“People Are Stupid!”

stupid pillsThe title above is deliberately a little inflammatory, but people who know me, and people who read this blog, may — not without reason — think this is a common sentiment of mine. And it sort of is, but it’s actually a code for something much more intricate and involved. Last time I wrote about Leon Wieseltier, whose ten-word critique of modern society blew me away, especially his central clause: “Not enough critical thinking.”

This time I’d like to explore — or at least begin exploring — exactly what (to me) the phrase, “People are stupid!” really means. There are some key distinctions to be made. For example, I don’t think people are more, or less, stupid than they’ve ever been; our brains haven’t changed in many thousands of years.

And let’s face it, we all take a Stupid Pill now and then.

It’s the people who consume them constantly that bother and scare me.

stupid pills - PicardLet me start by saying that stupidity is not about what you know; it’s about what — and how — you think. I’ve met amazingly smart people with very little education, and I’ve met highly educated people whose stupidity was breath-taking.

So what do I think is stupid?

One aspect of it I might sum it up with: “Willful ignorance.”

The key is the willful part. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with not knowing something. We’re all ignorant of far more than not. We’re all learning as we go through life.

But I think it’s stupid to willfully ignore learning about things when you have the opportunity, especially when that opportunity involves someone taking a moment of their time to help you be less ignorant.

I am amazed at how many people react hostilely if you point out a grammar or word misuse (one that clearly isn’t a typo, I mean — we all make mistakes). The underlying resistance seems to suggest that excellence and precision are not worthy goals.

self-helpIt strikes me as ironic that a people so dedicated to self-help and self-improvement are so willing to constantly display their failure to use basic English correctly.

If we would articulate our thoughts so that others could share them, doesn’t it make sense to do so in a way that clearly communicates the shades and nuances of our opinion?

It strikes me as tragic that a country that brags about being “Number One” often has such a poor attitude about education and intellectual excellence.

We admire athletes and actors (and worse, people who are famous just for being famous), but we don’t seem to idolize the thinkers and teachers.

We labor so hard to look good physically, and to get “in touch with” our feelings, it surprises me how little effort we typically apply to nurturing and improving our minds.

I think that is stupid.

wingnutWe hold our bankers, our surgeons, and our airplane pilots to a very high standard of personal excellence, but how often do we apply those standards to ourselves and to our own work?

(And shouldn’t we hold our leaders to the same high standards as we would our doctors? It amazes me the crap we forgive in politicians.)

We seem to give ourselves a pass when it comes to critical thinking. Many even disdain the idea, as if it isn’t important.

But it is important.

As Wieseltier points out so eloquently, the nature of our society is determined by our opinions. If those opinions are not grounded — at least to some degree — in critical, rational thinking, then our society suffers.

As I said above, we all take a Stupid Pill now and then. Who among us hasn’t leaped without looking? Who among us hasn’t looked back at something we did and said, “Well, that was stupid!”

Albert-2We are human; we are prone to error.

A while back I wrote about the misquote often incorrectly attributed to Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

It turns out no one really ever wrote those words, but it is a slogan used by Alcoholics Anonymous (and similar groups). In that context, referring to addiction, it makes sense.

In general, however, the quote doesn’t really make a lot of sense. Excellence for musicians and athletes (and many others) is founded on the idea of, “Practice. Practice. Practice.”

But you also hear that quote as, Stupidity is doing the same thing over and over…” That works equally well for AA-type groups, and minus the idea of practice, practice, practice, it also offers another workable definition of stupid.

It really ties back the idea of willful ignorance, of refusing to learn.

I’m going to leave off at this point so that essentially a single idea is presented in this post. That idea being that: “Stupidity is being willfully ignorant (given the option to not be).” There’s a lot more to say, but I’m thinking this topic is best handled in small doses.

Stay tuned, or tune out, depending on your inclination. 🙂

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

26 responses to ““People Are Stupid!”

  • dianasschwenk

    That’s a good definition Smitty! Willful ignorance – I like it. 🙂
    Diana xo

  • Hariod Brawn

    I am totally with you on this one W.S., though I fear the battle was lost long ago, perhaps when the mass media formed so as to issue wartime propaganda, and with the resultant birth of the corporate marketing industry, which itself came out of the propaganda machine as I understand it. We’re all fodder for the corporates now, and the stupid pills come free with every purchase. I’ve always thought that philosophy, or if you like ‘critical thinking’ should be taught in schools from an early’ish age. There’s no chance of that happening though.

    And as you’re a human, and therefore prone to err:

    Typo:‘It strikes me a tragic. . .’

    Typo‘. . . the nature our society. . .’


