Signal to Noise

Can you dismiss an argument because the originator is a bad person? Obviously not. But if the originator lies a lot, or simply doesn’t know jack about anything, the probability that the argument is worth anything can be low, so that it might not be among the first 100,000 things on your must-read list.

I mean, it’s perfectly possible to have a valid mathematical theorem emerge from Johnson noise, but what are the odds?

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108 Responses to Signal to Noise

  1. Jerome says:

    Well, on the other hand, there’s the theory that the entire Universe is an astronomically improbable quantum fluctuation that nonetheless came about. When you are talking about an infinite amount of time, or maybe even about the probability of something occurring external to Time …

    • Rhetocrates says:

      I dunno about you, but whether or not the Universe has an infinite amount of time (a proposition not proven by modern science), I sure don’t. I’ll be dead in 100 years, tops.

  2. bob k. mando - ( your mom always did like me best ) says:

    possible to have a valid mathematical theorem emerge from Johnson noise, but what are the odds?

    i’m pretty sure the odds could be expressed via a valid mathematical theorem …

  3. pyrrhus says:

    Monkeys with typewriters….

  4. inertial says:

    What prompted this?

    • pop says:

      Pinker’s old article on Kevin MacDonald makes this argument. Basically “I have limited time and don’t owe anyone a hearing, and MacDonald gives many indications of not being worth my time.” Nathan Cofnas revisited that argument recently and said Pinker might have been right then, but that MacDonald is still being talked about so maybe now is worth giving a hearing to.

  5. Space Ghost says:

    it’s perfectly possible to have a valid mathematical theorem emerge from Johnson noise, but what are the odds?

    You could probably work this out using the Curry-Howard correspondence ( and Chaitin’s Constant ( for a suitable universal Turing machine.

  6. ilkarnal says:

    The problem is that if you’re allowed to dismiss someone because he seems too high noise-to-signal, that loophole is likely to be misapplied to people who are simply annoying or inconvenient. In practice, you seem to be quite patient with people who are very ignorant or misled. I think that’s a good thing.

    There are things people can bring to the table that are not new and valid arguments, but are nevertheless valuable. You yourself have noted that high IQ people disproportionately hold certain crazy beliefs – surrounding yourself with and only interacting with highly intelligent people will be problematic, will leave you bereft of some important knowledge.

    What you seem frustrated with in practice is NOT people who ‘don’t know jack about anything,’ but people whose heads have been expertly or inexpertly filled with nonsense.

    • gcochran9 says:

      There are all kinds of people that I don’t pay much attention to. Sometimes I’m wrong about that, but not very often.

      On this blog, I have some patience, but only so much.

    • Magus says:

      Greg’s (and all ours really) time is the constraint. Every minute he spends listening to a nut (even a brilliant nut) is a minute he didn’t spend listening to a brilliant non-nut.

      I agree, you gotta balance that whole type i/ii thing, so presumably ‘ideal’ nut-listening is more than zero, but not much more.

      I’m reminded of beginning of second episode of Billions (a guilty pleasure), where billionaire hedge fund manager Axelrod gets off the phone with a nutty gold standard proponent named ‘Peter’ (a not too subtle reference to Schiff), and his secretary apologizes for putting him through:

      “If I’d have known it was a gold play, I’d have never put him through-”
      “Always put that lunatic through. One out of every 200 ideas he has is f*cking brilliant.”

      • I disagree the time is a main constraint for most people, not all people are like Greg. And I think that people with lots of spare time are as likely to dismiss/ban people as bloggers with numeruous readers.

      • Jim says:

        Something like that was said of Schroedinger.

      • charles w abbott says:

        Basically said of Winston Churchill, his idea of sinking hulk ships (full of cement) to make ad hoc port / breakwater structures during the Normandy landings in WWII. To paraphrase, “Typical Winston. He has about a hundred ideas like that every day, and maybe four or five of them are any good.” In A first rate madness by Nassir Ghaemi.

