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« Can Democracy Work in the Absence of Sufficient Sapience? | Main | Knowing/Thinking - Strategic »

October 15, 2013


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Georgi Marinov

The problem with the insufficient information people have is not one of inability to digest it. Although it's definitely true that humans would benefit greatly from an increased capacity to process and integrate large amounts of complex information, that's not what's preventing the large mass of people alive today from learning what they need in order to change their behavior.

The people who do understand those things are in general above average intelligence but it's not as if the common thread between them is that they mastered algebraic topology at the age of 15 or something of the sort.

The main determinants of whether people get it or not are two:

1) How much they have read on the relevant subjects (which are very numerous and each requires some depth of understanding as you point out)

2) Whether they hold some prior beliefs that prevent them from accepting certain facts about the world around them.

The second one can be dealt with with some further evolution of the human brain - we are very prone to forming strongly held but wholly unsubstantiated beliefs and this is for biological reasons.

But the first one is going to be very difficult. The reason people do not read and have no interest in educating themselves (even the meager amount of information and concepts taught in schools is as a rule forgotten as soon as exams are passed) is that they do not perceive it as increasing their immediate inclusive fitness. And that's justified because it really doesn't increase, in fact the opposite is true. It does increase their very long-term inclusive fitness (through its benefits for the species as a whole) but that's not how evolution works - evolution has no foresight and works from generation to generation. It's activities like going out partying and trying to hook up with the opposite sex that increase one's inclusive fitness, not spending countless hours reading books and browsing the internet educating yourself. And that's pretty much going to stay that way, i.e. I don't really see where a sufficiently strong selective pressure for the kind of behavior so few members of our species exhibit is going to come from.


'Twas ever thus and the world goes on.

Tony Noerpel

Maybe you are talking about the new plutocrats; folks with high IQs, high capacity to focus and work, technical background (engineering or physics), driven to be extremely successful (artfully greedy) or simply to survive.

If we could settle a 10 million year bet, though, I'd bet on the cetacea. :+)



Roman plutocrats fared not to well. It was those with a sword in their hand that became feudal lords.


Strange how (the last paragraph of) this post was both uplifting and depressing at the same time. Reminded me of the same juxtaposition of feeling I got whilst reading episode 48 of JMGreer's Star's Reach, wherein one of the messages from Delta Pavonis IV is that interstellar travel is technologically impossible.

Tom Fugate

This is uncommonly good thinking as usual. However I am not convinced that any humans at all are going to make it through the bottleneck. And if any do I don't think that your desired trait of higher sapience will be selected for.

For one thing those with some awareness of the problems are for the most part not having any children. But who knows maybe some highly sapient individuals are right now building remote hideaways somewhere in South America and some centuries from now when the background radiation levels have died down their descendents will be able to carry on the homo line. I'm not really sure I'd want to be one of them.


I see people as predominantly emotional creatures, with parts of the limbic - reptilian brain overriding other areas better equipped to engage in logical or sequential thinking. It seems that people are “hard wired” for short term thinking and an undervaluing of future prospects. Cognitive biases present as virtual “short circuits” in which logical thinking becomes superseded in favor of simpler, more reflexive programs. Emotive, irrational and reflexive thinking is especially dominant in the context of a perceived threats. Of course some prerequisite knowledge is required for understanding some of the greater threats, the looming challenges that face humanity. With training and practice, some have learned to override their primitive impulses, recognize and ignore some of the cognitive distortions. It seems however, that even among highly intelligent and highly educated leaders, there's been a general failure toward making optimal choices, changing behaviors in accordance with these enormous emerging problems featuring systemic failures in social, economic and ecological systems... I'm not seeing a significant correlation between logic and intelligence as events unfold. There has been some excellent leadership among wide boundary thinkers, some in the natural sciences, for example, engaging with mainstream leadership and the public through non-mainstream electronic media, and through speaking engagements, but clearly their efforts to educate have not proven sufficient to overcome the cognitive and cultural barriers, not enough to penetrate the barriers of intellect or knowledge, and certainly not enough to overpower the more obstinate force behind human behaviors, the limbic core. Perhaps one might do better by devising ways to circumvent the cognitive filters, re-frame the message, the content, so that it might trigger some of the more primitive systems of the brain? Personally, I don't expect much success in the educational, information oriented approach. I suspect that aggregate human behavior will not change until a series of crises occur, prodding people into reactive modes and with little forethought or long term planning. I guess I'm a pessimist with regard to the plight of human civilization as we know it. :-P


"They are almost wholly ignorant of the connection between money and energy, for example."
I have yet to hear any mention of that one in the mass media. I suppose it is possible that such ideas may never go mainstream! Society (and even economists some would say) will bristle with popular myths and superstitions and short cut explanations will abound. :-P


Ahh... economists. I wonder what line on the chart would reflect their depth of knowledge. Somewhere below the red one at the bottom, I suspect.

step back

In response to Oliver (at 10-17-2013 above), I suspect the chart has to be expanded laterally (on the right side) to include abstract cognitive fields such as mathematics, logic, philosophy, fantasy, economics, science fiction etc.
For many a folk, the peaking of in-depth knowledge and grasp lies there rather than to the left in the realm of physics, chemistry, etc.


