Multiple Stupidities

A mate of mine since grade four recently shared an article with me. We’ve been acquainted since the early ’70s and have remained in touch on and off along the way. He ended up attending university with a degree in Political Science whilst I took the Economics route. Not only are our world views are different, but they were also different then, and they are differently different today. Still, we respect each other’s differences and know where we converge—our love of music and the socio-political sphere—and diverge—which music and what aspects of the socio-political sphere. This has no material impact on this post, but he is more of a pragmatic optimist whilst I lean toward pragmatic realism—whatever that even means. Perhaps I’ll share our political courses in future.

This friend shared with me an article on the five universal laws of human stupidity. I gave him a short response, but even as I was responded, I had more I wanted to articulate, and this place is reserved for musings of just this sort.

The article establishes a premise that people generally underestimate human stupidity. I am pretty sure I don’t underestimate human stupidity. Yet I question whether this perspective is misanthropic or good old fashioned realism. To voice it is to be accused of being a misanthrope. Within the perspective of the ternary chart I’ve been developing, the answer differs if one is Modern versus Postmodern. And to be clear, Moderns at one time claim to be abject Humanists, and yet I hear often how stupid this or that person is—or even people are in general—, and yet they counterbalance that with some hope for humanity—humans as a viable species.

Before tackling the issue of stupidity, let’s establish a frame. I tend to accept the theory of multiple intelligences. Perhaps, I don’t wholly agree or even feel the model captures the domain entirely, but conceptually, I feel that what we term intelligence can be dimensionalised. Whether these dimensions can be measured is a separate story—and my answer is a no—, but it can be conceptualised. Some have argued that all the theory of multiple intelligences does is to name the dimensions already accounted for in a grand intelligence model. Although I agree that these dimensions can be aggregated to capture weighted measures, I disagree that this is occurring. I am also sceptical as to whether this can be accomplished meaningfully.

However, one couches it, if we believe that intelligence is a thing and we can dimensionalise it, this also leaves open the door to the absent position. If we have a rating scale between 0 and 100 representing intelligence, where at some point an entity is considered to be functionally intelligent and then gradations of increasing degrees of superior intelligence, then we can also run the scale in the other direction—100 minus the intelligence value.

In practice, this is how the old IQ system worked. On the upside, we get average to genius; on the downside, we’ve got imbeciles, morons, and idiots—and of course, we’ve got the more general category of stupid. And if we allow for multiple intelligences, we get the contrary situation of multiple stupidities.

Standard multiple intelligence theory proposes that intelligence can be assessed along nine dimensions. Even if we excel on a few of the 9 proposed dimensions, we are still left deficient in the rest.

There have been studies performed where the multiple intelligences of medical professionals were assessed. Aggregated, these people typically marginally excel in rote learning and (believe it or not) interpersonal skills but can’t necessarily balance a chequebook. And they are notably deficient in the rest. To add insult to injury, many of these people overcompensate by feigning interest in matters of culture.

I am fully aware that this is a sweeping generalisation, but the point remains that one can excel in 2 or 3 dimensions, yet still be stupid in the remaining 6 or 7. If you consider the so-called progress of human civilisation, it has ‘advanced’ because of the intellectual contributions of very few: There are only so many Newtons and Einsteins among us—and Rembrandts and Picassos or Beethovens and Mozarts. We debate when AI will reach singularity and defend that AI can never be a Shakespeare, but fail to note that even qualitatively, the best we can amass is some homoeopathic quantity of these people. But when I point out that given the opportunity I wouldn’t have hired some 90+ per cent of my university or grad school classmates, who graduated with me because although they technically passed the course material, they were, as is the topic at hand, stupid. These are normal, ordinary people. They have jobs, families and relationships, and have hobbies and activities they excel at. Still, on balance, stupid sums up their totalities. On LinkedIn, every now and again I read posts on the Imposter Syndrome, how you are not an imposter. Not to be politically incorrect, but you are an imposter. But take comfort, so is everyone else. This is what Judith Butler means by performativism. This is Sartre’s waiter. Stay in your lane, and you’ll be fine. This is the Modern world. It’s also why Moderns have such a problem with Postmoderns who point out these things. In short and in sum: people are ostensibly stupid. Get over it. It could be worse.

Omnipotence and hubris are strong cognitive defences against cognitive dissonances. We may be familiar with Dunning-Kruger‘s chart that depicts how people over-estimate their topical knowledge, but we may not be aware that this overestimation is not limited to the scope of neophytes.

American Exceptionalism

It’s sometimes difficult living in such a narcissistic place. I’ve lived in and out of the US, but I seemed to have settled here for now. I’ve lived on each coast, the Southwest, and the Midwest. I’ve visited all but four states—notably, Wyoming, Montana, and North & South Dakota, so you might recognise the trend.

Currently, I reside in Delaware, but my office is in Manhatten. As a consultant, I am most often wherever my client is. Combined, I’ve lived in LA for well over a decade, my earliest youth was spent in and around Boston. In my 20s in the 1980s, I spent my formative years in Los Angeles, the centre of the music industry at the time, where I was a recording engineer and musician. I had left my roots in Boston with various pitstops along the way to settle in LA, but I returned to Boston in the late ’80s to attend university and grad school. In Boston, I was married and then divorced, an event that gave me leave to return to Los Angeles, where I got married again and relocated to Chicago, where I spent over a decade as well. Divorced again, I relocated near Philadelphia for work and settled into rural northern, Delaware.

