Ignorance and Stupidity


John Wright


When things go my way in life I like to think that the underlying reasons are my intelligence and my experience. When things go opposite what I want I like to believe that other people are making stupid decisions or that I have acquired an inferior object due to someone elseís poor design or manufacture. I am, of course, wise to my own flaws, so my reactions to things around me are tempered such that I look first for the errors in my thoughts and only then to the external world. The idea is that useful experience of both good and bad varieties is assimilated properly only when I am open and objective. So it is that I open this article with pondering the relevance of ignorance Vs stupidity in our lives.

My approach is intended to avoid poorly formed value judgments so that I look only at cause and effect and likelihood of beneficial change moving forward in time. What is beneficial change? It is that which benefits the individual or the society without causing a corresponding loss to that or another individual or segment of society. I suppose one might say we have win-win or win-neutral as hopeful outcomes. The lose scenario is necessary only in a zero sum game, and even then a hybrid solution, however complex or simple, can maximize benefits and minimize losses. For example, an evening playing poker can yield a lot of fun socializing in which the cash transfers are kept low enough that winning or losing produces little or no important result (the event has two objectives while the game part of it remains zero sum).

Now lets get down to business. Ignorance is potentially curable. Stupidity means inability to eliminate ignorance and thus it is not curable. There is an idealized wish in which we like to believe that some fact or useful experience would allow us to understand, assimilate and use any knowledge to our benefit. The sad truth is that all of us have limits in our conceptual abilities as well as our experience, and both combine to form ultimate limits to our knowledge, and thus our perceptions and resultant behaviors. This, of course, proves the lie behind the legal notion of responsibility for actions being equal across all people.

We can look at the relative importance of any act opposite our survival and relate that to our ability to act to our benefit. We can also consider that some knowledge and power of decision will be provided for our benefit by others in a cooperative venture. I will risk boring you with another definition Ö ability to act is the limiting combination of ignorance and stupidity factors or, if you are an optimist, ability to act is the combination of knowledge and intellectual capacity. Either way there is the idea of limits.

Going beyond the dry and fairly obvious we quickly grasp two key truths: 1) Entire lives can be spent living in ever smaller circles as individuals face failure, and 2) The impact of the stupid can be most harmful if they are granted power of decision over anything nontrivial. This leads to many issues for all of us, i.e., the right to vote or the privilege to participate on a jury. We will get to those later.

Einsteinís definition of insanity ( Endlessly repeating the same things while hoping for a different result ) applies perfectly to the life of the stupid and at least temporarily to the life of the simply ignorant. I might add that the stupid do sense their stupidity because they are forced to see success that they cannot obtain via application of their abilities within the law. Whatever, the real issues evolve rather quickly to the impact of "stupid" on the course of history and on the future.

If I am simply ignorant and aware of my ignorance I seek and gain knowledge to improve my circumstance. If I am stupid I learn that I cannot improve my circumstance through my efforts and hence seek relief by whatever means are available. Basically, the stupid seek simple answers to everything and social structures that appear to support their survival and implanted values. Oops, I wanted to avoid value judgments and here I am talking about values!

Two difficulties for most of us are the reality that we donít even know a tiny percentage of all people Ö most of life occurs outside our personal experience, so we cannot feel comfortable extrapolating the unknown, and, the continuum from stupid through ignorant to intelligent and experienced has so many levels and directions that it seems inappropriate for us to evaluate relative importance. About all we can say is that we sometimes sense that the impact of certain other individuals or groups of people is or is not beneficial to us. We live, as it were, in apparently inescapable ignorance so as to render our judgments questionable.

Yes, there are organizations and individuals whose jobs are to look at societies and through various measurements and analyses produce useful conclusions of a macroscopic nature. The quality of the effort determines the accuracy and sometimes the utility of the results. We might think best in terms of relative value instead of absolute value.

A professor might have a quality education yet be relatively weak compared to his peer group. In an absolute sense that professor might be among the top 1000 people in his knowledge area in the entire world, but in a relative sense he may be nothing special where he works. So it is that relativism applies to the subject of ignorance Vs stupidity.

