Tag Archives: scott adams

What is smart?

It could be the fact that it’s the mid-semester Uni assignment period once again (and thus, the perfect time for procrastination and/or reflection on how stupid assignments make me feel), or the fact that I read a really great article the other day on “what is smart”, but intelligence is something I’ve been thinking about lately.

Notably; what is intelligence? How is it measured? Is it different from person to person, or is there one universal definition of what “smart” is?

You hear about people with “genius-level intellect” all the time. Almost universally, those people are regarded as “smart”, or at least intelligent. Which brings us to another question: are intelligence and “being smart” the same thing? Can you be smart as well as intelligent when you’re not talking about the dress-sense kind of smart?

Other definitions of smart are a little harder to nail down: maybe you can only name a few US states and their capitals, for example, but you have an innate understanding of how physics works (facts vs understanding). Or maybe you can recite the periodic table, but don’t understand why it’s rude to ask someone’s age (again, facts vs understanding).

Maybe you can be socially smart. Maybe you’re just good at reciting facts. Which brings us to yet another question: if you have an eidetic memory, does that make you smart? Possibly; I guess it comes down to what kind of things you choose to memorise. You could just memorise a whole lot of junk about unimportant minutiae, and that probably wouldn’t make you very “smart”. Very good at Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, maybe, but probably not smart.

Or maybe all this is wrong. Maybe, like the Thought Catalog article suggests, smart isn’t just about knowing things, but it’s about knowing how things relate to each other, how they go.

But then I came across an article from the creator of Dilbert which completely changed my mind about smartness and intelligence: Scott Adams’ crackpot theory of intelligence is simply that intelligence is nothing more than pattern recognition.

My crackpot idea for today is that intelligence is nothing more than pattern recognition. And pattern recognition is nothing more than noting the frequency, timing, and proximity of sensory inputs. Language skill, for example, is nothing but recognizing and using patterns. Math is clearly based on patterns. Our so-called common sense is mostly pattern recognition. Wisdom comes with age because old people have seen more patterns. Even etiquette is nothing more than patterns.

Think about that for a second. Maybe intelligence (or how smart someone is) is nothing but pattern recognition, at both a micro and macro level.

And when you think about it, it all makes sense. On some level, with enough inputs, everything can be learnt through pattern recognition: social interactions? Pattern recognition. Physics? Pattern recognition. Programming? Pattern recognition. Pretty much anything can be interpreted as a pattern: even the haphazard arrangement of tabs in my web-browser could be explained, with enough knowledge about my habits and browsing patterns (if this was a game of Taboo I’d have just lost), with pattern recognition.

Actually, I’ve come across this idea before: my old piano teacher used to say pattern recognition was an invaluable skill to have when learning new pieces, as musical theory has heaps of repetition. I think the general idea was to recognise the patterns in order to learn to play pieces faster and more efficiently.

So, what do we know? We know a few things:

  • Intelligence is, or at least can be, some kind of sophisticated pattern recognition; know enough about something and you’ll start to see patterns, which can lead to conclusions and interpretations about what you’ve observed/sensed. Roughly translated, this is “learning”.
  • Complex patterns can be broken down into many inputs. Variables can be controlled. Changes can be observed. Results can be recorded. And finally, perhaps most importantly:
  • This was an excellent way to procrastinate an assignment I’m not feeling great about.