Six Heuristics For Judging Intelligence

The challenge is no longer finding information, it’s trying not to drown in it. Today, how we filter defines much of our intelligence.

To avoid being an intellectual pinball, we need heuristics to figure out if someone’s worth listening to.

Here’s six:

Intellectual Humility

‘Anybody who doesn’t change their mind a lot is dramatically underestimating the complexity of the world’ – Jeff Bezos

What’ve they changed their minds about? What’ve they been wrong about? What aren’t they sure about?

If the answer to all 3 is ‘nothing’, they care more about thinking they’re right than being right. Confidence is important psychologically and socially, but it’s often the enemy of good ideas.

Confidence in specific areas doesn’t disqualify automatically. Some things we can be quite sure of. Smart people can distinguish between simple and complex. They know which types of things to be sure and unsure about.

Either way, if they aren’t good friends with cognitive dissonance they’re out.

Pointed Questions

Straight from Richard Feynman.

Can they answer direct questions? Can they answer adjacent questions?

Admission of ignorance is good, but if they can’t answer relevant questions they haven’t done the work.

Non-Tribal Thinkers

Humans still run on caveman hardware. Even in our weird new world, we still like being part of a tribe. Modern tribes come in many forms, including intellectual teams.

While specific ideas are going to be correct, disparate ideas coalesce to form intellectual tribes. The left vs right for example. If someone thinks climate change is a hoax, I’d bet money I know their opinion on gun ownership. These ideas are entirely separate yet both play for the same team.

Exclusive membership of an intellectual team means brains are saving energy. Ideology thinks so we don’t have to.

An impressive mind can spend time on a team, but does need to go out into the cold sometimes too. The challenge is balancing this courage with epistemic humility.

Labels punctuate cognition. Anyone who defines all their beliefs under one is out.

Good Science, Bad Science

Some things are scientific and some aren’t.

This doesn’t mean that non-scientific things are stupid, it’s just that not everything is conducive to the scientific method. They can’t always be falsified (at least by Popper’s definition).

If we’re loitering around the domain of science we have two options:

1. Develop basic literacy

The jargon can be daunting but it’s one of the better investments of time and energy you can make. Don’t add studies to the tally unless they’ve been vetted by your eyes. Cut through the second hand reporting and go straight to the source. Here’s a basic primer why.

2. Find someone you trust

Even a layman can find credible scientific commentators. If someone has never called out the specifics of bad science, they’re out. If they’ve critiqued studies that confirm their beliefs they’re in.

(I’m referring more so to health science here. Less so to physics, chemistry etc.)

BMI & Health Advice

There are some people who think non-practical information is useless. I don’t agree with this.

We might miss out on interests we didn’t know we had. Interests of course impact decision making.

Purposeless information can dance with important information. Problems we can’t solve might be solvable through this new lens. Creative insight can come in roundabout ways.

Thinking, just by itself is an experience too. An epiphany can provide a rush.


Doctors once smoked cigarettes for health benefits. We no longer think long distance running is good for us. The food pyramid has been retired.

There’s an important filter information has to go through – to pass the test it actually has to work. Now the trick is defining ‘works’, which will change depending on context. Ideas divorced from experience have the potential to be dangerous – inept memes can propagate.

Avoid health (and other) advice coming only from the neck up. Skin in the game, if you will.

Steel Man, Straw Man

A man made of steel is strong, a man made of straw is weak.

Most people define opposing opinions as straw-men. This way they can blow it over and convince themselves they’re smart.

If they don’t know what the opposing steel-man looks like. If they can’t state the opposing argument better than its champions. They haven’t done the work.


Disagree? Great. Come bludgeon this on Twitter 🙂 (image)