Mar 23, 2022·edited Mar 23, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

This is a fascinating theory, and I think you may be onto something here. I, too, have wondered about why there are fewer geniuses now than in the past. There are a few other potential contributing factors to this that I didn’t see mentioned:

(1) The rise of “publish or perish”. The aristocratic geniuses of the past could work at a leisurely pace and focus only on their most important ideas. Today, most intellectuals are academics or journalists, and both professions require increasing quantities of work from practitioners to maintain employment. This means most intellectuals are forced to spend more time on less important ideas that can be developed over the course of weeks or months rather than years.

(2) Geniuses are out there, but their contributions aren’t as obvious because of specialization. The intellectual world has expanded dramatically. There’s more specialized information than ever. As such, the contributions of geniuses will not be as obvious to the general public, or even intellectuals in their own field who work in different subfields. This applies even to the arts, where (I am told) to appreciate many modern art movements you need to be well educated in an array of specific artists and traditions.

(3) Geniuses are out there, but increased intellectual competition makes each individual less influential. There are so many more intellectuals today than even 200 years ago, and the competition is fierce. Take philosophy. The greats of the past engaged with only a relatively small number of thinkers, most of whom were dead. So a small handful of individuals had all the low hanging intellectual fruit to themselves. A philosopher today must compete with dozens or hundreds of thinkers, all of whom are hunting for objections to her work and/or rushing ahead to beat her to some of that low hanging fruit. Perhaps there are hundreds of hidden great philosophers today who, if there was far less intellectual competition, would eventually pick all the low hanging fruit themselves and therefore be more obviously great.

(I haven’t read the comments on the first post so apologies if these have already been addressed there)

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If you're willing to accept "parent did a little tutoring" as an explanation for some of the figures I named (eg Newton), I think that makes your theory much weaker than I had originally thought. In particular, it suggests that a big fraction of the kids being homeschooled by their parents should count as aristocratically tutored - and that's millions of people! I think that makes a lot of the rest of your post - about how this is almost unattainable today, about how it's impossible without unacceptable social inequality - fall flat. If ordinary homeschooling by parents counts, your headline result should be "home school your kids"!

(also, a lot of kids who aren't home schooled get some tutoring by their parents on the side, so I think tens of millions of children probably qualify as "at least as home schooled as Darwin or Dickens")

Likewise, if you're going to count Oxbridge as tutoring, your conclusion shouldn't be "too bad there's no aristocratic tutoring anymore," it should be "Go to Oxbridge, the one place still capable of producing geniuses!" And then you should compare Oxbridge to some equally selective institution like the Ivies to see if this really has an effect.

Although you never said the decline in genius was due entirely to tutoring, you implied it was a pretty strong factor. I think if eg 75% of past geniuses weren't aristocratically tutored, then the decline of aristocratic tutoring can only account for at most 25% of the decline in geniuses, which was not the impression I got from your post. Adding in the existence of current aristocratically tutored people, like home schoolers and Oxbridgeans, and adjusting for the percent of geniuses that they are, would lower these numbers further.

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In the case of chess, I'd recommend looking into the case of the Polgar Sisters.

Their father was Laslo Polgar. He was a Hungarian psychologist whose focus of study was human intelligence.

He studied geniuses throughout history and came to the conclusion that geniuses were made, not born. He wanted to put his ideas to the test, so he married a Ukrainian researcher with them intent of having children and raising them to be geniuses.

He felt that anyone could become a genius in any field of sport, science, or the arts if you started your education at the age of three, and began to specialize at the age of six. 

The field he and his wife choose for their children was chess, simply because it was easy to quantify success.

They had three daughters: Judit, Susan, and Sophia. All three went on to become the some of the most successful female chess players in history. 2 become grandmasters and the other was an international master. Susan has been the most successful collegiate chess coach in history, and Judit is widely considered to be the greatest female chess players in history.

Their story was very similar to Earl Woods and his son Tiger, and Richard Williams and his daughters Venus and Serena.

They were all geniuses within their fields. All were taught in a very similar way. None of their parents were experts in chess, golf, or tennis.

