“People are Stupid”

Earlier today, I was skimming Facebook (I know, bad idea) and I came across that, “People are stupid” thing again.

Of course, it’s true, people are stupid.

That’s why writers like Neil Gaiman who assume an audience of smart people are unable to have a career.

That’s why movies like “Lincoln” that appeal to smart people always flop.

That’s why bands like The Grateful Dead who made music that engaged the brain had no success.

That’s why TV shows like The West Wing that are aimed at smart people never go anywhere.

So, yeah, people are stupid.  The question is, which people?  I’d say it’s the ones who say that people are stupid.

/rant off/


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26 thoughts on ““People are Stupid””

  1. I have watched “The West Wing” at least 6 times all the way through….I LOVE that show.

  2. A comedian once said “Think about how stupid the average person is. Now realize that HALF of the people in the world are stupider than that.”

  3. I get angry when people use the word “sheeple,” since in just about every case, the actual meaning of the word as used is: sheeple (n.): 1. People who don’t agree with me; 2. People who don’t value the same things I think are important.

  4. As an Investment Advisor, I have to agree, and yet, I think “the people” are ignorant. When you educate people on a subject, they are no longer stupid on the topic. Those who willingly ignore facts in favor of preset biases are stupid. I also teach Economics at a local CC and a fellow professor once said to me on the topic of education, “We are fighting a battle for the hearts and minds of the nation…and we are clearly losing.”

  5. No, everyone *is* stupid. And as soon as you start noticing this, you yourself do something so immensely stupid as to prove the universality of the rule.

  6. Jo’din: ‘yet, I think “the people” are ignorant. ‘ No argument there. As Trotsky said, ignorance isn’t a crime until it becomes willful.

    Miramon: That is delightfully meta.

  7. Dennis_H: Whenever I see that word, I think of John Brunner’s great novel, “The Sheeple Look Upple.”

  8. I’ve always seen such a generalization as applying rather accurately to the tendency of many people (at least in my experience) to use relatively scant and poorly understood (at least on their part) evidence to form unreasonably strong judgments about subjects that they don’t have any particular expertise or investment in.

    To me, the phrase criticizes not so much stupidity, or even tractability, as the willingness to form, hold, and espouse concrete opinions which you are not entitled to hold and/or understand. Or perhaps I’m simply giving the people who normally say “people are stupid” too much credit.

  9. Curt M.: I hear what you’re saying. But let us assume that is true. If so, “people are stupid” is really terrible shorthand for “many people are willing to form, hold, and espouse concrete opinions which they are not entitled to hold and/or understand.” If “people are stupid” is the best shorthand you can come up with for that, then you’re stupid.

  10. skzb: That’s fair enough, and, were I to try and generate an insulting shorthand for the obstinate opinionation of the general population, I would most likely end up with something a tad more precise. Perhaps “people tend towards disproportionate fervor in ill-founded beliefs.” Doesn’t have the same ring to it, though.

    I may be highly biased in that the majority of cases in which I have heard (and yes, I must admit, occasionally used) this phrase was in a competitive debate setting, usually criticizing an opponent’s over-reliance on the general populace’s ability and willingness to, for example: make rational economic decisions, scrutinize those running for or holding political power, consume news media in a wide-based and dispassionate manner, etc.

    “People are stupid,” in those contexts, then, boils down to a shorthand for saying that the populace at large can and will make rash decisions that fail to serve either their own or the community’s interests in any sense of the word. Though such disinterest does tend to reflect a certain amount of ignorance and lack of time/passion to devote to proper study of such topics, the fact that the citizenry tends to make strong choices regardless of such rather self-evident disadvantages could well be described as stupid, if one is being inflammatory or particularly blunt.

    On a more pop-culture level, saying “people are stupid” could be charitably interpreted to reflect a fear that such lack of inspection will be reflected in what entertainment gets consumed, and thus what is produced in the future. If we want to maintain a belief in population-wide stupidity, then, I suppose I could argue that even the most “cerebral” of entertainment is still incredibly shallow and understandable–and requires far less study–when compared to that needed to adequately follow or understand the vast majority of politics or current events.

    On a more disheartening note, it could also be the case that people simply tend to devote far more intellectual study and passion to their entertainment than they do the state of their society and/or their own well being.

    Ultimately, I can agree that the specific phrase “people are stupid” is far from the most helpful, but the sentiment it expresses, at least in certain contexts, is worth examining.

    Side note: I probably should have said “… not entitled to hold and/or _claim to_ understand” in my previous post. My mistake there, but the meaning came across well enough with the typo, I suppose.

  11. People are stupid and it works to the long-term benefit of humankind.

    We try to look for patterns in the world. But it’s often very hard to pick out the actual patterns from the noise. So what we do, is humans develop irrational beliefs more-or-less at random.

    We get pairs of humans who believe contrary things, or pairs of groups.

    And then when one of them sees something happen that fits his belief, he crows about it. When something happens that fits the other belief, that guy loudly announces it. And the undecided people gradually get a sense of which is more wrong.

    Sometimes people bet their lives on their stupid beliefs. Then society finds out which is more wrong by which survives the least well.

    Sometimes they bet on it, and the one who loses money on average is the loser.

    Patterns show up better when people who accidentally choose real existing patterns then pay close attention. And they keep their belief through a lot of adversity, at least until statistical accidents are mostly ruled out.