        John Train said the same thing about financial advisors. Some of them have a valuable actionable thought once every two years. But the standard business model (as of 20 years ago when I last checked) was a monthly newsletter packed with ideas, most of them fluff. At the limit of this tendency is the Money magazine at the checkout counter that says “One hundred things to do with your money now”.

    • I wonder how much blank slatism in high-IQ individualials will diasappear if we control for how much low IQ people they interacted with.

    • Jacob says:

      I would be surprised to learn that smarter people were crazier on the whole. Stuff like schizophrenia, epilepsy, insomnia, depression, anxiety negatively correlate with IQ- why wouldn’t they?

      The exception must be those fun cases of antagonistic pleiotropy and heterozygote advantage (congenital adrenal hyperplasia makes you brainier, but masculinizes women far past the point where you’d think it adaptive). How much of mental illness can we attribute to that, and how much to the simple fact that our brains are complicated and can break down?

      My guess is that we notice smart crazy people (Kary Mullis) more often because they make themselves noticed.

      • Greying Wanderer says:

        100% anecdotal but i’d say you get more crazy people at both extremes – very dumb and very smart

        • Toddy Cat says:

          I doubt that smart people are actually crazier, but, due to being smart, they are able to convince themselves and others of crazier things, so operationally, they might as well actually be crazy. As Orwell put it, after running down a list of absurdities that British intellectuals had believed about the USSR, Hitler, etc, “One has to be an Intellectual to believe such things. No ordinary man could be such a fool.”

          • If you are very strong, you can force in a screw that has been cross-threaded. That doesn’t mean the screw was properly aligned to begin with.

            • bob k. mando - ( your mom always did like me best ) says:

              to continue the analogy, once you’ve got the screw going cross threaded, it quickly becomes quite easy.

              because you’ve stripped the threads out.

              in much the same way, once you start stipulating to counter-factuals ( Bruce transJenner is a woman ) or assuming as True things you know to be false ( women are just as physically capable as men, which is why Bruce won “her” gold medals … Science, bitches! ) you quickly wind up turning into the equivalent of a Flat Earther wondering how many elephants are dancing on the back of the turtle.

          • Greying Wanderer says:

            i was thinking of actual mental health cases but yes in terms of “clever-silly” you’re right – people need to be clever for that.

      • enkypala says:

        Nature is exploring the limits of our neurological design in various ways – some of them less optimal, but it must try.
        On the other hand suicidal correlation with IQ is there in plain sight – ones that are better about predicting the future are clearly more suicidal than others. Makes sense.

        • Jacob says:

          Humans have like half the mutation rate of rodents, orders of magnitude less than bacteria. We’re not set up to roll the die more times than we need to.

          If anything, we get all these glitches because we’re already complex. You couldn’t have an autistic horseshoe crab: it doesn’t have a cerebellum, for example.

  7. By standard actuarial tables Greg has something like 450 weeks left to live (although, let’s hope its more than that). It takes a good week of focus to thoroughly read a book and the buggers keep publishing more all the time. Exactly how many of those precious weeks is he going to be expected to waste? A filter mechanism is clearly needed

    • j says:

      Even the best of the minds needs entertainment.

    • gcochran9 says:

      More like 1003 weeks. You sure you know how to use a life table?

      • Jim says:

        I was just going to reply on that. A one hundred year old does not have a negative expected future lifetime.

        • arch1 says:

          Jim, your observation doesn’t invalidate Helen’s statement. (If it did, it could be tweaked to invalidate Greg’s 1003 weeks as well; it could also be generalized to prove that each of us has an infinite life expectancy).

          • gcochran9 says:

            The guy’s estimate (for me) was sufficiently wrong that it showed he didn’t understand how life tables work.

          • Jim says:

            The fact that expected future lifetime is never negative implies that it is infinite?

            • j says:

              There are good expectancy tables on Life Insurance companies’s websites. Since we know nothing of the health of his parents, grandparents, his life and driving style, and hobbies (any sky diving? rock climbing?), etc. we cannot estimate his probabilities. Anyway, Omnes vulnerant, ultima necat.

