The Art of Stupidity

Peter A. Taylor

The man who lies to others has merely hidden away the truth,
but the man who lies to himself has forgotten where he put it.
-- old Arab proverb

A number of people I have encountered, in person, on paper, and electronically, have given me cause to reflect on the nature and origin of the various forms of stupidity. I am apalled that, while there are Pagan gods to rule over such things as music, drunkenness, sexuality, and even chaos and confusion, so powerful a force in human life as stupidity should go ungoverned and denied the honor and respect that is its due. I have been given many insights which it is my duty to pass on in hopes that some more theologically inclined reader may be able to associate them with appropriate deities. Although in this effort I owe a great debt to a substantial number of people, whose identity may in many cases be impossible to conceal, I regret that journalistic principles forbid me from acknowledging them openly by name, and they will have to content themselves by taking pride in the inspirational effects that they have had on me and in their diversity and number.

Some people suffer from what might be called "organic" stupidity. These are often people who are well adjusted, and who often use the capacities they have well, but who just were not dealt a lot of the high cards. Sometimes it is hard to distinguish this from lack of self-confidence or learned helplessness. In other cases, this is found in combination with other types of stupidity, so that these people do not use their capacities well. Organic stupidity is similar in some respects to sleep deprivation and caffiene withdrawal. These all produce "honest" or "sincere" mistakes, but a person suffering from sleep deprivation can still perform high-level mental functions such as solving differential equations, in a slow, "degraded," or error-prone way, while forgetting to tie his shoelaces. An organically stupid person can probably tie his shoelaces, but probably can't pass Algebra I.

While I am on the subject of caffiene withdrawal, I have noticed that there seems to be a five foot radius around any coffee maker in which people are particularly prone to do stupid things, regardless of whether or not they possess graduate degrees in engineering. It has been suggested to me that this "stupidity vortex" also surrounds water coolers. I offer no theoretical explanation for this, but the empirical evidence is extensive.

Another form of "sincere" stupidity is seen when an otherwise intelligent person simply has so much emotional "noise" in his head that he can't think straight. While this in itself is sincere, it is often found in people whose lives are in disarray because of their own behavior, which is often the result of other forms of stupidity on their part, which may be less sincere. I also classify "Freudian slips" as sincere mistakes.

With apologies to William Shakespeare, it might be said that some men are born stupid, some men become stupid, and some men have stupidity thrust upon them. Organically stupid people are generally born that way, and the other "sincere" forms of stupidity are cases in which it is thrust upon people. I now turn to the more interesting forms of stupidity, in which potentially intelligent people somehow manage to become stupid.

These "insincere" forms are united by the common element of lying, but they differ in their motives and the targets of the lies. One form is "social" stupidity, in which a person adopts a posture of being too stupid to "get" insults or recognize other forms of antisocial behavior. This sometimes has a certain polished appearance. It enables the adoptor to politely skate around awkward social situations and to avoid shouldering a full share of the burden of dealing with inappropriate behavior in others. I tentatively associate habitual "social" stupidity with people from verbally abusive families. A similar phenomenon is "political" stupidity, in which a person such as a cattle rancher who overgrazes a common pasture affects to not understand the nature of overgrazing, hoping to avoid the responsibility of dealing with the problem. This phenomenon is sometimes described in economics literature as "the rationality of irrationality." Another form of stupidity is "sympathetic" stupidity, in which a relatively intelligent person pretends to not understand very much more than the people around him understand. This enables him to fit in without arousing jealousy or embarassment. Sympathetic stupidity is very different from "obfuscatory" stupidity, which Robert Bly has described in terms of the "Taoist" suggestion to "fish with a straight hook." With obfuscatory stupidity, the idea is to establish a reputation for being so unpredictable and counterintuitive that no one can figure out when one has made a mistake and when one is being clever, thus placing oneself above the possibility of effective ridicule. This isn't really lying, but it is deceptive or at least withholding of information. "Keep 'em guessing" would be a good motto for people who do this.

A more annoying form is "plausible deniability" stupidity. This occurs when a liar who has been caught making inconsistent statements tries to portray one or more of their lies as honest mistakes. This becomes suspicious when one notices that a "stupid" person's mistakes are consistently in his own favor. Sometimes this can be very subtle, such as lying about arrival or departure times, which gives the liar de facto control of a group's schedule and agenda by making it impossible for anyone else to make realistic plans. A habitual liar who has been caught often enough may learn to affect stupidity habitually, knowing that it is just a matter of time before the next incident requiring plausible deniability occurs. This can become so automatic that it becomes second nature, and is not incompatible with other forms of stupidity, including organic stupidity, from which it can be hard to distinguish.

