Thursday, November 05, 2009

Innovation is Not Rewarded

That is, for the innovator. We all benefit from the Pasteurs, the Fords, even the Bill Gates. They create things with spillovers. Yet, you average innovator is simply wrong, hearing dog whistles others don't, and like Van Gogh getting his appreciation after dying, most innovators do their bidding for those they do not know. Deviating from the consensus produces all the things that has elevated us from hunter-gatherers, yet, the record for the individual innovators themselves, is decidedly negative.

Look at any nonfiction bookshelf, and there you will find lots of new ideas, most irrelevant, the rest just wrong. Important new ideas are extremely rare, which makes sense because their marginal cost, after being discovered, is trivial, so they spread. We don't have to independently discover the wheel, crop rotation, or why a Republic dominates a monarchy. If good ideas were discovered all the time, our heads would explode; alas, most weeks, even months, we learn nothing new, and not for lack of trying.

There's an interesting article on whether Liberals or conservatives are smarter in The American. I liked this snippet related to how IQ relates to religiousity:

there would still be a positive correlation between IQ and atheism. The correlation exists not because smart people have necessarily rejected religion, but because religion is the "default" position for most of our society.

This same principle works in places where the default and iconoclastic beliefs are reversed. Japan, for example, has no tradition of monotheistic religion, but the few Japanese Christians tend to be much more educated than non-Christians in Japan. By the logic of someone who wants to read a lot into the Stankov study, Christianity must be the wave of the future, perhaps even the one true faith! But, of course, the vast majority of educated Japanese are not Christians. Just as with atheism in the West, the correctness of Christianity cannot be inferred from the traits of the minority who subscribe to it in Japan.

So, the fact that most atheists in America, who are the minority, are smarter, does not imply that Atheism is necessarily a smarter choice, but rather, that in general elites tend to deviate from the default choice. Eventually, the masses emulate in the elites in subsequent generations, as Christianity or civil rights starts out as the belief of a small vanguard, and then becomes the modal choice of the great unwashed.

In my book Finding Alpha, I define risk as a deviation from the consensus. This is what is implied by a status oriented utility function, because you can always remain in the same spot by doing what everyone else is doing. Taking risk can mean either having zero exposure to the stock market, or double the average exposure; standard exposure is 'no risk'. This is why risk, and return, are not correlated empirically (see videos here, read book here).

I personally have known a lot of really smart people and have to say they are more unconventional in their ideas, yet most of their ideas are crazy. If you have ever been to a Mensa meeting (IQ but little formal education), you realize how things like homeopathy, or truthers, get their bearings. If you have ever hung out with PhDs, you know how limited their competence scope is (at research universities they have the same IQ as Mensans, but are more disciplined and less creative). It's no wonder guys like stereotypical MBAs, who are not so analytical but rather personable and articulate, tend to dominate society. I suspect MBA rule is less catastrophic than PhD or Mensa rule, if only because they aren't as certain of themselves. This all gets back to the idea there is an optimal IQ, and it's not 180, but rather, say, 125 (probably the modal IQ for any large group leader, such as Presidents and CEOs).

Being smart is a good thing, and I'm happy when my kids do well on cognitive tests because of what this portends for their life (as Charles Murray noted, most people would prefer their kid had 15 more IQ points than get $1 million on their 21st birthday). Yet highly intelligent people tend to innovate more, and such innovation tends to be counterproductive for the innovator. So, the fact really smart people can answer a question faster or more accurately than others, is at some point offset by the fact that when they have to supply the question--as is the case once they leave formal schooling--they will be attracted towards less conventional, usually irrelevant or wrong, paths. For every Steve Jobs or Albert Einstein there were many who lived and died in obscurity; for every Black-Derman-Toy there are hundreds of insanely convoluted, in-house models, of no value.

So, if you attempt to innovate, take pride that you are doing it with blatant disregard for your narrow self interest. Objectively, you will fail with a high probability. Like thinking about the lottery, there are happy delusions of grandeur considering your improbable future success. You can counter those who say, you should be feeding orphans in an African village, in that your efforts have large positive externalities. Most importantly, it's fun.


Anonymous said...

Eric, this is one of the bests posts you've written. Great stuff - nothing to add.

Tomasz Skutnik said...

Well, your post reminds me about "Clever Silly", published by Bruce G. Charlton. Check it out:

Dijo said...

Beautiful, beautiful post. first time visiter to your blog and already a fan. Keep up the good work.

tesla said...

I have worked with many very intelligent scientists and engineers. These guys tend to spend A LOT of time and effort showing how smart they are. Often times they will employ a method that takes a lot of knowledge and skill instead of a simpler and more effective method. Very smart people also tend to get bored very quickly, and let's face it: most jobs in any industry require drudgery in some form or another.

Probably the biggest disadvantage that I've seen with very high IQ folks is communications skills. A guy with a 150+ IQ tends to have a hard time getting through to an IQ 100 customer.

It's quite rare but if you have a very high IQ tempered with common sense the world is your oyster!

nnyhav said...

cf Masha Gessen in today's WSJ: Russia's Conquering Zeros: The strength of post-Soviet math stems from decades of lonely productivity

(quibble: though I did MS's implementation and supporting parameterization, I think BDT is an odd choice of HJM to illustrate successful innovation, BGM having had more lasting impact.)

Anonymous said...

I think that the comparison of innovation to winning the lottery is a bit strained. The proper "class" on which to base the odds is not all humans but those humans with the required knowledge in a given field. The context of knowledge is as critical as the innovator.

Using physics as an example, at the turn of the last century there were a handful of physicists (Poincare, Lorentz, etc) who could have but did not make the leap that Einstein did with relativity. So its important to note that innovation does not just leap from the brow of a genius but requires a genius plus a context of knowledge from which to make the leap. I forget who but someone once said that the mark of genius is identifying what questions are *ripe* for solution.

I believe this is the case now with modern physics where QM, SR, GR have run their course and people like Barbour, Smolin, et. al. are starting to question the basic concepts again like time, motion, space, etc. It would not surprise me if some innovator revolutionized these concepts and got physics unstuck, and most likely from outside formal academia for a variety of institutional and practical reasons.

Of course, many of those working on this problem will live and die in obscurity because they won't solve the problem but it is not a quixotic goal, just very difficult.

I enjoy your blog, BTW.

Anonymous said...

I think Steve Jobs is a poor example. In my understanding Wozniak was the genius. Jobs was the 120-130 IQ guy who loved tech and could also know what most people would like.

HoldYourHorses said...

Clever fools: Why a high IQ doesn't mean you're smart

Also on the liberal/conservative point. If the conservative movement (not necessarily GOP) is defined as anti-change in all ways, then it is inherintly less thoughful than a progressive movement which must face difficulties of deciding what changes to push for out of the infinite choices. Since these two groups tend label themselves with the GOP and Democratic parties, it stands to reason that any statistic on critical reasoning will be depressed by the conservative population included in the GOP.

On religion in Japan, confining your world view to the authority of a religion limits your allowable thought options and so is a deviation from the norm, but in a restrictive sense. This deviation does not reflect an improved ability for critical thought.

or did i completely miss the point

Unknown said...

Eric, I think that it's kind of like sexual reproduction. Sexual reproduction mostly passes along the genes that were successful to the previous generation, but with some mixing up and randomizing. That way, the tried and true gets reused, but there's a certain amount of novelty added in that helps insure against changes to the environment.

In society, most people stick to the conventional, and like you point out, that's good because it works. But the people with the unusual ideas keep introducing new memes, some of which will catch on and change the direction of the evolution of the society.

Sajal said...

Eric, Great post! I got reminded of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell (the Termites study).