      • I just used DeathClock ( I was told that they use actuarial tables to run it (but I could be misinformed)

        • Jim says:

          Your answer seemed way too low so I guessed that you had subtracted Greg’s attained age from life expectancy at birth. There are all kinds of actuarial tables for all kinds of purposes. The correct formula for future life expectancy at attained age x is
          S (x oo) l(t)/l(x) dt where l is the life table.

        • Ursiform says:

          I tried this. In normal mode I have 12 years left. In optimistic mode I have 27 years left. In pessimistic mode I died 7 years ago.

          Not thinking much of it …

        • Anuseed says:

          It gives you a different estimation each time you run it!

  8. dearieme says:

    Do any of Reich’s chapters fall into the class “lies a lot, or simply doesn’t know jack about anything”?

    • Leonard says:

      I dunno, haven’t read it yet. But obviously Reich has some valuable info, so he gets past the filter.

      It is useful to classify at least some forms of “noise”, so that we can de-spin some people. In particular everyone here probably has a theory of progressive signaling, although for some it may be quite inchoate. Part of this theory is: if you falsify the progressive narrative, progressives will attempt to reduce your status and disemploy you. Thus people tend to put a lot of progressive-compliant squid-ink in their work. Obviously Reich’s situation fits this model. So we can expect a lot of progressive noises in his work that we should be able to de-spin.

      • Alex says:

        Philosophers used to write in an esoteric fashion, so only the initiated may know their true thoughts and they may be safe from the vengeance of society. The fate of Socrates would have been foremost in their minds. Leo Strauss discussed the role pf philosopher in society and the relation between truth and self-preservation. We have rediscovered, as I keep reading on Steve Sailer’s blog, the art of writing esoterically – less insane NYT authors place the important bits at the end of a long article, scientists like Reich ritually genuflect to their moral better by casting some dirt on confirmed transgressors and so on while actually undermining the narrative etc.

    • Yudi says:

      Some people have decided they want to be very angry about Reich’s book, despite not having read it. Not sure why. There is no chapter in it that is completely worthless, by any means.

    • mapman says:

      No, not really.

  9. Just work out their Brier score, and follow those with low handicaps.

  10. dave chamberlin says:

    Hers’s an article from one of our most trusted news sources on the ramifications of trying to be patient with people. Tis a tale of woe titled “Open-minded man grimly realizes how much life he’s wasted listening to bullshit.”

  11. DH13 says:

    “I mean, it’s perfectly possible to have a valid mathematical theorem emerge from Johnson noise, but what are the odds?”

    Higher than life randomly originating out inert material.

    • dearieme says:

      “Higher than life randomly originating out inert material.”

      What’s the alternative? A God that randomly originated out of inert material and then decided to take a keen interest in a mean-spirited bunch of bandits in the hill country of Palestine?

      • What other bandits would you have preferred?

        • dearieme says:

          Greeks, Chinese, Mayans, Elamites, Sumerians, Egyptians, Harappans, Polynesians, … Neanderthals, Hobbits, Bushmen and Hottentots … Etruscans, Basques, mysterious dark chaps in Amazonia, …

          His world was awash with interesting bandits. Australian Aborigines: how could God resist the attractions of the wielders of the come-back boomerang? If he’d only been patient, he could have concentrated on the Vikings. Lovely boats they built, the Vikings.

  12. Steve Sailer says:

    Here’s an example:

    But she turned out to be right about the Aryan Urheimat question, while the more reliable Colin Renfrew turned out to be wrong.

  13. Oftopic: regarding Lewontin’s arguments: which examples exist of sister species where in-variance greater than between-variance?

  14. The Z Blog says:

    Dismissing the opinions of a liar or evil person is prudent. It is not that they are incapable of saying something useful. It is that their dishonestly and evilness makes the search for truth more difficult in the generality. Whatever they can add to the stock of human knowledge or your stock of knowledge, is outweighed by the cost.

