Information as a replacement for intelligence
We pursue information to become more intelligent but what if the opposite is happening?
Amidst a major shift, something is always lost:
- As we developed an “external stomach” – the ovens and factories – much of our sensibility to food & how to make it got lost.
- As we developed an “external body” – the industrial machines – our bodies became weak & muscles withered away.
- As we developed an “external brain” – the Information age – we’re losing intelligence.
Some thoughts on this:
Information as a replacement for curiosity
When you think you know, the mind closes.
“Good enough” guesses
For many, the explanation to nearly everything that’s wrong with the world is capitalism. For others, everything that’s wrong can be fixed by crypto. In similar fashion, in Western countries, anything that goes against democracy is immediately understood as wrong, and we should naturally approve all policies and measures that (are said to) uphold democracy. Suggesting anything contrary is a third rail. Anything that “science says” is believed to be fact (even though that’s contrary to the nature of science). Whenever there is the right label next to a statement, like “scientists say” or “to uphold democracy”, our own curiosity and critical thinking stops, and we take the statement at face value.
What’s the underlying mechanism? Through constant consumption, we have acquired information from a broad range of topics but have shallow understanding of each. This leads to a lot of “good enough” guesses and pseudo-intelligence. If the stock market closes on a high today, the uneducated has no idea why, and they know it. The financially educated also have no idea, but they think they know because they have some information to form a good enough guess.
We constantly make decisions and hold opinions with tangible impact on our health and life, with half-baked ideas we were exposed to years ago. How many people still eat according to the food pyramid because “science said so” when they were in school? I have changed my mind on almost everything after I’ve done my own research and thinking on the subject, and I suspect most people don’t do the legwork because they think they know already. In this sense, information replaces curiosity and closes the mind.
What kind of information gets to you first?
As the mind closes when we receive information, the question of clearer thinking turns from “what kind of information are you exposed to” to “what kind of information are you exposed to first”. We all know that once we have adopted an opinion or worldview, we are less likely to consider the opposite due to confirmation bias and ego.
The most likely mediums through which you gain information are mass and social media. The first issue is that you’re unlikely to find really good ideas or writing in mainstream channels. Just think how most information is ordered: by recency. Instead of getting ideas that people 100 years from now would care about, we get ideas that you only care about within the next 24 hours. As the saying goes, to understand how useless the news is, just look at a newspaper from a month or a year ago.
The second problem is that you’re unlikely to find really different ideas or writing in mainstream news or social media. Nothing deviates from the Overton window - the range of socially acceptable topics or arguments that can be voiced publicly. If your opinions align neatly with what’s on the news or with your friend group, or if you feel comfortable sharing all your opinions with your family, your information diet is too mainstream. This is a telltale sign that information has replaced a person’s intelligence – the mainstream got to them first, and they haven’t reconsidered the matter themselves.
A person who thinks things through themselves probably finds their opinions deviating from the mainstream on several matters. Sometimes so much they don’t dare voice their opinions out loud. Indeed, a certain disagreement is needed for intelligence. If I agreed on everything that others believe, there would be no curiosity or intelligence, just obedience and conformity.
It is much harder to unlearn than to learn, so one should reshuffle their exposure to information into one where there’s as little to unlearn as possible. One obvious way to do this is to prefer time-tested, older information; “facts”, mainstream views and patterns today may well be outdated in 10 years, whereas those that have lasted for 1,000 or 10,000 years are seldomly disproven.
The input becomes the output
What worries me is that if all I consume is mediocre stuff, will I only be able to generate mediocre thoughts and act in mediocre ways? If you observe others, you notice probably 95% of what anyone around you says, beyond minutiae, is a direct paraphrasing of what they’ve read or heard on a podcast recently. There is a huge correlation between the information diet and “their” opinion. Once you notice this, it’s impossible to unsee it. So I better consume information I want my future thinking to resemble, or not consume any at all.
The same happens with all kinds of behavior, all kinds of information. For example, I have lit up a fireplace probably 300 times - but never did I consider the best way to do it. I just did it once years ago, saw that it worked, and continued the same way every time. Turns out, I was doing it all wrong. You’re supposed to light the fire from above the wood pile (not below it, like I had done it) because it produces better efficiency & less harmful waste. A 1-minute Google search would have taught me this years ago, if I had just remained curious. But I thought I knew.
A forcing function for maintaining curiosity is to demand specificity. Very specifically, why do I believe lighting from below is best? That would have revealed immediately that I do not, in fact, know it to be best. Very specifically, why do you believe a food pyramid diet is healthier than a carnivore diet (or keto, or anything)? If you cannot give a specific answer, you have probably changed your lifestyle based on insufficient information instead of your own intelligence.