    The result is that humanity as a whole behaves as a sort of AI, discovering patterns that we might never notice if we were individually more rational.

    The people who develop irrational beliefs and hold them in spite of evidence, are to some extent sacrificing themselves for humanity. Chances are they will suffer negative effects from it, and if by accident they are right then likely it’s humanity that will benefit more than them.

    Perhaps they deserve respect for their service.

  12. Curt M: ‘“People are stupid,” in those contexts, then, boils down to a shorthand for saying that the populace at large can and will make rash decisions that fail to serve either their own or the community’s interests in any sense of the word. ‘

    Yeah, I hear all sorts of snark about the populace at large. And, generally, the person snarking then follows it with something like:
    “We need to vote for Obama because he’s better than McCain.”
    “Atheism makes no sense because you can’t prove a negative.”
    “By supporting [your favorite flavor of identity politics] we’re at least making progress.”
    “Government spying on citizens is outrageous so we should put pressure on Congress.”

    To hear someone claim that the “populace at large” is stupid and then hear those opinions come out of the same mouth just pegs my irony meter.

    When masses of people hold an opinion that (I believe) is contrary to the facts, or does not represent their best interests, what matters is that there is a reason for it, and that reason is nearly always based on objective social conditions (just as my own opinions, right or wrong, are also based on objective social conditions). If we make an effort to discover what those conditions are and how they led to those opinions, we might find something useful. If we simply wave our hand dismissively and make snide remarks about the “populace at large” we have made no contribution to our understanding of human intelligence or the social sciences or anything else.

    TL;dr: Those who display contempt for the greater part of humanity deserve nothing but contempt.

  13. skzb: I think you may be reading me as a tad more hostile (or perhaps condescending) than I mean to come across. I did go on, right after that sentence, to qualify the passage that you quoted.

    I believe that you are right that people holding opinions contrary to the facts can often be attributed to their social conditions (though I’d prefer not to get into a discussion about the degree to which this is “nearly always” true). Someone who works 60 hours a week and has 5 kids to take care of does not have the time or energy to devote to becoming knowledgeable about much of the world. Their inclination to form opinions anyway might well also arise from their social conditions, such as an environment which promotes the holding of strong opinions over and above their careful consideration.

    If you are looking at the present moment, though, and ask for a concrete, proximate cause for some “people are stupid”-eliciting circumstance, then such “contempt for…humanity” is a fair answer; only then can you get into all the deeper causes.

  14. By “social conditions” I meant something much broader. In fact, I think I ought not to have said “nearly.” We can get into details if you’d like.

  15. EDIT: Managed to post this while skzb was posting. I had meant it to serve as an example in an addendum to my previous post.

    I like Cocoa Puffs. I will pony up the extra money to buy Cocoa Puffs rather than generic unless I manage a particularly strong Will check, despite the two being functionally identical. I recognize this, at least intellectually, as part of the reason why rational-agent economic models fail to adequately describe buying patterns in the real world.

    When someone asks “why do people buy Cocoa Puffs instead of the cheaper generic?”, we can all say “because people are stupid”. If you are so inclined, though, you can go on to discuss the underlying causes, both psychological and sociological, for my preference for Cocoa Puffs.

  16. *Double checks that no one has posted while he typed*

    skzb: Thank you, but I think we can refrain from getting into the details; what I really cared to establish was that, to a certain extent, “people are stupid” (still not the best phrase, as it’s rather unhelpfully insulting) is a meaningful statement that serves to identify more than the stupidity of those who use it.

    I think we’ve nailed that one down well enough (though, for all I know, you might just be holding back from eviscerating my current generation of arguments out of pity or disinterest), and going beyond that would be tangential–also, I do not have very firm or well-grounded opinions on the source of these “stupid” inclinations, so I would be rather betraying myself if I were to start arguing for one side or the other.

    I’ll just sit back and let some other people take over the reins, if you don’t mind. :)

  17. People are mufti-faceted. We are smart. We are stupid. We are ignorant about lots more topics than we are knowledgeable. We mostly don’t entirely fit in little categories – or at least we don’t stay in them.

  18. Maybe I am just being stupid, but Neil Gaiman’s works never struck me as being intended for smart people. I understood them perfectly and I can assure you that I have less than average intelligence :-)

  19. That’s why XKCD is such an unpopular web comic (I sometimes have to do research to get his jokes).

  20. Keino: ” I can assure you that I have less than average intelligence” To be blunt, I don’t believe you.

  21. Since the examples from the initial post are entertainments, doesn’t this conversation basically index under The Cool Theory of Literature? If a bunch of folk don’t think that Gaiman, “Lincoln,” The Grateful Dead, The West Wing, or XKCD are particularly cool, how does that provide any grounds for assertions about others’ stupidity or intelligence? It seems that the the strongest warranted claim would be, “I don’t like it when people don’t like what I like.”

    For other topics, we can always rely on standardized testing to divide the stupid people from “us,” right?

  22. “For other topics, we can always rely on standardized testing to divide the stupid people from “us,” right?”

    It depends.

    There is a quote recently attributed to Stalin without any documentation, that goes “Those who cast the votes decide nothing. Those who count the votes decide everything.”

    Boss Tweed was reported by a political enemy to say, “As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?”

    To decide who’s stupid, it doesn’t matter nearly so much how people do on standardized testing, as it does who makes the standardized test in the first place.

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