    As far as dumb people or people who are prone to error. Assuming their errors are not the result of mendacity or duplicity, that they are honestly trying to get the right answers, they can be worth reading, in that they provide an example of how not to think about a problem. Or, maybe they are just a useful cautionary tale.

    I don’t know about anyone else, but I learn a lot from reading your take downs of people like Cordelia Fine. That and they are wildly entertaining.

  15. The G_Man says:

    Possibly apropos, Vox Day has the following to say about you:

    I looked at it. I also read his paper “Natural History of Ashkenazi Intelligence”. He is better informed than I am concerning the genetic details. I am without question smarter than he is and would easily destroy him on the subject.

    He says Ashkenazi Jews have an average IQ of 107.5, citing Ron Unz and Flynn. Have at it.

    • josh says:

      why would he think he is smarter?

    • josh says:

      did you read that post? He seems to be arguing with nobody. He is arguing against those who say that Ashkenazi have high IQ by arguing that non-Ashkenazi don’t necessarily have high IQ.

    • dearieme says:

      “He is better informed than I am concerning the genetic details”. Gurgle: I love it when “details” is used dismissively.

    • bob k. mando - ( your mom always did like me best ) says:

      the details of the genetics have nothing to do with the weaknesses in the studies purporting to prove an Ashkenazi intelligence circa 115.

      now, perhaps Vox is wrong about his critiques of the studies. and he’s certainly made some ( possibly false ) assumptions of his own. but when the author of at least one of the studies cited went OUT OF HIS WAY to state that his study should NOT be cited as being applicable to the IQ of the general Ashkenazi population … it seems likely that Vox has a point.

      • gcochran9 says:

        The neat thing is that if you look at the correlates, stuff like income and college graduation rates and Nobel prizes etc, everything else you can think fits an average IQ of about 112. Perhaps they’re faking it – if so, doing a good job.

        I’ve looked at all the IQ studies.

        • Halvorson says:

          Looking at the correlates as a reality check is sensible, but the same correlates do not reflect all that well upon Israeli born Jews. Israel is a pretty good chess country overall, but this is almost entirely due to Soviet immigrants. The top Israeli born Ashkenazi player is Avital Boruchovsky, who is 467th globally. They’ve got four native born science Nobelists (all in chemistry) and one Fields Medalist, which is very good but not overwhelmingly so.

          This is all of a way of saying that Israelis seem to have a level of achievement in line with their mediocre PISA results. I don’t think Lynn’s estimate of a 103 IQ is too far off for Israeli Ashkenazi, which makes it more likely that American Jews are 0.5 standard deviations above the mean as opposed to 1. This is about what you’d expect from the GSS surveys that show their vocabulary scores to be roughly equal with that of Episcopalians, although their incomes are much higher.

          Kevin MacDonald once estimated that Jewish Verbal IQ was 125, which was so stupid that I didn’t bother to read him any further. It is possible to overpraise these people.

          • albatross says:

            It seems like some questions to ask w.r.t. the apparently very high Eastern European Jewish average IQ in the US, but not in Israel, is to ask:

            a. Was there some kind of intelligence filter/selection in migrating to the US?

            b. Is there some kind of boiling off/condensation process going on inside the US to increase the average IQ of Jews here relative to elsewhere?

            c. Is there some kind of intelligence filter/selection in migrating from the US to Israel, such that they’re getting a less impressive subset of that population than we’re retaining?

            d. Is there some environmental factor driving average IQ down there relative to here?

            e. Are the genetics for Eastern European Jews in Israel notably different from the US? (Like in terms of fraction of non-Ashkenazi ancestry?)

        • Glengarry says:

          Is it reasonably accurate to estimate the mischling IQ average as the average of the parents’ averages?

        • Glengarry says:

          Would you expect any changes due to renormalizing the baseline pop IQ over time and the Flynn effect?

    • MawBTS says:

      A link to the post might prove useful:

      Vox Day is an alt right personality, with all attendant caveats. He is similar to Mencius Moldbug, except where Mencius is a washed-up slam poet, Vox is a washed-up synthpop musician.