Our brains are lazy. Instead of creating an original answer, it tries to retrieve an answer that it has already heard or constructed before. And because it’s lazy, it doesn’t check if the answer is true - it just retrieves it for you. The input becomes the output. A child is the most curious person and fastest learner in the world, for they have no prior information to look back on.
Information as a replacement for judgment
We must avoid becoming the rationalist who does not get too attached to their spouse because data shows that 50% of marriages end in divorce.
“What do you think about x”
“Well, the studies say--”
“No, I asked what do you think about x”
“Well, I haven’t read enough about it to form an opin–
“That’s not what I asked!”
There are people who are unable to think about things themselves. They must rely on other people’s thoughts. Data. Empirical studies. Completely unaware that their apparatus for judgment, reasoning and opinionating has withered away.
This line of thinking – or non-thinking – is nurtured at school. You need a minimum of 20 sources per essay, so working hard on an essay means “read extensively what other people think” vs “think about it extensively”. Saying “this has a downward pressure on inflation because xyz” is a bad argument, but saying “this has a downward pressure on inflation because Simpsons (2020) says so” is a good argument – even though the first is original thinking and the second mere parroting.
We think the experts are more likely to be right than we are because they have authority, and even if they end up being wrong, we can always claim that “who are we to know better, we were following authority”. So it’s a doubly safe thing to start every sentence with “studies say” – doubly safe to not have thoughts of your own and merely recapitulate those of others. So much so that it is hard to be heard if you don’t cite anything – if you are the source. For many, it is hard to fathom that you could have an opinion or idea worth pondering if it is not backed by empirical studies. (Corollary: you can convince people of anything if you cite enough sources.)
Outsourcing thinking to experts seems safe, but it’s not:
Social simplifies, academia complexifies
In the two major domains we go to for information, opposing trends prevail:
- In academia and in many books, complexity is rewarded. The more citations, disciplines and fancy theories you have, the more intelligent and considered you seem, and you get published.
- In social, simplicity is rewarded. The step-by-stepper, all-explaininger, world-changinger you can make your short video or thread, the more engagement you get, and there’s a feedback loop towards exaggeration and oversimplification.
Both trends are at the peril of people looking for information. The research paper on nutrition is too complex for a normal person to understand and apply, and the nutrition expert on social is way too focused on building an audience to give credible info. Today they say “kiwi is the best superfood, you must eat 1 every day”, and tomorrow they say the best diet is cutting all sugars including fruit.
This is not to say that anything complex or simple is bad, but that purposeful complexification and simplification is bad. There is so much more illusion of insight than insight, and it’s sometimes hard to know which is which. If you’re in doubt, assume the former.
Why you can’t trust influencers: The “build an audience” epidemic
One of the most common forms of business advice today is “don’t build a business, build an audience”. It’s hard to overstate the amount of bullshittery this has created: people with no experience, credibility or uniqueness, sharing “remixed” advice with zero skin-in-the-game, originality or substance behind it. People whose main purpose is to hack engagement instead of creating something of value.
People who care too much about audience building are disingenuous. You cannot trust their content – they'd say anything for the numbers to go up. They'll overblow the importance of something to attract more attention. They'll post frameworks and exercises that they will never try because they sound clever. Such information merely unsettles the mind.
If they seem focused on building an audience – and if your bullshit detector is operational, you’ll know – think twice before letting that information into your mind. They care about the size of the group, not the impact on the individual.
Why you can’t trust influencers: The extreme effect
Most people learn nothing from reading books written by billionaires. Better to learn from an average person who makes a few thousand dollars on their own. Most people should not follow fitness or anti-aging freaks who are addicted to pushing their body past natural limits. Much of what they preach isn’t good for someone who’s just looking to feel good and be healthy.
Often the information we receive comes from the most extreme places. Extreme is what sells books and grows an audience. But what’s the point of the information if you will never replicate the person’s results (because it’s the extreme)? Many times, when you follow the extreme, you will end up going against the original goal you had! If you just wanted enough money to work less and maybe quit your full-time job, following advice from a billion-dollar startup founder means you’ll work 80-hour weeks with maybe a 0.01% chance you’ll make any real money from it.
The extreme is seductive, maybe inspirational, but rarely information you’d want to replicate.
Atrophy of the prefrontal cortex
Teach someone enough times to rely on experts, books, sources, studies – anything but their brain – and they’ll stop using their brain. If an alien observed the modern human, they’d think it a miracle that we can even breathe on our own:
- “How often should I drink water”, they Google, dismissing what their very body tells them
- “When can I sit a baby on a chair”, they search, even though they are interacting with the baby daily
- They watch yet another “how to lose fat” video, as if it wasn’t obvious
Sure, we can and should double-check things, now that we have all this information available (like how to light a fireplace). But there’s a fine line between gaining inputs for your own judgment versus replacing it altogether, a line so easily crossed. Information, when leveraged, strengthens one’s prefrontal cortex. But information, merely consumed, atrophies the ability for judgment.
