Is There a Place among the Barbarians for Me and My Puny Muscles?

2022-08-06 • 11 min read


There’s been some consternation within effective altruism recently about whether “dumb” people have a place in the community.[1] The linked post generated quite a bit of discussion. Some commenters observed that the post’s author, who’d communicated a feeling of not fitting in on account of not being smart enough, seemed not dumb at all, but quite intelligent. Occasionally, such-and-such a prominent effective altruist would weigh in to insist that they themself wasn’t as smart as they might seem. The Parable of the Talents was linked, as it should be on these occasions (and to it we could also add Against Individual IQ Worries).

My reaction when reading this was empathy (in the sense of understanding, not in the sense of sharing the feeling) but also a sneaking suspicion that everybody was missing something important.

Now, it’s clear to me that effective altruists are generally intelligent[2], and maybe especially those who write and speak and are written and spoken about. Even people of moderately above-average intelligence may seem or feel dumb compared to them. We evaluate ourselves with our immediate environment as reference. It’s important though not too surprising that someone who seems to have an above-average intellect would feel too stupid for effective altruism.

What I thought of, though, when I read that post were those billions of people who really do have below-average intelligence, and those hundreds of million who are several standard deviations below the average. What about them? What prospects for doing good do they have? Is there, can there be and should there be a place for them in the effective altruist community?

I won’t make any authoritative recommendations here, and I don’t speak for the effective altruist community (of which I’m only half a member anyway[3]). As always, I speak only for myself.

Summary #

I think:

Intelligence Is a Thing, a Thing that Matters #

Intelligence – and I’ll tentatively define it here as the ability to accomplish a wide range of cognitive tasks – comes in many forms, but they tend to be correlated with one another. The person who has one kind of intelligence is likely to have other kinds too. This tendency is described by the general intelligence factor, g.

Intelligence is ≥50% heritable (Plomin and Deary 2015). It’s correlated with a wide range of good life outcomes (and some bad ones; cf. Smeland et al. (2020)), including educational achievement, job success, health, not being in prison, etc. I’m pretty confident that it’s very useful (in expectation) in doing good, as I think it is for nearly all cognitive tasks. (I expect other useful traits, like willpower and charisma, are also to some degree heritable, so some of what is said here probably applies to those too.)

As a corollary, I think being one or two standard deviations below average in intelligence makes many things a lot harder. At the risk of giving off a “Martian visits Earth” vibe, here are a few stories from Reddit, which don’t by themselves prove anything but serve to illustrate the point (grammar lightly edited):

I had a roommate who was well below average. He knew it too. He would talk about it openly. He said something once that really stuck with me. He said that he felt like people were always having a different conversation than the one he was having and that they took more away from it than he did.

Here’s someone who struggles with creative thinking:

IQ of 87 here. I saw somebody else with 90 IQ whose story is very similar to mine. Words just don’t seem to click in college. My brain gets saturated after about 2 hours or so and I can’t remember any studying past that. There’s no chance at studying the last minute and it’s weird to be the smartest in the family despite the obvious flaws. I seem to have zero ability to think outside the box. It happens from time to time and it’s extremely satisfying when it does. Lastly, my working memory and comprehension are not very good […] When I’m literally at work in my retail job, sometimes I completely forget what I was doing or where I put an object a customer was supposed to get.

[In response to a reply:] Yes, there’s no creativity whatsoever. For example, I played a guitar for years and could never create a single original riff whereas my peers could after a week or so. My significant other paints very often and always wants me to try it. Never could even start a painting without a template.

Here’s someone who struggles generally:

I have low IQ, but I was never tested for anything else. My parents are actual geniuses, both have poor backgrounds but managed to succeed, all my siblings are smart also.

I had trouble following teachers and other kids in classes, it took way more time and more examples to figure something out. I never had the time to do anything else than study, I don’t think I’ve had friends since kindergarten. I can’t talk to people, I have trouble understanding most jokes in reasonable amount of time. I never understood deeper meaning in any movies, songs or books, even when somebody explained them to me.

This is only to say that intelligence helps in the pursuit of various goals. It’s emphatically not to say that more intelligent people are “worth more”, or that anyone should feel bad about not being “smart enough”. It’s also not to say that intelligence is the only thing that matters; it is not.

