Taleb is wrong about IQ and creativity

An article from 2007 by Nassim Taleb recently came to my attention You Can’t Predict Who Will Change The World.

Just going by the title of the article, he is wrong. Although anyone can change the world, by in large, it is high IQ people who tend to, through their innovations and creativity. If one looks at the Forbes 400 list, the top 20 almost exclusively dominated by high-IQ tech billionaires who in one way or another changed the world, such as with Facebook, Google, or Microsoft. So if I had to to wager between someone who has an IQ of 100, vs someone with an IQ of 160, regarding who is more likely ‘change the world,’ my money is on the latter.

This is also confirmed by studies that show that 13-year-olds who score in the top quartile of the SAT have much higher rates of creative output, whether in science or the arts, than the general population:

A 13-year-old who scores in the top quartile in this study, which is a math SAT score of at least 700, has a 15-25% chance of publishing in a peer-reviewed journal, versus just 5% for the lowest quartile. Keep in mind that the lowest quartile, which is a math SAT score of 400-500, is still the top 1% of all 13-year-olds. So we’re talking the absolute smartest of the smart.

Same for the “Study of Mathematically Precocious Youth or SMPY, which is tracking 5,000 individuals over 50 years identified at age 13 as being highly intelligent by their SAT scores.”

According to researchers:

“We found significant differences in the creative and career paths of individuals who showed different ability patterns on the math and verbal portions of the SAT at age 13,” Benbow, a member of the National Science Board and vice chair of the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, said. “Individuals showing more ability in math had greater accomplishments in science, technology, engineering and mathematics, while those showing greatest ability on the verbal portion of the test went on to excel in the humanities–art, history, literature, languages, drama and related fields.”


Overall, the creative potential of these participants was extraordinary. They earned a total of 817 patents and published 93 books. Of the 18 participants who later earned tenure-track positions in math/science fields at top-50 U.S. universities, their average age 13 SAT-M score was 697, and the lowest score among them was 580, a score greater than over 60 percent of all students who take the SAT.

So that torpedoes the belief that creative potential cannot be predicted by childhood test scores (it can).

Taleb goes on:

They are the result of undirected tinkering narrated after the fact, when it is dressed up as controlled research. The high rate of failure in scientific research should be sufficient to convince us of the lack of effectiveness in its design.


If the success rate of directed research is very low, though, it is true that the more we search, the more likely we are to find things “by accident,” outside the original plan. Only a disproportionately minute number of discoveries traditionally came from directed academic research. What academia seems more masterful at is public relations and fundraising.

It is supposed to be that way. That is how science works, through trial and error. The odds of a compound that has ‘some promise’ leading eventually to a cure or effective treatment, are very low. Such a compound must clear many clinical trials and the scrutiny FDA.

But in order to find the promising compound at least requires a certain baseline understanding of molecular human biology. It’s not like scientists are doing this blindfolded. Rather there is an understanding that molecules such as proteins work a certain way, and that by tinkering with them or combining them, can possibly lead to a desired outcome. This is a combination of hard theory and tinkering, not just tinkering.

This is good news–for some. Ignore what you were told by your college economics professor and consider the following puzzle. Whenever you hear a snotty European presenting his stereotypes about Americans, he will often describe them as “unintellectual,” “uneducated,” and “poor in math,” because, unlike European schooling, American education is not based on equation drills and memorization.

What puzzle is Taleb even talking about. This is an observation , not a puzzle. The American education system does have drills and memorization and test-taking. That is what No Child Left Behind emphasized. Furthermore, I have never encountered or read any European saying or implying this. This is yet again another figment of Taleb’s imagination. Taleb has this dramatized jocks vs. nerds view of the world in which test-takers are at constant war with tinkerers, and academics at war with non-academics, and in reality, they tend to be rather indifferent to each other.

Yet the person making these statements will likely be addicted to his iPod, wearing a T-shirt and blue jeans, and using Microsoft Word to jot down his “cultural” statements on his Intel-based PC, with some Google searches on the Internet here and there interrupting his composition. If old enough, he might also be using Viagra.

Much like those ‘Nazi race scientists’ that won’t stop talking about IQ, such a person likely does not exist but is the product, again, of Taleb’s imagination.

America’s primary export, it appears, is trial-and-error, and the innovative knowledge attained in such a way. Trial-and-error has error in it; and most top-down traditional rational and academic environments do not like the fallibility of “error” and the embarrassment of not quite knowing where they’re going. The U.S. fosters entrepreneurs and creators, not exam-takers, bureaucrats or, worse, deluded economists. So the perceived weakness of the American pupil in conventional studies is where his or her very strength may lie. The American system of trial and error produces doers: Black Swan-hunting, dream-chasing entrepreneurs, with a tolerance for a certain class of risk-taking and for making plenty of small errors on the road to success or knowledge. This environment also attracts aggressive tinkering foreigners like this author.

But there is no evidence that test/exam-taking ability is in lieu of creative ability. There is no literature that posits such a negative correlation. This is something that is a figment of Taleb’s imagination based on his preexisting, ingrained biases. Studies show a positive correlation, or in some instances for IQs beyond a certain threshold, such as 120, no correlation, but there is no study shows negative correlation between IQ and creativity (or more specifically, what is called divergent thinking). From a recent study, “…’the pattern of bivariate distribution of the cases suggests that although high IQ is not a sufficient condition for high DP [divergent production] ability, it is almost a necessary condition” (p. 168). The notion that high intellectual ability is a necessary condition for high creativity has become popular as “threshold hypothesis”.’ So although a high IQ does not guarantee creativity, it is necessary. This is just another example of Taleb turning high-IQ into a handicap.

