On Infinite stupidity

This is another post about an intervention of M.Pagel, this time on Edge. The guy sums up a great deal of ideas I always saw as obvious and adds interesting insights about the nature of intelligence that fit nicely with my view of the world. I do share many of his views.

Are we more stupid now than in the past?
Well, he admits that stupidity has always been around (copiers always existed) but the very fact that people were isolated from each other (i.e., no media/routes/planes to connect them) they were basically living in small groups. if you have 100 small bands of 10 individuals, you’ll need at least one creative (innovator) mind per band (he argues for more than one, as the number of creative minds per band is inversely proportional to the number of individuals, at least before any equilibrium is reached) so that you end up with (at least) 100 creative people (or 10%) but if you have a huge group of 100×10 individuals you might well do with only 1 creative mind (or 0.01%). Larger groups favor copiers and this is why there’s more stupidity now than in the past; there are less small groups and more big ones.

We can see this phenomenon in technology for instance. How many laptop companies are there? and which ones innovate? Basically everything from design to new trends and concepts is done by a bunch of companies in the world, the rest are blindly copying! I’m pretty sure that If we isolate all the companies from each other, they would come up with much more new designs, ideas and concepts. It is insightful to think that the larger the group the less diverse it becomes, we have never been in a group as large as the one we are in right now.. yet, we have very few choices. In the whole internet, google is almost the only search engine we use, wikipedia the only encyclopedia, facebook for social media, etc.

Another point he didn’t comment (maybe it’s in the book) and which I think is very important in this kind of dynamics is: group theory !
No no.. I’m not talking about that fascinating branch of mathematematics. I’m thinking of this hidden (and deeply stupid) force that exists in large groups and tends to minimize the amount of differences between individuals, I used to call it ‘the stupidity potential well’, after I had my first course on Schrödinger potential wells because it is very similar to it. People in groups do not want you to be different, to think different, or to innovate. There’s a mediocrity well that pulls you down. That’s why people who want to create usually have to exile themselves (geographically or internally) to get rid of this paralyzing effect.

How many innovators do you know ?
in the sense of people who have their own ideas as independent as it can be from the background? I know very few people like this and surprisingly not necessarily physicists or scientists (there’s a lot of copying and stupidity in modern physics due to demographic factors). Most people will just comment on the same piece of news, have the same ‘mood of the time’, the same kind of reflex that are imposed at certain times, etc. It’s boring and irritating but this does a great job to keep society going.

Finally, some food for thought: at the heart of creativity lies knowledge, which is based on language. Can we ever be original when we use a language that has a finite set of words and fixed rules ?

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6 thoughts on “On Infinite stupidity

  1. Hi! You wrote: “there’s a LOT of copying and stupidity in modern physics due to ‘demographic factors’”

    Can you explain this in more detail? Maybe with an example?

    1. Hi memescience, Thanks for reading and commenting.
      Let’s put it this way: what’s the percentage of original and important papers from the 100s that appear every day on arxiv ?
      a very small number. Most of the papers are small variations of other papers and/or re-analyses/calculations.
      The demographic factor is basically the number of physicists now; there are many including people who are not passionate (blame education) and these people want to have a job, therefore they want to publish fast… and you know, originality/creativity isn’t in a hurry.

      Your blog is interesting, I like the idea.. I’m following you.
      Looking forward to exchanging with you in the future :-)

      1. I agree with you, that it is a problem, that a lot of people are doing a PhD not because they are interested in science but interested in their career. I also think that it is not a good idea to measure the success of a scientist by his number of publications (and citations).

        But, the reason for the large number of papers published every day is – from my point of view – mostly because the problems in science are getting more and more complex. A paper that you would consider as important will probably be based on a huge number of papers, that are one of these 100s on the arxiv.

        Are you a scientist? What would you do, if you find an interesting variation of a paper that was already published? If you are not publishing it this variation will not be recognized by other – but maybe this variation will be the significant for an important invention.

        To call this “stupidity” is over the top.

      2. Every single human work is based on previous works, some of them being extremely small variations of other works. It’s a fact.

        I do not diminish the importance of (extremely) small steps in research, they are as necessary as the huge leaps.
        I am a physicist myself and I did (will) publish papers that are small variations/updates of previous works.. but trying to be honest, I won’t qualify this as a great creative work. It might be very important.. but not original. And Yes, I dare calling this a bit stupid…
        Because my expectations are higher.

        I do not agree with your last remark though : “If you are not publishing it this variation will not be recognized by other – but maybe this variation will be the significant for an important invention.”
        We shouldn’t publish to ‘please’ people or to get recognized, no progress is made that way…

  2. Really interesting post, thanks. The idea of the number of innovators being inversely proportional to population is one I had never come across before. And as you touch on at the end of the post, I’m sure most people know quite a few innovators, especially if they work in a creative field of any sort.

    Then again, copying might just be a way of inspiring innovation – like Bob Dylan recording Woodie Guthrie songs before putting out his own. Although large companies would need to innovate, it might be safer to copy for a time until you learn how to develop something that someone else has already done better. Then you can improve on it.

    It would be great to see what would happen if, for example, a designer was sent to a rural island and not allowed access to the latest trends or works that they could copy. Would they still develop their work in the same vein as the rest of the world, or would they stifle and continue the same tricks they brought with them, or would they create something unique and new? Are innovators only innovators due to their being part of an innovative society?

    Sorry for the ramble – typing out loud. Thanks for the post, it’s a brain-worm!

    1. Hi and Thanks for dropping by :-)
      Yes, copying is necessary for education. Otherwise we’ll be constantly reinventing the wheel. So it’s not an either/or situation, all that matters is the balance between copying and innovation.

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