Definition By Examples

There is a meme that stupidity is associated with strength – that being as intelligent as possible comes at a cost in power, money, happiness, or practical advantage.

Some instances of this include:

  • The trope of the “nerd” – a stereotype that bundles intellect with social ostracism and physical weakness
  • The lament that ignorance is bliss; as in Ecclesiastes, “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.”
  • The truism that the way to succeed in a practical endeavor is to “not overthink it.”

This pattern is not a human universal. Plato and Aristotle would have found it alien. Francis Bacon and Sun Tsu were firmly of the other opinion: that understanding the world would lead to mastery, including military victory.

I’m told, by people who grew up in China, England, France, and Germany, that they don’t have the concept of a “nerd” as we do in America. There’s no presumption that good students tend to be unpopular or unathletic. In France, it’s even fashionable to profess an interest in math or philosophy; they have (trashy) pop-philosophy magazines the way we have pop-psychology magazines.

My guess is that the trope of the ineffectual intellectual in America starts with the Pragmatist movement at the turn of the 20th century, which often presupposed a dichotomy between thinking and doing.

Consider Theodore Roosevelt’s famous speech to students at the Sorbonne:

A cynical habit of thought and speech, a readiness to criticise work which the critic himself never tries to perform, an intellectual aloofness which will not accept contact with life’s realities—all these are marks, not, as the possessor would fain think, of superiority, but of weakness.

. . .

Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into a fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride or slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not what they actually are. The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be cynic, or fop, or voluptuary.

. . .

Let those who have, keep, let those who have not, strive to attain, a high standard of cultivation and scholarship. Yet let us remember that these stand second to certain other things. There is need of a sound body, and even more need of a sound mind. But above mind and above body stands character—the sum of those qualities which we mean when we speak of a man’s force and courage, of his good faith and sense of honor. I believe in exercise for the body, always provided that we keep in mind that physical development is a means and not an end. I believe, of course, in giving to all the people a good education. But the education must contain much besides book-learning in order to be really good. We must ever remember that no keenness and subtleness of intellect, no polish, no cleverness, in any way make up for the lack of the great solid qualities. Self-restraint, self-mastery, common sense, the power of accepting individual responsibility and yet of acting in conjunction with others, courage and resolution—these are the qualities which mark a masterful people.

Certainly these character traits are important, but notice how Roosevelt takes for granted that they are a separate magisterium from the intellect, as opposed to virtues whose necessity can be appreciated through reason or which can be developed by applications of intellect.

John Dewey, the Pragmatist philosopher of education, was deeply concerned that too much conceptual abstraction in education would produce impractical, antisocial intellectuals:

The gullibility of specialized scholars when out of their own lines, their extravagant habits of inference and speech, their ineptness in reaching conclusions in practical matters, their egotistical engrossment in their own subjects, are extreme examples of the bad effects of severing studies completely from their ordinary connections in life.

Philosopher and psychologist William James often opposed the “intellect”, which he supposed abstract and disconnected from real life, to the “will” which enables the courage to act; eg

“Or what can any superficial theorist’s judgment be worth, in a world where every one of hundreds of ideals has its special champion already provided in the shape of some genius expressly born to feel it, and to fight to death in its behalf? The pure philosopher can only follow the windings of the spectacle, confident that the line of least resistance will always be towards the richer and the more inclusive arrangement, and that by one tack after another some approach to the kingdom of heaven is incessantly made.

James returns again and again to the shortcomings of “superficial” theory, devoid of motivation or practical application; often he makes valid points, but always he calls for endorsing the will as a counterbalancing supplement to the intellect, not an essential component of it.

There’s a persistent anti-intellectual strain in Pragmatist writing that paints “superficial theorists” as cowardly, ineffectual, and emotionally barren, in need of balancing with “practicality.” It survives today in the self-help tropes that people need to get “out of their heads.” But the Pragmatists did retain appreciation for experimental science and applied craft (and, of course, James helped found the modern American research university.)

If you want to see the extreme version of disdain for all thought and peaceful production, you have to look beyond Pragmatism to fascism, with its overt rejection of sense-making. To a fascist, the irrational is always more potent and “magical” than the rational; the mundane, boring correctness of a shopkeeper’s arithmetic marks him as simultaneously pathetic and sinister. Pathetic, because “mere” logic cannot move masses of people to collective battle-frenzy, which is the fascist’s source of power and only conception of strength; sinister, because “mere” logic cannot be moved by social contagion and thus its wielder, being difficult to seduce into unity, is a potential threat.

Milder, more reasonable versions of the anti-intellectual hypothesis correctly note that smart people aren’t all supermen, that practical experience and motivation matter too (see Scott Alexander’s early critique of “extreme rationality.”) Like the Pragmatists, Alexander thinks that reason isn’t enough _to make you win, that it has to be supplemented with distinct, independent virtues. The extreme version of the anti-intellectual thesis goes farther and holds that you could actually win _more – become more charismatic, more decisive, more powerful – by becoming dumber.

