Funny Reddit thread about famous "geniuses" revealed as "idiots," from Gerald Ratner to Linus Pauling

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All of these were cast as geniuses by media complicit in the whole cycle, from fawning to feeding frenzy.

That’s the core of the problem, often accompanied by the support of prominent members of the financial services industry. The “glass floor” problem only makes it worse, because even when the evidence piles up that the “genius” is a fraud, those who invested in the myth of his brilliance scramble to give them additional chances in an attempt to save their own reputations.


My poor hero Linus Pauling. What about his Nobel peace prize for getting nuclear testing stopped? We all kind of looked the other way eventually for the vitamin C stuff. My dad swore by mega doses of Vitamin C for colds. Now we know it didn’t do anything but give you a (usually) orange flavored candy to eat while you were sick.


This is not entirely correct. It also gave you expensive pee.


Thank god he didn’t hook onto a fat soluble vitamin, we would’ve poisoned ourselves.


Most of the names seem to be white men (the exception is Elizabeth Holmes, who was a white woman who lowered her voice so that she would sound like a white man).

I don’t believe that white men are necessarily any dumber than anyone else (but then, as a white man, I would say that). I do believe, however, that Western society gives them a lot more freedom to fail upward, so that when they eventually do something catastrophically dumb, it’s a lot more visible and on a much bigger scale.

The other factor, of course, is that if you fail upward far enough and long enough, you become persuaded that you’re a genius, and everyone around you reinforces that belief. And there’s nothing like having a circle of sycophants telling you you’re a genius to encourage really, really dumb decisions.


I didn’t think that “Miles Bron is an idiot” could possibly be the twist because I understood that from the beginning. I never had a phase where I thought Elon was cool.


I don’t think Pauling is quite the same sort of “idiot” as the rest of these, who were generally people who were willingly misleading people for their personal gain. I think he seriously believed in his Vitamin C nonsense and that he might have been experiencing some cognitive decline from his peak years.


The same goes for Bankman-Fried. The moment I read about the disheveled look and sleeping on a beanbag in the office my BS detector went on high alert (even more so than for the average cryptocurrency tycoon). Which made the following months of endless hype for that grifter even more unbearable.

I have no doubt that comeback/redemption stories for him (and “effective altruism”) are already pre-written and archived in anticipation of his release from prison.


Steve Jobs: Tried to cure his own pancreatic cancer by eating an all fruit diet.

Ashton Kutcher: Tried to follow Jobs’ all fruit diet to prep playing as him for a movie. Got sent to the hospital twice because that all fruit diet screwed up his pancreas.

Elizabeth Holmes: Tried to sell the public on her endocrine diagnostic monitoring system by dressing like and trying to present herself to be the next Steve Jobs… the guy I just mentioned as doing the dumbest thing medical wise. Somehow was able to trick a quite a few ‘smart people’ with that rouse for some time.


It seems like they’ve got (at least) two distinct flavors of genius/idiot sorts in the same pool:

Someone like Pauling seems like an object lesson in the importance of knowing that even very high levels of expertise aren’t necessarily transferrable; and that you should tread cautiously outside of your area(possibly along with some age-related cognitive decline); but it’s not like his enthusiasm for vitamin C led to a sobering reevaluation of his actually-good work.

On the far end from him you’ve got Bankman-Fried and Holmes; where the failure analysis suggests that their greatest talent was always(and only) ever that of working their marks.

Someone like Musk potentially between those two: he consistently and deliberately overstates his actual achievements; but has a much, much, better track record of managing to at least show up adjacent to interesting things(albeit with frequent reports of him needing to be carefully stage-managed away from the people doing real work so that those things could continue) than Holmes(adjacent to a single interesting thing that turned out to not be so interesting) and Bankman-Fried(adjacent to a single thing that was only every interesting to the terrible people of crypto and the vacuous mammonites even at the time).


From my interaction with some very very smart people who were all ultra-performers in their field; they have the same quirks we all have, just theirs are equal in scale to their genius.

Or in memeable terms, the smarter someone is, the stranger the skeleton in the closet.


I have a name to add to the list. Noted con artist and Presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy. The media still largely presents him as a successful businessman and entrepreneur, and he is not.


I haven’t checked the list yet but if Dr. Ben Carson (remember him?) isn’t somewhere high up on it, he should be.


Three from me.

  • Fred Hoyle. One of the geniuses who worked on radar in WW2; and deserved huge acclaim for working out the details of nucleosynthesis in stars that creates the heavy elements - but; he could never accept the Big Bang despite all the evidence to the contrary; and he had real problems with the evolution of life on Earth, preferring that life came from space on meteorites and that outbreaks of 'flu were caused by regular showers of cosmic bugs.

  • Thomas Gold. Another giant in the history of radar and the man who explained pulsars. Decided that petroleum was created abiogenically, despite all the chemical evidence to the contrary; persuaded oil-free Sweden to invest $40 million in drilling for oil and produced a few gallons of sludge that turned out to be the diesel oil used to lubricate the drill bit.

  • Lord Kelvin. Unbelievably influential in the development of physics in the mid and late 19th Century but a TERRIBLE geologist who used his fame to bully people who knew more than him. He proposed the Earth could be dated by proposing it had started as an incandescent sphere the same temperature as the Sun and then cooled to its current state. He started by dating the Earth to 400 million years old, but as he refined his calculations it got younger - until it was about 20my which was clearly not enough for observed geological processes. He even refused to change his opinion after radioactive dating showed it was over 2.2 billion years old.


I always thought it would be interesting to have a group of randomly selected individuals watch a GQP debate with Ben Carson, then ask them each if they’d feel comfortable lettting that man operate on their brain.

One of my personal favorite “incompetent man of power” candidates was Leo Apotheker. He killed webOs (née Palm, which was then pillaged by Apple and Google for many of the innovative features we use today on iOS and Android), then decided that HP was no longer going to sell… computers! He completely cratered HP’s valuation by 40% within a year and flushed $9 billion down the toilet on a bonehead acquisition. Not as well known as a lot of these names, but it was astonishing to watch happen in real time.


HP’s board had a terrible track record of choosing “genius” CEOs.


It’s actually hard to find a merely competent one over the past two decades.


Yeah, but nobody screws over Henry Kissinger and just walks away from it


In his short story The Men Who Murdered Mohammed Alfred Bester says, “A genius is someone who travels to truth by an unexpected path. Unfortunately, unexpected paths lead to disaster in everyday life.” This is my favorite of the examples he gives to illustrate that:

Or take Boltzmann. Giving a course in Advanced Ideal Gases, he peppered his lectures with involved calculus, which he worked out quickly and casually in his head. He had that kind of head. His students had so much trouble trying to puzzle out the math by ear that they couldn’t keep up with the lectures, and they begged Boltzmann to work out his equations on the blackboard. Boltzmann apologized and promised to be more helpful in the future. At the next lecture he began, “Gentlemen, combining Boyle’s Law with the Law of Charles, we arrive at the equation pv = po vo (1 + at). Now, obviously, if aS b = f (x) dx÷(a), then pv = RT and vS f (x,y,z) dV = 0. It’s as simple as two plus two equals four.” At this point Boltzman remembered his promise. He turned to the blackboard, conscientiously chalked 2 + 2 = 4, and then breezed on, casually doing the complicated calculus in his head.