To the uninitiated, the US have two cosmopolitan cities, NYC and LA. By population, the third largest city, Chicago, is an oversized farm town. It qualifies as a city on the basis of population, and it’s not a bad place to be, but it lacks the cultural diversity and buzz of a NY or LA. There is none of that in Philadelphia and even less in Delaware.

Donut

The United States are like Australia. It’s ostensibly like a doughnut—empty in the middle, except to say the top and bottom don’t offer much either. So this is not to say that there aren’t valuable things, lessons, and people in these other areas, but by and large, even with the Internet and social media, they are still a decade and more behind.

When I lived in Japan—and I realise that I am coming off as some sort of culture snob—, I was taken aback at how far they seemed behind my frame of reference, having come from an affluent, white, East Coast, family. On one hand, their technology was off the charts and, owing to the exchange rate, it was cheap. Besides the exchange rate, the mark-up was enormous. Americans have no sense of value, and so as much as they exploit other countries, the last laugh is on them.

Americans are not some monolithic entity. There are many dimensions and divisions. To say Americans [fill in the blank] would be disingenuous. To listen to the politicians—especially the ones on the Right, and not just the fringe—you might be left thinking that American are all narcissistic assholes. In fact, this is the same cohort that leaves you feeling that the US have never left the Dark Ages with their religious superstitions.

Much of the country is actually in the 21st Century, but when you try to assess some average sentiment, this vocal minority makes it seem we live in perhaps the fifteenth century.

Roman General Lucius (John Cusack) — Dragon Blade Film

Even behind these anachronisms, there is still a sense of American exceptionalism—or perhaps there was a time that they were exceptional in some bout of nostalgia. You can cherry-pick some dimensions and claim to rank high on the scale but any exceptionalism only happens by adopting a frame. Many who come to the conclusion that the US are or were exceptional tend to fetishise Ancient Greece and Rome as well. In my opinion, it’s indoctrination, but there has to be more than this. There needs to be a certain gullibility gene that creates the propensity to believe these narratives. Without going off the rails, it might be fair to say that this genetic predisposition might have been the reason humans have evolved this far. I’d like to think it’s merely vestigial, but I’ll presume that this is only wishful thinking.

Americans, like most people, have a sense of identity, whether personal or to groups. And like the personae we project as individuals, we have myriad group personae as well. Perhaps there is already a term for this. If not, I’m not going to coin a term now.

Like individual identity, people defend their notion of group identity, and they tend to over-estimate. More than half of people consider themselves to be average or better than average in looks or intelligence and so on. Clearly, this defies statistics, but it is not merely an attempt to assuage some cognitive dissonance; you can come to a defensible position by picking some attributes that might excel (on some subjective aesthetic scale) and then overvaluing these attributes relative to the entire domain. Perhaps a person is taller than average and has been told s/he has beautiful eyes. It would be easy to discount other factors and place oneself in a higher rank due to these two factors. It works like this for national identity.

In the US, they will focus on some economic indicator, argue that it is important and captures broader coverage than it does, and then reference it as proof of exceptionalism. Meantime, the population is being indoctrinated into accepting this narrative, and much effort is spent trying to convince the larger world that this attribute is important.

In this MAGA Age of Make America Great Again, it’s helpful to remember that it never was and never will be great. And that’s OK. It’s also helpful to remember that the ‘good ole days’ are rarely as we remember them in the rearview mirror.

Defending Democracy

Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. 

Sir Winston Chirchill

I am not a defender of or apologist for Democracy. Any system is only as strong as its weakest link, but save for the rhetorical promises Democracy is nothing but weak links. Turtles all the way down. It’s another failed Enlightenment experiment. Sure, you can argue that the Ancient Greeks invented democracy—or at least implemented it at any scale—, but specious Enlightenment ideals pushed it forward into the mainstream.

The Achilles’ heel of Democracy is the principle-agent problem, the same one that separates management (CEOs) from owners (shareholders). Incentives are different.

Achilles’ Heel

Plato published his solution is Republic, but this proposal was naive at best. The notion that meritocracy is something real or that we can appropriately understand dimensions and measures in order to create the right incentives is another weak link.

Plato’s Republic

We see the same problem controlling elected officials. Time and again, we elect them, and time and again, they disappoint. We, the People, are the principles, and the elected are our agents. People in the US (and in so-called ‘democratic’ societies) have the vote, and yet—per the oft-cited definition of insanity—, they perform the same action and continue to expect different results; in fact; they are always surprised). At its core, it’s an incentive and accountability problem.

Kenneth Arrow wrote about the Impossibility Theorem, where he proved mathematically that no voting system would yield optimal results. Democracy is cursed with mediocrity. We like to soft-pedal the notion of mediocrity with the euphemism of compromise, another Ancient Greek legacy of moderation. If this makes you feel better, who am I to break the delusion? Cognitive dissonance is a powerful palliative.

μηδέν άγαν

Do Nothing in Excess, Delphic Oracle Inscription

Interestingly enough, many people clamour for term limits (a subversion of democracy) because they can’t help themselves from voting for the same shit politicians over and again. They rationalise it and say it is to defend against the other guy’s vote because they’d have never voted for shit representation.

This is often couched as ‘save me from myself’, but it is just as aptly cast as ‘save me from democracy’. I suppose a heroin addict might have the same thoughts.