Aping Insight

Editors at top publications often do amazing jobs; the quality you see if often more a credit to editors than authors.  But at mid and low rank publications, editors often frustrate good writers.  Focusing on obscure anal rules about grammar or citations, they waste enormous energy adding little communication value.  Why do they bother? 

Similarly, it seems to me that while a wide vocabulary enables more eloquence from the best writers, most writers who use obscure words communicate less well than if they had used common words.  Why do they bother?

In these and many other cases, it seems to me that folks are aping insight – they are imitating the surface features of the insightful, to look insightful in the eyes of ignorant observers.  After all, only relatively insightful people can see clearly when others are insightful – other folks find it easier to rely on surface indications.  (I’m granting the benefit of the doubt here to talk about "insight"; the game is probably really about looking impressive.)

If you just want to look insightful yourself, then you’ll want to ape insight like everyone else.  Use big words, attend to anal formatting rules, use many citations in academic articles, clever turns of phrase in popular articles, and so on.  In literary articles give many quotes, in science articles show many data tables and statistical tests, etc.

But if you actually want to be insightful, you face a harder problem.  Once you realize that most folks are merely aping surface features thought to correlate with insight, you see that doing this yourself may not actually help you to be insightful.  You may face a choice between looking insightful and being insightful. Yes for some factors that correlate with insight, increasing your score on such factors will tend to cause you to be insightful, but for many other factors such an increase will reduce or have no effect on your insight. 

Now this conflict is minimal when you have insightful readers and editors, who care primarily about insight.  But if you have uninsightful readers and editors, or if while capable of insight they care more about looking insightful to others, you may prefer to forgo the rewards of looking insightful, to try to actually be insightful. 

Of course don’t try this if you can’t afford to do without those rewards, at least for a long time.  And beware: you may well care more than you realize about what folks think of you.  Also, you can’t conclude you have real, not fake insight, just because you fail to acquire the usual surface features of insight, nor even if you see yourself consciously choosing something else over acquiring those surface features.   Finally, since most people who ape inisght fool themselves into thinking they have real insight, your subjective feeling that your insight is real is also not enough.

GD Star Rating
Tagged as:
Trackback URL:
  • Now I am confused about what you mean by “insight”
    If I can’t tell whether I am insightful about X when I am writing about it, how on earth can someone else judge it? If it cannot be observed, then what is it then?

  • I’ve always thought of what you call “aping insight” as a signaling device for the ignorant, so they can take your insights to someone smart.

    Of course, most ignorant people don’t do that. They use recognition of the signal as a bluff that they recognise the insight. This is what allows remarkably dimwitted and unimaginative people to pass graduate school; I would hope it’s not possible for such a person to get a Ph.D. (defending the thesis ought to be beyond them), but a master’s is certainly within reach.

  • Abigail

    My understanding of human beings, or many of us, is we like to believe we are rational, but in fact are swayed by emotions and subconscious, animal desires. If we insist to ourselves too strongly that we are rational, then we have to lie to ourselves about post-decision rationalisations. Everybody lies to themselves.

    So before one can implement Bayes and OB ideals, one has to understand and admit the subconscious desires and feelings. Then one can use ones rationality to achieve them. Otherwise, we just use too much energy protecting the lies.


  • Stuart Armstrong

    For authors, I think the situation is often reversed: the really insightful articles are written in the blandest styles, so that they are easier to accept. A trully insightful article that also apped insight would be rejected as too revolutionary.

    There was a Yes Prime Minister take on this; during the Prime Minister’s public address, if there were no new ideas, the TV crew recommended “a very modern suit, hi-tech furniture, high-energy yellow wallpaper, abstract paintings, Stravinsky music”, while a revolutionary idea would be framed by “a dark suit, oak paneling, leather volumes, 18th century portraits, Bach”.

  • I recently stumbled on a couple of essays I wrote ten years ago as an undergraduate. I’m amazed by how *insightful* I apparently was. I’m only just beginning to understand much of what I seemed to know then, yet I have no memory of ever knowing it — only memories of last minute, all-night writing sessions with very little research or thinking involved.

  • michael vassar

    In my experience, a related point is that if you don’t go to a top 10 or at worst top 20 university you can’t expect there to be significant g-loading or concept-loading in your grades. Being smart won’t help you much to do better and time spent actually learning the material also won’t help much. In order to get good grades you will need to waste your time optimizing for them, and seperately optimizing for actual knowledge. Moral of the story. In terms of intellectual development, non-top universities are a HUGE time sink. People will tell you that the best universities aren’t better, but I have seen the coursework at Columbia at least in great detail and those people are deeply wrong, at least with respect to the smartest students.

  • Michael makes an important point: if you’re bright enough to understand most of Eliezer’s posts on this blog, then if are going to bother with college at all, attend one of the top 10 or maybe 20 colleges in the country. (Sorry for the U.S.-centrism of this post.) I would guess that it is better for someone bright enough to understand Eliezer to spend a year at a top-10 college and then drop out than to graduate from another college.

  • @MV: In terms of intellectual development, non-top universities are a HUGE time sink.

    @RH: I would guess that it is better for someone bright enough to understand Eliezer to spend a year at a top-10 college and then drop out than to graduate from another college.

    According to your reasoning, students earning a bachelor’s degree in economics from George Mason University (GMU is not a highly-ranked school) would be better off never to have matriculated. Dr. Hanson has shown in a recent post that lower-tier medical students produce the same level of health results as their high-tier colleagues. How does this all relate? I cannot imagine that Dr. Hanson’s “bias” will allow him to accept your dismissal of his (and Dr. Cowen’s) teaching efforts so glibly.

  • Andy

    Cargo-cult science, eh? Follow the form and not the substance…

  • Doug S.

