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The Problem Is That We Are All Stupid

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“The Problem Is That We Are All Stupid”
by David Cain

“The question “What’s wrong with the world?!” is usually more of a statement of exasperation than a question. But it can be treated like a question, and it is a good question. Clearly something is wrong, at least with the human world. Even if you don’t trust the news to tell you how the world really is, we all witness too much pettiness, unfairness, and dishonesty to say with a straight face that nothing’s wrong.

However, I’m not sure you could rewind us to a point in the last 10,000 years when we wouldn’t feel the same way. Our complaints today are about corrupt leaders, unfair systems, unscrupulous merchants, religious demagoguery, and everything else that has happened perpetually since we freed ourselves from picking berries all day.

In a recent article about the “What’s wrong” question, Masha Gessen got me thinking that the answer is quite straightforward: we’re all stupid. Contrary to popular belief, stupidity isn’t only present in some of us, it’s a universal human trait. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t also smart – we simply exhibit both qualities. As intelligent as we are in certain ways, each of us is also very stupid in other certain ways, and the powers conferred by the intelligent, inventive part can increase the amount of damage the stupid part can cause.

Among other signs of the times, she mentioned the comedy of Sacha Baron Cohen, who seems able to draw the pettiness and stupidity out of virtually anyone, on camera. His approach is very simple: get people talking about their strongest beliefs, while pretending to agree, and watch the ridiculous pronouncements pour out. Most recently he was able to get several congressmen to apparently state their support for issuing firearms to “highly trained” kindergarten students to keep classrooms safe.

I have always found his comedy difficult to watch, and I think Gessen might have articulated the main reason: “Every segment of every episode is designed to leave the viewer feeling not so much appalled – something a sentient being in today’s America experiences many times a day – as finally enlightened: the ultimate explanation for what’s happened to us is that everyone is a moron.”

The idea that everyone is stupid seems a little stupid itself. Clearly only some people are stupid. Otherwise how did we figure out DNA sequencing and particle physics, or design the Rubik’s Cube (let alone solve one)? Well, because stupidity can co-exist with smarts in the same person. The human world is so often portrayed as a noble battle between the stupid and the rest of us, each of us drawing our own smart-stupid line in some way or another between individuals, often corresponding to political, religious, or sports team fanship boundaries, as we see them.

This is the classical way to think about the distribution of human intelligence and human idiocy – each person is mostly a concentration of one or the other. But maybe that simplistic view is a good example of our stupid-aspect at work. Perhaps every single one of us is stupid, just not completely. Clearly there are variations in what we can call “personal style,” but nobody is so smart that they are not also frequently stupid, and vice versa.

The same person can design an award-winning public building and still be defeated by a parking meter with perfectly clear instructions on the side. A hobby chess player can visualize a tree of possible moves five or six deep, but cannot anticipate running out of toilet paper until the moment he does. I somehow created my own dream job, but I’ve had winter tires on my vehicle for at least 48 consecutive months, and I cannot seem to make a doctor’s appointment.

Solzhenitsyn famously wrote - or so the smart people tell me – that the line between good and evil runs “not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either but right through every human heart.” This seems true with the line between smart and stupid, and each human mind. We are complex apes, with innate abilities to be both profoundly clever and powerfully stupid. This isn’t a contradiction, just two complementary talents.

Of course, stupidity can’t comprehend itself – that’s one of its most interesting properties – which is why we overlook our own so easily. When it comes to my stupidest beliefs, I’m likely to think they’re my smartest ones. I easily fall in love with strongly-worded arguments that make me feel good but which I didn’t examine very well. (Am I writing stupid things at this very moment? How would I know?)

This may be why we often feel wholly smart when we witness some apparent evidence of our own intelligence (good grades, completed crosswords) and wholly stupid when that second quality becomes more obvious (such as when it’s your turn to tell the group a little about yourself). We evaluate others even more readily, with even less evidence, probably because we tend to assess a person’s smart and/or stupid qualities moments after they’ve just impressed us with one or the other.

Meanwhile, privately, we all know that much of life consists of trying to hide the extent of our own stupid-aspect, while accentuating the smart stuff so that others might think we’re made of it through and through.

Despite our varying personal styles of intelligence and stupidity, there are species-wide patterns. Humans are generally good at untangling contained problems with definite parts, but bad at doing things we’re emotionally averse to doing. We’re good at separating things into lists, labels, patterns, blacks and whites, and not so good at interpreting grey areas and patternless data.

Research suggests we’re atrocious at weighing moral questions objectively, an important skill for any meaningful “What’s wrong with the world” discussion. We make our moral judgments very reflexively and emotionally, and we seldom re-examine them. (Related: “Why The Other Side Won’t Listen To Reason“) Above all, we’re notoriously susceptible to confirmation bias: scanning for evidence that we’re smart and already informed, and ignoring evidence that we’re dumb and/or wrong.

It’s not hard to see that whether we deem someone smart or stupid has a lot to do with whether or not we identify with that person in some way – whether they sit in our own political or social wheelhouses, or seem to be an outsider to them. We’re quick to point out this sort of bad faith in others, even though we’d see, if we looked for it, the same motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, and selective hearing in ourselves. No matter how smart we are in some ways, humans are universally susceptible to those types of stupidity at least.

Probably. That’s my hypothesis anyway. It seems like a smarter bet than the traditional view: stupidity is a defining quality of certain people and not others. And I think that’s my smart side talking. I’m pretty sure.”


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  • dprato

    The problem is not being intelligent or being stupid its having common sense to go along with your intelligence however great or diminished.

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