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.