A response to a topic prompt: “What are the differences between skill, talent, good strategy, luck, etc?” I discuss ableism as a sort of broad critique of the question.

A handful of acquaintences of mine decided to whip up a little weekly blogging challenge to keep our writing-muscles toned. As of when I wrote this sentence, nobody had used the offered prompt; I looked at it and thought “what kind of question even is this!?” so perhaps this’ll make me the first to use it. Before we get into the meat of why I wonder why anybody’s asking this question, let’s travel back in time to 1996. We need to go steal a term from Michael Behe and twist it until the poor man would wince.

Irreducible Complexity; or How To Make Michael Behe Wince I Guess

A couple years or so before I came to be, Behe coined the term “irreducible complexity,” pulling on various pseudoscholarship from the past couple centuries. I haven’t read his books, and I frankly don’t plan on it, because I can think of many better uses of my reading-time than “early ’90s bait for mid-2000s YouTube atheists.” In brief, Behe argued (and still argues, I assume) that the theory of evolution by means of natural selection could not possibly be true, since so many biological structures we look at are “irreducibly complex.” He means that you can’t really remove any part of those functioning systems without completely compromising their function, e.g. what use is a cornea without a retina, or vice versa, and God forbid (he’s Christian) you leave out the vitreous!

Now, I assume that Behe went into much more specific and presumably useful detail about this; if you want a dense and fair explanation, go ask Behe or some asshole YouTube atheist or something. There are a bunch of different arguments concerning a bunch of different facets of Behe’s argument, but the one that motivated me building this strange strung-out analogy is that irreducibly complex systems like this may well evolve. This counterargument to Behe frames the way I’m using “irreducible complexity:” to describe irreducibly complex systems that came to be that way through various natural and/or designed selective pressures.

Ok this was about skill or talent or something; get to the point please

The degree of someone’s “productivity” is an irreducibly complex product of a massive number of factors, some of which can indeed be clustered very nicely into “skill, talent, good strategy,” or “luck.” For any given “productivity,” each of those factors is mutually constitutive. (Title drop!) Talking about any one of them in isolation feels a bit like discussing the evolutionary advantage of a cornea while pretending the rest of the eye doesn’t exist.

So discussions about the meaning of skill, talent, strategy, luck, etc. are usually motivated by attempts to analyze what people do right. That’s usually basically fine; much of our motivation for communicating at all is to avoid unnecessary duplication of mistakes or to help each other out. This “productivity” deserves at least as much analysis as the rest of those topics: you look at the factors in the product, sure, but you should also consider why you’re taking that specific product to begin with. So let’s do that: how can we challenge our own cultural ideas about what “productivity” means?

Consider, as a motivating example, the ways that American society writ large treats disability today. For brevity, let’s specifically discuss the US and people on the autism spectrum. We call them “people with autism spectrum disorder” and often “disabled.” Like how the crisis is the context, the disability is the context. I’m sure I don’t need to hunt around for some specific person to parade as A Productive Autistic Person for you to understand that many of them exist (and personally, I’d feel kind of weird doing that; whoever I’d point to would just be, like, a person doing normal-ass persony things). Part of the reason we might still call that person “disabled” is that they might need some accomodations to get there.

Next, consider the connotations of “accomodations.” A “Yer Dad” sort of ableist take about accomodation might go something like…

I’m glad that some companies offer accomodations for autistic people! It’s not their fault that they have a psychiatric disorder; really, I think there’s no shame in accepting all the help they can get!

…which is superficially fair and courteous, but fails to make some important connections.

  • An “accomodation” is a designed modification of an environment to permit it to be accessible to more people. What Yer Dad is missing in that quote is that environments like workplaces are already highly designed–mostly to meet the needs of neurotypical people. Imagine designing a workplace around the needs of autistic people: would it really surprise you if a neurotypical person would need “accomodation” to work there?

