Why Stupid People Think They’re Smart

Clearly A Genius

One of life’s interesting ironies is that while intelligent people are frequently aware of how little they know, very stupid people are frequently convinced they’re stable geniuses.

How can this be?

If we metaphorically think about intelligence and knowledge as a coordinate system, things become a little clearer. Let’s imagine a sphere. The surface area of a sphere is given as:

If we define the radius r as the vector product of knowledge and intelligence, it’s apparent that the more we know and understand the larger our mental sphere will be. Conversely, when we know little and understand less our mental sphere will be very small indeed.

What this means is that intelligent people who have absorbed lots of information will have a much greater “mental surface area” than less intelligent people who’ve absorbed little or nothing about the real world. Yet as much knowledge is necessarily incomplete and often leads to more questions, clever people are aware of how little they know. The more they learn, the more they become aware of how much more there is to learn.

Less clever people, meanwhile, imagine their slender stock of “wisdom” is about as much as anyone can ever know. These folk are bounded in a nutshell yet count themselves kings of infinite space. They stare at the world uncomprehendingly yet without any awareness of their incomprehension.

At this point it has become tediously Politically Correct to argue variously that “there’s no such thing as intelligence” or “we can’t measure intelligence” or “there are many different kinds of intelligence.”

All these objections fall at the first hurdle. Clearly there are significant differences between individuals when it comes to cognitive abilities, just as there are significant differences between individuals when it comes to height and a wide range of other features. Moreover we can and do measure intelligence on a daily basis. A post-graduate student submitting a PhD thesis on nucleosynthesis which states “Big atoms are made inside suns because the angels like to keep warm when they’re working” is clearly less intellectually competent than one who cites Hoyle’s groundbreaking work and then goes on to discuss the various scenarios in which heavy elements may be created. As for the Wonderland philosophy that all must have prizes, we can note that merely taking a word and changing its meaning does not change real-world facts. It may be soothing to tell a parent of a particularly dull-witted child that said child has “high Velcro-pulling intelligence” but this is mere subterfuge and not meaningful.

Although the word intelligence does deserve a more precise definition, it’s sufficient to note that a workable definition would likely be along the lines of “the capacity to understand complexity and reason coherently from it.” The more intelligent a person, the greater their capacity for dealing with complexity and the greater their capacity for thinking through the probable consequences.

Using this definition we have a tool for understanding a great many social phenomenon, including why nearly 43 million US voters opted to support a man whose personality is repellent, whose intellect is sub-normal, and whose ideas are based on a total lack of comprehension about pretty much everything.

Trump supporters can be broken into two categories: the “normal stupid” and the “minority stupid.” The normal stupid are those whose intellectual abilities preclude them grasping the essentials of a complex globally inter-connected world. These folk will never understand much about anything and so they default to simplistic nostrums and crave simple-minded stories. Trump, with his infantile reductionism, gives them simple stories their brains can encompass and they love him for it.

The minority stupid are those with slightly greater intellectual ability who thought they were being clever by supporting a candidate who they were confident would reward them with huge tax cuts and other giveaways. They were unable to calculate the longer-term consequences of putting such a creature into the White House. Clever people consider a greater time horizon while stupid people can see only what’s immediately ahead. Thus the investment bankers and oligarchs who supported Trump because he would throw taxpayers’ money at them utterly failed to realize that he would inevitably wreck the US economy and thus undermine much of their wealth. Stupid people say things like “nobody could have guessed” but all this really means is “I personally wasn’t clever enough to be able to think things through.”

Our problem as a species is that the vast majority of us are quite stupid. All of our technological wonders and almost all of our social progress result from the efforts of a statistically insignificant percentage of clever people. The rest of us are nothing more than apes pressing buttons and staring at screens. And because we’re so stupid, we continue to believe we’re actually smart.

We’ll continue to believe this right up to the moment when we annihilate ourselves. Because it will be the stable genius thing to do.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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