Intellectual Articles without Creative Insight

You can write an article like this without being very smart, but people interpret it as a clever, intellectual article. There are certain article genres people use to present themselves as having something important to say but which you can create following some standard patterns and subcultural knowledge.

The Roots of Progress blog is full of more posts that don’t require the author to have any notable insight of his own, but which trick some people: Posts – The Roots of Progress

I’m not saying the tricking is intentional, btw. I suspect it partly is, but you also can’t blame people for doing some decent-but-not-especially-creative work. And they are mostly just doing the work and letting readers form their own opinions, not doing a bunch of manipulative self-promotion.

The book reviews/excerpts at The Roots of Progress are a good example of something that can be written by doing some work and knowing some reasonably standard stuff, but without thinking of anything notable yourself. E.g. Highlights from The Autobiography of Andrew Carnegie

These posts do require some competence and effort. But that’s different than substantial creativity.

This post would have taken some notable creativity if it were original work: Did the Industrial Revolution decrease costs or increase quality?

Although it doesn’t clearly tell the reader that it’s derivative, I think it is. E.g. efficient frontier is a concept already on Wikipedia: Efficient frontier - Wikipedia (That’s not a full case and I haven’t investigated in detail.) If that one is derivative, there’s an actual honesty/plagiarism issue for not saying so and linking to a source.

Another good example of posts that don’t require much intelligence is The Rational Egoist Blog

Rational Egoist from the same person who does The Roots of Progress. (He dropped the Ayn Rand stuff without explanation – probably to social climb with people who dislike Rand.) I skimmed through those posts before and I think none of them require much creativity. A lot are Quora answers to beginners (I also skimmed his Quora and it had similar posts, and some of the blog posts are Quora reposts). Lots of the posts do take some competence and effort, e.g. to read Rand, remember a fair amount, understand the basics, and then find relevant passages to answer questions. He gets things about Objectivism wrong sometimes, but he’s usually correct, so that shows some competence.

I think part of why posts like these can impress audiences is that they’re better than most audience members would create. However, I think the difference between posts that require much creative insight, and posts which don’t, is useful. It helps identify which authors would be interesting to have a conversation with or who might say something really important.

Another model/view of the world, which some people have but not me, is that doing a bunch of diligent effort for most of your career, plus having a couple Eureka moments, is normal. Some people think creativity shouldn’t be expected as the norm, only as the occasional breakthrough. Whereas I think if you don’t know how to have useful creative insights on a pretty regular basis, you are a mediocre intellectual at best.

Small insights are OK with the big ones being more irregular. But basically I think having lots of small creative insights helps build to big ones, and if you can’t figure out small creative insights then you shouldn’t expect big ones and could easily have zero in your whole career. (BTW, my post itself is an example of a small creative insight.)

In conclusion, there’s a sort of standard form of an intelligent article, and I think most people associate it with creativity more than they should. The form can be done with some knowledge and competence, but little or no creative insight. It’s hard to explain what the form is, but I have some ability to recognize it, and I think the Pueyo article I linked at the start is a good example. I skimmed through it and read just the section headings and could see (with high but not 100% confidence) that he has some Less Wrong (or Silicon Valley Rationalist) type knowledge and he’s doing some standard organizational techniques, but the article doesn’t say anything significant so I don’t want to actually read it. I think some of Pueyo’s early articles about COVID took a bit more insight – and they were useful to me because I hadn’t already read a bunch of competent articles covering those issues (since COVID was a new issue that had just come up) – but they never took a lot of creativity. Biases and government errors are topics I have read a bunch about before, so a competent-but-unoriginal article about them doesn’t offer me much. I think some people are so bad at thinking that they have trouble taking a general concept (like a bias) and applying it to a specific subject (like the COVID response), but I don’t have that problem and I don’t even view that as a substantial creative insight (maybe it seems more creative to other people because they struggle to do it – but I think that means they’re failing at learning and are incompetent at the principle and/or the specific subject).

When I read the Pueyo article I noticed he made errors regarding looking for support and using weighted factors that could have been avoided with the knowledge in BoI and YESNO.