"Elevated stupidity"

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Dave Holmes, "The Rise of Elevated Stupidity", Esquire 6/11/2021:

Stupidity is saying two plus two equals five. Elevated Stupidity is doing the same thing, except you invoke Pythagoras, decry cancel culture when someone corrects you, then get a seven-figure book deal and a speaking tour out of it. Elevated Stupidity has permeated all facets of life—reality TV, social media, Congress, your group chat, and your softball team. Elevated Stupidity stems from the idea that being good at arguing is the same thing as being correct. That rhetorical skill—or at least a degree of big debate-club energy sufficient to wear out one’s opponent—is the equivalent of intelligence. If being a good arguer is the same as being smart or correct, then do you know who is the smartest, correct-est person in history? Every Scientologist. […]

Elevated Stupidity is as old as recorded history. The Old Testament book of Proverbs cautions, “Don’t answer the foolish arguments of fools, or you will become as foolish as they are,” and says, “A proverb in the mouth of a fool is like a thorny branch brandished by a drunk.” Elevated Stupidity was easy to identify and, like a thorny branch compared with an assault rifle, much easier to dodge. Today it’s unavoidable. Why? We live in the Hot-Take Economy, with three major news-yelling networks and a full bench of second-stringers.

I was surprised to see that this article fails to mention the sophists: a large class of self-appointed experts "who toured the Greek world offering instruction in a wide range of subjects, with particular emphasis on skill in public speaking and the successful conduct of life", and whose approach to knowledge ("sophistry") came to mean

  1. Cunning, sometimes manifested as trickery.
  2. The art of using deceptive speech or writing.
  3. An argument that seems plausible, but is fallacious or misleading, especially one devised deliberately to be so.

Sophistry and Holmes' "elevated stupidity" are not exactly the same thing, but there seems to be a relevant overlap.

And in this context, I'm going to cite an early LLOG post, "Language Log is #1 for stupid ideas", 4/6/2004:

At this moment, Google lists 1,260,000 pages in response to a query about stupid ideas, and Geoff Nunberg's post about Samuel Huntington is the first of all of them.

The same post is #13 (of 7,880,000) in reponse to a query about smart people, just behind Robert J. Sternberg's book Why Smart People can be so Stupid, blurbed as follows by Yale University Press:

One need not look far to find breathtaking acts of stupidity committed by people who are smart, or even brilliant. The behavior of smart individuals–from presidents to prosecutors to professors–is at times so amazingly stupid as to seem inexplicable. Why do otherwise intelligent people think and behave in ways so stupid that they sometimes destroy their livelihoods or even their lives? […]

While many millions of dollars are spent each year on intelligence research and testing to determine who has the ability to succeed, next to nothing is spent to determine who will make use of their intelligence and not squander it by behaving stupidly. Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid focuses on the neglected side of this discussion, reviewing the full range of theory and research on stupid behavior and analyzing what it tells us about how people can avoid stupidity and its devastating consequences.

I particularly like the idea of supplementing intelligence tests with stupidity tests. ETS has been missing the boat on this one for some time.

And I ended that post by noting that there's a certain kind of stupidity that's highly correlated with (a certain kind of) intelligence:

I've also observed that sometimes it takes a really smart person to have a really spectacularly stupid idea. You have to be smart to be able to think of some of the really complicated dumb stuff that people come up with, but that's not what I mean. I'm talking about the simple idea that is so obviously wrong that any half-wit can see that it don't have a chance, except for someone who is brilliant enough to work out the reasons that it's nevertheless deeply true. If the originator is also persuasive enough to get others to go along, then you've really got trouble. I'd give examples, but professional courtesy forbids it.

Some such people are sincere, if excessively fond of leading a small brave band of contrarians who have discovered The Truth; some are self-consciously deceptive; but most, I think, are bullshitters,  on Harry Frankfurt's definition.

