Not the cognitive elite

Government has accomplished some mighty impressive things, the most impressive being the Manhattan project (nuclear bombs and nuclear energy), and the second most impressive being the landing on the moon.

After Hiroshima, and before the moon landing, people said “Why don’t we (meaning government) have a Manhattan project to do X”

After the landing on the moon, people said “If we (meaning government) can put a man on the moon, why cannot we do X”

Well guess what, boys and girls.  Today we can’t put a man on the moon.

Richard Feynman was one of the greatest scientists of all time, in every way a very smart man, and when he was working on the Manhatten project, he was mighty impressed by how smart everyone was.

Let us compare the Manhatten project with the ITER project,  (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor).

When a group attempts to accomplish any large, complex project, the way to do it is to break it into smaller less complex projects – which requires one to define the interface between the smaller projects and the acceptance criteria for each smaller project.  The ITER project was broken into smaller projects without defining interface requirements or acceptance criteria. So when the parts were brought together, they simply did not fit, and if they had fitted, would not have worked.

Much comedy ensued, and continues to ensue, with those fouling up being rewarded by larger budgets and more power.

I am pretty sure that if you are not smart enough to accomplish project management, you are not smart enough to accomplish thermonuclear fusion.

Observe that the Manhattan project was done in the bad old days, back when, according to Charles Murray, the elite was selected on the basis of class and race, whereas the ITER project was unsuccessfully attempted by an elite that, Charles Murray assures us, is the cognitive elite.

Even leftists, aka the state, have noticed the declining capability of the state, which they blame on the disturbing lack of faith by Republicans

Allegedly:

the party of no has made sure that government does not work and will continue to make it impossible for Obama to make good on any cleansing processes he may propose.

Somehow the party of no achieved this remarkable accomplishment even when the president was a democrat, the senate and the house of representatives had Democratic party majorities, and the public service was and is one hundred percent left, far left, and far out left. I suppose it was their evil thought waves that did it.

The state that cannot do project management generates legislation of thousands of pages of entirely opaque prose telling businesses how to do stuff, with the result that business comes to a halt.  Hence the economic crisis:  Ever greater intrusion, ever less competently done.

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25 Responses to “Not the cognitive elite”

  1. spandrell says:

    Come on Jim, give us some links.

    Also isn’t the ITER international? That’s bound to be a mess.

    • jim says:

      Sorry, no links, not sure how I know that ITER’s delays and cost overruns reflect basic failure of project management.

      Chaos in international projects is indeed pretty normal – consider what happens with outsourcing parts of software projects to India, but at the same time it is considered a pretty good indicator of Dilbert’s pointy haired boss syndrome. The ITER chaos is not an indication of deep and unusual stupidity, the way the world bank getting positive feed back and negative feedback mixed up is, but nonetheless, compares unfavorably with the Manhattan project. Fusion is doubtless harder than fission, but project management is not. Lots of people used to say “We need a Manhattan project for X”. No one is going to say “We need an ITER project for X”

      The mess is blamed on the fact that it is international, among other things, but all the nations participating are high IQ advanced nations.

  2. Bruce Charlton says:

    “When a group attempts to accomplish any large, complex project, the way to do it is to break it into smaller less complex projects – which requires one to define the interface between the smaller projects and the acceptance criteria for each smaller project. ”

    I think the same applies to science as a whole – science has been broken up into micro-specialisms and the ‘interface’ or synthesis of tehse separate bits, just keeps getting put-off and put -off, so I don’t think it can or will ever happen.

    (This is argued in my forthcoming book – if you e-mail me at hklaxness@yahoo.com I’ll send you a draft copy.)

    Indeed, it seems probable to me that the final synthesis of the ‘smaller, less complex projects’ has to be done by one man – a single cognitive system (certainly not a committee) – the limit for complexity of projects is therefore set by the intelligence and knowledge of a single person – and this i&k has 1. declined, so the smart people are less smart and there are fewer of them plus 2. the smartest people are anyway de facto excluded by the selection mechanisms which neither identify nor reward ability (mostly because the s.m s are not even trying to do this).