There’s a Trade-off in Selectivity #

As mentioned, I don’t myself feel intellectually inadequate when I read effective altruist writings. So I’ll do a reverse outsider test (insider test?) and imagine a scenario where I would feel inadequate.

So let’s imagine I was born into some generic fantasy world. I have this powerful enemy, a dragon who once engulfed my village and loved ones in flames. I know there’s only one way to defeat the dragon – on the battlefield – and only one group who can do it – a certain ferocious barbarian tribe. So I seek out the tribe and ask to join them. They look at my puny child’s arms and tell me they need someone to pick mushrooms and cook.

How do I feel about this?

Well, I guess it depends. There’s a threshold of competency below which I’m actually hamstringing the tribe. What if I mistake poisonous mushrooms for edible ones and so accidentally poison the whole tribe? With more power, I can do more good, but I can also fuck things up.

Or maybe the barbarians rely in part on their ferocious reputation, and having me walking around as a member and representative damages that reputation. Or maybe I don’t do anything directly detrimental, but I tax the barbarians’ time by asking them ignorant or irrelevant questions about combat or horse riding, or I subtly degrade their norms with my feeble notions of mercy and gentleness.

If I’m really incompetent, it’s best for everyone if the barbarians reject me. If I’m malicious (meaning I may sabotage the tribe) or wildly overconfident (meaning I may get myself more power than I ought to have), it’s at least best for the barbarians if they reject me.

But if I’m somewhat competent, I’m making a difference. I make sure the barbarians are well-nourished, increasing the likelihood that they defeat the dragon. And maybe it turns out that I have some talent for fletching or cobbling or something else that ends up being useful for the tribe. This would be good for everyone.

But how do I feel about it? Should I be grateful to the barbarians, and happy about gathering berries and making stews? Proud at getting the opportunity to contribute?

I don’t think I’d feel very good about it. I’d be as useless as nipples on a breastplate on the battlefield. When the barbarian warriors practice, hunt and exercise I’d feel my inadequacy. The tribe’s great warriors and the warrior-chieftain and his or her warrior-advisors would have plenty prestige, whereas I’d have little to no prestige, because like any good barbarian tribe this one reveres (and selects for) strength and fighting prowess. What’s more, when the barbarians would think about their own lives, and when they’d tell stories about one another and the tribe, fighting prowess would be a central theme; hearing them, I’d be reminded of my inferiority.

Still, that’s how I could contribute. If I can stand it, I am contributing to the dragon’s demise.

… but hold on a minute. Me successfully joining and contributing to the barbarian tribe sounds really unrealistic! First, they would never have taken me on. They really value fighting prowess, which I don’t have; I’m culturally distant from them; even if I could be of use, they might not see that. Second, even if they would’ve taken me, I would never have tried to join in the first place, either because I would’ve expected them to reject me or because the prospect of second-class citizenry isn’t appealing to me. This could happen even had I possessed plenty fighting prowess, especially if I’d heard that many others were getting rejected, such that the tribe had a reputation for impenetrable exclusivity and condescension towards outsiders.

That’s bad for the tribe. They’d miss out on my modest contribution for little to no gain.

So the barbarians need to strike a balance in how selective they should be. They could ask around – are promising people just zoning them out because they think it’s not for them? If so, the tribe is perhaps being too selective. Are promising people bouncing because the tribe isn’t welcoming enough? If so, the tribe should try to be more welcoming. Or they could look inward – are there new members in the tribe who quite clearly do not have the ability needed to contribute? If so, the tribe is perhaps not being selective enough. Are there new members in the tribe who do have the ability, but don’t get the opportunity to contribute? If so, the tribe should try to give them the opportunity.

I guess what I’m getting at is that ultimately there’s a trade-off here in how selective a community should be. You can be really accommodating while also being permissive, and that’s good, but it doesn’t get you all the way; you’ll probably still need to do some selecting at some point.

This is the case for the barbarian tribe because it’s highly unusual. Its members are stronger and better fighters than the average person. More generally, any highly unusual group is likely to regress towards the mean as it grows.

(One possible strategy for future effective altruists could be to spread the movement’s ideas without growing the community. It’s possible to promote scope sensitivity, probabilistic thinking, moral circle expansion, rationality and so on without tying those concepts to effective altruism. That said, I think the effective altruism community can grow a great deal before it starts to lose what makes it special or hits serious diminishing returns.)