We can rightfully measure the combination of span of responsibility and goodness of results to categorize any individual or group with reasonable accuracy, provided we have a consistent and relevant yardstick with which to measure results. So it is that our expectations of those in power are much higher than what we have for ordinary people. In a relative sense we can have a stupid president and a wise janitor.

It isnít much of a stretch to look at people in positions of power in a more absolute sense as their span of control and responsibility is very large and as so many people of lesser power depend on the powerful for protection and livelihood. Privilege of the powerful is assumed by the little people to include responsibility for their wellbeing Ö else, why not kill the powerful? In short, you have to pay for being stupid by working menial jobs for low compensation, and you have to pay for being privileged and receiving high income for the more important jobs through your commitment to protect the little people, and your results.

It is the occasion of the moment to reflect on the results. Do we feel protected physically and economically? Are our lives improving gradually or declining in quality or somewhere in between? As a little person who happens to be not entirely stupid, I look at the passage of time in decades Ö I remember what I had and what I now have and I am aware of the direction of changes Ö I know the answers to the questions. I am not pleased.

I suggest to the powerful in government and business that they are being reviewed and may be fired by those whose lives they appear to control. I suggest that they consider the difference between ignorance and stupidity, for they need not be ignorant and certainly they are not stupid in either relative or absolute terms, so they have no valid grounds for non-performance on behalf of the little people.

The bar is high. You will perform or you will be forced into obscurity. This will happen if you continue to demonstrate ignorance relative to the economic flashpoint of the little people, who still have the ability through elections and strikes to bring you down. Oh, lest I forget, offshore production does not imply onshore sales revenue. Are you simply ignorant or are you stupid?

Earlier I mentioned the problems of having the stupid vote or participate on juries. Now is the moment to fold that ugly reality into the election process as well. Intelligent and experienced people do understand that the stupid little people are constitutionally incapable of rendering well-formed judgments about anything nontrivial. Thus, they do not respond thoughtfully to any issue outside their limited domain. Instead, they simply react. They follow fools with convenient but wrong ideas. This means that using them works only up to the time when they feel significant pain and have a scapegoat to blame.

Were the above not true we would never have had unions or the election of liberal democrats to any high office. We would never have summarily convicted so many innocent people in our courtrooms. We would never have been able to play the terrorist card to go to war with the wrong country. Now, however, the economic pain factor of the little people exposes the republicans, once again, to potential loss of control of the presidency and the Congress.

Just this morning I saw news about supermarket employees now being on strike. This is a small wake-up call. I think of it as a warmup exercise for the coming election year. The question is, will this behavior extend to other areas? Will the wealthy once again spend some of their hoard to employ the little people at respectable wage levels or will the wealthy demonstrate stupidity by believing that they can squeeze the little people forever?

I am at heart a capitalist, and that means I believe in a system of rewards based on the combination of superior hard work and great results. I also believe that one of the key reasons why the more capable should have good compensation is that they will use the power of wealth to aid all of us in achieving quality of life. The disease of greed combined with superior attitude is indeed stupid, for those of us who have profited from our genetic and social inheritance were merely fortunate at birth.

We did not earn our intellectual abilities, only our knowledge, such as it is. We did develop our own values, not those implanted in others due to inherent stupidity. For those reasons we are responsible to those less capable as they are no more responsible for their incapability than we are for our capability. If you are comfortable differentiating yourself from humans less capable, that is, if you are willing to treat them as a subspecies, you are indeed stupid.

I do not need religion to tell me that a day of reckoning is around the corner, for it is totally obvious that genetic engineering will erase our uncomfortable differences within a few generations. In the interim, those who have the capacity and knowledge to see the future are utterly responsible to help it happen. Think not of the present as much of a civilization. Think of us now as about to climb out of the primordial swamp. Put aside our past ugly behaviors towards each other that are based on unfortunate circumstance and realize our Destiny.

Are we merely ignorant or are we stupid?