      He’s unwise to throw down the gauntlet, considering that Greg has been known to try to fistfight his critics.

    • tautology5628 says:

      If voxday says he is smarter than cochran, he must be right!!!!!!!!

    • catte says:

      Vox is a huge Dunning-Kruger case, very sad

      • Toddy Cat says:

        Vox is certainly a very smart guy, but he is almost certainly not as smart as he thinks he is, if only because no one could possibly be that smart.

  16. Yudi says:

    My rules of thumb:

    Most journalism nowadays is worse than useless to read, unless they are talking about something far away (that they actually know about) which has no ideological valence in Western civilization. These days, it’s possible to contact scientists and other experts directly, so why bother with the middle man?

    Ignore people who are, or are highly likely to be, inverse weathervanes (wrong priors, wrong concerns, wrong conclusions). This includes most sociologists and anthropologists, except the biosocial ones.

    Be skeptical of other fields that have had serious problems, like social psychology, but be more willing to admit the possibility of finding people of worth. As Greg has said, at least social psych is belatedly trying to correct its mistakes, unlike the above. Most social sciences fall into this category, including a lot of evolutionary psychology.

    Be skeptical, but more openminded about, scientists and public intellectuals who seem uninteresting/wrong on some things, if they have spoken out for a correct cause at some cost to themselves (e.g., Sam Harris types).

    Harder sciences and some humanities/social sciences, those heavily integrating evolutionary and genetic theory, are far more believable. Always watch for replication, good sample sizes, etc. though.

    • Hugh Mann says:

      “Most journalism nowadays is worse than useless to read, unless they are talking about something far away (that they actually know about) which has no ideological valence in Western civilization.”

      Yes, and the same applies to Wikipedia – pretty good on uncontentious subjects, crap on anything “political”. At the moment some cretin is removing all wiki references citing Richard Lynn, for example.

      Same applies with some people’s politics. I found Steven Rose’s The Chemistry of Life a useful biochemistry primer, despite his being on the wrong side of history.

      • Yudi says:

        Sure–different levels of truthfulness and expertise can coexist within the same person. I didn’t mean to suggest otherwise.

  17. Harold says:

    Another argument tossed at me is the contention that, since I haven’t read the weighty tomes of all six of the main proponents of some field of obvious baloney, that I am not in a position to dismiss it, and furthermore, though usually not explicitly stated, my interlocutor is the more learned man. I usually reply that it doesn’t reflect well on their intellectual acumen that they still haven’t been able to ascertain that the field is baloney whereas I could tell with little more than a glance.

    This is a somewhat unsatisfying response, unless it annoys them, since I have told people that they obviously haven’t read the literature about some field, psychometry, say, and the validity of IQ as a reasonable measure of intelligence, and they might reply likewise to me that they could tell at a glance that it is baloney.

  18. dave chamberlin says:

    Everybody here talks about how to detect bullshit in other people. Nobody talks about how to recognize bullshit within themselves.

    Even talking about how to recognize your inner bullshit makes one sound like a dipshit self help guru. Lord knows we have enough of those gibbering fools.

    A lot of people here have high IQ’s and talk about the productivity of applied science. Now that is all fine and dandy, if you are bright and love science keep right on walking down that road, but meanwhile back in our fucked up reality we have an overwhelming majority of very confused average folks whom are powerless and threatened by a complex world that is far far beyond their understanding.

    They turn to salesmen who pitch “I have all the simple answers to complex questions that actually work and guess what, you were right all along. Ain’t that swell.”

    Greg Cochran can’t compete with salesmen that tell people what they want to hear. If we aren’t as articulate as him, neither can we. The shitshow will roll on, the world will become progressively more complex and the dumbfounded masses will tune into their own preferred brand of simple answers to complex questions.

    What we can do is love to read. We can read the best books written by the best minds and we can remain forever amazed and fascinated by the world around us, especially when it is interpreted in a fruitful way by a discipline within science or history. While it may frustrate us that so many people are so damned stupid and willfully ignorant we remain humble as to how little we know and how much we have to learn.

