Follow the reluctant adventures in the life of a Welsh astrophysicist sent around the world for some reason, wherein I photograph potatoes and destroy galaxies in the name of science. And don't forget about my website,

Thursday, 12 March 2020

A Handy Guide To Being A Supervillain

Why do seemingly clever people sometimes do really stupid things ? There are a host of reasons, not least of which are the networks in which people live. It doesn't matter if you're super-duper intelligent : if you're unfortunate enough to only know people who only ever talk about the latest drivel from Kayne West, then chances are you're going to believe a few crazy things yourself.

But a much more fundamental reason is that there are different kinds of intelligence and stupidity - or at least, different aspects of each. We tend to mistake mathematical, technical brilliance for a much broader sort of wisdom, as though anyone capable of assembling IKEA furniture without the instructions must also be a dab hand at international diplomacy. This, of course, is not the case. As the philosopher Epictetus said :
'But I'm a scholar who understands Archedemus !' You can understand Archedemus and still be an adulterer and a cheater, a wolf or an ape rather than a human being, what's to stop you ?
For a more recent example, look no further than the case of a lesbian professor of philosophy who sexually harassed a gay male student. People are indeed very, very strange and complicated beasts.

So what is this "wisdom" we're interested in, and how is it different from the regular kind of intelligence ? This is something that's bothered me for a while. Some people call it "critical thinking", others might call it "skepticism", but perhaps Ian Malcolm said it best :

That's a pretty decent definition of a clever idiot : sometime who has to work tremendously hard solving lots of complex problems in order to accomplish a really, really stupid task. Which in this case results in a bunch of dinosaurs eating everyone, making it something of a self-limiting problem.

So intelligence compromises many different cognitive skills. What I've suggested* is that this sort of critical thinking is the ability to overcome bias. Someone who's really good at thinking critically is concerned only with the truth, and is prepared to accept whatever the evidence says regardless of any other concerns. They'd be equally comfortable in declaring that the evidence says, "kill all the ginger people" as they would in saying it says, "give all the ginger people a billion dollars and a big bowl of ice cream". Whereas a bullshiter doesn't care about the truth at all, a really good critical thinker merely doesn't care about what the truth is - but does care a good deal about actually knowing the truth, whatever it may be.

* At least, I make a throwaway statement to that effect in the link, but I honestly don't remember if I had a moment of inspiration or read it somewhere else.

So let's go with this idea of two different kinds of intelligence. Analytic intelligence is about solving problems. Critical intelligence is about being able to accept whatever the evidence suggests, regardless of personal preferences. Doubtless there are more kinds of intelligence than this, but if we stick with just these two, we can make a nice chart.

But why bother ? First, charts are fun. I like charts. They give simplified descriptions that are useful in getting a handle on the messy complexities of reality. But more importantly, lately I've seen a misconception floating around in the left-wing UK media. Perhaps it was always there, but it's become much more noticeable in the last few months.

Specifically, the Guardian, Independent, Mirror and the like are full of headlines about how the right-wing political leaders are most certainly doomed. Whether through their own stupidity or an awakening on the part of the voters, just like the scientists who build Jurassic Park, they're permanently assumed to be on the brink of becoming a self-limiting problem. This is exemplified by this article in the Guardian which says that evil geniuses are a myth; that evil is always stupid and stupid is always doomed to fail. Never mind that a lot of damage can happen in the process, I think that's just plain wrong. So without further ado, let me explain why by means of a handy chart.

The Evil Genius Chart

Let's go through this quadrant by quadrant, because it's fun to pretend that people are so simple they can be divided into four big blocks. Note that the labels are intended to represent quite large areas. As for individual people, they can be found all over the chart : a scientist might be fantastic at thinking critically about the causes of muscle diseases but absolutely insistent that the English cricket team is the greatest force for good in human history.

The ideal scientist

Obviously the ideal case is pretty rare in practise.
As is very nicely explained on the blog Wait But Why, a perfect scientist cares a lot about how they reason and whether they're being honest. They don't care a fig what their conclusions are, just so long as they're as accurate as possible.

Your typical scientist doesn't necessarily reach the extreme top right of the chart, having maximum critical and analytical intelligence. Most mere mortals do have some biases they just can't shake off, but for your typical scientist this is not so much that they cause any serious difficulties. Being by definition more educated than laymen, they know better tricks for solving specific problems and understand the nuances better than most keen amateurs.