Some more background —

"The Huntington challenge", 3/30/2004
"When smart people get really stupid ideas", 4/2/2004
"Nativism clings to life at 100 or 101", 6/24/2004

Wikipedia on Samuel P. Huntington


  1. bks said,

    June 15, 2021 @ 9:06 am

    "Stupidity is saying two plus two equals five"

    2+2 doesn't always equal 4

  2. Tom S. Fox said,

    June 15, 2021 @ 9:10 am

    It’s hilarious that Dave Holmes uses “two plus two equals five” as an analogy for the supposed stupidity of the Right when that is exactly what the Left is arguing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V3BizbQrVSs

  3. James said,

    June 15, 2021 @ 10:04 am

    Hm, interesting. That YouTube claims that the Smithsonian has argued that "2+2 equaling 4" is offensive.
    I wonder whether anyone has a citation for that. (Oddly, there's no reference given for that surprising claim.)

  4. Nancy Friwdman said,

    June 15, 2021 @ 10:17 am

    Sorry to de-elevate the discourse, but I wanted to let y'all know that there's a skin-care spa in Alameda, California, called Sophistry.

    I don't know what the owners were thinking ("sophisticated"?), but it's been there since at least early 2010, when I wrote about it. https://nancyfriedman.typepad.com/away_with_words/2010/01/that-word.html

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 15, 2021 @ 10:41 am

    I fear that the late Geoff Nunberg had already been seduced in those long-ago days of 2004 into writing in a smug, snarky style that anyone familiar with modern internet culture will take as some presumptive evidence that the writer may be a sophist/bullshitter, even though the claims written in such a style may happen to be well-supported by the empirical data. The late Samuel Huntington, by contrast, wrote in a boring pre-internet Serious Thinker kind of prose style, which conversely certainly needn't mean he was treating the evidence fairly, but does mean he was not really stylistically prefiguring out current Hot-Take Economy.

  6. Haamu said,

    June 15, 2021 @ 12:11 pm

    "… when that is exactly what the Left is arguing" is a pretty succinct example of the phenomenon in question.

    Anyway …

    Your description of Holmes' article set off my recency illusion alarms. While he does a good job of pointing out that we're seeing a lot of Elevated Stupidity lately, he muffs the opportunity to justify or explain the "Rise of" in his title. As you note, he isn't too interested in a historical view. In jumping directly from Proverbs to the present day, he misses not only practitioners like the Sophists, but a long line of observers, including David Hume (who was laying groundwork — "Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them" — in 1739, everyone who has been studying motivated reasoning since the 1990s or so, and many others.

    Nor is Holmes more than perfunctory in attempting to explain why an ES surge might be happening now. It's helpful to look at this from at least three perspectives. (I'll quote just a bit more of the article for those who are unable/unwilling to breach the Esquire paywall.)

    Politically, of course, there's tribalism and polarization, and, no matter where one stands, a marked lack of respect for one's opponents, which might (among other hypotheses) lead to a lack of interest in making valid arguments that could actually withstand their scrutiny. But again, such a political atmosphere is nothing new. (Biden observed as much in his NATO press conference yesterday.)

    Economically, we do seem to find ourselves in a marketplace where loud, sustained stupidity is a feasible, even lucrative, career path. Holmes makes a feint in this direction when he briefly describes the "Hot-Take Economy"

    with three major news-yelling networks and a full bench of second-stringers. There are eight podcasts for every man, woman, and child on earth and too many web publications to count. The machine needs fuel, and the cheapest option is consistently the Idea Nobody's Heard Yet. Express a fresh idea for the first time and it might juice up your YouTube subscriber numbers, get you on Joe Rogan, put your name in people's mouths. But cheap fuel is dirty fuel. Sometimes the reason an idea has not been expressed publicly before is that it's bad.

    Left unexplored, though, is why our economic engine seems to prefer dirty fuel — let alone what to do about it.

    And epistemically, his explanation is simplistic and incomplete:

    We fall prey to Elevated Stupidity because we're tired. Our best selves tell us to challenge our existing biases, to read the works of people whose experiences do not match our own, to engage with fresh perspectives. But you've met us, and you know we're not going to do that. We're overwhelmed and inundated with content, and as human beings, we're desperate to do the minimum amount of research that allows us to keep on believing what already makes us feel good about ourselves. So we subcontract the reading and the thought.