Related to this is "testimonial" stupidity, in which a liar avoids testifying against himself by claiming not to remember what it was that he said or did, or what the context was, hoping that no one else will remember clearly enough to get him in trouble.

Finally, we come to a large class of various behaviors that may be described as "psychological" stupidity. These share the common feature that they are motivated by a desire to protect an unrealistic self-image, and thus are associated more with self-deception than with any real interest in preserving one's reputation with others. There are no clear distinctions between many of these kinds of stupidity, but different people lean towards some flavors to the near-exclusion of others.

Irrational religious beliefs, or more plausible religious beliefs that are held with irrational claims of certainty, are often used to make what Sam Keen describes as "neurotic claims of moral superiority." I think of this as "superior" stupidity. It is sometimes habitual, as a way of life, but very intelligent people will often compartmentalize their lives, being able to apply logic to most areas of their lives, but able to "check their minds at the door" when entering a church. One may usefully distinguish between "habitual" and "compartmental" or "situational" affectations of stupidity, the latter being analogous to situational ethics in a perverse way. Compartmental stupidity often appears to function like the "shields" on the spaceships in Star Trek. Ordinarily, a person may be quite intelligent, having advanced degrees in the "hard" sciences, as the starship Enterprise is normally able to use its advanced "transporter" when it is not in battle and can have its shields down. But when enemy vessels appear, the shields go up to protect the ship's vitals, there is a power drain affecting the ship's performance in many respects, and certain functions are entirely lost. This is particularly evident in "ideological" stupidity. Examples abound of radical Libertarians who understand perfectly well the "public good" argument for privatizing common pasture lands, but when the same argument is used to support taxation to pay for national defense, it suddenly becomes incomprehensible. It sometimes seems as if extra power is being diverted to the stupidity generator as needed to deflect particularly determined criticism. The Star Trek analogy breaks down, however, in that there appears to be no limit to a person's capacity to increase the intensity of the stupidity with which he protects his false self-image.

Ideological stupidity appears to be a special case of a more general phenomenon in which someone has turned some intellectual project into a fantasy role-playing game (FRPG). (See Tooby and Cosmedes on Stephen Jay Gould.) In this scenario, a person has created a fantasy world in which his false personality can have adventures, pretending to be variously more heroic, intelligent, inventive, altruistic, important, or otherwise a more pleasant person to be than he is in real life. Done consciously, in a college dorm room on Friday nights, this is harmless. But when someone does this unconsciously, and claims that his false personality is the real one, and that his fantasy world and the real world are one and the same, this produces "fantasy role" stupidity as the inventor struggles to avoid acknowledging unpleasant evidence that his self-image is unrealistic. A petty but common example of this is the adolescent who tries to prove how intelligent he is by making sophomoric "smart ass" misinterpretations of other people's words so he can have something to disagree with and an excuse for correcting the other person. Another example is "False Authority Syndrome" (FAS), which is self-explanatory, and is extremely common in the world of computers. However, in addition to the usual form, in which the "expert" is able to put on a reasonably convincing act, there is an exaggerated form in which he is not. This exaggerated form involves giving or sharing insultingly obvious advice or information, telling an equal something that should be obvious to anyone but a neophyte. Sometimes it is hard to say whether this is organic or psychological stupidity. Does this come from an organically stupid person who genuinely thinks he's a lot smarter than the other person, from an intelligent person who is being deliberately insulting, or from a stupid person who knows he's stupid but who's in denial?