    • Wyrd Smythe

      Obviously I agree about philosophy. One of the first college courses I took was titled Logic and Philosphy, and, of course, what we now call “science” was once called “natural philosophy.” One of the things that dismays me in this era is the degree to which working scientists disdain philosophy. One wag I debated pointed out how much progress science has made in a few mere centuries, but that philosophy had yet to really answer a single question.

      He didn’t seem to appreciate my pointing out that a key pillar of science, the falsifiable theory, is due to the philosopher Karl Popper and that science had yet to answer key simple questions such as: “What, exactly, is an electron?” and “Why did the Big Bang happen?” Besides which, science is easy. It is, ultimately, just measuring stuff and finding equations to describe what you’ve measured.

      Society and people are difficult. Very difficult. But that’s a rant for another time. Science needs philosophy, and it’s another tragedy so many scientists reject it.

      Thanks for the proof-reading! Errors corrected. (I’d like to think (hope?) I’d have spotted them once I had a chance to re-read the post. I usually find a few that spell-check didn’t detect.)

      Speaking of science and proof-reading, it’s been “scientifically proven” (by me) that the number of proof-reads required to remove all errors is exactly ‘N’ + 1 where ‘N’ is the actual number performed. This rule holds regardless of the actual value of ‘N’.

      • Hariod Brawn

        I think your friend who was critical of philosophy was not appreciative enough of the value of being able to formulate the right questions, regardless of whether or not an answer directly ensues. In other words, developing the rigor required so as to be able to strip away any false premises and incoherent assumptions/presumptions that may inhabit any such question.

        A very dear friend of mine spent much of her childhood in the home of Karl Popper and his wife Anna in Penn, Buckinghamshire, here in England. He was, my friend says, very much like a grandfather figure to her; though she never felt able to fully understand his work:

        ‘If we are uncritical we shall always find what we want: we shall look for, and find, confirmations, and we shall look away from, and not see, whatever might be dangerous to our pet theories. In this way it is only too easy to obtain what appears to be overwhelming evidence in favour of a theory which, if approached critically, would have been refuted.’

        And yes, proof-reading’s much more demanding than people imagine. I read once that the publishers of professional novelists assign 5 or 6, in turn professional, proof-readers to their scripts in the hope of eradicating all errors. Your amusing equation is thus vindicated!

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I think your friend who was critical of philosophy was not appreciative enough of the value of being able to formulate the right questions, regardless of whether or not an answer directly ensues.

        Exactly so! Exactly so.

        Before the days of spell-checkers, we used to read texts backwards to overcome the foreknowledge of what we thought we’d written. You can’t catch grammar or homophone errors that way, but it was effective for most spelling errors. I’ve been re-reading some of my library that pre-dates the spell-checker era, and it’s amusing how many errors slipped through. Especially funny are the places where the typesetter got entire lines out of order.

        Nice Popper (I assume) quote! One does have to appreciate the power of how science is, ultimately, self-correcting. As a friend once put it, “Science proceeds despite scientists.”

      • Hariod Brawn

        Yes, it was Popper: The Poverty of Historicism (1957) Ch. 29 The Unity of Method

  • Doobster418

    I’m going to be moot on this issue. Oh wait, that’s mute, not moot. Or is it?

  • ~ Sadie ~

    “Willful ignorance” – that might well be what brings about the end of humanity . . . great post WS!!

  • Strawberryindigo

    Great article! There is an epidemic of stupid; willful ignorance. It’s just easier that way. thinking takes energy, and that smacks of effort and that’s no fun at all. I am cursed or blessed with an insatiable curiosity. This is stronger than my laziness, so far so good. And then who am I to say? Stupidity seldom recognizes itself. 😉

    • Wyrd Smythe

      Thank you. You’ve put your finger on a significant part of the problem — it does require effort. Leon Wieseltier (see previous post) referred to it as an “extraordinary intellectual responsibility” and did acknowledge to Colbert that it was harder. But then, how many people spend an hour of the day running or going to the gym? They’re willing to expend physical effort to look good and have a healthier body… isn’t is worth spending some effort having a healthier mind?

      Curiosity is a vital part of a healthy mind… stay curious, follow that curiosity, and you should do just fine!

  • Simon Moore

    I actually had very similar thoughts to this about religious folks: “It’s not just blind to follow religion and take things on faith, it’s damn well lazy. It’s one thing to be ignorant, but it’s another to choose ignorance.” I consider religion to be willful ignorance.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      First question: Who are you quoting? Me? You? Someone else? I can’t tell.

      Second question: You’re making a sweeping statement that seems to ignore the full span of religion. It seems unscientific to make such sweeping, absolute statements. Can you present and hard evidence they are, in principle, definitely wrong?

