On Stupidity

Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.

~ Albert Einstein

Stupidity and intelligence work on a sliding scale: each of us have some degree of both. The most fascinating aspect of this simple truth is that we can slide the scale in whichever direction we choose.

Just as emotional intelligence can be increased, actual intelligence can also be increased.

A recent study seems to offer fairly conclusive evidence. Dr. Adrian Owen explains:

When we looked at the data, the bottom line is the whole concept of IQ — or of you having a higher IQ than me — is a myth.

The concept is astonishing- but what are we supposed to do with that information?

For starters, make yourself smarter.

There are (at least) two approaches to this: make yourself smarter in a particular area, or make yourself smarter in general.

The first option is quite a liberating one. How many of us do what we dreamt of doing as kids? Too few of us, certainly. I wonder why, then, that is the case.

Most of us are familiar with the 10,000 hours concept- that it takes 10,000 hours of rigorous activity in a given field to become an expert. Prodigies are the exception, of course, but they are just that: an exception. The vast majority of us simply belief ourselves to be of inferior talent or smarts. The only difference, though, between amateurs and experts (allowing exceptions for the prodigies) is the time applied, the hard work.

When put in this light, it becomes obvious that intelligence itself is malleable. Great men and women, be they thinkers, painters, businessmen, or rodeo clowns all began with a simple curiosity that pushed them to begin. They acquired some small sliver of knowledge, a foundation, then they slowly built on that knowledge, piece by piece, until they had put in enough time to be considered experts. Even when that point is reached, you’ll notice, few acknowledge it: they cannot shake their curiosity long enough to stop building their dreams.

That is option one: to find something you love, and make yourself better at doing it. The second option is to increase your general intelligence with no specific aim in mind. Read a great book. Discuss something with someone smarter than you. Travel to learn about a new culture. Or simply open your laptop. There’s more there than cat videos and status updates in that box of transistors; there are free courses at Khan Academy and Coursera, there are brilliant articles, there are actual people on the other side of the world with whom you can converse.

If you want to be more intelligent, pick up an easy book. Then pick up a harder one. Then a harder one. You’ll get to where you want to go. You won’t get there if you keep watching Honey Boo-Boo.

So, those are your two options: general or specific knowledge (option three would seem to be some form of brain training, but the study mentioned above debunks that sort of training as a myth).

You do not get the option of taking neither approach, of doing nothing. It seems quite contrary to the opinion that we should all be free to be as stupid as we want, that somehow liberty entails the right to do nothing.

It does not. Liberty is not an absolute. The right to liberty ends when it infringes on the rights of others.

Here’s the thing: your ignorance on many a subject is detrimental to others. That very fact puts the onus on you to learn more than you do right now. Here’s an example.

I was as emotional as anyone else in this country on Saturday morning; so much so, in fact, that I did something very out of character: I ranted. On Facebook, of all places. I wrote in the midst of a surge of anger which would not be contained.

That, of course, was a mistake, yet, instead of regretting the decision, I chose to think about why I was angry enough to do something so out of character. It didn’t take long for the answer to become clear.

I was mind-bogglingly infuriated that someone would take the lives of innocent children, true- but it was the knowledge that this didn’t have to happen — that sheer stupidity had allowed this to happen — that drove me over the edge.

This was an anger that had been building for some time, in response to a number of issues politicized in the past few years. To explain:

There are some issues in this country that are genuinely a matter of principle. The definition of freedom can be debated. So¸too, can spending vs. saving, the role of taxes and of higher education, the role of government.

Some things, however, are not debatable: namely, those things for which science, also known as reality, is in direct contradiction of a particular stance.

Creationism, for example, is false, period. It simply does not mesh with the evidence.

Likewise, global warming is happening, whether you like it or not.

Next up (surely you saw where this was going) is gun control. Not only is there no evidence that more guns make a society safer, there is direct and overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Some would say that there is no harm in allowing someone their delusions- and in theory, that is true. The problem occurs when those delusions permeate the reality of others. There is no harm in a person believing that the world was made in six days. When that belief graduates to trying to teach my daughter, in a public school, that science is wrong, we have a problem.

Similarly, when the scientific world proves that less guns always equals less death, you don’t have a right to dispute that (other sociologists, etc, do, but they have facts and data to argue wth). When lives are at stake, you don’t get to ignore the evidence to protect your delusions. (If you’d like to dig deeper in to the subject, Jason Kottke has dedicated his site to the subject of late, or you can peruse this fantastic list of articles.)

I realize that I am blurring the lines a bit between stupidity and ignorance. Ignorance is the absence of knowledge. Stupidity is the blatant disregard of it, and it is that disregard that I’m addressing. Ignorance is forgivable. Stupidity is not.

It is ignorance that our the age we’re living in best addresses. It’s almost impossible to be ignorant of such pervasive issues in the age of the internet. The information is available to you, and by and large, we’re aware that it’s there- and you don’t even have to leave your front door to get to it.

The internet provides us with a foundational framework with which to combat stupidity in a number of ways, the most undeniable of which is collective intelligence: the phenomenon by which we can store information in an area outside of our brain (the web), as long as that information is easily accessible. Simply put, if we can Google something, our brain does not need to retain that information. The result is that we are able to tap into the collective intelligence of the entire web. We are all smarter by association. To ignore the intelligence that exists at our fingertips is not only to do so at your own peril, but the peril of others as well.

There is a small comfort in knowing that, in the history of our species, science and reason, thus far, have always won out. But it is indeed a small comfort, because the triumph can never come soon enough when reason’s opponents inflict so much suffering on others.

The world is too rich, too full of the beautiful, both known and (as yet) inexplicable to cause needless suffering. And since we are each solely responsible for our own intelligence, we are also responsible for the damage our ignorance inflicts. Sometimes the damage is minimal: perhaps we’re accountants instead of the astronauts we wanted to be. Sometimes, the damage is greater. Sometimes, children die.

All this is not to say that some are stupid and some are not; just as intelligence works on a sliding scale, it is also issue-specific. Rocket scientists can be quite the ignoramus when asked about psychology. There are a great many things about which I am embarrassingly lacking in knowledge, and it is for that very reason that, when someone corrects or enlightens me on a matter, I am grateful. They have given me a gift, a gem of education to be added to the treasure chest of knowledge I’ve spent my life filling.

I’m also susceptible to the very human tendency to see that gem as a lump of coal if it is delivered as an insult or a personal attack and to discard that gem accordingly, so we must take great care to deliver our gems as the precious stones that they are. After all, if our intelligence is in our own hands, it must be properly cared for.