These descriptions have focused on people's motivations for exhibiting psychological stupidity, but one could also focus on the symptoms, which are characteristically related to the "psychologically" stupid person's emphasis on self-deception at the expense of his reputation. Left to his own devices, the psychologically stupid person can usually rely on what Harry Stack Sullivan called "selective inattention" in order to avoid dealing with unpleasant evidence, but when confronted by another person who has a stake in reality, the determinedly stupid person must resort to more active evasions. The most obvious of these is to simply deny the bald facts even as one's face is rubbed in them. This was well illustrated by Monty Python's "argument clinic" skit in which one person simply contradicts whatever the other person says, no matter how obviously true it is. Denial is typically accompanied by "projected" stupidity, in which the stupid person directly or indirectly accuses his accuser of being stupid. To the casual observer, this behavior can easily be mistaken for mere arrogance. Other stupid evasions include ignoring a critical piece of evidence, even while picking pieces of information from either side of it that can be more readily misrepresented and attacked as projected stupidity. (Jack Strocchi calls this "reading for misdirection," as opposed to reading for comprehension.) Distraction is also common, ignoring the evidence and changing the subject. A few breaths or emails later, the stupid person may then repeat his original fraudulent thesis, complete either with pious denials that he has ever been presented with evidence against it or with proud boasts of having refuted it. The repetitive or circular nature of these exchanges is almost a defining characteristic of unhealthy mental or communications processes; in a healthy exchange, both partners learn and alter their positions as they become better informed until the factual matters are either resolved or uncertainty over them is acknowledged, but a person with a "character disorder" (as Scott Peck uses the term) is too smart to learn something, and statically denies any need for him to change (everyone else needs to change instead). The form of stupidity that I personally find most annoying is what I call "misconstructionist" stupidity. It is a form of projected stupidity that is particularly favored by people with good language skills who also strongly exhibit compartmental stupidity. The trick here is to exploit fallacies of ambiguity in order to project stupidity onto an accuser. Human languages are inherently ambiguous, and no matter to what lengths the accuser goes in order to clarify precisely in what sense he is using a particular word, the stupid person can always choose to misconstruct it anyway, to interpret it in whatever way is forensically convenient and blame the accuser of having created any ambiguity or misunderstanding there may be. Although it may be possible to say something so carefully that it cannot be misconstructed by a reasonable person, the stupid person is under no obligation to be reasonable: he is not trying to change the accuser's mind or to preserve his reputation as a reasonable person with other people, he is merely trying to avoid thinking about something he doesn't want to think about. The stupid person can never lose--no matter how determined the presentation of evidence or argument, all he need do is crank up the field strength on the stupidity generator.

In retrospect, it is possible that the Navajo demigod, Coyote, or perhaps a similar "trickster" deity, may already have established His or Her dominance over this particular niche in the field of human affairs. I'm not sure. Certainly Webster Kitchell's book, God's Dog: Conversations with Coyote, does an admirable job of poking fun at human folly, and the "Postscript by Coyote" is wonderfully succinct. Basically, He tells us that we get in trouble because we don't listen and we don't tell the truth. But it seems to me that Coyote is too lovable. He's fun. Yes, there's a place for laughing at our folly, but often our folly is too tragic to be funny, and it frequently takes place at the cost of innocent bystanders. I've seen more of this than I want to, and I want to complain to someone about it. I want a deity I can get mad at.


Addendum on Fallacies of Ambiguity (1-27-2008)

Deliberately misinterpreting someone else's words is only one way of exploiting fallacies of ambiguity. Sometimes the topic under discussion provides enough inherent ambiguity to enable one to play a sort of shell game. For example, is Social Security a pension program, a form of charity, or an intergenerational transfer? Whatever a rival politician says it is, he's wrong; it's one of the other two. In other cases, a well-chosen word can provide the needed ambiguity where it is otherwise missing. For example, does manned space "exploration" mean a series of stunts, cost-effective science, or commercial prospecting? No matter what critics say, defenders can respond that the critics are missing the point. (It often helps to simultaneously exploit ambiguity as to whether "the space program" refers to the manned part or the unmanned part.)

If all else fails, one can create ambiguity about the position one is defending by simply lying about what it is. Steven Pinker points this out in the context of scientists arguing about the effects of genetics on human behavior:

This debating tactic--first deny the Blank Slate, then make it look plausible by pitting it against a straw man--can be found elsewhere in the writings of the radical scientists.

-- The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, ISBN 0-670-03151-8, Ch. 7, p. 122.

This tactic allows someone like Steven J. Gould to condemn anyone whose views on the plasticity of human nature he considers insufficiently extreme, while relieving him of the burden of having to defend an extreme position. I have noticed essentially the same tactic used by supposedly limited-government libertarians: deny being an anarchist, but then regurgitate anarchists' rhetoric and talking points willy-nilly. Leftists often play the same game with pacifism.

Generally speaking, a debater who is defending a flawed doctrine will want to make his position ambiguous, making it harder to target. In Star Trek terms, ambiguity works like the Romulan cloaking device. An attacker, on the other hand, will want to make his case appear to be simpler and clearer than it really is, and will want to deny ambiguity or uncertainty as much as he can get away with. Sanctimonious denunciations thus often involve the fallacy of the excluded middle, a refusal to recognize ambiguity in situations where it is important.

Fallacies of the excluded middle make it all but impossible to carry on an intelligent discussion of such things as abortion, torture, or whether or not the USA and Iran are at war. Similarly, the unwillingness of extremists on either side to deal with uncertainty honestly seems to turn any conversation about global warming into an exercise in futility.

But am I still talking about stupidity? Earlier I argued that people often act stupid to protect their self-images at the expense of their reputations. But the debating tactics I discuss here may be effective enough that the user's overall reputation may be enhanced, not diminished. These arguments are dishonest, but I not sure it's fair to describe them as stupid.