Two Unfairnesses #

So ideally the tribe could monitor itself and regulate how selective it is accordingly. The problem with this is that a community can’t just will its culture to be changed. It’s made up of individuals.

The barbarian tribe has selected for strength, its leaders get prestige and authority through strength and everyone in the tribe reveres it, so the tribe keeps selecting for strong people, prestige keeps being awarded to the strong, etc. Unless its leaders put the tribe’s success above their own positions within the tribe, it seems hard to break out of this pattern. The Iron Law of Institutions predicts that the tribe leaders find this okay – that they care more about their own position within the tribe than about the tribe’s success as a whole.

(Here I should point out that I think many, if not most, powerful effective altruists do care more about the success of effective altruism than their own success within effective altruism. One piece of evidence for this is that they are often willing to help “rivals” with advice, connections and encouragement. This is rare and great. It’s the opposite of what you find in underground music scenes.)

The leaders of the tribe get their power through superior fighting prowess – which makes sense, because that’s what will defeat the dragon – but fighting prowess is genetically conditioned. So people get their power within the tribe largely according to the genetic lottery and some, like me, never had even the smallest chance of becoming a leading figure. That seems unfair and undemocratic. It’s a set-up that depends on the benevolence of leaders and for that reason seems somewhat fragile. But what’s the alternative? A tribe that doesn’t select for and revere strength is, in one important sense at least, a weaker tribe.

There’s another kind of unfairness here. Suppose everyone in the tribe desires slaying the dragon and tries their best to make that happen. If it does happen, some people will have played a large role in it, but some other people almost none at all.

Getting to contribute to the dragon’s demise is not itself a good – it’s not something that should be fairly distributed, I claim. Taking actions that effectively defeat the dragon has to take precedence over fairly distributing those actions among agents. Otherwise we’re wronging the dragon’s past and future victims. This kind of sucks for those who don’t really have a way of contributing, but it is what it is.

I don’t know whether the first unfairness – that of unevenly allocated power – is necessary, but I believe the second unfairness – that of unevenly allocated ability and opportunity to contribute – is necessary. If, when picking mushrooms or berries or cleaning pots or sharpening knives, I’m feeling inadequate, I can always remind myself

References #

Plomin, Robert, and Ian J Deary. 2015. “Genetics and Intelligence Differences: Five Special Findings.” Molecular Psychiatry 20 (1): 98--108.
Roth, Bettina, Nicolas Becker, Sara Romeyke, Sarah Schäfer, Florian Domnick, and Frank M Spinath. 2015. “Intelligence and School Grades: A Meta-Analysis.” Intelligence 53: 118--37.
Smeland, Olav B, Shahram Bahrami, Oleksandr Frei, Alexey Shadrin, Kevin O’Connell, Jeanne Savage, Kyoko Watanabe, et al. 2020. “Genome-Wide Analysis Reveals Extensive Genetic Overlap between Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, and Intelligence.” Molecular Psychiatry 25 (4): 844--53.

Footnotes #

  1. This is subtly different from the question of whether “dumb” people can contribute to the effective altruist project, and whether they can do good in general. Of course they can, if perhaps not as much (in expectation) as more intelligent people can. I say subtly, because being able to contribute probably makes one more likely to feel included, and feeling included probably puts one in a better position to contribute. ↩︎

  2. I think so because:

    • effective altruists generally have university, and not rarely doctorate, degrees, and educational achievement is correlated with g (Roth et al. 2015);
    • effective altruists often work in intellectually challenging professions, like research, science, engineering and finance;
    • the movement has a pretty impressive track record for its age (and, as mentioned later on, I think success in a wide range of domains is correlated with g);
    • posts on the EA Forum often discuss pretty complicated subjects; and
    • my general impressions from reading about and interacting with effective altruists is that they’re pretty sharp.
  3. I’ve only been following effective altruism for about two and a half years and actively participating for about one and a half years, so while I’m on board with the effective altruist ethos and donate to effective altruist-aligned charities and so on, I don’t know many effective altruists personally and only partly feel I’m a member of the community. ↩︎

  4. To start with, most (though far from all) effective altruists are (for historical reasons) from Europe and North America; there should be a wealth of promising recruits in South America, Africa, Asia and Australasia. ↩︎

  5. Except to the extent that doing good is good for the agent that does good. But this seems like a comparatively unimportant consideration. ↩︎