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Brennen Bearnes on smart sounding people

2010-06-19 19:44:37.042825+00 by Dan Lyke 4 comments

I don't see a way to comment on his blog, so I'll comment here: In his link to Aaron Swartz's "That Sounds Smart", Brennen Bearnes observes:

There are a few possibilities here: One is that I'm not very smart. Another is that Aaron Swartz is spouting some fairly high-test bullshit.

Aaron's essay is here, I'm gonna go with the latter. A few examples. Aaron mentions the Freakonomics guys. It doesn't take a whole lot of digging before many of their examples start to fall apart because the world is a lot more complex than they let on. Another fun pastime of smart people is poking holes in Malcolm Gladwell's popularizations; boy the world sure seems simple when Malcolm explains it, doesn't it? Similarly, read some of Philip Greenspun's blog posts and you'd think he had it all figured out similarly, but if you follow the discussion down Philip himself will admit that though his thoughts are great discussion starters, they often don't go deep enough to get to the root of things.

So, yeah, Brennen, I'm with you.

[ related topics: Sociology Writing ]

comments in descending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2010-06-21 15:17:41.126652+00 by: Dan Lyke

I'd even posit that the whole concept that Aaron Swartz is playing with is strongly related to how humans tend to assume that confident people know what they're talking about when, in fact, it's actually the tentative ones, the ones whose demeanor allows for alternate explanations and theories, who have the best grasp of the situation. It's easy to be self-delusional, and confident people often carry that off very convincingly.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-06-21 05:21:13.151489+00 by: brennen

Dan - FWIW, there's a wiki page associated with each each entry on my blog, under a link called "write in the margins". I would like to acknowledge that this is some distance from an intuitive commenting mechanism.

Anyway, I've sort-of followed Swartz's blog for a while now, and there's a tendency for comments on his stuff to boil down to "you dumb kid!". Which is usually kind of grating, but something about this piece makes it more understandable. It might be the sense that Aaron Swartz should be writing things which leave me feeling like he's smarter than I am, rather than like he has taken more of Paul Graham's rhetorical posture to heart than I have...

#Comment Re: made: 2010-06-20 11:24:50.86652+00 by: Medley

Oh - I hadn't read comments to the Swartz post yet - I see others made the same point. I thought quinn over there said it best.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-06-20 11:11:37.939176+00 by: Medley

To the extent that I understand the point of Swartz's somewhat muddled piece, I'd go with 'high-test bullshit' too.

The clarity that truly expert people can bring to explaining an issue or problem is the RESULT of deeply internalizing a lot of complexity. Explaining a problem (or even solution) clearly (in Swartz's words, "not complicated") does not mean that the process to get to that explanation or solution was not complicated.

(P v. NP... verification/explanation is always simpler than proof/construction.)

The world is complicated - it's wishful thinking to suggest that the existence of smart communicators means that it's not.

And this: "People who truly understand their subject should have no trouble writing for a popular audience." is totally bogus. Expertise at subject X is not the same as expertise in how a 'popular audience' best understands things. There are of course experts who can also write popularly, but the lack of ability to write at an appealing 5th-grade level does not mean one is not an expert.