I’ve been looking for that one!

Link. I was considering writing a blog post about why I disliked the Scientifica book I’ve been reading, but I pretty much thought the book wasn’t worth the effort. Anyway, now I don’t need to, the comic above illustrates the problem perfectly. The alt text is: ‘Sometimes I feel like I’m being mocked.’ And that’s exactly the feeling I’ve been having when reading that book. If I’d actually been careful enough to take serious notice that it did in fact say “Chief Consultant: Associate Professor Allan R. Glanville” on the cover, not a chance in hell I’d have bought it. If people need to tell me on the front cover of the book that a professor or a PhD has contributed/written the stuff, well that’s a good signal I don’t need to read it. Though I missed it this time. In my defence, I was in time trouble, there were only a few copies left and it was quite cheap. The only upside is that a curious child would probably find the book quite interesting, so if I ever have children… The book isn’t too complicated, it just doesn’t contain a shred of material worth buying a book for and you feel like you’re being mocked while you’re reading it. It’s like most of the stuff in the specific topic pages (it deals with specific topics and devotes a couple of ‘pages’ – most of which is just eye candy – to each topic) is either in the first three lines of the relevant wikipedia articles or more or less irrelevant to ‘what you want to know about this subject given that you’ve just bought a book which also deals with this subject’. It has very few math formulas, despite spending, what, 100+? (120? 150? don’t remember, don’t want to open the book and look it up. I think there are 80 pages or so on the subject of physics. Maybe there are 10 formulas in that section of the book altogether, despite ‘dealing with’ subjects such as general relativity, quantum physics and string theory, among other things) pages on physics and maths and I frequently felt more stupid after reading about the specific topic than I had before I started reading it, especially regarding areas where I knew some stuff already. Maybe a good book for a smart curious black 12 year old ghetto-child unfamiliar with the world of science. Emphatically not a good book for adults who’ve read a couple of scientific studies before opening that thing. It’s a bad place to obtain knowledge about the areas treated and it’s dangerous because it gives the reader the illusion of knowledge, because some of the stuff isn’t actually all that bad (though still bad).

Thanks again to Plamus for introducing me to the Abstruse Goose comic. The funny thing is that I can use and laugh at comics such as this one even though I’m far from the primary target group (I don’t watch tv – besides a bit from online sources & the very occasional DVD. But then again, perhaps I am part of the primary target group; it’s likely the guy in the comic doesn’t either … ‘any more’ at least..).


April 7, 2011 - Posted by | Books, comics


  1. You are most welcome. For me, it was this one that sold me on the comic:

    I often share your frustration about popular science. Whenever I do, I try to remind myself that the general public is a lot more stupid than you and I normally give them credit for. I think it is a defensive mechanism of sorts for smart people: you see evidence of the stupidity of the proverbial average guy every day, but you suppress it – forget it, file it mentally under “what an idiot – but that’s not representative of the typical man/woman out there”, etc.

    As an example, try this one:

    People like that are allowed to breed, drive, and vote, yet it is my guns that need to be regulated, because I am a threat to society.

    Summary: yes, you are not the target of the book that disappointed you, but… do not be too harsh on the author – the task of the educator is a thankless one. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll be successful in lifting a couple of poor souls (minds?) out of the darkness.

    Comment by Plamus | April 8, 2011 | Reply

  2. 1) Brilliant comic!

    2) I don’t consider myself one of ‘the smart people’ as I don’t have extraordinary intelligence – my IQ is likely within two stdv. of the mean. So I’m the ‘average guy’ as well. I know some of my readers – not only you – are much smarter than me and I find that interesting.

    3) “do not be too harsh on the author – the task of the educator is a thankless one.” This is a good point. I guess I was annoyed because ‘that could have been such a good book, if only’. But if the guy reading it had thought, say, that the earth was 6000 years old, perhaps he didn’t know who Ptolemy was or what remarkable ideas Newton came up with – well, then everything in that book is just pure gold and the author should be thanked.