  3. CorkyAgain says:

    In the “bad old days” when software engineering meant structured programming, we learned that not only is it important to have well-defined interfaces for your modules, but also that these interfaces should be as minimal as possible.

    When interfaces are too broad or too complex, the modules are said to be “tightly coupled” and this makes it more difficult to develop them independently. Instead, frequent inter-team meetings,constant communication, and thick volumes of design documents are required to coordinate the work. (Bureaucracies love this. It helps the managers feel like they’re doing something important.)

    A related design criteria was that each module should have a high level of coherence — which was most famously expressed in the Unix philosophy that each program should do only one thing and do it well.

    Loosely coupled, highly coherent modules also make it easier to replace any one of them with a better implementation, without disturbing any of the other modules in the system. Again taking Unix as an example, one could rewrite the ‘sort’ command to use a better algorithm, and as long as the new implementation’s satisfied the rather simple specification it could be plugged in without anyone needing to rewrite any of their scripts.

    If government worked this way, it could use more off-the-shelf components and save a lot of time and expense. But of course, that’s not how it works, is it?

  4. I thought the Manhattan and Apollo Projects were done in that brief interval between two ages of selecting elites by class and race.

    Alternative theory: The Depression put smart people temporarily in government.

    • jim says:

      My estimate, from reading their writings, is that the anglophone political elite was smartest around 1870 or so, and that scientific progress was most rapid around that time. Science slowed down noticeably after World War I, and slowed down a good deal more after World War II. Technology kept going a bit longer, but, except for continued impressive progress in the very small, largely stopped in 1970. The maximum speed of technological progress was from 1880 to 1945, slightly after the period of maximum elite intelligence, the maximum speed of scientific progress from around 1780 to 1908, slightly before the period of maximum elite intelligence, though of course there is very broad overlap.

      Murray, however, thinks that the tea party is pissed because they are too dim to be part of the elite, that until very recently their whiteness and class background would have allowed them in, but now, hurray, we have the cognitive elite so no Tea Partiers allowed, so Murray’s cognitive elite is, pretty much, Obama and company, is the world Bank that gets positive feedback loop and negative feedback loop mixed up, the Obama speechwriters that confuse the Maldives and the Malvinas, and the guys that organized ITER.

    • asdf says:

      “Do you want to be a Nazi?”

      “No”

      “Well fucking make this bomb then. What else are you going to do work for a fucking bank?”

      similar for the moon landing

      Today government simply can’t compete with what private has to offer. And private is mostly concerned with value transference rather then creation.

      • jim says:

        Not similar to the moon landing. Failure to get to the moon would have had much the same consequences as the failure of ITER to light up, and less serious consequences than the space shuttle falling out of the sky. While the consequences are far less serious than they would be in private enterprise, they are not nothing.

  5. Bill says:

    The purpose of the Manhattan Project was to make atomic bombs. The purpose of the Apollo Program was to put men on the Moon. According to Jim Bowery, the purpose of the Tokamak reactor idea (which is what ITER is working on), is to generate a very large budget to support lots and lots of physicists and etc. We know this, evidently, because two of the three scientists who set the thing up for the DOE have copped to this. Thus, the smart people running each of the three programs have got what they were aiming for.

    The attitude that Bowery ascribes to the founders of the US Tokamak program is instantly recognizable to anyone who has spent time around the university-based biomedical sciences in the US. Getting grants is the goal: the bigger and longer the better. The war on cancer is just like Tokamak. The point of this war is to fund biomedical types. Any actual small progress against cancer is a welcome incidental.

    Physicists are not dumb. Plenty of them are bitter and cynical, but not dumb.

    • jim says:

      People want to be paid. They also want to accomplish stuff, for inner satisfaction and outward reputation. Sound project management renders these goals congruent. If people are bitter and nothing is being accomplished, it is pointy haired boss syndrome, idiots in charge, not people being clever about enriching themselves.