    For Holmes, our epistemic crisis is a tale of individuals who are each tired, overwhelmed, and simultaneously lazy yet scrambling to prop up their self-esteem ("desperate to do the minimum" is an intriguing formulation). But this isn't just an aggregation of individual failings. Like many commenters on racism, poverty, and other ills, Holmes ignores the systemic aspect: the epistemic institutions that are failing or being undermined, the epistemic values that are being questioned or ridiculed, the epistemic social contract that is being torn up.

    For a much more thorough, disturbing and yet satisfying take on this and related ideas, I can recommend Jonathan Rauch's new book, The Constitution of Knowledge. I'll make that a tentative recommendation for now, since it just came out and I'm only halfway through, but I suspect that in a few days it will be wholehearted. It is from Rauch that I have borrowed the tripartite (Political-Economic-Epistemic) analytical framework for assessing the state of society.

  7. D.O. said,

    June 15, 2021 @ 1:05 pm

    I find Dave Holmes's style insufferable and text inaccessible. One should have high opinion of one's own wit to decry using Pythagoras in support of some triviality and proceed right to Proverbs to prove one's point. I do not find, however, Geoff Nunberg writings cited in references smug and snarky and quoted in OP only a little bit. Or have I been inculcated in the hot-takes style to not even notice?
    Anyway, having and expressing stupid ideas is obviously not an indicator of a deep mind, but deep thinkers do tend to go far away from common sence platitudes to find something really worth thinking about. That's why we like them. I will spare you well-worn examples.

  8. Chester Draws said,

    June 16, 2021 @ 5:00 am

    When he's not writing about how stupid the Right is, he's writing about "Friends" and the like.

    I'm old fashioned, but I prefer my superior intellectuals to be, well, at least superficially superior.

  9. Cervantes said,

    June 16, 2021 @ 10:52 am

    Rational Wiki on Nobel Disease:

    "Nobel disease, also known as nobelitis,[1] is a phenomenon where a Nobel Prize-winning scientist endorses or performs "research" in pseudoscientific areas in their later years, generally (though not always) after having won the esteemed prize for some legitimate scientific achievement.

    What makes the term special is the fact that you'd think Nobel laureates (of all people) would be the most resistant to crankery. On the contrary, however, the Nobel "disease" underscores the fact that human beings simply aren't "immune" to falling for crank ideas — accomplished scientists included.

    The Nobel disease also serves to demonstrate how being universally hailed as "right" would appear to bolster the individual laureate's confirmation bias more than it does his or her skepticism. "

  10. Richard Hershberger said,

    June 16, 2021 @ 11:03 am

    "I've also observed that sometimes it takes a really smart person to have a really spectacularly stupid idea."

    My specialty is early baseball history. There are innumerable books on baseball, a small fraction of which fall within my specialty. Some are good, some are terrible, most are mediocre: Just what one would expect. But there is an interesting taxonomy of Bad Baseball Books. Most baseball book writers fall into three classes: sportswriters, academics, and amateur enthusiasts. All three classes produce their share of good, bad, and mediocre, but it takes an academic to really stink up the joint when it comes to baseball history. The absolute worst book I know is by a humanities professor at an excellent institution, published by an Ivy League press.

  11. Josh R said,

    June 17, 2021 @ 7:24 pm

    Haamu said,
    "While he does a good job of pointing out that we're seeing a lot of Elevated Stupidity lately, he muffs the opportunity to justify or explain the "Rise of" in his title."

    It's likely not his title. Headlines are typically devised by editors, not article writers. In this case, the editor apparently looked at the article, correctly locked on to the fact it was about "Elevated Stupidity," further worked out that we're seeing a lot of it lately, and decided to go with the utterly trite "The Rise of [X]" pattern headline. They probably have a macro for it.

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