You can expand this to success in spelling and geography bees as well, where homeschooled kids are routinely winning, at least at levels far above their representation in the population.

I used to coach and compete in academic debate at the highest levels for years. I've seen it over and over where kids of successful coaches would become successful themselves, because they had such early exposure to the activity, and had tutor in the subject at home.

I don't think there is any doubt that this is the best way to educate someone. No different than how a tailor made suit or dress is better than one which comes off an assembly line.

However, we are now at a point where everyone alive today, for several generations, have all gone to "school". We are reflexively associate school with learning. Moreover, there is a massive system in place with a vested interest in the idea of "school".

School probably is better than the alternative for the vast majority of families who couldn't hire or tutor their children themselves.

However, slowly, there are people rediscovering the power of tutoring, although it is usually under the guise of homeschooling today. It simply works better and I don't think there is any debate about the matter at this point.

It might take an Elon Musk or some other high profile person to start to crack the social signaling edifice of schools. Or, something will need to replace the signal that elite schools offer.

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Mar 23, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

Britain's Great Man of literature Samuel Johnson has his early education described on his Wikipedia page as "Johnson displayed signs of great intelligence as a child, and his .. education began at the age of three, and was provided by his mother, who had him memorise and recite passages from the Book of Common Prayer. When Samuel turned four, he was sent to a nearby school, and, at the age of six he was sent to a retired shoemaker to continue his education. A year later Johnson went to Lichfield Grammar School, where he excelled in Latin. He excelled at his studies and was promoted to the upper school at the age of nine. At the age of 16, Johnson stayed with his cousins, the Fords, at Pedmore, Worcestershire.There he became a close friend of Cornelius Ford, who employed his knowledge of the classics to tutor Johnson while he was not attending school. After spending six months with his cousins, Johnson returned to Lichfield, but Mr Hunter, the headmaster, "angered by the impertinence of this long absence", refused to allow Johnson to continue at the school. Unable to return to Lichfield Grammar School, Johnson enrolled at the King Edward VI grammar school at Stourbridge.[25] As the school was located near Pedmore, Johnson was able to spend more time with the Fords, and he began to write poems and verse translations. However, he spent only six months at Stourbridge before returning once again to his parents' home in Lichfield."

Long-winded I know, however a good demonstration of the diversity of educational opportunities available in a society geared to education, even for the lower middle class. From the C13 on, charitable donations of schools and colleges demonstrate the significance of education, and being charitable schools, they often came with scholarships for those of ability to learn but lacking the ability to pay. The standard of learning expected was very high.

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Mar 23, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

"(a) science and arts are “mineable” or “exhaustible” in exactly the same way since the decline seems similar in both"

This isn't exactly how I would phrase it, so there's a chance I'm simply misunderstanding, but my immediate thought is that this isn't necessarily surprising. When you have optimization processes around (i.e. humans), you can have weird things happen.

Imagine a world where humans think in some abstract sense that science and the arts are equally valuable. But, the underlying rules of the world make science 10,000x easier than music (in some sense). People notice this, and so they award 1/10,000 the prestige for achievements in science, to account for it being less impressive. If humans chase prestige (instead of achievements directly), then they might pursue science in exactly the way to completely counteract it's advantage in easiness, and you might expect equal amounts of achievements, despite the underlying ease difference. The point is, with the right optimization pressures, what matters is not science's underlying "mineability" but instead how we, the optimizers, value it.

This creates a "control system" where the decline should mirror each other. If either declined faster, it would be harder, and therefore garner more prestige, and therefore get more attention, which shores up its decline, leveling the two out, and leading to a similar decline in both.

In fact, I would expect that without some sort of control system, it's difficult to explain b (the lack of impact of the explosion of free information), with *any* idea, or combination of ideas, (I mean, does the decline of tutoring manage better here? Even if it only wants to explain part of the issue, it doesn't seem to be coincident with the rise of the internet, so what happened at that time?) With the prestige control system it's trivial: Achievements got easier to make, so they became less impressive, so people stopped caring as much.

I think you mostly have the right of it, and I don't even know if I think the "prestige control system" is an actual thing, or just a useful category of thing to think about. But I just noticed that these two objections don't match my worldview.