Globalization allowed the U.S. to specialize in the creative aspect of things, the risk-taking production of concepts and ideas–that is, the scalable part of production, in which more income can be generated from the same fixed assets through innovation. By exporting jobs, the U.S. has outsourced the less scalable and more linear components of production, assigning them to the citizens of more mathematical and culturally rigid states, who are happy to be paid by the hour to work on other people’s ideas.

Yes, like those mathematically-inclined folks who are sewing Nikes or assembling iPhones. Now in fairness, Taleb is referring to states and governments rather than the individuals, but this outsourcing is due to simple price/wage differentials, not because of creativity or lack thereof. Making iPhones and sneakers domestically would make them much more expensive for consumers.

who are happy to be paid by the hour to work on other people’s ideas.

Yeah like that doesn’t happen in America, too. Regarding the common misconception that China lacks creativity, that too is unsupported by evidence. From the post The China-U.S. Cultural and Economic Connection:

Although China’s government is ostensibly Communist, the People’s Republic of China has made strides in embracing capitalism, with much success. China’s economy has been booming since the 90′s whereas Europe and other regions are stagnating. China is entrepreneurial, and a lot of young Americans who embrace ‘hustle culture’ on sites such as Reddit can respect that. AliBaba, Tencent, Sina, NetEase, and Baidu are just a handful of hugely successful multi-billion dollar tech companies that originated from China. There is the common HBD argument that Chinese people lack creativity, but China is pioneering CRISPR gene editing and other cutting-edge research and technology. There are also many prominent Chinese mathematicians who have made great leaps in number theory, such as Terence Tao and Yitang “Tom” Zhang. Meanwhile, Northern and Southern Europe are less entrepreneurial and appear stagnant by comparison. They don’t seem to have thriving technology industries, nor are they pioneering medical and genomic research. Continental Europe has never been able to match its intellectual heydays of the pre-WW2 era and has ceded ground to China and America.

Taleb continues:

Let us go one step further. It is high time to recognize that we humans are far better at doing than understanding, and better at tinkering than inventing. But we don’t know it. We truly live under the illusion of order believing that planning and forecasting are possible. We are scared of the random, yet we live from its fruits. We are so scared of the random that we create disciplines that try to make sense of the past–but we ultimately fail to understand it, just as we fail to see the future.

No kidding. Obviously, it’s much easier to fly a kite than the explain and derive the physics behind how a kite works. But many applications in which human lives are at stake require precision, such as air travel or medicine. A trial and error approach to determine the maximum carrying capacity of an airplane would lead to a lot of destroyed airplanes and possibly deaths, so working out the math saves money and lives. In many cases, a hybrid approach is used. Cars are subjected to crash tests, as an example of empirical data being collected through trial and error, but math and theory is also used in regard to aerodynamics.

Neither the followers of Adam Smith nor those of Karl Marx seem to be conscious of the prevalence and effect of wild randomness. They are too bathed in enlightenment-style cause-and-effect and cannot accept that skills and payoffs may have nothing to do with one another.

But Marx and Taleb have more in common than Marx and Adam Smith, and it is a categorical error to lump Marx with Smith. Marxism is based on assumptions that failed to live up to promise when applied. Marxism was never an economic theory in the way that Adam Smith’s theories are, such as specialization theory, and much less successful given that when Marxism was tried it failed, and that capitalism has proven to be sustainable rather than collapsing due to contradictions as Marx predicted. Rather, Marxism is more like a economic and historical lens through which to view the world. Also, Taleb’s turkey parable (which isn’t even Taleb’s idea but rather is the brainchild of Bertrand Russell, as yet another example of Taleb appropriating, repackaging, and profiting from ideas by people who are smarter than him) shows the pitfalls of empiricism [1] (the turkey appears alive and gains weight up until the day it is slaughtered), but Marxism is theoretical whereas Smith’s work is more explanatory.

But in Taleb’s defense, that’s not to say that ‘hard knowledge’ is a substitute for skill and and things that cannot be quantified such as intuition. Despite only taking two economics classes at a jr college, my economic and stock forecasts have been spot-on (such as regarding Tesla , Facebook, Amazon, etc.), making a lot of money for myself and people who have taken my advice and are invested in the market. It’s not like you need to know the intricacies of how economics works to make money and be correct. If you know the outcome, then understanding the messy and complicated stuff in-between the endpoints does not matter that much. [The same however cannot be said for the 'hard sciences' though, and details matter.] If you have an accurate mental model of how things work, such as the HBD investing thesis, and disregard the noise such as media hype and failed predictions of recession and crisis, you can do pretty well.

Overall, this essay from 2007, in spite of its flaws is still better than his recent posts about IQ. It is not totally wrong, as the final paragraph describing my own experience shows, but he still keeps perpetuating this bookworm/nerd vs. empiricist/tinkerer dichotomy, which does not really exist, or making unflattering and empirically unsound generalizations about the former.

[1] This is the problem of induction in which one makes a generalization based on individual observations, but those observations are empirical, so it’s not like knowledge is only acquired through empirical or rational means. Marxism however had no observations to go by and was theoretical.