      • Bill says:

        Building a huge lab is “accomplishing stuff.” Plenty is being accomplished. Grants are got. Papers are written. Students are trained and sent out to be gainfully employed. And all this is done while doing “science,” the most importantest thing evah.

        You are casually assuming that people go around probing deep questions like “Is there any point to this stuff I’ve been doing for the last thirty years, or is what I am doing and what every single person I have ever known calls science actually science?” And then, if they get an adverse answer, they change. Psychologically normal people just don’t ask this kind of question in a serious way, especially if the answer could be threatening to themselves, most especially if they have a creeping suspicion that something is not quite right. And they sure don’t radically change their lives if they do somehow figure out that what they are doing is pointless.

        It is not smart people who are being driven out of the elite, it’s weirdos. It’s independent thinkers, undisciplined people, people who are not agreeable and conformist, etc.

        What is the Manhattan Project working on today? It’s a stupid question: the project is over ’cause atom bombs have been invented. What is the March of Dimes working on today? It’s a stupid question, ’cause Polio has been cured, right? Except, it still exists, working on vague crap about premature babies or something, something which will never get cured. It is completely normal for organizations to do nothing much of any actual value.

        • jim says:

          Plenty of people are ticked off by the gross incompetence of ITER. The top guy has been fired, not withstanding his entirely truthful protests that all decisions were collective, and large numbers of people around him, possibly everyone around him, it is not clear, have been forced to take courses in project management, which means that those terribly high status highly scientific people are being taught by low status people how to manage, implying that they cannot manage, despite having managed a great pile of money and scientists. The US is pointing fingers at Europe, and the Europeans are pointing fingers at each other. Most of the Europeans are pointing fingers at France, (apparently for lack of faith in its partners) and France is pointing right back.

          Similarly, reading between the lines of the climategate files, I get the feeling that Briffa is disappointed and bitter because in order to retain “scientific” employment, he has to manufacture propaganda instead of doing real science.

          Just as the space shuttle was sold on the basis of providing cheap access to space, and then turned into a pointless waste of money and lives, ITER was sold as a technology demonstration for thermonuclear reactors that would actually provide seriously large amounts of heat and radiation power. Failure to meet such promises does not get you shut down as it would in the private sector, but it does generate unfavorable attention. They are not under enough pressure to perform, but they are under non negligible pressure to perform. Their failure to perform therefore indicates lack of competence, not lack of interest.

          Scientists at the bottom are bitter about the failure to produce fusion, and politicians at the top are pissed off. They are not entirely getting away with it.

          The accusation that lack of faith by Republicans is causing government to not work, implies that even the elite is noticing stuff not working.

          • asdf says:

            Being bitter and being bitter enough to do something about it are different things. Everyone is bitter about a bad situation. Being strong enough to go against the tide before its an obvious failure and you can actually do something about it is hard.

            When you need to develop the a-bomb or else the Nazi’s are going to take over, you nut up and do it. When difficulties come you say fuck it we gotta beat the Nazi’s. But when you live in a world of affluence where if your project doesn’t work its not the end of the world or even your career…whatever go with the flow.

          • Bill says:

            Similarly, reading between the lines of the climategate files, I get the feeling that Briffa is disappointed and bitter because in order to retain “scientific” employment, he has to manufacture propaganda instead of doing real science . . . Scientists at the bottom are bitter about the failure to produce fusion, and politicians at the top are pissed off. They are not entirely getting away with it.

            Exactly my point when I mentioned bitter physicists. The system isn’t good. The system is bad, and people notice. Who leaves or is kicked out as a result? People who can’t shut up, people who can’t stand the lies, people who can’t or won’t play along. The system tolerates bitter timeservers. It would be explosively unstable if it could not tolerate this.