  • The weight of “some companies” and “psychiatric disorder” in that example injects into the discussion an implication that these workers are burdens on their employer only kept around because of the employer’s (optional) good grace. But this doesn’t hold up to simple scrutiny: if they weren’t considered to be people who do valuable labor, why would they be in those specific workplaces at all?

I don’t want to keep you for too much longer, but I want to emphasize a couple more things: this critique isn’t limited to I-am-emphasizing-these-scare-quotes “high-functioning” disability, nor to disability at all. People who have some sort of disability that makes them unable to do what our culture calls “productive work,” i.e. “stuff that happens to make the capitalists a bunch of money,” still can have fulfilling lives that engage with our pretty-darn-human psychological needs to cooperate and work. I encourage you to listen to the stories and experiences of disabled people from all sorts of backgrounds, and with all sorts of disabilities. There’s no way I can do their stories much justice in a few short pages. I’m told that Crip Camp is a documentary that tells the stories of disabled people well, so if you really don’t know where to start, maybe that’ll be a good angle for you.

We can also see the imposition of a specific model of “productivity” being pushed on others littered throughout (for example) our histories of residential schooling throughout North America. These communities were doing more-or-less fine on their own–their cultures paid steep prices when colonial powers stripped children of their names and forbid them to speak their languages. These children paid another price: abuse ran rampant through these schools.

I’ll leave you with my thesis statement: don’t just think about how to help people be productive, think about what that “productivity” is.

Postscript: “The Hereditarian Left” is bullshit

But first, here be dragons…

Alright, so, when I’m posting for this blog, I usually imagine a specific audience and write specifically to them. When I’m talking about politicky subjects, I usually imagine that I’m talking to a specific former coworker of mine, who I often shared a leg of a bus trip with on my way home. We’d argue about politics and stuff and generally shoot the shit, myself from a generally American-leftist POV, her from a generally American-centrist POV.

I try to present ideas without dragging too many random commentators/weirdoes with blogs or too much vernacular into the conversation, because I don’t think there’s a good reason to limit who gets to engage with my ideas to “the people who read the same blogs as I have” or “the people who keep up with all of the latest ebbs and flows of The Discourse” or what have you. I prefer the aesthetic of just saying what I mean, and trying to put my discussion into terms that make my conclusions feel obvious instead of “cultured.”

I have to drop that pretense for a short time here, and I don’t really want to waste a ton of reader-time redefining a bunch of rationalist-community terms with their full nuance or reintroducing a bunch of public figures, so I’m just going to jump right into it. This is strictly optional content; feel free to dig through if it sounds like it’s for you or if you’re just curious.

For real this time.

Yet another Some Guy With A Blog by the name of Anthony Skews seems to have already scooped me on this point! Take a look at that essay if that’s your wont. It’s not written in the rat-vernacular, and it features commentary from at least one of the people that I’m aware the Scott Alexander fanbase gets ticked off at. (If you think that describes you, definitely take a look!)

I think Skews’ commentary here connects to mine in some interesting ways: he frames it in terms of a metaethical analysis of how intelligence research can’t be used to try to discover a correct ethical system with concern to how productivity works, and I’m inviting a direct philosophical discussion about how you might go about connecting productivity and ethics. I’d consider it to be an excellent companion piece to the main content of this essay.

And a free-standing mini-rant.

One of the things that really ticks me off about Scott’s hereditarian takes (which you’re probably familiar with if you’re also some kind of loser who has read Like All of Slate Star Codex) is that they seem to demonstrate some of the Neoreaction Brain Poison that Scott occasionally talks about fearing he’s overdosed on. (His most notable detractors definitely agree that he’s steeped that tea a bit too long and point out the tannin flavors it left in his behavior.) Even his more-uplifting commentary about how psychiatric conditions may well be boons selected for by evolution, for instance, smell to me a bit like submitting to how everything’s at the whim of Gnon.

It’s not easy, but honestly? “Gnon” could well be humanity’s bitch. Appeasing the weird neo-Nazis in the room on that topic won’t make that happen any faster.

Revision history

2021-02-21: add more examples of the imposition of productivities, flow, clarity