What Is Stupidity?

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What is stupidity? Surprisingly enough, it's a question few scientists have grappled with, perhaps out of a desire not to wade into a subject that could so easily offend. After all, the field of intelligence studies is rife with controversy. Still, some have tendered their thoughts.

Evolutionary biologist David Krakauer, President of the Santa Fe Institute, told Nautilus, “Stupidity is using a rule where adding more data doesn’t improve your chances of getting [a problem] right. In fact, it makes it more likely you’ll get it wrong.”

Carlo M. Cipolla, a professor of economic history at the University of California - Berkeley, argued that stupidity is characterized by causing losses to another person or group whilst deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses yourself.

In one of the few direct empirical studies on stupidity, researchers Balazs Aczel, Bence Palfi, and Zoltan Kekecs distilled a few traits that drive stupidity: overconfidence, ignorance, absentmindedness, impracticality, and an inability to control one's own actions.

Notice that none of these descriptions of stupidity simply refers to it as an absence of knowledge. Lacking information about a topic does not make one stupid, as one can always educate oneself. Rather, stupidity is more of a choice. If someone chooses to act without taking full measure of the available evidence, that is stupidity.

Since humans take countless actions that scythe across disciplines and scenarios, anyone – educated or not, wealthy or poor, politician or voter – can be stupid at one time or another. Although, it must be said, some tend to be stupid more often than others.

One area of research where we perhaps can see stupidity on paper is the Dunning-Kruger effect. As many studies have revealed, it seems surprisingly (and unfortunately) universal that people who lack correct information about a certain issue tend to think they are actually informed about it. Often, they even overestimate their knowledge by such a degree that they are more confident than people who actually know the correct information. These people, the ones who know little but profess to know a lot, can be said to be truly stupid.

Can stupidity be avoided or is it hard-wired? Perhaps writing tongue-in-cheek, Cipolla expressed the opinion that stupidity is genetically predetermined, an "indiscriminate privilege of all human groups... uniformly distributed according to a constant proportion."

I'll take the opposite stance. I believe that education can root out stupidity like a garden weed. The answer is not to merely teach facts, as is still all too common, but to teach people how to attain facts and how to discern a good source of information from a bad one. One must also learn to nurture a healthy degree of self-doubt. Essentially, the antidote to stupidity is a scientific way of thinking.

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