Seven Varieties of Stupidity
(and what to do about them)
“There are so many kinds of stupidity, and cleverness is one of the worst.”
Many words have been expended on the nature of intelligence, while the topic of stupidity is comparatively neglected - even though it is all around us, screwing us up. That’s probably because we assume stupidity is just a lack of intelligence. I think there’s more to it than that. It comes in many different forms; what follows is by no means comprehensive.
1. Pure stupidity
Let’s start with the most obvious type of stupidity: shit-for-brains (excuse the scientific jargon). The common sense definition of a stupid person is someone deficient in cognitive ability, specifically the ability to think and reason clearly. A stupid person has a low IQ. They flunk verbal reasoning tests and Raven’s matrices because they find it hard to spot patterns in data, manipulate language, or follow chains of logic. (I’m bracketing the question of whether analytical reasoning is intelligence - if it is, then according to the Flynn effect our ancestors were all morons - but the lack of it is what most people mean by stupidity). Presented with anything complex, the stupid person sees only meaningless chaos. Introduce a stupid person to a game and they will fail to understand the rules, even after they have been explained clearly and repeatedly, because they cannot learn, or can learn only slowly. Intelligence is inseparable from learning, something that it took AI scientists a long time to figure out; they spent years trying to design an intelligent machine until they realised it’s better to build a dumb machine that learns fast.1 What are the causes of this kind of stupidity? Genetics? The person may have inherited bad mental hardware. Environment? Maybe they grew up in a culture that never required them to learn or think. Or maybe they were poisoned: a recent study found that lead has been responsible for the loss of almost a billion IQ points in post-war America. Whatever its cause, stupidity in this sense means the inability to identify patterns, follow logic, or learn from experience. A stupid person is a novice at everything all the time.
2. Ignorant stupidity
Ignorance is also a common sense definition of stupidity: stupid people are people who don’t know shit about shit (another scientific definition). Now, ignorance is by no means always a sign of stupidity; any intellectual exploration, including science, depends on being aware of what one doesn’t know. But it’s also true that people who can’t draw on a bank of experience, technique or knowledge will find it very hard to cope with new problems and tricky questions. How do they get that way? Perhaps they have faulty hardware, as per #1, and so have been unable to acquire and retain information, or it might be that they haven’t been given the chance to do so: maybe they didn’t get much of an education, either from their parents or from school, and so lack the basic tools and frameworks needed to make sense of the world - verbal and mathematical skill, a knowledge of basic geography or political systems and so on. The education scholar E.D. Hirsch has observed that the ability to read a newspaper and have even the vaguest idea of what all the articles are about requires a level of general knowledge most of us take for granted. Background knowledge in any domain is like water for fish: we’re barely aware we have it but it’s what enables us to absorb new information. The less you know, the harder it is to learn; the less you can learn, the less you know - the stupider you get. This is the ignorance loop, and people with perfectly good hardware can get stuck in it.2
3. Fish-out-of-water stupidity
So far we’ve discussed common sense definitions of stupidity. It tends to be described as a lack of something - either cognitive horsepower (‘intelligence’), or knowledge, or thinking. This seems inadequate. Defining it only as an absence of brainpower fails to account for what I’m calling fish-out-of-water stupidity. People with powerful brains who have acquired a great deal of knowledge in one domain, and who are therefore regarded as exceptionally smart, tend to assume they will have exceptionally smart thoughts in every field of knowledge they wander into. They take their own accumulated knowledge for granted and believe that the facility it gives them in their field is merely a function of their all-round brilliance.
Now, to some extent, these experts are probably right to assume that because they’re smart at this thing they’ll be smart at other things too - there is such a phenomenon as general intelligence. But they can wildly over-rate how intelligent they are in new domains and end up making terrible decisions. Twitter has been great for revealing how scientists or historians can be stupid once outside of their academic field. Often, experts don’t even notice that they have moved into a foreign domain: the bankers who screwed up in the 2008 crash thought they were in the domain of risk when in reality they were in the domain of uncertainty. Regulators who were flat-footed during during the pandemic (more of a problem for the US than the UK) failed to clock that they were now in the domain of crisis management.