Bryan Caplan  

Building a Better Idiot

PRINT
Why Rational Tribalists Should... Milton Friedman Day...

Let me join Tyler and Steve Sailer in recommending the very funny Idiocracy. If you're interested in intelligence research and/or behavioral genetics and have a sense of humor, you'll have a big smile on your face. I know I did. Unfortunately, I watched the movie in a contra-indicated venue - my basement - so I didn't get to share Sailer's hysterical epiphany:

[W]hen watching it at home on DVD, you miss experiencing the horrifying Charlton-Heston-and-the-Statue-of-Liberty moment when "Idiocracy" is over and you emerge from the theatre into the mall full of shiny logos and sniggering pedestrians and you realize that reality today looks just like 2505 does in the movie.

My reaction was a little different: The movie reminded me not of my present, but of my K-12 education. When you think about it, that's the only major remaining area of life where brains do not readily translate into status. (Though at least now, young nerds have the Internet!)

Idiocracy raises a lot of intriguing questions, but here's the one that struck me the most: Does stupidity lead to gullibility? There are a few scenes where it does. But for the most part, the movie depicts low-IQ people as very hard to trick because they scoff at whatever they do not understand.

Recalling once again my K-12 education, it's the latter story that seems right. Bullies may be stupid, but it's nigh-impossible for a nerd to trick a bully into leaving him alone. The bully has a simple but powerful word that keeps the nerd from getting the upper hand: "Whatever."


Comments and Sharing





COMMENTS (10 to date)
Steve Sailer writes:

Thanks. Here's my full review of "Idiocracy" from The American Conservative:

http://www.isteve.com/Film_Idiocracy.htm

Steve Sailer writes:
Bill writes:

Idiocracy seems like a good movie; I'll have to check it out.

When you think about it, that's the only major remaining area of life where brains do not readily translate into status.

One thing I've never understood is the association of nerds with intelligence. I've known both smart and stupid nerds, as well as smart and stupid "cool kids" and bullies. Personally, I prefer the smart and socially adept. I have one question for the smart nerds: If you're so smart, why can't you figure out how to get a date on Friday night?

Bill writes:

I haven't seen the movie, but from what I've read, the premise is that the stupid (low IQ) out-breed the smart (high IQ). Fine, but is that what is really happening? The assumption is that trailer trash have low IQs and college grads and professionals have high IQs, but I'm not so sure that this is true. Personally, I've known a number of people with graduate degrees and high paying jobs that I don't consider very intelligent. I've also known many trailer-trash types that I consider very intelligent. I think the problem here is a conflation of intelligence, drive, and the desire for social acceptance. These are distinct qualities, and there is no reason to believe that they are connected. A person of average intelligence may have excessive drive. For example, the richest person I know from my high-school days isn't highly intelligent and never went to college, but he has an incredible amount of drive. He built a business by hard work and is now a multi-millionaire. All of the "smart kids" are far poorer than he. I know another guy that is a high-school dropout and can barely keep a job, yet is quite naturally intelligent. What's his problem? I'd say that he has little drive and little desire to please--no real desire for social acceptance outside his small circle of friends. He's happy. He just doesn't care at all about degrees, wealth, and achievement.

I have many more examples, but anecdotes never proved anything. My point is that drive and a desire for social acceptance can lead to college degrees and professional jobs, and intelligence will not on its own pull one out of poverty. That fact is that most jobs, even those that pay well, don't really require that much intelligence. Those with drive will get the good jobs and the money, with or without high intelligence. Those without drive will likely get nowhere, regardless of intelligence.

(This is just something to think about. I wouldn't bet my life on any of it. Oh, one last thing: Are we so sure that the guys impregnating all the trailer trash chicks are stupid? Maybe, just maybe, some of them are intelligent but immoral; they see nothing wrong with pleasing themselves at the expense of others. Somehow, I think this whole argument belongs in the nature vs. nurture debate.)

Snark writes:

I’ve just become educated to the fact that stupidity and genius are but two sides of the same coin. To wit:

It is important to note the contribution of stupidity to genius. For the creative person to achieve independence of thought, he must, to some degree, make himself oblivious of his surroundings as well as of prevailing explanations and assumptions. One recipe for creative thinking is a peculiar blend of daydreaming and concentration. The first step is to get the eyes out of focus so that disruptive external stimuli are reduced. This reduced awareness of the environment gives imagination a chance to wander. When in such a state, the mind can fix upon a new idea and concentration on it and its ramifications can be carried to logical or even absurd extremes. If this brings one closer to the solution of a problem or opens new vistas for personal or cultural advancement, then the brief lapse into stupidity was worthwhile. Stupidity may be seen as the price paid for the benefits of imagination (Understanding Stupidity – James F. Welles, Ph.D.).

I never thought I would be able to say that my imagination may be viewed as increasing the range of stupidity while providing options for cultural advancements.

Additional Readings: The Encyclopedia of Stupidity – Mathijs Von Boxsel

meep writes:

There are a couple reasons that people who consider themselves intelligent are easier to fool:
1. They think their higher intelligence translates into instant expertise on any subject. For example, the physicists snookered by magicians (e.g. Uri Gellar) into believing in psychokinesis.

2. They are also the least likely to admit they've been fooled, because that would be to admit stupidity and/or ignorance. Some con men could get away with it because their marks were too embarrassed to admit they were bamboozled.

Btw, I love all the synonyms for "fooled". Can't you tell?

Elizabeth writes:

This movie seems really interesting, and I'm pretty sure my father would love it. The question that really caught my attention was "Does stupidity lead to gullibility?" I just think its a great question, are people stupid because they are gullible or are they gullible because they are stupid?

Michael Sullivan writes:

"One thing I've never understood is the association of nerds with intelligence. I've known both smart and stupid nerds, as well as smart and stupid "cool kids" and bullies. Personally, I prefer the smart and socially adept. I have one question for the smart nerds: If you're so smart, why can't you figure out how to get a date on Friday night?"

Oddly, though I'm definitely still a nerd, I didn't have much problem with that when I was single in the 90s, and don't get the sense I'd have a problem today either. I think this has a lot to do with the difference between being a nerd in 1987 and 2007. I believe widespread internet usage turned the worm on being a nerd socially because it became possible to meet and get to know interesting people from all over the world who were not in your specific profession without being rich.

Nerdiness is a matter of caring about ideas and excellence (in something besides sports) rather than a pure lack of social skills. Of course, in earlier times, at least in school, if you fit the nerd bill, you *by definition* had a lack of social skills because that way of being was socially deprecated. You had to at least be able and willing to fake not being a nerd in order to be accepted. If not, you had "no social skills" because so few people around were willing to befriend you for who you were.

When I got to college and discovered other nerds and people who liked nerds, suddenly I found out that I had some social skills, or at least the ability to develop them.

Bill writes:

Nerdiness is a matter of caring about ideas and excellence (in something besides sports) rather than a pure lack of social skills.

I thought this was the definition of a geek, not a nerd. Nerds don't get dates (except with other nerds, on occasion). Geeks get more dates than nerds.

Nerd: Lack of social skills
Geek: Way into something not considered cool

I've never met a nerd that did not have nerdy parents, but I've met plenty of geeks who were not the children of geeks.

Mr Juggles writes:

Idiocracy was an interesting concept with promise but that was a brutal movie. The acting and pacing made it intolerable.

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top