in.

KJJ said...


Have you considered Jonathan Haidt's examination of the moral reasoning of "liberals" and "conservatives"?

It dovetails with your concerns about overoptimization for one set of priniciples.

Whether by custom or nature, liberals tend to overoptimize for the "caring" and "fairness" virtues, while conservatives have a broader moral palette.

Haidt has noted that liberal populations tracks with major trade centers, especially longtime port cities.

This suggests to me that liberalism is the default governing morality for a diverse, commercial society in a time dominated by global trade.

And so our policies end up being set by specialists in equality and utilitarian analysis, with traditionalist concerns going by the wayside.

The Social Pathologist said...


I've never heard of Haidt, but thanks for the tip. You're quite correct, his thinking does dovetail quite nicely. Post coming up.

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Anonymous said...

Humility is easy to sustain when you're surrounded by the humble. When you're surrounded by the haughty and arrogant then it becomes much harder to check your ego at the door. It is tragically rare to find a place on the internet where humility is the norm, although these places where they exist tend to be populated by persons significantly more intelligent than normal. Perhaps humility is correlated with intelligence (although it's obviously not a perfect correlation)