A science writer tackled a big issue recently: stupidity. Who does he ask? Why, scientists of course.
“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.” Ross Pomeroy “What is Stupidity?” at Real Clear Science
But never mind, quite a few science savants, unafraid to offend, have rushed in:
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.”
I won’t contradict an evolutionary biologist on the topic of stupidity. In any event, Italian economic historian Carlo M. Cipolla (1922–2000) argued that “A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses” (his Third Basic Law of Stupidity).
Harming another, with no benefit to oneself, would be stupid. Where would we be without professors of economic history? It turns out that there is academic research on stupidity, including one team of researchers that sought a common definition based on having a group rate apparently stupid actions:
To uncover what defines an act as “stupid,” the researchers analyzed real-life examples of stupidity. They first built a formidable assortment of 180 stories describing stupid actions collected via the Internet and from daily reports provided by a group of 26 college students. All of the stories were reviewed by a group of seven raters to ensure that they described a “stupid” action, were comprehensible, and were relatively brief. Ross Pomeroy “What Is Stupid? We Now Have a Scientific Answer.” at Real Clear Science
The categories on which researchers Balazs Aczel, Bence Palfi, and Zoltan Kekecs found broad, general agreement were “Confident ignorance,” “Absentmindedness – Lack of practicality,” and “Lack of control.” (Paper)
According to Pomeroy, readers will be glad to learn, stupidity knows no class: “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.”
But, as he notes, no essay on stupidity would be complete without a discussion of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Named for research psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, it is described in the literature as follows,
“In this chapter, I provide argument and evidence that the scope of people’s ignorance is often invisible to them. This meta-ignorance (or ignorance of ignorance) arises because lack of expertise and knowledge often hides in the realm of the “unknown unknowns” or is disguised by erroneous beliefs and background knowledge that only appear to be sufficient to conclude a right answer. As empirical evidence of meta-ignorance, I describe the Dunning–Kruger effect, in which poor performers in many social and intellectual domains seem largely unaware of just how deficient their expertise is. Their deficits leave them with a double burden—not only does their incomplete and misguided knowledge lead them to make mistakes but those exact same deficits also prevent them from recognizing when they are making mistakes and other people choosing more wisely.” David Dunning, Chapter five – The Dunning–Kruger Effect: On Being Ignorant of One’s Own Ignorance, Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 44, 2011, Pages 247-296
Ross Pomeroy is sure he knows the answer to the problem:
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. Ross Pomeroy “What is Stupidity?” at Real Clear Science
And this is to be achieved how? According to Pomeroy, “Essentially, the antidote to stupidity is a scientific way of thinking.”
He points to Carl Sagan (1934–1996) as an example. Readers may recall Sagan as an astronomer and media proponent of scientism (science can tell us everything we need to know).
Sagan was so sure of this that, an opponent of intelligent design, he wrote
Contact, a fine novel obliviously extolling… intelligent design. Possibly a classic in “Confident ignorance” rooting out prudence “like a garden weed.”
Of course, the nature of and cure for stupidity is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Asking scientists to address an existential, value-laden question like, “What causes people to lack practicality or control or be confident where they lack knowledge?” invites a perfect storm of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Recall the late Stephen Hawking’s immoderate attacks on philosophy,attacks which mainly demonstrated that, though a brilliant man, he knew little of the topic.
It’s not that science gets philosophical questions right or wrong. It’s that philosophical questions aren’t addressed by the science tool-kit. The antidote to stupidity—which is necessarily a philosophical potion—is to be found in logic, metaphysics, theology, and a host of non-empirical endeavors. Philosophical conundrums aren’t open to empirical solutions.
Scientism—the belief that science can answer philosophical questions—is merely the modern iteration of 19th-century positivism. Scientism, like positivism, is self-refuting. The belief that we can only trust empirical evidence cannot be proven or disproven empirically. Science isn’t self-validating. Science is a method, and methods require logical and metaphysical predicates to be of any use.
Science is precisely where one cannot find an antidote to stupidity because understanding stupidity is not an empirical task. The assertion that “the antidote to stupidity is a scientific way of thinking” is, well, stupid.
Michael Egnor, MD, is Senior Fellow at the Center For Natural & Artificial Intelligence. He is also a Professor of Neurosurgery and Pediatrics at State University of New York, Stony Brook. This article is republished from Mind Matters with permission.