      Third question: Do you think Dr. Mike Taylor and I are willfully ignorant? Our long discussion about this on your blog didn’t reflect other than willful ignorance? How about countless great thinkers and theologians throughout history? All willfully ignorant?

      Fourth question: How about Einstein? He believed in Spinoza’s God — an expression of the order and lawfulness of the universe — and certainly seems to have given the matter deep thought. He had an interesting take on religious people… Here are two quotes:

      “It is a different question whether belief in a personal God should be contested. […] I myself would never engage in such a task. For such a belief seems to me preferable to the lack of any transcendental outlook of life, and I wonder whether one can ever successfully render to the majority of mankind a more sublime means in order to satisfy its metaphysical needs.”


      “Speaking of the spirit that informs modern scientific investigations, I am of the opinion that all the finer speculations in the realm of science spring from a deep religious feeling, and that without such a feeling they would not be fruitful. I also believe that, this kind of religiousness, which makes itself felt today in scientific investigations, is the only creative religious activity of our time.”

      That said, I think we can agree that many people are willfully ignorant on many things, including their beliefs — whatever those beliefs might be. And many people are religious, so certainly many people are willfully ignorant of their own religion. Likewise, many people are willfully ignorant of any religion because they deem that religion false.

      A problem I find in Theist-Atheist debates is that both sides tend to judge the other through a very narrow lens, often conflating the whole with its worst parts. There is also that strong sense of polarization and entrenchment with neither side able to admit the other side has any points in their favor.

      As a Decisive Agnostic, I’m dedicated to takin’ on the both o’ ya! In fact, my next comment to respond to involves someone quoting The Bible at me. 🙂

      • Simon Moore

        I was quoting myself.

        My sweeping statement is that all religions require belief and faith in stories told by others, without seeing any real scientific evidence. And science has disproven many religious tales, but the principle idea happens to be impossible to disprove. Hence why the ideas can just about survive today, despite the snowballing evidence that there was no designer ever involved.

        Dr. Mike Taylor baffled me by his ability to maintain his religious beliefs despite his thorough understanding of evolution, an almost impressive feat of self-deception, as I see it. In this day and age it is a rare thing for a scientist to be religious, and therefore take huge leaps of faith in their ‘understanding’ of the world. It goes against everything we are taught. I don’t think you and Mike are willfully ignorant (or stupid!). But I do think you are behind the times for trying to maintain religious faith (or openness to the possibility of deities) in the light of modern discoveries about our evolutionary past. Religion was no doubt important during our history in bringing people together for cooperative purposes and answering questions that were unanswerable. My general point that religion is willfully ignoring science applies mainly to those that choose to actually ignore it. Which yourself, Mike and many of our greatest thinkers in the past did not. But many choose religious answers and shun science to the detriment of their intelligence, if you ask me.

        Interesting stuff there from Einstein. It sounds like he is acknowledging the fact that religious tendencies are an innate characteristic of the human species. But I think this just stems from a desire to explain everything we see and is becoming obsolete as concrete answers are now available, without the need to invoke a higher being or purpose.

        The only problem I have with you debating equally for both sides is that the evidence weighs enormously in favour of there being no god, so really you should be writing at least 999 responses on the side of Atheists for every 1 you write defending Theists. ☺

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Well, I just published my 398th blog article on this blog (plus I’ve published dozens on my two computing blogs and a now-abandoned baseball blog), and only 11 are filed under Religion. You’re a hard-line Atheist, so you’re naturally getting the contrarian argument.

        Spinoza and Einstein believed “god” was expressed by the physics of reality. On that account, the “designer” is the interesting physics that results in self-organization (given only energy and materials) and increased complexity of systems. A Deist might suggest that god created those physics so that we would result.

        To continue this we should probably distinguish between religion (which is human-created and indeed often full of human errors) and spirituality (which is a recognition of a possible metaphysics). Those engaged in the pursuit of theology or spirituality usually acknowledge the unknowns, but seek to explore unanswered questions.

        The mere fact of evolution and physics does not at all address the central question behind metaphysics. Given that there are open questions, it’s actually aligned with science to explore them rather than to assume physical reality is all there is.

        Why is there an almost universal apprehension of spirituality in humans? Wiring in the brain? Perhaps. A perception of something real? Also perhaps.

        Taken merely as a meme, the extraordinary success of the Abrahamic religions begs for an explanation. Evolution doesn’t account for it, since these religions are only circa 2000 years old. They’re certainly no part of our evolutionary heritage. It’s fascinating to me, as a social question, why these memes have taken over the world. (FWIW: We would be more aligned in our views of religions, particularly as they have strong elements of social control and human organization. It’s what underlies their success that intrigues me.)

        You might be surprised at how many scientists don’t consider religion obsolete. A 1996 study randomly choosing 1000 leading American scientists found 41.8% believed in God, 41.5% disbelieved and 16.7% had doubts.