Information as a replacement for action
Deep down, we know that most information is useless. Yet we are addicted to it because it beats the alternative: actually doing the work. Just convince yourself that chasing information is work and you never have to do the hard stuff!
What we're doing isn't learning, it's accumulation
The ancients had a different understanding of learning than we do today. For them, learning would come from trial and error, personal experience, action. Today, the standard is lowered to include pretty much everything. “I learn so much on TikTok!” If earlier you had learned something when you effortlessly put it to action, today it’s enough if you merely let it into your brain. Perhaps the better word for our behavior isn’t learning, but accumulation.
The tangential goal trap: You can tell our relationship with learning is perverse when the main pursuit isn’t the action itself, but information about the action. This is very apparent in entrepreneurship: one pursues books, courses and content, rather than being entrepreneurial. (A funny sight when someone has a chance to ask a successful entrepreneur any question, and they ask for a book recommendation…) There are many studying humanitarian aid for years, without actually aiding humanity – the main goal seems to be more knowledge about the field.
I know people who are more stoic, having never glanced at a Seneca letter, than those who read all the books and start each day with a stoic quote. Those making more money, having never read a single business book, than those who have read all of them. And it boils down to a simple difference: are you focusing on acting, or simply reading? Most of the things we should be doing, we know how. We don’t need any more external information, that gained via personal inquiry will guide us farther. I’d say almost any person trying to improve their lives would be better off with less information, not more.
If you’re reading this, you’re more likely harmed not by hunger, but overeating; in the same vein, you’re more likely harmed not because you don’t have access to vital information, but because you have access to too much.
(Side note:. If you need to “build a second brain” because you have accumulated so much information, I dare you critically look at that information and assess if it’s worth anything, given it doesn’t naturally sit in your first brain. One idea, taken seriously, is more transformative than 100 ideas merely scratched at.)
Respect the distinction between lived knowledge and knowledge that is merely intellectual
Another way to frame the difference between trial-and-error learning and accumulative learning is to separate lived knowledge from knowledge that is merely intellectual.
What you learn on your own, you’ll remember for years, perhaps a lifetime. That’s the quality test of knowledge: does the learning strengthen in your mind over time, or does it fade away as soon as you don’t use it? Most information is the type you hear, think "hmm, interesting" and forget, never to use again. Something of value not only stays with you, but changes you.
Some knowledge can yield value when accumulated, like the capital cities of countries. But knowledge of a more potent kind only yields value when you have personal experiences to link it to. “Life is short” is a cliché, mere words, until you have viscerally noticed the shortness of life in yourself or a loved one. “The world is a malleable place”, mere words, until you have experienced the magic of shaping reality by simply deciding to.
Understanding with your mind is different from understanding with your whole being. We’re all searching for a sentence, a book, a quote that will propel a change in our lives. But this will never happen because they will be mere words, and while our minds might change, our whole being won’t, and our whole being is needed for any major transformation. To change our whole being, introspection and action are necessary. These lead to true intelligence.
Place an illiterate elderly person, with a lifetime of lived knowledge & introspection on decades of patterns, next to a learned scholar, who interacts mostly in a bubble of theory and assumptions of perfect rationality, and you’ll see how information without action rots the brain.
Healthy simply by not destroying the body; smart simply by not replacing the brain
Despite my criticism, I’m an information lover. To love real food is to be disgusted by 99% of what we call “food”, and in a similar way, to love real information is to become allergic to most of it.
So to become intelligent – or rather, not remove your intelligence – one needs to cultivate a sensibility to what real information is.
- Like with food, the best kind is the one you make yourself. Insight from your own curiosity, judgment and action.
- The second best kind is prepared by true experts. Those with high integrity & passion; those who produce information for the right reasons, not because they want to get published in a journal, get likes, appear smart etc.
- Everything else – the info equivalent of microwave meals and fast food – is perhaps okay rarely, but if that’s your everyday, your intelligence will deteriorate like your body would from such a diet.
(Continuing on a food metaphor…) Probably the most fool-proof nutrition advice for most people is to subtract – just eat fewer things (not necessarily less overall, but fewer things) and your body will thank you. Of course, everyone knows what these few things should or should not be! Why would things be any different in matters of information? I believe almost anyone gets smarter by merely limiting their exposure to information, if only because it leaves more room for curiosity, judgment and action. You become smarter simply by not letting your intelligence be replaced.
(Final note: Information is quietly removing mystery from our lives. I would love to wonder what those bright lights in the sky are, where they come from, what they mean. But we know they're stars and how they work, and that makes them obvious, and that makes them invisible. We don't even really notice them anymore, let alone pay attention to them.)