    Comment by US | April 8, 2011 | Reply

  3. You are both modest and hard on yourself, but I find it hard to believe you are not 2 stds above average IQ. Maybe you are not a good test-taker, maybe you do not perform well under pressure, I don’t know, but you are Ph.D. material, and I am not talking about some BS doctorate in sociology or modern literature. Your thinking is exceptionally deep and clear, you are open to new ideas, and you are aware of the common fallacies of reasoning – that right there makes you the “smart people”. Hell, even your awareness of your limitations, Socrates-style, is way more unique than you’re probably aware.

    Remember, you generally do not meet the proverbial average person in a graduate-level class at a top university in the capital of a highly-advanced nation – your environment is highly selective. The average person is more likely a semi-literate peasant in China, India, Vietnam, Bangladesh, or a city slum-dweller in Lagos, Mexico City, Rio, Kuala Lumpur.

    If anything, your excessive (IMHO) self-doubt may be your undoing, not your deficient intellectual capacity, just as my arrogance and laziness will likely be mine.

    Comment by Plamus | April 9, 2011 | Reply

  4. Ahem, I kick myself for using “more unique”, and ask to have that replaced with “rarer”.

    Comment by Plamus | April 9, 2011 | Reply

  5. I do a lot of stuff smart people tend to enjoy doing but that doesn’t make me smart. Though it’s nice to know that I could apparently get away with faking it, to some degree, even among people who’re much smarter. I didn’t know that was possible (and perhaps it isn’t, so..).

    Just to be clear, I don’t live in Copenhagen, I live in Aarhus (which is not the capitol). It doesn’t subtract from your point though – the University of Aarhus has often been included in rankings of the top-100 universities in the world, and two researchers affiliated with the institution have gotten a Nobel within the last 15 years (Jens Chr. Skou, Dale T. Mortensen). Something else does however subtract from your point – the fact that I interact very little with my fellow students; I think you’d be hard pressed to find 10 students at the Department of Economics who even know my name. University students is not my reference group. Anyway, it’s not that I’m not different, it’s just that it’s not my intelligence which sets me apart. I’m not convinced I ‘think clearly’ or whatever you want to call it, but if so it’s in part because I actually spend time reading about cognitive biases, I’ve made an effort out of trying to formalize my thinking to a greater degree (with maths to get some structure), stuff like that. That’s not high IQ. Unsatisfactorily low IQ is why I need to do this all the time and still don’t do very well.

    I’ve known and interacted somewhat with two people in Real Life who ‘were gifted’ (IQ:130+) pre-university (probably quite a few of them here, though I wouldn’t know who they were/are – in the chess club, I do have a pretty good idea..). I know what they’re like, how smart they are, how I’m not ‘one of them’. In terms of how to compare with them, I used to think of it like ‘unlike some others, both I and they are smart enough to know how stupid I am compared to them’, after all I knew I was smarter than a person with an IQ of 110 too, right? It annoyed me when people compared us, in terms of speculation about grades ect., especially because I knew part of it was that they probably didn’t realize how big the difference was because it’s always very hard to estimate IQ when you move more than a stdv. away from your own level.

    I’m lazy too.

    Comment by US | April 10, 2011 | Reply

  6. “you are Ph.D. material”

    I thought I should add something to that remark. The main thing to add would be: Not in Denmark I’m not.

    If I actually get a BA – which is still very far from certain; I still miss a couple of courses and if I fail them it’s over – and I were to later on send an application to a PhD-program, they’d laugh their asses off if I sent the application to a Danish university. Maybe if I were to do well in my Master’s courses, still given that I actually get the BA and doesn’t just get kicked out without a degree, I could go from ‘laughing at me’ to ‘reject’, but that’s it. I don’t stand a chance in the Danish system, because we still (at least in the field of economics, I don’t know which standards apply in areas such as Sociology or Chemistry or…) reserve the PhD-spots to people who’re at the minimum either very smart and reasonably hard working or very hard-working and reasonably smart – and I’m neither. I’m kinda glad that’s still how it is here; people like me should not be able to get a PhD.

    If I’m actually succesful enough to obtain a Master’s Degree (the signaling value of which is quite a bit higher in DK than in the US, from what I’ve gathered), I won’t have any educational ambitions beyond that. I won’t go abroad just to get a PhD of perhaps quite questionable value (negative ROI+large risk of failure?), which is the only kind of PhD I’d be able to get. Or this is at least how the equation looks like right now.

    Comment by US | April 13, 2011 | Reply

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