Really obsessed people, be they professional or amateur, might achieve incredibly high analytic scores, but unless they're in a professional environment, they might not do so well in terms of critical thinking. For that, you need other people telling you "you're wrong !" to keep you honest.

Of course, every scientist wants to reach the top right corner. They want to be able to solve every problem, no matter how complex, with the best solution possible. Sherlock Holmes is something pretty close to this ideal, but as we'll see later, his creator Arthur Conan-Doyle gives an interesting contrast.

Ignorant students

From the amazing they can talk webcomic. I will be a spoilsport and point out that neither children nor animals are really "born scientists" as it's popular to claim - the resemblance is superficial.
We've all got to start somewhere. Young children and various animals are really, really good at accepting reality as it is, or at least the evidence as presented to them. If a dog finds a ball under the couch, it doesn't get confused if it thought the ball was previously on the table. It just accepts reality and moves on. It may not have the slightest idea how the ball got there, but it damn well knows that is is.

When it comes to more advanced stuff, a lot of people are vaguely interested in something but aren't dedicated viewers - the difference between a Star Trek devotee who never misses an episode and has every stardate memorised and one who tunes in to ogle Seven of Nine from time to time. If presented with different possible solutions, the casually interested might be able to figure out which one is correct, but isn't likely to come up with either on their own. They just don't know enough of the subtleties to make the necessary connections, or understand the interrelated parts sufficiently well to work out what would happen in a new situation. Likewise for the uninterested : they may tell you which option is more likely, but they wouldn't ever stop to analyse the situation themselves.

Having a reasonable level of critical thinking but not analytic intelligence has another weakness. Being able to assess what the evidence suggests is a different from being able to understand if the evidence is itself correct. Children are extremely vulnerable to manipulation because they'll believe pretty much anything you tell them - they don't have the mental skills to asses statements on their own. Tell them that Santa exists and they have no problem in accepting that... but also tell them that fat people can't fit down chimneys and they'll spot the difficulty right away.


From the wonderful xkcd, of course.
A.k.a. the Great Unwashed, nice-but-dim. To borrow an example from Wait But Why, a sports fan does care about reality, but desperately wants it to go their way. If things don't, they have enough skill to work out all kinds of complicated (and not so complicated) reasons why it didn't, but ultimately they do accept it.

Politicians - at least the current bunch of morons - seem to be even more tribal than sports fans, partly because that's their professional role. They're supposed to be tribal, that's how the system works (and why it doesn't). Analytically they're certainly more sophisticated than sports fans, for the same reason. The region that the label for politicians represents is probably the largest of all groups : some reach very respectable levels of both kinds of intellect, others... don't.

At the lower left we have the extremes : the people so stupid they're barely capable of thinking at all. They accept whatever anyone they happen to like tells them without question, confusing their trust in the person with trust in what they're claiming. Left to themselves, they're largely harmless. Their danger lies largely in their participation in democratic systems which require a fair degree of skepticism. Without this, anyone appealing to the lowest common denominator has an easy time getting these people on board.

The evil genius

Finally we come to potentially the most dangerous realm of all : people who can figure things out, but use their skills only to justify their existing preferences. They don't really investigate, they rationalise.

This isn't necessarily dangerous, mind you. Arthur Conan Doyle presents a particularly nice example. Most famous for creating the ruthlessly logical and brilliant Sherlock Holmes, he himself believed in fairies. Frickin' fairies, for God's sake ! Even when a very obvious hoax hit the headlines, he saw it only as evidence for his beliefs. A decent scientist would never do that, or at worst would have to suffer the eternal shame of other scientists and quickly shut up about it.

But Doyle's fairies hardly led to any serious direct harm to anybody. Likewise, believing in the Flat Earth doesn't necessarily do anyone any actual physical harm. Even so, while the sheeple of the lower left are the most at risk from manipulation, it's the potentially evil people of this upper left quadrant which are the most likely to do the manipulating : when things go bad here, they can go very bad indeed. The people on the other side of the chart care too much about the truth to deliberately mislead anyone, but the people over on this side care more about getting their own way than anything as pesky as "facts".