It's not an information processing problem so much as it's a non-iterated Prisoner's Dilemma. If everyone avoids polluting and overpopulation, everybody prospers a little bit. If most people avoid those things, defaulters prosper a lot.

By the time the planet is crowded and polluted, there isn't much time for round 2.


I can agree with the scaling as long as it is a logarithmic. Average knowledge is extremely low. We scored 24th in science on the last PISA test. On the latest OECD skills test our adjusted score for literacy was 20th of 22 countries, numeracy was last(22nd). Also lowest in problem solving in technology rich environments. We are an anomaly in the OECD.


The kind of knowledge that's lacking is that approximating "groking" from the old Heinlein book. Here's a quick definition:

Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthling assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

The only people remotely approaching this level would be the ascetics, monks, zen monastery folk - who LIVE it and don't talk about it. All the "knowledge" you refer to in your essay involves "book learnin'" but doesn't necessarily engender any lifestyle change in the academic pursuer that shows any accord with the world.
Now perhaps that's because "most humans" are caught up in civilization, causing all the problems we now have, and even the "intelligent ones" are bound to it by way of their livelihoods, whereas the zen monk, for example, lives simply, desires nothing and works with nature by being a good steward.

Robin Datta

It will play out as they will be the last people standing

Standing - let's hope so.

step back

Part of systems thinking is thinking about how others (others of our species) think. For example, understanding how mathematicians think, how economists think, how liberal arts majors think. I don't think I understand why my comment was deleted. :-(

step back

All I was trying to say was that the chart could be expanded to include depth of knowledge in economic thought, in mathematical thought, etc.

Reverse Engineer

How did you come up with the Scaling in this graph? How come the various lines never Cross Over?

There is a bias in here that the Ph.D. in Biology is ABOVE everybody else without a Ph.D. in EVERY field of knowledge you identified.

Redline folks with NO Masters, NO Ph.D. are DUMMIES in EVERYTHING on this chart. I have a few folks I chat with regularly with NO College Education of any type who think more clearly on many topics than Ph.D.s do, even in their OWN area of Expertiese! LOL.

If you are going to pursue this idea, you need to divorce it from the Credential System Universities use for Certifying a person is Knowledgeable or Smart.

You cannot pidgeon hole people on Intelligence, Wisdom or Systems Thinking ability based on what kind of Degree they got attached to this system over the years. I was inside it, I KNOW most of the folks with Ph.D.s are quite clueless individuals for the most part on most anything EXCEPT their specialization.

As for ME, my line on the chart does not even APPEAR far as I can tell. Certainly I am a "Systems Thinker", but that does not put me in the STRATOSPHERE above everyone else on everything EXCEPT an occassional Ph.D. with lots of expertiese in some specific area.

You gotta work on this graph George. It does not reflect reality.


step back

@George- Thank you for releasing me from spam jail

@Reverse Engineer-Thank you for joining the conversation.

You have to give credit to George for at least coming up with a provocative diagram.

I'm starting to view the diagram as a sort of strip chart; one of thousands of such strip charts.

It is drawn for the small-scale physics to chemistry to biology track.

Another such strip chart (not shown) might follow the track of starting with small-scale physics (e.g., subatomic) and then extending into electromagnetism, then semiconductor chemistry, then computer technology, then internet, then social networks, etc.

Yet another such strip might follow the thinking of a mechanical engineer as opposed to a biochemistry one or that of an electrical engineer and so on.

For each of these thousands of strip charts, some people will have a sub-area or two of in-depth knowledge while most have close to zero.

I don't believe George was saying one must have a PhD. That was just a convenient example, a metaphor, for getting the message through.

At the end of the day, most of us have close to zero in-depth knowledge in most things and shine along one or a handful of spectral lines along a spectrum that contains close to infinity of such lines.

step back

@Reverse Engineer: I created a new post on the DoomDiner forum site and called it the George Mobus Mobius Strip.

Any comments?

Link for it is this:


The credential system is necessary to support the silo-ization of gate kept professions and the specialization of knowledge that such demands.

George says, "Here we see a marked increase in depth for that aspect which, owing to the amount of underlying knowledge needed by a PhD in biology, includes much deeper than average knowledge of physics and chemistry. But beyond that the PhD, with the highest level of education available, shows a very narrow band of truly deep understanding and in only that one aspect."

The point is not intelligence; the point is functional application of applied knowledge, which is what I understand him to mean by "systems thinking." Or as you would put it, "emerging through the zero point."

Last night I watched the film "The Edge," written by David Mamet and starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin. Terrific film. In it, three men are stranded in the wilds of Alaska and come to be stalked by a Kodiak bear. Survival comes to dependent upon the sort of "systems thinking," or applied intelligence discussed here.

"Why do people die in the wild?"

"I don't know. Why?"

"They die of shame."


"Shame. They beat themselves up worrying about how they got there instead of doing the one thing that would save them."

What's that?"


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