            Maybe it was Briffa, but one of the climategate goofs whines in an email that he will be out of a job if he does not produce grants, and that this requires doing crap work. The bitterness comes from finding out that you have to do non-science, borderline or actually dishonest bullshit to support your family after you have invested a decade of your life (the best decade of your life, the one immediately post bachelor’s degree) in developing your professional skills. The bitterness comes from the fact you were lied to.

            These are different points, though, than claiming that the people in charge are dumb. They are evil, not dumb.

            Another example is a US federal funding agency called AHRQ, formerly called AHCPR. This agency is, at best, pure waste. More likely, it is slightly harmful. “Everyone” understands this. Every once in a while, the Republicans try to kill it. Always, they fail. The mere facts that 1) it is useless or worse and 2) that this fact is widely known is not enough to get it killed, even when one party is actually trying to kill it.

          • jim says:

            These are different points, though, than claiming that the people in charge are dumb. They are evil, not dumb.

            The top guy of ITER got fired, and those around him suffered the humiliation of being sent to remedial education in project management. Had they been smart, would have avoided obviously failing at project management. Whether or not they cleverly distorted the science for personal profit, they stupidly bungled the project management.

          • asdf says:

            Bill,

            “The bitterness comes from finding out that you have to do non-science, borderline or actually dishonest bullshit to support your family after you have invested a decade of your life (the best decade of your life, the one immediately post bachelor’s degree) in developing your professional skills. The bitterness comes from the fact you were lied to.”

            Hell yes. One day you wake up and your over 30 with a bunch of obligations. You realize your industry/career/organization is hopelessly corrupt and that any reasonable option for yourself at this point is bound to be roughly the same. You can’t just start over from the bottom. You’ve got a family, you want them to get the kind of advantages that will keep them from ending up like you. You don’t want to quit your job/career and then probably have your wife walk out on you (women generally don’t forgive men who choose moral ideals over family welfare).

            You also end up facing the fact that things will largely continue as they are regardless of what actions you take. So if you throw it all away nothing will change anyway.

            Bitterness comes from frustration. If solutions were available people would take them. It’s the lack of good solutions that causes bitterness.

        • asdf says:

          Yes, and it took a long time for me to come around to this view too. Recently I tried to organize people to be whistle blowers on a really nasty piece of government malfeasance, but I failed. They just didn’t care enough to risk their own necks in spite of stated ideals. I found the same basic attitude on Wall Street. You describe it perfectly.

          Among the smarter many sense something is off, but its easier to not question further. Often they either can’t or won’t do anything about it, so why think it through more. They become vaguely dissatisfied but not enough to do anything.

  6. spandrell says:

    How do you prevent rent seeking? It’s everywhere. It has always been.

    • jim says:

      Well of course they are rent seeking, but if ITER actually performed nuclear fusion, it would be a big help in getting rents.

      • Bill says:

        It’s that claim exactly which is false. Success is failure and failure is success.

      • spandrell says:

        Rents for whom? Once a project is finished those who did it are not longer useful. Once Project Manhattan was over all those mighty scientists had to go elsewhere work. If they had pulled an ITER they would have a stable and cozy make-work job forever.

        Why didn’t they? It seems to be that all human endeavour necessarily degrades into rent seeking given enough time to mature/enough people inside/pure inertia to take hold. All organisations become make-work socialisation. What is peer review but science made nice?

        • jim says:

          If ITER had performed to plan, would have been a step towards commercial nuclear fusion, not commercial nuclear fusion. The plan was unending “progress towards”, in other words, guaranteed employment without any real results, but with some impressive burns. By failure to actually assemble that device they fell seriously short of their own plan. They promised some thermonuclear burns, were not even able to put the bits together.

          • Paul says:

            Unfortunately, ITER isn’t a step toward commercial nuclear fusion. Tokamak reactors don’t look like they’ll ever be competitive with alternative technologies, including renewables and nuclear fission, even assuming tokamaks can be made to “work”.

            The issues with nuclear fusion have long been known (see Lawrence Lidsky’s article in Technology Review in the 1980s) but the inherently corrupt nature of the enterprise has allowed reality to be ignored.

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