Scott Adams is an example of a modern advocate of extreme irrationalism:

“People are not wired to be rational. Our brains simply evolved to keep us alive. Brains did not evolve to give us truth. Brains merely give us movies in our minds that keeps us sane and motivated. But none of it is rational or true, except maybe sometimes by coincidence.”

“The evidence is that Trump completely ignores reality and rational thinking in favor of emotional appeal,” Adams writes. “Sure, much of what Trump says makes sense to his supporters, but I assure you that is coincidence. Trump says whatever gets him the result he wants. He understands humans as 90-percent irrational and acts accordingly.”

Adams adds: “People vote based on emotion. Period.”

“While his opponents are losing sleep trying to memorize the names of foreign leaders – in case someone asks – Trump knows that is a waste of time … ,” Adams writes. “There are plenty of important facts Trump does not know. But the reason he doesn’t know those facts is – in part – because he knows facts don’t matter. They never have and they never will. So he ignores them.

Trump “doesn’t apologize or correct himself. If you are not trained in persuasion, Trump looks stupid, evil, and maybe crazy,” Adams writes. “If you understand persuasion, Trump is pitch-perfect most of the time. He ignores unnecessary rational thought and objective data and incessantly hammers on what matters (emotions).”

In other words, Adams thinks Trump’s indifference to facts, his irrationality, is a strength.

How Can Stupidity Be Advantageous?

Advocates of an extreme irrationalist or anti-intellectual view have an obvious challenge in arguing their case. Knowledge _is _power; there are obvious ways in which information can be turned to advantage. Prima facie, making yourself more ignorant should mostly harm you, not benefit you.

Obviously it’s possible to have useless knowledge which is not worth the effort of acquiring. But that’s very different than knowledge being actively harmful. How can knowing more, or better understanding the logical implications of what you know, cause you to make worse decisions? If you maintain ignorance of something, the unknown thing could hurt you in unexpected ways; whereas if you regret learning something, you can at least in principle just go back to behaving as you would have if you hadn’t learned it.

Ignorance constrains your options. So why seek it?

Well, the usual reason people seek constraint is as a commitment device.

If you don’t know the secret codes, you can’t reveal them under torture.

More generally, there are all sorts of things you might be pressured by others to do, which you can excuse yourself from doing if you make sure you don’t know how. Witness all the people who are “just hopeless” at housework or administration.

But even this is not a good reason to seek _gene_ral ignorance or irrationality. Granted it may be strategic to avoid gaining some particular bit of knowledge or skill, which is only useful for things you’d rather not do; but surely it can’t be advantageous to cripple a fully general skill like logic or arithmetic! You need those too often! How can the advantage of the commitment device outweigh the loss from actually being bad at thinking?

The point is, irrationality is not an individual strategy but a collective one. Being bad at thinking, if you’re the only one, is bad for you. Being bad at thinking in a coordinated way with a critical mass of others, who are bad at thinking in the same way, can be good for you relative to other strategies. How does this work? If the coalition of Stupids are taking an aggressive strategy that preys on the production of Non-Stupids, this can lead to “too big to fail” dynamics that work out in the Stupids’ favor.

“Here’s a large mass of us who are stupid in the exact same way. This means when we fail, we all fail at once. Now we’re here, we’re hungry, we’re angry, and we’re literally incapable of solving our own problems. You really want to see what happens if you don’t bail us out?”

Correlation of risk can lead to security, in this way. Make a mistake alone and you have to bear the cost; make a mistake along with an aggressive crowd and someone will have to rescue you.

As the saying goes, if you owe the bank a million dollars you have a problem; if you owe the bank a billion dollars, the bank has a problem. The bailouts of the 2008 financial crisis is an example of this phenomenon; as is the medieval practice of expelling the Jews from a kingdom once the king could not afford to pay his debts to Jewish moneylenders.

Less obviously, normalization of deviance is an example of this “stupid strategy.” Organizations have standards for safety, quality control, and so on; in a functional organization, if a single worker falls short of the standard, she will be less professionally successful or even face disciplinary action. In a dysfunctional organization, violation of the standard gradually becomes so commonplace that it becomes normative. Nobody actually follows the rules; there’s a tacit common knowledge that the rules are unreasonably stringent and “just for show” and people can’t be expected to literally follow them; after all, if enough people are violating the rules, you can’t just fire all of them! But, to the extent that the organization’s survival actually depends on those standards (eg in a company whose revenues depend on their products meeting certain quality standards) then the rule-breaking strategy is parasitic on the minority of workers who actually try to meet the standards and have to clean up the rule-breakers’ messes. The rule-breakers get job security and advancement without having to make the effort to meet standards – until standards fall so far that the whole organization collapses, at which point they can claim it wasn’t their fault, since they were behaving “normally.” The rule-breaking coalition has become “too big to fail”, and the (invariably less senior) rule-followers get screwed.

Note that a strategy doesn’t have to produce good outcomes to be evolutionarily stable. It could be much better to live in a less stupid society and still, given one’s current social environment, locally optimal to join the Stupids.