Many people conceive of intelligence as a CPU. To them, being more intelligent means having a faster CPU. And this is despairing as the clock speed is largely fixed. (Prenatal and childhood nutrition can make a sizable difference, however. For instance, iodine deficiency in children causes mental retardation.)
But people misconceive intelligence. Intelligence is not just the clock speed of the CPU. It is also the short-term cache and the OS.
Clock speed doesn’t matter much if there isn’t a good-sized cache. The size of short-term memory matters enormously. And the good news is that we can expand it with effort.
A super fast CPU with a large cache is still only as good as the operating system. If people know little or don’t know how to reason well, they generally won’t be smart. Think of the billions of people who came before we knew how to know (science). Some of those people had really fast CPUs. But many of them weren’t able to make much progress on anything.
The chances an ignoramus who doesn’t know correlation isn’t causation will come across as stupid are also high. In fact, we often mistake being knowledgeable and possessing rules of how to reason well for being intelligent. Though it goes without saying, it is good to say it: how much we know and knowledge of how to reason better is in our control.
Lastly, people despair because they mistake skew for the variance. People believe there is a lot of variance in processing capacity. My sense is that variance in the processing capacity is low, and the skew high. In layman’s terms, most people are as smart as the other with very few very bright people. None of this is to say that the little variance that exists is not consequential.
Toward a Better OS
Ignorance of relevant facts limits how well we can reason. Thus, increasing the repository of relevant facts at hand will help you reason smarter. If you don’t know about something, that is ok. Today, the world’s information is at your fingertips. It will take you some time to go through things but you can become informed about more things than you think possible.
Besides knowledge, there are some ‘frameworks’ of how to approach a problem. For instance, management consultants have something called MECE. This ‘framework’ can help you reason better about a whole slew of problems. There are likely others.
Besides reasoning frameworks, there are simple rules that can help you reason better. You can look up books devoted to common errors in thinking, and use those to derive the rules. The rules can look as follows:
- Correlation is not the same as causation
- Don’t select on the dependent variable. What I call the ‘7 Habits of Successful People’ rule.
- Replace categorical thinking with continuous where possible, and be precise. For e.g., rather than claim that ‘there is a risk’, quantify the risk. Or replace the word possibility with probability where applicable.
- Have a better grasp of your own ignorance using some of the tricks described here.
- The tree of inference starts with the question. Think hard about what data you would need to answer the question well. And then what data you have. And then calibrate your assessments about the answer based on the difference between the data you would have liked to have and the data you have.