        A Pew study in 2006 found 33% believed in god, another 18% believed in a “universal spirit or higher power,” 41% disbelieved, and 7% had “don’t know” or didn’t answer. By my count, that’s 51% believing in something. (The same study for non-scientists: 83%, 12%, 4%, and 1%. A whopping 95% believe in something.)

        Such studies have a lot of problems — mainly with definitions — but even so, a statement that it is a “rare thing for a scientist to be religious” is just not correct.

        Doesn’t science require an open mind when it comes to unanswered questions?

        Let me ask you a question that should be right down your alley… I’m completely fine regarding the evolution of the eye, particularly when we have current examples of rudimentary eyes. The one that really buggers me is RNA. How the hell did we get from “self replicating clays” (which sounds awfully hand-wavy to me) to working RNA? I’ve never heard an explanation that actually explained anything… can you supply one?

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Simon, an important point: For those who are clear-eyed about spiritual matters, it is not a matter of “self-deception” but of hope and optimism.

        Consider someone diagnosed with brain cancer. I know four people for whom that happened. The odds against survival are extremely low — some forms of brain cancer are essentially a death sentence. Three of the four I know are dead; the fourth is still fighting. Knowing the odds — the scientific data — one might be tempted to give up. But we fight because of hope and optimism. It’s not self-deception to acknowledge impossible odds and fight anyway, because the outcome is not certain. Any given person might be the one to beat the odds. One reason for hope and optimism is because the stakes are so high.

        If you buy a lottery ticket, you may be well-aware of the mathematical odds being more stacked against you than a lightning strike, but hope and optimism allow you to think you might be the one who wins. Obviously, someone does — why couldn’t it be you? It’s worth a try when the payoff is so high.

        People who play sports sometimes go up against an opponent the odds and stats suggest is all but unbeatable. But underdogs do sometimes defeat “sure winners” and if you don’t approach the matter with hope and optimism, why bother to play at all?

        And I think you’ve misunderstood the Einstein quote, particularly the latter. He’s not merely acknowledging some human holdover from our past — he’s highlighting and claiming necessary a vital component in how we view the world. “I am of the opinion that all the finer speculations in the realm of science spring from a deep religious feeling,…”

      • Simon Moore

        Well ~40:1 isn’t too bad then. However I think generally it is a similar case to the so-called ‘climate debate’, that really isn’t being debated anymore as almost everybody agrees humans are responsible. The evidence is hugely in favour of a lack of metaphysical entities, so yes an open mind is needed, but as with evolution and climate change, the answer is as close to proven as we can get. (With higher beings there’ll never be conclusive evidence they are absent!)

        I think your lottery ticket analogy is pretty accurate. The difference is someone is guaranteed to win the lottery, unlike the search and hope for a deity. As joyous as I’m sure religion is to some people, for many it is a source of despair, anguish and discrimination. Surely you wouldn’t retrospectively choose to have a lower quality of life if you could see how terrible the odds are.

        But in fairness, I’m sure religion was a very important part of our evolutionary history, hence our psychological predisposition to it. It’s just that our scientific knowledge has now surpassed and supplanted the need for religion.

        Now for your question. The self-replicating clays idea is not really the most likely. Obviously it’s very,very hard to know exactly what, where and how life began but the general theory is that molecules formed in an archaic sea, or chemical soup. Perhaps in isolated rocky fissures, more complex molecules aggregated and eventually began to cause other simple molecules to combine in the same way. Amino acids are known to form spontaneously from their constituent parts, and once they combined to form an RNA it could self-replicate and there was no going back.

        RNA is the link between DNA, which holds great amounts of information but is chemically quite useless, and proteins, which can catalyse reactions but aren’t suited to information storage and replication. RNA is both a catalyst and efficient replicator/information store, hence it could arise spontaneously, fulfill important chemical functionality and pass on instructions when replicating. A long way down the line DNA evolved as a specialised storage-only version of RNA; which is still required to mediate chemical processes.

        I admit it’s not the most satisfying answer as we have yet to replicate the process and it’s nearly impossible to know precisely what happened billions of years ago. However, there were incredibly large areas and time involved, and once a single self-replicating combination of molecules appeared the evolutionary process was set in motion indefinitely.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Hey Hariod! Yep, there ya go. Exactly the sort of approach I meant.

  • Lonely Lament | Logos con carne

    […] As I’ve said before (more than once), we all take a stupid pill once in a while. The trick is avoid making a steady diet of them. And it’s not a new problem, not at all. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), a German Lutheran pastor, wrote a piece that for many hits the nail squarely on the head. He wrote, in part: […]

And what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: