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How dumb can you be?

Published by marco on

Updated by marco on

The article «Dummheit hat Hochkonjunktur»: Interview mit Psychiaterin Heidi Kastner by Nadja Pastega (Der Bund)[1] discusses the term “Dumm” (dumb, as in stupid). It’s always been a bit difficult to nail down what it means to be “dumb”, once you start to think about it. You can have smart people who act dumb. You can have smart people with no experience, so they’re intelligent, but not wise.

Then there’s the difference between “book smart” and “street smart”—they’re both useful in certain situations. If you don’t have both and you find yourself in a situation that requires the one that you don’t have, well, then, … you look dumb.

You can have people who are intelligent, but woefully uninformed. Or maybe they’re misinformed. Or maybe they’re doing dumb things that hurt others, but they gain a lot personally. Is that person dumb or evil? Or both? It all quickly becomes difficult to nail down, really. People are quick to call others “dumb”, which in no way will lead to that person becoming “not dumb” (if that’s the goal, and it should be). I think the worst way of convincing someone to do what you want is to call them names. Diplomacy is about giving someone a ladder that they can use to climb down (or up).

Anyway, here are some notes I took while I was reading the interview. I thought she had some good things to say, but some things seemed a bit superficial and rooted in what almost felt like a frustration with people who just refused to see how wrong they were—no matter how many times you told them they were wrong. Don’t they see how dumb they are? Can’t they tell that their intellectual betters are only looking out for them? Do you see how that line of reasoning is kind of doomed to failure? But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The interview is in German. I’m not going to translate. Throw the text into Deepl if you don’t read any German and want to read it in your native language.
Heidi: Dumme Menschen verstehen sich nicht als Teil eines Gefüges, für sie kommen immer nur die eigenen Belange an erster Stelle.

So she’s equating “dumb” with “egoist” (someone who always thinks of their own needs first, and those of others either rarely or not at all).

Nadja: Ist Donald Trump dumm?

Heidi: Nein, er ist das, was der Wirtschaftshistoriker Carlo Maria Cipolla einen Banditen oder einen Verbrecher nennen würde. Trump hat die Situation stringent analysiert und daraus die Schlussfolgerung gezogen, dass er mit einer gewissen Taktik höchstwahrscheinlich erfolgreich sein wird. Diese Taktik hat er dann effizient angewandt. Und damit eine grosse Schar von Anhängern gewinnen können.

“So, Donald Trump is not “dumb”. He’s more of a “bandit”. I agree with that. It would be hard to argue that someone who has climbed so high in the echelons of power is a complete moron. But her answer kind of contradicts her initial definition: that someone who is “dumb” is an “egoist”. That’s Donald Trump all over. He always thinks of his needs first. So, which is it?

Intelligenz muss nicht zwingend mit Moral verbunden sein. Trump hat wohl auch zum Schaden anderer konsequent im Sinne des eigenen Vorteils gehandelt.”

This almost seems like a truism, but I guess it has to be said. Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you’re a nice person. I would add that, just because you’re rich doesn’t mean you’re a nice person, if we’re dictating truisms that some people might be shaky on.

Gute Bildung ist offenbar kein Rezept. […] Das zentrale Merkmal von dummen Leuten ist, dass sie ausschliesslich die eigene Position priorisieren und alles andere ignorieren. Das sieht man auch in dieser ganzen Corona-Pandemie, wo die Leute sagen: «Ich bleibe ganz bei mir.»”

Gotcha: even people who are highly educated are not shielded from being “dumb”. In fact, it’s likely that their advanced education imparts on them a feeling of superiority and therefore nearly a duty of looking out for their own important needs first. She’s definitely back on the dumb/egoist pairing here now, though.

“Ich schaue nur für mich selbst und nicht für die anderen. Das kann nur funktionieren, wenn ich als Eremit irgendwo völlig isoliert in einer Höhle lebe. Dann – von mir aus – bin ich für mich verantwortlich und für keinen anderen. Aber sobald ich in einen grösseren sozialen Kontext eingebettet bin, ist dieses Unwort der Eigenverantwortung einfach ein völliger Blödsinn.”

Translation: we live in a society. Act accordingly.

Heidi: Da reisen Leute in exotische Länder in die Ferien und lassen sich Impfungen verabreichen, die durchaus mit Nebenwirkungen behaftet sind. Da denkt dann keiner daran, dass zum Beispiel die gängige Hepatitis-B-Impfung vor ihrer breit ausgerollten Anwendung an einem Bruchteil der Zahl von Personen getestet wurde, an denen aktuell die Covid-Impfungen überprüft wurden. Kein Mensch, der jetzt herumweint und gegen die Covid-Impfung wettert, hat sich kundig gemacht, auf welchen wissenschaftlichen Grundlagen die übrigen Impfungen beruhen, die er längst bekommen hat.

Nadja: Der Corona-Impfgegner ist also dumm?

Heidi: Zu diesem Schluss muss man kommen.”

So now we’ve shifted a bit and are equating “hypocrisy” or “personally convenient intellectual inconsistency” with being “dumb”. I wholeheartedly agree that this is not helpful. What I find unhelpful on her part is that she doesn’t seem interested in why so many people are hypocritical in this way. Maybe they’re so frustrated by the rest of their lives that they make this a red line over which they will not cross, perhaps in a desperate attempt to exact some control over their lives?

Of course, it’s a bad red line to choose, but they’ve chosen it. That makes them “dumb”. But, if we want them to erase their red line and see what we, for lack of a better term, are going to call “reason”, then we have to be more convincing than to just point out their hypocrisy and smugly lean back as if we’ve checkmated them. That will work for some—who will be shamed into conceding their viewpoint is hypocritical—but not nearly enough.

No, most are going to see your stupid, smirking face and double down on defying you. You can call this childish (it is), but it’s absolutely predictably going to happen. If you don’t figure out how to avoid that outcome—because you need something from them, in this case, a vaccination—then you’re going to lose. Going with a plan that you know isn’t going to work is…dumb.

Heidi: Dialogbereitschaft ist zwar prinzipiell zu befürworten und eine gute Sache. Allerdings nur, wenn sie auf beiden Seiten vorhanden ist. Alles andere benennt man besser als das, was es ist. Nämlich eine zweckbefreite und absehbar ergebnislose Kombination zweier Monologe, und spart sich Mühe, Ärger und Zeit, mit Menschen zu diskutieren, die das Recht auf eine eigene Meinung mit dem Recht auf eigene Fakten verwechseln. Es ist blauäugig, zu glauben, man müsse den Dialog offen halten. Die Regierung muss einfach entscheiden – und zwar auf der Basis der aktuell verfügbaren wissenschaftlichen Erkenntnisse.”

But Heidi’s going in the opposite direction: she thinks it’s not worth talking to these people at all anymore. The government has to act. I picture it like just grabbing your kid’s arm, pinning them down, and letting the doctor give them the injection over all of their protests. In this case, I suppose it means going to 2G (Geimpft/Genesen) for access to most places rather than 3G (includes Getestet), which makes it possible for the unvaccinated to participate in society (albeit at CHF25.- per test and with a good deal more inconvenience).

I think this situation is at least partially due to so-called elites being horrified to finally be confronted with people outside of their social circles. These elites live in very elevated circumstances, relative to these “dumb” people, and they’re shocked—shocked—to find that the hordes of drones that the elites were vaguely aware of keeping society going aren’t all that good at processing information. How could they be? The upper echelons of society feed them bullshit all day long to keep them quiet and working.

This is what it looks like when they stop following orders all the time. It’s too bad the elites wasted all of their supposed goodwill on bullshit when they really need it now to get them to help save civilization. The same dynamic applies to the climate. In that case, though, it’s mostly the elites who need to quit their bullshit. The “dumb” people’s activity doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in comparison. Elites like to talk about jet-skis when the real problem is private jets.

If we take an even bigger step back, I’m even more skeptical. The analysis above assumes that we know who’s dumb and who’s elite and that there are no doubts or gray areas in between (there always are). Who decides which people are not worth talking to? Who decides when to stop talking? The person with the least patience? Who decides which side is being stubborn? Who decides who has science on their side? Who decides which people are in “that” group? I would imagine that any pogrom ends up like industrial fishing: 90% bycatch … pushing people with mild misinformation and legitimate questions into a hardline stance.

Granted, we don’t have much time for nuance right now, with regard to the COVID measures, but the interview seems to be going in the direction of “shut up and listen to the adults.” I can relate to that: I’ve expressed the same sentiment out of frustration myself on this very blog. Unfortunately, there aren’t very many adults in the room—in any direction. The conspiracy theorists, the Querdenker, the elected officials—none of them have anything but a wobbly leg to stand on. The press?!? OMG, the press. They’ll say and write anything for a click. Many of these institutions have lost every vestige of trust—and the conversation should be about how to gain that trust back, not about calling anyone who doesn’t have that trust “dumb”.

Heidi: […] besonders evident wurde es mit der Regierung Trump und diesem unsäglichen Schlagwort der alternativen Fakten. Es gibt keine alternativen Fakten. Es gibt Fakten und blöde Positionen, die die Fakten ignorieren. Früher hat man zumindest anerkannt, dass es Leute gibt, die etwas studiert haben, sich dort gut auskennen und wissen, wovon sie reden. Die anderen hielten entweder den Mund oder glaubten, was die Experten sagen. Mittlerweile ist es salonfähig geworden, zu sagen, die Experten seien verlogen. {…}”

It did not “start with Trump”. Politicians have always lied. For God’s sake, the Bush administration said out loud that they “made reality.” People remember. There are, of course, many so-called facts that can easily be disproven, but there are others that hit uncomfortably close to home. I wonder sometimes whether the whole “Q-Anon” and Querdenker (OMG They both start with “Q”!!!) thing is less of a direct reaction to what they call the lie of COVID, but more of a “straw that breaks the came’s back” kind of thing, where they’re just rebelling against the whole system being built on a lie.

You’re all losers unless you prove you’re winners. Billionaires deserve their money. You could be a billionaire if you try hard enough. If you’re poor, it’s your own fault. That war was necessary. China is the enemy. So is Russia. Also, we need Russia’s natural gas, cheap. Also, we need China’s slave labor, cheap. TV shows are only about cops and rich people, the news is only about how you’re not consuming enough and how those “others” are taking things away from you. Austerity is the only way. Time for everyone to tighten their belts. Except, of course, for those at the top, who are better than you. The economy is doing great even though no-one you know has a proper job. The gig economy is for “entrepreneurs” and self-starters. Climate change is real, but there’s nothing to be done, except that we’re totally doing something—enough even!—but not really, but don’t worry, because…reasons.

Into this atmosphere of lies that form the basis of our society and synaptic landscape, you throw COVID and it’s basic unbelievability—tiny, invisible creatures are making us sick—but there’s a vaccine that will fix everything for you. Yeah, sure, buddy. I’m onto you. Pull the other one. Right?

People who don’t believe things that are clearly true are not necessarily “dumb”, they’re just broken. Sure, some might be dumb, but others are just psychically beaten down by decades of lies, by a life spent swimming in a sea of lies that define and underpin our entire existence. How can you blame them for behaving in exactly the way we’ve trained them? People have been given precious little reason to trust anyone or anything—it’s a miracle that so many still do, that so many take the time to separate the wheat from the chaff (and are still able to do so).

Heidi: Ich habe neulich ein Internetvideo gesehen, in dem einer behauptet hat, mit der Impfung würden irgendwelche extraterrestrischen Spinneneier injiziert, die uns dann von innen auffressen. Da ist wirklich Fassungslosigkeit angebracht.”

Well, you can’t believe everything you see online, either, Heidi. Maybe this person believed it. How many people do? 10? 20? 100? How many people are just watching it for the lolz because there’s nothing else to do and they’re bored? Maybe that person even published that video to troll people or just to make a joke or to ironically show how stupid other people are for saying similar things or people are for believing them.

Without context, it’s hard to know, but there is a whole world of people out there willing to publish videos like that for myriad reasons other than that they wholeheartedly believe in what they’re saying. Most things online are fake or tell a fake story. It doesn’t mean they’re not entertaining, but it also doesn’t mean that they were intended to be taken seriously. Hell, a lot of the news really is fake, in that they provide a false context, or take quotes out of context, or show the wrong picture at the wrong time (on purpose) to create a belief that they didn’t explicitly express, but that they’re hoping you’ll take with you, anyway.

Again, in this type of information environment, should we be surprised that people come away with the wrong ideas? That people fail to trust “official” sources that, when they’re not spitting straight facts about important, science-based topics, are doing their absolute best to troll and trick you into sending your attention and money to their advertisers? Have you never heard of clickbait, Heidi? Nearly everything online is now clickbait or a “product placement”.

Hell, newscasts will report on how the latest war is necessary, followed by ads for Hensoldt or McDonnell Douglas (depending on the side of the pond you’re on), but then the report on COVID and the importance and safety of vaccination is followed by ads for Pfizer or Roche or whatever. How the hell are you supposed to figure out which content is sponsored and which isn’t? Isn’t it believable, then, when the conspiracy theorist—who’s also in it just for the clicks, at this point, obviously—says that it’s all a lie? And then sells you a T-Shirt so that you can show the world that you’re onto its scheme?

The world long since stopped rewarding people for doing the right thing. And now our solution for when they do the wrong thing is to call them “dumb”. Good luck with that. I understand you’re frustrated, but writing off a good 30% of your fellow citizens is a non-starter. Germany wants to do it with their unvaccinated. The U.S. already did in 2016 with anyone who voted for Trump. It spent last summer doing it with “racists” (Germany does that too). Now, the U.S. is also on chastising the unvaccinated. Both countries are doing so without looking at themselves, to see how they may be responsible for the fact that so many people are “dumb”.

Heidi: […] man darf dummen Leuten nicht zu viel Raum und vor allem nicht zu viel Macht geben, sonst kann es gefährlich werden. Wenn sie sich selber schaden, ist das in einer freien Gesellschaft legitim. Aber wenn sie anderen schaden, ist das ein Thema, das man nicht mehr einfach völlig cool und gelassen hinnehmen kann.”

This is correct. There really is a right and wrong in many areas, where being wrong starts to cost lives and well-being for others. So society steps in and prevents that. Not just vaccines, which is the hot topic of the day. Think seatbelts, for example. I’m old enough to remember when the campaign was on TV to get people to wear their seatbelts and people were up in arms about it, about how the government shouldn’t tell them what to do. Or bicycle helmets.

Or driving drunk? In my lifetime, it went from something everyone did to something that the government tried very hard to prevent. People accepted that without writing libertarian screeds about Big Brother. Or maybe there was just no Internet, so we couldn’t hear them complaining—and they couldn’t get together in vocal minorities to exert outsized influence (relative to their numbers).

Heidi: Es erstaunt mich immer wieder, in wie vielen Bereichen sich Menschen Wissen und Fähigkeiten zuschreiben, die sie gar nicht haben. Wenn die Waschmaschine kaputt ist, holt man mit grösster Selbstverständlichkeit einen Fachmann. Aber bei deutlich komplexeren Themen sprudeln manche Leute nur so von Gewissheiten.”

This is true, but these people are not dumb. They are, like Trump, scammers. Heidi seems to be mixing her message here a bit. The world is full of scammers because scammers are in charge doing the biggest scams of all. Even the latest Die Post (Swiss bank) ad shows a very young person laying on the couch while a voice-over says something like “lay around on the couch and let your money work for you,” as if that’s the social aspiration we should all have now. Work less, make more. That only really works, in the end, if you’re scamming. Or if you’re already rich. Or both.

People pay attention and see that the more you scam, the better you do in this world. The most amoral, meanest people get ahead. Nice guys finish last. That’s an expression I’ve known my whole life, but it’s never been more true than today. Or its converse: assholes finish first. People see this and learn the lesson and, unfortunately, adjust accordingly. They become the assholes that society tells them they need to be in order to survive. If you’ve internalized the message that it’s dog-eat-dog, kill or be killed, then you no longer care that you’re “dumb” actions are hurting others. The goal is to benefit yourself. Everyone else is cannon fodder on the way to that esteemed goal. Maybe later when you’re personal wealth is secured, you’ll have be able to help others.

Heidi: Der Schriftsteller Charles Bukowski formulierte es so: «Das Problem ist, dass intelligente Menschen voller Zweifel sind, während die dummen voller Vertrauen sind.» Die Dummheit hat aufgehört, sich zu schämen.”

Good old Charles—God bless him—knew how to write succinctly. “The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.[2] Indeed. But the world, as we’ve built it, promotes confidence above being right, promotes appearance above substance. Is it—I ask again—any wonder that people can’t tell what’s up and down anymore and end up choosing the shiniest bauble? Why wouldn’t you be “dumb” when everything is telling you that you can quit your boring, tiring, stupid job and make 10x as much hustling on Instagram? The world isn’t going to tell you that that doesn’t last, but why would it? It needs you to hustle.

The other thing to remember is that we live in an extremely safe and coddled and cushy society. Now, ordinarily, this is a good thing, a great thing, a monumental achievement! People are safe to live out their lives without so many of the fears even our closer ancestors had. However, it also means that there’s much less risk associated with believing shiny, pretty things that make you feel good rather than what you’re almost certain are facts, but that are tough to live with.

So, you believe in the fantasy and nothing bad happens! You’re an Instagram/YouTube/Twitch/TikTok/WhateverTheNewHotnessIs star (for now)! Win-win, motherfuckers! We have built a world without consequences, so we shouldn’t be surprised when people tend to choose the easiest, most comforting way out. Especially when the thousands of ads fired their way every day tell them that everyone else is doing it and that they’re missing out on easy wealth and an easy lifestyle. Never mind that these ads are run by scammers who are also trying to get rich quick. Never mind that there are very negative, long-term effects associated with that kind of lifestyle—but those effects are so far away, why worry about them? A short-term solution will present itself when needed and so on and so on until you fall into a grave.

Heidi: Es ist mittlerweile völlig aus der Mode gekommen, zuzugeben, dass man Dinge nicht weiss.”

I wonder how much this is due to people feeling like they’re always being judged, that everything is being filmed and evaluated, and they don’t want to fail. It’s better to pretend to know than to admit that you don’t know because there’s a good chance that the other person is even dumber than you and will believe you. Also, as noted above, there is no downside, no risk to being wrong. We teach that you should try to answer rather than write nothing.

Also, as noted above, people like to troll. A lot of these interviews I read are of high-minded people presenting evidence of people acting strangely and stupidly and never being open to the possibility that people might lie or deliberately just be fucking with you. How else do you think Greenpeace ended up with a ship named “Boaty McBoatface”? Or that Starlink’s satellite dish is named “Dishy McFlatface”? In the face of bleakness and a nigh-nihilistic world, the last resort is bitter irony and trolling for amusement.

I think the main thing missing from this interview—but, hopefully, not her thesis in her book—is that we don’t talk about where this dumbness comes from. The media is terrible in these countries with suspiciously high numbers of … misled … people. It deliberately makes them dumb in order to keep them consuming and not asking questions. No-one in power wants the sheep to look up.

And then there are the scammers—who she also calls dumb[3]—who are deliberately misinforming people for their personal profit. If you can get someone to pay $50 for a bottle of water that you made with five minutes of your time and $3 of your own money, then that’s a business model, right? You just have to keep the consumer dumb enough to keep buying but, somehow, smart enough to keep earning enough money to keep you in business. Wait…did I just describe our entire economy?

Our economy runs on “dumb”; it’s just that “dumb” has gotten a bit out of control of the elites—and they’re worried. I have every confidence that they’ll put all of their energy not into making people less “dumb”, but in making them “dumb” and obedient (once again). It’s not going to get us closer to the end of the pandemic and it’s certainly not going to help us confront climate change, but it’s a sure-fire way of making a handful of people very rich. And that’s the important thing, surely.


[1] The article is behind a paywall, but some kind soul would pasted the contents here (Pastebin)
[2]

I think he wrote this well before Dunning and Kruger made their experiment (Wikipedia). And even their findings are misinterpreted,

“[…] the bias is definitively not that incompetent people think they’re better than competent people. Rather, it’s that incompetent people think they’re much better than they actually are. But they typically still don’t think they’re quite as good as people who, you know, actually are good.”
[3] Sometimes! Remember, at the beginning, she called Trump a “bandit”, not “dumb”. I think this is correct, but she then went on to equate scamming with being dumb, because it’s only looking out for one’s own priorities.