This takes different forms. The "angry people in pubs", on on the internet, are often what we might call armchair bigots. They won't, unless strongly pressured, ever take physical action against people they dislike. But they are all too willing to vote on policies which harm other people. They care just enough about the truth to have the decency to be embarrassed (even if only unconsciously) by their opinions, but they're all too happy to absolve themselves of responsibility and let other people do their dirty work*. This is a very dangerous aspect of democracy, in that it makes villainy much easier by making it far less personal.

* We might be more sympathetic to armchair heroes, who want good things but aren't prepared to take any action further than signing a petition or, dare I say it, writing a blog.

It's said that to err is human, but to really foul things up you need a computer. In other words, the more analytic intelligence someone has, the greater their potential for damage if they don't also care about the truth. Hence the scientists of Jurassic Park were hardly what anyone would call evil, but they made a catastrophic mistake (at least according to the movie). At the more extreme end, while many Flat Earthers belong much lower down the chart, at least a few are capable of some serious mental gymnastics to rationalise their beliefs. They are not necessarily stupid, but dear me they're not the slightest bit interested in the truth.

And lawyers ? This is another excellent example courtesy of Wait But Why. A lawyer on their own has to be good at justifying any position, because that's what their professional role entails. By definition, they're not supposed to care about the truth, or only to the bare minimum necessary to formulate a defence of their client. Their interest is only in defence, in rationalising. The hope of the judicial system is that when such people operate in a system, doing the same process both for and against a client, a neutral observer will be capable of getting at the truth. Thus a lawyer acting in defence of a serial killer isn't evil, given the context in which they operate.

Whether this really works or not is an interesting question. On the face of it it sounds a bit daft*, so I propose an experiment : present a series of carefully staged scenarios to a bunch of scientists and a court and see which does best. We take it for granted that both courts and scientists are good at establishing facts, but the two systems are very different. Scientists criticise each other, yes, but the adversarial process is quite different to the courtroom situation. So when Captain Picard says :

* Get two people to make the cleverest, most persuasive arguments for and against a position ? Knowing how persuasion works, and knowing that people of the jury will lie all over the above chart, this seems like a very weird idea.

... we should wonder if a) this is really correct and b) whether there isn't a better way of doing things.

Conclusion : yes, you can be an evil genius, but please don't

To really describe the evil genius, we'd need to add malevolence as a third axis. As I said, lawyers aren't necessarily evil or doing evil things, and they certainly don't go home at night to cackle away in their creepy dungeons. Probably. But they do exemplify the kind of thinking that can be described as evil genius in the right circumstances. Sure, the people who fit all three criteria (highly biased, highly analytical, and highly malevolent) are rare, but they're also disproportionately dangerous.

This realm of uncritical, highly analytical intellect is what the British left-wing media is either refusing to believe in or doesn't realise is possible. It's why, as Stephen Pinker eloquently put it, "things that can't go on forever can go on for much longer than you think". It's how people can have absolutely lamentably, horrifically stupid goals but then set about accomplishing them in amazingly sophisticated ways. It's one way - only one way, mind you - by which people can become locked in to a course that goes directly against their own interests.

Part of the appeal of conspiracy theories of the evil-lizard-men ilk is that we want to believe someone's in charge, even if they're not very nice. It helps us make sense of a messed-up reality. But saying that an evil genius is impossible, that anyone bent on a course that seems to be obviously self-destructive will in fact self-destruct, is also a mistake. Yes, eventually they may come crashing down in a big ugly heap, but the British media seems to think that every minor difficulty for them poses an insurmountable challenge - even as they keep on succeeding. This is to misunderstand how genuinely clever such people can be : just because their goals are those of lunatics does not mean they don't know some incredibly astute methods to accomplish them. To say that the evil genius does not exist is, I'm sorry to say, little more than wishful thinking.


  1. I've an old passion for more or less lossy information compression, which implies efforts to tame vagueness/ambiguity. The pigeonhole principle, etc. I'm telling this to justify declaring that, was I tasked to pick a "single" English word that best summarizes your topic here, I'd pick "mean(s)".

    BTW, there's a "go" missing in "can't go on forever can on for much longer" fwiw.

    1. Typo fixed, thanks.

      But... "means" ? You'll have to decompress that one a little more for me. :)