The Stupid Case for Professors of Stupidity

Thanks to a recommendation from Pocket.com, I stumbled upon a trending blog post from January 30 of this year: “The Case for Professors of Stupidity.” The post begins with a quote from Bertrand Russell about how stupid people tend to be overconfident while intelligent people are more aware of the limits of their knowledge. The rest of the “case” then seems to hinge on the following passage:

But what exactly is stupidity? David Krakauer, the President of the Santa Fe Institute, told interviewer Steve Paulson, for Nautilus, stupidity is not simply the opposite of intelligence. “Stupidity is using a rule where adding more data doesn’t improve your chances of getting [a problem] right,” Krakauer said. “In fact, it makes it more likely you’ll get it wrong.” Intelligence, on the other hand, is using a rule that allows you to solve complex problems with simple, elegant solutions. “Stupidity is a very interesting class of phenomena in human history, and it has to do with rule systems that have made it harder for us to arrive at the truth,” he said. “It’s an interesting fact that, whilst there are numerous individuals who study intelligence—there are whole departments that are interested in it—if you were to ask yourself what’s the greatest problem facing the world today, I would say it would be stupidity. So we should have professors of stupidity—it would just be embarrassing to be called the stupid professor.”

I don’t know, but I think that we’ve got plenty of scientists, psychologists, and data experts studying things like cognitive bias, the Dunning-Krueger effect, and the reasons why people are influenced by this or that thing to make stupid choices. Names like Daniel Kahneman, Jonathan Haidt, and Robert Caldini come to mind (and there are many, many others). Maybe what we need isn’t so much a new Department of the Study of Stupidity, but a Department of the Study of Truth: a league of scholars, if you will, who examine and teach not only on the science of thinking well, but the art. Perhaps we could grab some ancient Greek words and come up with a name… say, how about “philosopher”?

Wait. That term sounds familiar. Wasn’t that Bertrand Russell guy one of those?

I see this sort of thing from time to time: “There’s this persistent human problem that’s been around for a while, and it’s baffling! It’s the biggest problem we have! Let’s create a whole new XYZ to solve it!” When really, a lot of very smart people have been thinking about the problem already for a long time and often have satisfactory solutions—solutions that involve not just study and education but habit-formation. But who wants to be told to read existing material rather than reinvent the wheel? To synthesize tomes of scientific literature from the past 30 years, or ancient wisdom from the past three milennia, rather than come up with some cool new theory or career path? To be told that you might actually need to reform people rather than throw more data at them? That’s not nearly as cool, nor is it exciting enough to generate clicks.

Photo Credit: iai.tv. “Can science continue to ignore philosophy? Or are the two inextricably intertwined?”