    Is Rutgers University a top-tier university? I attended Rutgers College of Engineering and learned a lot, although most of what I studied could best be described as vocational training (my major was electrical/computer engineering). If you’re looking for vocational training and not “intellectual development” – whatever that is – then, chances are, most any college will do.

    I’ve read that (U.S.) students who were accepted to big name universities but chose to attend no-name universities instead have the same type of outcomes as students who do attend big name universities. Basically, the difference, on the undergraduate level, at least, between Generic State U. and Ivy League U. is the students, not the school. (For graduate students, there’s probably a much bigger difference in the quality of education from a big name school and a no-name school.)

  • Sean C.

    Do you want education or credentials?

    And most mentors I’ve had have been very modest about their levels of insight. “I just do what I do. Maybe other people find it useful. Maybe not.”

  • Tiedemies, I didn’t say you can’t tell; I said a mere feeling isn’t enough.

    Caliban, your hope is dashed.

    Michael, my experience doesn’t match yours.

  • Yvain

    I was actually thinking about this yesterday, suffering through the latest education fad. A lot of the popular education strategies today encourage students to ape insight either in the hopes that it will make them really insightful, or because educators can’t tell the difference between real and fake insight themselves.

    I have a prof in medical school who makes students reading journal articles follow a special multi-point plan developed by some sort of top educators. Start by finding five difficult terms in the article, writing them down, and then writing down the dictionary definitions. Then write down your objectives in studying the article. Then write down a list of key points of the article. Then discuss the article in a small group. And so on. All of this is based on genuinely good practices (it really is a good idea to know exactly what your objectives are; it really is a good idea to have well-defined terms; other people really can give you a different perspective, and so on) but to enforce lifeless versions of the practices divorced from the motivation behind them turns it into a meaningless ritual.

  • Doug S.

    My father, a professor of electrical engineering, says that the primary value of a college degree is that it demonstrates to employers that you are the kind of person capable of doing the work expected of a college student.

  • I went to a state university but I only spent 3 years there. I was there for the credential rather than the education. I don’t think I made the wrong choice there, but I should have looked into internships as soon as I arrived.

  • V

    To michael vassar: next time you plan to demean someone’s education, please use a spellchecker, mr. “seperately”. It makes your point quite moot (yes, I am assuming you attended a top 10, or at worst 20, university).

  • Other people are having their little rants about university education so I’ll have mine… 🙂

    I think students can roughly be divided into two groups:

    1) Those who want a “qualification”
    2) Those who have a passion for learning

    I think the great myth about university is that it can turn a type 1 person into a type 2 person. In my experience it doesn’t happen. The people I know who like learning, well, they liked learning before they went to university, and they still like learning afterwards, and indeed will do so for the rest of their lives.

    I think type 2 people get two main things out of university. Firstly, they are forced to learn about some things they wouldn’t choose to study themselves. I’ve seen too many autodidacts (who are also type 2) who developed strong opinions about things early on and then selectively educated themselves in a way that just reinforced their existing beliefs and ways of thought. The second important thing, I think, is that university gives type 2 people a way to meet and hang out with a wide range of other type 2 people. Perhaps the major part of what I’ve learnt during my time at universities has nothing to do with any curriculum, rather it’s been from hanging out with, and arguing with, all the interesting people I’ve met along the way.

  • I think students can roughly be divided into two groups:

    1) Those who want a “qualification”
    2) Those who have a passion for learning

    I think the intersect between those two sets is larger than you recognize – and that a lot of people recognize that a passion for learning doesn’t pay bills.

  • “Focusing on obscure anal rules about grammar or citations…”

    Missing comma for coordinate adjectives! See, e.g., Hart’s Rules for Compositors and Readers at the University Press, Oxford. 1st ed. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1893.

  • michael vassar

    V: Don’t be an idiot. If I had attended a top ranked university I wouldn’t have found this out. By the way, do you have any numbers on the g-loading of spelling? The g-loading of spelling on the right hand tail? Please do share.

    Doug S: You should read http://www.halfsigma.com archives on the topic of intelligence, career tracks, and college choice. Long an the short of it is that no, you have been fed a myth popular in right wing sets hostile to elite school leftism.

    Robin: I’m sure that your classes are plenty g loaded. Also, you studied physics, which is hard to suck the g loading from. Still, I’m slightly surprised by the disagreement.

    Phil Goetz: Waiting for you to chime in here on this one. You too Nancy Lebovitz.

  • V

    michael vassar: Oh, I am sure all of your top 10 (or 20) uni-educated, g-loaded friends make spelling mistakes constantly, and that you were only trying to write like them (Look, I brought it back on-topic!). But next time, please, make a less brain-scorching mistake. Thank you.

    And you can add to your g-smells the lack of imagination implicit in the name-calling!

  • Douglas Knight

    Robin Hanson:
    Michael, my experience doesn’t match yours.

    in which direction? do you disagree about the best schools or the others?

  • michael vassar

    Admittedly Robin, my experience is specifically with Columbia, which I was emphasizing the quality of, Penn, which isn’t very different from Penn State in my observations, and Harvard, which seems better than Penn but worse than Columbia in teaching, very g-loaded in grading, and very psychologically toxic in other respects.

  • Most people who want to appear insightful do so not by imitating the surface features of insightful people, but by finding a subgroup (say, environmentalists, or libertarian economists) which has already enumerated the insightful positions, and which is small enough relative to the general population that they can regard themselves as being very insightful (as contrasted with Democrats or Republicans, who can each only consider themselves to be in the top 50%, insight-wise). They then regurgitate the consensual liturgy of insights to each other, and he who shouts the loudest is the most insightful.