The Object of Emulation

By definition, most people are not in the top 1% of intellect, so books aimed primarily at that top 1% are never going to be best sellers. The question arises, what is  the most effective strategy for developing a best seller?  Thinking of Dan Brown and Malcolm Gladwell, it looks as if simply being a person of modest intellect may be an effective strategy for writers. I’m not saying that it is the only possible strategy, but it may be easier if one never thinks of anything too complicated in the first place, rather than having to weigh the level of difficulty of every sentence and concept. Probably one would have to be a lot smarter than average to effortlessly simulate normality, particularly in real time. It is said that John von Neumann could do this. In much the same way, emulating an obsolete computer is fairly easy –  for machines that are a decade more advanced.

This suggests that it is more important to be average than to appear average: when Gladwell talks about ‘igon values’, he’s being sincere. He may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you: he really is an idiot.

Of course, there are real advantages to high intelligence.  It seems to increase longevity, and it reduces  the chance of financial disaster.  Maybe the best approach would be a  temporary reduction in intelligence – quite practical, since artificial stupidity is a solved problem.  I think that many writers already make use of this strategy.

The only downside is the hangover.


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32 Responses to The Object of Emulation

  1. Lemniscate says:

    How many black russians to think like a Gladwell?

  2. Anonymous Coward says:

    Did Glad well just pee in your soup? What motivated this post?

  3. dearieme says:

    I’ve never understood why intelligent people have any time for Dickens: rubbish writer.

    • Ian says:

      You’re wrong. Dickens was a very fine writer who occasionally produced bad writing when he was in a hurry. If you can’t stomach the thought of ploughing your way through one of his better novels, like ‘David Copperfield’, you could try his short story ‘The Signalman’.

  4. Paavo says:

    I think Gladwell talks about igon values, because he uses mostly verbal sources.

    Also I think that familiarity with the subject is more important than intelligence. Large working memory does help understanding difficult ideas, but you get around your working memory limitations if you remember the meaning of the chunks that the sentence is made of. In foreign languages sentences with multiple negations are difficult, but easy when you intuitively remember the outcome of a complicated multiple negation phrase. Words that are pronounceable are easier to read, words that you have heard before, even if you don’t know their meaning, are easier to read in a sentence. Intelligence helps to gain familiarity faster.

    Autistic people who don’t appreciate what others know and don’t know make the worst writers. That might be reason why some intelligent people cannot make themselves understood.

  5. Wuff Stuff says:

    I’ve always found it interesting to compare the prose of GC himself and RK of GNXP. Both highly intelligent, both highly knowledgeable, both writing about fascinating things. But while one writes English clearly and compellingly, the other has, from time to time, reminded me of what Evelyn Waugh once said about Stephen Spender:

    “To watch him fumbling with our rich and delicate English language is like seeing a Se’vres vase in the hands of a chimpanzee…”

    And I wonder how much genetics has influenced the way some people woo English and some people rape it — and what role it had to play in Waugh’s own literary genius. Waugh = OE walh “foreign” = Welsh, and Waugh looked (and drank) remarkably like Dylan Thomas.

    • Waugh once met Dylan Thomas, and was horrified. He was said to have remarked, “he is exactly what I would be like without the Grace of God”.

      Waugh may have meant “Wog”. (I wonder if that is the true source for the slang word, not that stuff about WOG standing for “Western Oriental Gentleman” or being short for golliwog.) However, be that as it may, Waugh was not of Welsh origins, as far as I can recall. He went out of his way to mock the Welsh as an “unclean people” in a passage in “Decline and Fall”, which is redacted in some editions.

      • Wuff Stuff says:

        He went out of his way to mock the Welsh as an “unclean people” in a passage in “Decline and Fall”, which is redacted in some editions…

        Waugh also went out of his way to mock Jesuits and the Catholic church in Put Out More Flags, and to mock himself in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Comic writers do tend to put effort into writing funny things, and you should be careful to distinguish characters’ opinions from authors’ opinions. They’re not necessarily the same.

        “…I often think,” he continued, “that we can trace almost all the disasters of English history to the influence of Wales. Think of Edward of Carnarvon, the first Prince of Wales, a perverse life, Pennyfeather, and an unseemly death, then the Tudors and the dissolution of the Church, then Lloyd George, the temperance movement, Nonconformity and lust stalking hand in hand through the country, wasting and ravaging. But perhaps you think I exaggerate? I have a certain rhetorical tendency, I admit.”

  6. says:

    What would you guess the IQ of Malcolm Gladwell or Dan Brown to be? I.e., what sort of IQ would you consider “modest” intellect? I’m sure both writers are significantly smarter than the average joe on the street, even if they produce middlebrow BS.

  7. “I think that many writers already make use of this strategy.”

    Also German philosophers.

  8. Ben Atlas says:

    No, Gladwell secret weapon is this tool to generate his book ideas:

  9. jb says:

    Just because someone writes nonsense doesn’t mean he is an idiot. For example, there have been plenty of highly intelligent theologians who have written bookcases full of tightly reasoned books that, in the end, were full of nonsense. Making sense is hard, and it’s more than just a matter of raw brainpower, it’s a matter of wisdom. “Garbage in, garbage out” is a risk for everyone, even the most brilliant.

  10. dave chamberlin says:

    The art of telling people what they want to hear and successfully selling it as the truth is a skill set that requires slightly more intelligence than the listener that bought your bullshit. If there is a large disparity in intelligence than the bullshitee shall be put off by being put down, that is how the real world works. Now and then we get a skilled actor who can pull off the I’m just a little smarter than you act without detection but they are the exception to the rule.