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Mar 23, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

> nature trumps nature

I assume one of these should be "nurture", but I don't know which one!

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Hi Erik,

What do you think will be the outcome of having AI powered tutors available to everyone?

Khanmigo and Duolingo Plus (as well as the standard ChatGPT)

I am fascinated with allowing for a self-direct study of the world, with experts that come in and guide.

1. Will the experts be AI's?

2. Or will the abundance of new free time allow members of society to do this work for a fraction of the cost, and still have a decent living?

Thanks for the excellent writing and thinking about this space.

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Mar 31, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

Although not getting much attention in the replies, the Bloom's 2-Sigma effect is essential to the argument since it helps us understand the mechanism beyond anecdotal correlation. Understanding the margins and mediators of that effect would be more useful, in my mind, than the Oxbridge-Ivy comparison that was suggested suggested. Linking here for those interested in the original research: http://web.mit.edu/5.95/www/readings/bloom-two-sigma.pdf

Two other pieces of research are also relevant:

1. Raj Chetty's works on Lost Einsteins suggests that have models of inventors is key to children growing up to be inventors. Being tutored by a Kelvin or a Descartes may have similarly inspired unconventional aspirations to do great things. https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/lost-einsteins-us-may-have-missed-out-millions-inventors

2. The expert performance research and deliberate practice adds detail the mechanism at play. Having a tutor or coach that can direct you to what you need to focus on, inspire you to practice, and provide individual, specific feedback is key. http://tashfeen.pbworks.com/f/EricssonDeliberatePracticePR93.pdf

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Mar 27, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

Pleased to see discussion of the Oxford/Cambridge tutorial system. Particularly given the earlier start made on University in the 19th Century (and prior), I think it goes a long way to explaining the persistence of technically challenging and "elite" arts. It's mostly gone — no longer in STEM, and in a much reduced fashion in the humanities.

My sense is that the kind of talent needed to produce geniuses can be provided by aristocratic tutoring (in its different forms). But that same talent pool may be necessary, but not sufficient, for the actual production of genius.

At that point it seems like you need a confluence of historical and even species-level factors: there are "mute, inglorious Miltons" in many country churchyards, simply because the moment for that kind of poetry had passed.

The positive news is that (in my humble, but well-informed opinion) we are actually entering a new period where we will expect genius to flourish. In areas ranging from quantum computing and formal mathematics to political philosophy and cognitive science, we're entering a new period of low hanging fruit. Come join us!

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Mar 24, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

I think the argument in your original post came across as more mono-causal than you intended, which seems to account for most of the disagreement between you and Scott.

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Mar 23, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

Another reason your theory seems plausible (but would need more historical anthropology type work to back up) is that it would seem that tutoring would be a obvious educational style in societies over the past few hundred thousand years which didn't move into agriculture/hierarchy/class and therefore move people into specialization away from kids. If your way of teaching is 'do things with adults', which I expect most human societies have been, (i.e. learn what every plant and animal in an environment is, how they relate, and how to use them from elders) then it makes sense that you would have tons of geniuses - but before printing presses and writing and such, we wouldn't necessarily know about them, and their genius might be like "astonishingly good at hunting whales". Then with agriculture/inequality/etc, what used to be for everyone becomes limited to the rich - and the tutors got more specialized? Maybe? I've been reading Graeber (Debt, Bullshit Jobs, and Dawn of Everything) as well as a book called "Hunt, Gather, Parent", which I found very insightful besides the title, and which might have some good thoughts for this idea.

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Mar 23, 2022·edited Mar 23, 2022Liked by Erik Hoel

Caplan did go on to homeschool his sons through high school as well:


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Three points I want to bring up:

First, the empirical evidence in favor of elite tutoring over humdrum tutoring is not there.

That is, studies attempting to pit experienced against novice tutors repeatedly find no difference in learning outcomes.

The human tutors I've asked the last few months all agree with this. E.g.: "Yeah, there are some guys at my firm whom I don't think are very good, but their students' scores go up the same as everyone else's."