    • dearieme says:

      Know thyself.

    • albatross says:

      Detecting BS in yourself is definitely harder and less fun than detecting it in others.

      I think a really good first step to that is to ask yourself, when you’re just sure something must be true because it just has to be, how you’d know if it were false. How would the world look different? What evidence would you expect to see? What observations or experiments would disprove it.

      Just as with some one else’s dumbass innumerate story or moral panic, if you just try looking for some numbers and engaging System 2 instead of System 1 (thinking things through logically, writing down logical statements and arguments and equations), you can often find fuzzy thinking that you were accepting.

      The other thing I can recommend is to try to find smart people with intellectual integrity who disagree with your basic worldview, and read what they have to say. Even when they’re wrong, they’re likely to teach you something.

      For all their other failings, the Less Wrong/rationalist crowd genuinely try to figure out how to avoid mental biases and smell your own bullshit, and they do provide advice on how to do it. I think some of their conclusions are goofy and Elezier is this generation’s Ayn Rand, for good and ill, but their methods are often pretty helpful.

  19. Dale Force says:

    I have been lead far astray by reading books, and figuring out who knows anything is difficult without some basic knowledge.

    • MawBTS says:


      But sometimes those books steered me on to the right path, because they created a curiosity to learn more.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      A nice tool for separating the salesmen from the scholar in books is to read the highest rated negative reviews of the book over at amazon. It’s a great way of finding the flaws in a book that other experts in the field might pick up on but we wouldn’t.

  20. charles w abbott says:

    Great discussion thread!

    Highly intelligent creative people are more likely to be “crazy” than highly intelligent people who do “heavy lifting” of a mundane, sensible type (poets in the first class, engineers in the second class, methinks). Nancy Andreasen made a decent stab at this argument in The creating brain published by Dana Press. Her sample size was small, but it’s a study with controls. Her essential conclusion was that creative people tend toward bipolar disorder, which is not a new idea since Aristotle thought it about poets.

    Based on my casual familiarity with Hans Eysenck’s work, he was getting at the same thing. Bruce Charlton has argued for this, too.

    Some people rarely have an idea. Other people seem to have more ideas than they can test in 5 lifetimes.

    As many commenters have noted here, one thing to beware of is liars. Many weirdos have wild ideas that they won’t lie consistently about–they just trot out to the pretty idea to look at it in the daylight. Watch out for the liars and those who double down. And be on guard about delusion based on self-interest

  21. charles w abbott says:

    Somebody wrote that Joseph Schumpeter tended to have heterodox ideas about everything, from economic theory to the best recipe for a dry martini. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read him–it just means you need to remember the personality behind the writing. There must be a certain personality that is wired this way–part of personality style.

  22. SlushFundPuppie says:

    Unrelated, but the ad appearing under this blog post:

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  23. Ruritanian says:

    I was once in an organization with a very nice, but rather dumb woman. It’s possible that she had some sort of disability; she had an odd look about her, and I’d met someone else with that same odd look who was also slow of mind. At a meeting of the organization, there was a proposal made by a highly energetic, well respected individual, who wanted to spend a bunch of money on something useless. The proposal looked like it was going to pass, if only because the exact reasons that it was useless were difficult to articulate, and there didn’t seem to be a good way to block it. The very nice, dumb woman raised her hand and asked a series of absolutely eviscerating questions. It was all I could do to not jump up and applaud. At the end the proposal was, out of kindness to the now less well respected individual, tabled forever.

  24. et.cetera says:

    Jordan Peterson comes to mind. Maybe humans are addicted to a certain kind of noise.

  25. dave chamberlin says:

    Dumbshits are far more accurate in their assessment of races than intellectuals. Now an intellectual can analyze the data, he can compare this bell shaped curve with that one and he can interpret the data in a mathematical manner full of impressive graphs, spreadsheets, and multiple studies, but at the end of the day he is looking at help wanted ads.

  26. MEH 0910 says:

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