    Moral of the story

    We gotta fix stupid before this busload of bozos drives off the cliff.

  11. Jim says:

    “igon value” is what it actually sounds like to an English speaker. Gladwell’s mistake reveals that he just had heard the term spoken but had never seen it in print and presumably hasn’t a clue as to what the term means. “Eigenvalue” is a rare example of a hybrid language word that works. The German is “Eigenwert” which can be translated as “characteristic value” or “proper value” terms which are often used in older literature but they sound clumsy. You’re not supposed to put words of different languages together but in the case of “eigenvalue” the euphonic beauty of the word overrides puristic objections. “Eigenvalue” is a beautiful barbarism. Eigenvalues themselves go back at least to Lagrange but I’m not sure what he called them.

    • Al says:

      maybe he got a bad editor? because even if verbally it sounded like igon, that could have been explained in a sidenote

      • Igon Man says:

        That’s the joke. The New Yorker is known for its rigorous editing process but it seems nobody at that esteemed journal of ideas had any idea what an “igon value” was supposed to be.

  12. Jim says:

    To jb – Andrew Wiles’ father was a Professor of Theology at Oxford or Cambridge, I’m not sure which. If his son was a chip off the old block I would guess that the old man was a smart theologian.

  13. Jim says:

    Actually I think eigenvalues go back before Lagrange to Euler. Look in Bourbaki’s Historical Notes.

  14. Jim says:

    To answer your question Cochran, the best strategy for a best seller is sex.

  15. Pingback: Can you effortlessly simulate normality?

  16. Pincher Martin says:

    I think Cochran greatly underestimates the degree to which even very smart people are unwilling to look at human nature as it is rather than as they would like it to be.

    This cognitive dissonance doesn’t cause them a “hangover”. To the contrary, they embrace their self-deception quite enthusiastically because it fills some need they have. Think of some of the sillier beliefs of Newton and Pascal. Or of the entire corpus of thought created by Marx and Freud. Or of how twisted Bobby Fischer’s genius became when it turned to politics instead of chess.

    Cochran mentions the novelist Dan Brown, but many literary works of much higher quality than Brown’s have sold very well. That’s because great writing often works on many different levels. Some have suggested that Vladimir Nabokov wrote Lolita in part because he wanted financial independence. He was tired of teaching American coeds, and Lepidoptery didn’t pay much better. Lolita‘s notoriety helped VN achieve that financial independence, but one can hardly say that he sold out with the book. Rather, he found a clever way of creating a literary masterpiece that inflamed the censors, captured the public’s imagination, and yet was safe enough to eventually skirt the authorities and find a large reading audience. Nabokov would soon use the proceeds from Lolita to retire to Switzerland and write more abstruse puzzle-novels that never sold as well as his most famous and more readable novel. But one can hardly argue that he dumbed it down to write Lolita.

    Cochran has said he thinks Jared Diamond has to lie to believe some of the scientific ideas he promotes, but is it really that difficult to believe that Diamond is simply repulsed by the thought of the inequality of man and uses his formidable intellectual energy to create a plausible narrative to explain certain inconvenient facts away? If so, is it that much different than an extremely intelligent man in the early modern era using his energy to argue for the existence of God because he finds a world without God just too unbearable to contemplate?

  17. Julian O'Dea says:

    I am not sure that von Neumann emulated normality. I think he was just normal. Some exceedingly brilliant men have been very normal. Bach is an example.

    Von Neumann had a more than healthy interest in women, and would probably be in trouble for sexual harassment these days (Feynman too). He liked good food. He dressed formally and looked like a serious person, like a bank manager. He liked dirty jokes, was highly sociable and admired government and business leaders.

    He died having received the Last Rites of the Catholic Church.

    Perhaps he was just a square.

    • anthon says:

      And Ronald Fisher, who could reasonably be called founder of two fields–population genetics and mathematical statistics–was a High Church Anglican, and took Communion every Sunday. We are all a mass of contradictions, in large part because we just want to fit in reasonably well with all the others…

  18. Ian says:

    When very brainy people successfully get along with the rest of us it’s more likely because they empathise rather than emulate. Emulation sounds like a strategy for high-functioning Asperger’s types.

  19. Jim says:

    There is a popular idea that all brainy people are unsociable oddballs like Newton, Cavendish, Goedel or Perelman. Clearly that is not the case. Gauss and Dirichlet seem to be quite normal people who could easily function in everyday social situations. I don’t think they were faking it. They were psychologically pretty normal – Gauss being on the extroverted side and Dirichlet a little more reserved but neither seem to be in the least autistic or Aspergery. They weren’t trying to emulate anything.

    Ramanujan only seems a little odd because he was an Orthodox Hindu in England in the early twentieth century. Back in India he doesn’t seem particularly unusual except for his ability to calculate complex continued fractions in his head almost instantaneously.

  20. Maciano says:

    Well, look at the upside: if your job is outsourced to China, you can always become a writer.

  21. Wuff Stuff says:

    Thinking of Dan Brown and Malcolm Gladwell, it looks as if simply being a person of modest intellect may be an effective strategy for writers…

    The Weird Tales Big Three — Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith — seem to support this. The least intelligent, R.E.H., was also the most successful. I’m not sure whether HPLg > CASg, or vice versa, but CAS was by far the better prose-writer. Up to Waugh’s standards, in fact.

  22. AG says:

    The most enjoyable post, yet seriously true.

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