This is closely related to the interaction-plateau hypothesis in intelligent tutoring systems (very smart feedback-giving AIs only produce marginally better outcomes than fairly-dumb ones, so long as they're enough for the student to recognize their error), which is a major motivating drive behind the approach I'm taking for my own intelligent-tutoring work.

But, this can't be generalized too far: A typical study in this genre splits students into two groups, gives them a grad student who is either an experienced or novice physics tutor, and then compares their test scores. None of them look at 12 year-olds who have spent years with either a professor as a tutor vs. an undergrad, and see how many of them have started their own podcasts.

Second, apparently government requirements for mandatory learning are not as strong as people think they are, at least at the high school level, at least in some states. 100% of what I know about this I learned a few days ago from talking to the founder of https://www.powderhouse.org/ , who (slight caricature) told me that he can get students to satisfy all the state requirements for high school graduation by building some Github projects and then writing about it.

Third, I really want to see a more precise definition of genius by which we've declined.

I'll give an example of someone modern who was often called genius.

My friend, Michael B. Cohen, has published 15 papers in computer science since 2018.

This would be pretty good for anyone. But one makes this incredible is that he died in 2017 at age 25. He has over 30 publications total. https://scottaaronson.blog/?p=3468

From the stories I heard at his memorial, I'm pretty sure he attended normal public schools for K-8, and a public magnet school (Montgomery Blair) for high school.


As a bonus, someone who did receive some elite tutoring in high school, and then went on to a great career: https://newcriterion.com/issues/2012/10/the-fifth-problem-math-anti-semitism-in-the-soviet-union

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We love these write ups! Also, thank you for mentioning our work rethinking education at the CollinsInstitute.org

One compounding factor that makes this kind of theorizing difficult is that your data could be framed a different way: Genius is not created by private tutoring but instead stamped out by (only) going through the industrial schooling system. This could be solved if we had some other schooling model providing a large set of data points but we don’t. In history the vast majority of people were either industrially schooled, tutored, or industrially schooled and tutored on the side (with “tutored” often being a catch all term for a huge range of pedagogies that are delivered on a one to one basis). (Perhaps how common people who got both industrial schooling and tutoring are on your genius list means a better way to word this theory is, "people who's only interaction with an educator is through the factor educating process during their developmental stage have their chance at being a genius significantly retarded".)

Or at least we did not have any alternative models being tried historically. One thing that really excites us at the Collins Institute (outside of the unique pedagogy we developed) is the rise of radical unschooling (essentially just letting kids do whatever they want), not because we think that unschooling is the optimal educational pedagogy (we don’t) but because the data it is going to produce could change the way we think about producing geniuses. Essentially, radical unschooling will produce a true baseline in education—”what happens if we do not interfere with a child's education at all”. The early data here (which unfortunately does not control for socioeconomic data) seems to indicate that these kids are outcompeting students of the industrial school model—essentially meaning that the industrial school system is “worse than doing nothing”.

Also, as someone else mentioned, László Polgár is a person to look at in this space. The fact that he was able to attempt to create geniuses within a specific modality and do so three times out of three indicates a better educational system would not be 20% better but could be something like two hundred times better.

Note: To your question of whether the rich still practice tutoring. Yes, they do. When I was growing up in the 90s I had tutors come by once a week in a couple subjects to explore them at a level beyond what the school was teaching me. I know that tutoring was their full time job so there must have been at least a few other families paying for tutors in the Dallas area in the 90s.

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The point is that if a family adopts homeschooling mostly for ideological reasons it is likely it will just throw away the parts it objects to (say, Evolution and sex education), which CAN make the curriculum even worse and does not do much for the efficency of the proccess. Say whay you will, but it is not sex education (alone) which is holding American students back.

Now, if a family adopts homeschooling because they think it will produce more intelligent or more knowledgeable children, it is at least teying to do what Mr. Hotel is concerned about.

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The low hanging fruit thing seems like it would have contributed quite a bit to the decline of genius. But whenever you have a big paradigm shift, it seems kinda like climbing to a higher branch where some new stuff would be easy to reach. (A lot of new physics and I.T. Came after Einstein)

Maybe that’s why the blue science line zig zags more than the red humanities line.

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