Stupid Is

August 2, 2016

Max Boot’s editorial in today’s New York Times makes the case that the overall trend of American anti-intellectualism, noted by many for centuries (see., e.g. Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation in the 19th century), and coming to a head in the 20th century, is to blame for some current political candidates, especially one he calls an “ignoramus.” The title of the piece is “How The ‘Stupid Party’ created Donald Trump.” Trump-lovers and some on the left may be offended by such language, tarring a segment of the population as “stupid” and using “ableist” language. But we should come to grips with the fact that stupidity exists, even among the allegedly intelligent, and that it should be avoided, even as we try to educate everyone in order to decrease stupid behaviors.

              Stupidity is not innate. Numerous studies on the relation of IQ and life success demonstrate a correlation, but not a necessary connection between intelligence quotient and success in career, life pursuits, etc. Highly intelligent people often say and do stupid things. Consider, for instance, the actor James Woods, whose most recent boner is to quote a bogus Hillary Clinton quote, long-debunked as falsely attributed, as part of his general argument against her. Woods is reputed to have one of the highest IQs in Hollywood, ranging well into the genius range (184), and yet he stupidly failed to do even the tiniest bit of due diligence before repeating a debunked quote. Smart people can be stupid, and frequently are.  Bill Clinton is estimated to have an IQ near 155 and yet, stupidly, he put his presidency in jeopardy by some not-clever-enough lawyerly wordsmithing in his testimony to the Whitewater Commission.

              William Buckley, as Boot’s op-ed notes, claimed that he would rather live in a society governed by the first 2000 people listed in the Boston phone directory than by the 2000 faculty members of Harvard. Perhaps this is because he went to Yale, but he most certainly did not mean it. Buckley himself drew upon highly educated, high IQ authors and reporters for his journal The National Review, and did not solicit pieces by plumbers, real estate moguls, or electricians with modest education or little curiosity. Boot also notes that for the past half-century, many of those who appealed to the “common man” in their public rhetoric, especially in seeking political power, were highly educated or at least relied upon the support and advice of those who were.

              As noted above, being highly educated or having a high IQ is not enough. In order to not be stupid we must understand the mechanics of cause and effect, we must be critical in our appeals to history and use logic and the tools of science in ways that are demonstrated to work historically. Making good decisions is smart, and understanding how to do that requires training and practice. It is stupid to fail to learn from our mistakes and to make the same bad decisions over and over again. It is stupid to ignore the evidence and to make up complex conspiracy theories to explain it away, rather than to revise our beliefs accordingly. It is smart to study and to learn, to rely on our own critical thinking skills, the expertise of others in developing our skills, to bolster them in any way we can, and to build our store of knowledge so that we can confront the future more wisely.

              While we should perhaps not fetishize being smart, we should not demonize it either. Yet we do, often, in our anti-intellectual culture. This trend is mocked in the 1979 film “Being There” in which Peter Sellers plays a simple-minded gardener who was raised without any education except television, goes on to become a presidential advisor and enigmatically a potential candidate for the Presidency at the end of the film, simply by virtue of his parroting things he heard on TV. We the audience know him to be, frankly, stupid. His nonsequitors and oblivious statements are interpreted by others as somehow meaningful, but we know, to him, they mean very little. The film is a comment on media-culture, and presaged the rise of Reagan, who by most accounts was not stupid, but surely capitalized on the anti-intellectualism that Buckley nourished, even while keeping smart people close.

              David Freedman recently advised us in The Atlantic not to equate intelligence or lack thereof with human worth, and I don’t wish to make that mistake here. As I note above, intelligent people can be stupid, and wisdom can certainly come from those without great education or intelligence, but who are nonetheless curious, capable of critical thought, able to connect events causally and correctly, capable of basic logical implication and clear expression. But we should reject that which is stupid and a culture that seeks to elevate stupidity (or is correlate, simplicity) as a virtue . We should seek to educate so that stupidity can be avoided, cultivate an appreciation for behaviors and capacities that make the most of our intelligence, regardless of IQ. We should not idolize or glorify stupidity as somehow virtuous when it can be avoided so easily. We have the technical and social means to educate, to develop our capacities for critical reasoning, and to appreciate the wealth of readily available knowledge around us, free to consume in many cases, and open for the curious, regardless of IQ, to explore. It does us no good to deny the existence of stupidity or excuse it, less so for when it is manifest in the actions or utterances of smart people. Stupid exists. The cure is curiosity, guided by critical inquiry. With those, we have a choice. We can be smart, each of us. As Forrest Gump so wisely put it: stupid is as stupid does.