Veg*n Cooking and Other Random Musings: Dumb or Smart

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Dumb or Smart

(This was a post published on my old blog Parade of Rain. Jennifer really likes this piece and insisted that I republish it here on Veg*n Cooking.)

I am about to discuss a theory of mine regarding the relationship between intelligence and stupidity. First off, I should be clear about terminology because such things are easily confused. When I talk of ignorance, I refer to a lack of knowledge or information. Stupidity, on the other hand, is in reference to a lack in capacity to obtain, understand, and properly apply knowledge. Intelligence, therefore, is the opposite of stupidity as it refers to the capacity to obtain and understand knowledge. Knowledge is the possession of information and is the natural opposite of ignorance. Knowledge is a product of intelligence as is implied by my definition of intelligence. So, just to clarify knowledge is not intelligence, and ignorance is not stupidity. It is possible to be both ignorant and intelligent, being unaware but not incapable of awareness. It is also possible to be both knowledgeable and stupid, having awareness but lacking the wit to understand or properly apply it. It is this last aspect that is of interest to me. It is my assertion that knowledge increases the capacity for stupidity. In other words, intelligence and stupidity are just two sides of the same coin – knowledge. It is a product of intelligence, but it is also the precursor to stupidity.

The potential for stupidity itself is surprisingly more difficult to recognize than one might think, but ‘acts of stupidity’ produce results which can be clearly identified. For the purpose of my argument, I will define ‘acts of stupidity’ as behaviors that result in undesirable or unintended consequences. That may seem broad, but let’s face it; we’re not as smart as we’d like to think. The absolutely ignorant being which knows nothing – knows how to do nothing – it presents little potential for harm to itself. (Whether it holds potential for harm to others is not so much a question of intelligence but instead a question of morality. Although, failing to see that harm to others could potentially harm oneself is ignorance or stupidity – take your pick). A being must have some knowledge to act upon in order to act stupidly in the first place. Anything else would simply be a reflex which, in no way, implicates stupidity as the culprit; it would instead implicate a mixture of ignorance and/or lack of self-control. The knowledgeable being, on the other hand, has a vast amount of information to act upon. For it, the possibilities are endless and, in them lies the potential for acts of gargantuan stupidity.

Take nuclear fission, for example. Here is perhaps the greatest achievement of human intelligence to date, and it is, at the same time, perhaps the stupidest thing humanity has ever done. Nuclear power may be nice, but the weapons and wastes that result are just plain stupid. Our use of fossil fuels is another great example. I mean, who decided it would be a good idea to create a massively overpopulated society that is utterly dependent on finite, irreplaceable resources? Well, we may all be to blame for that one, but it should illustrate my point that many of the features of modern society we hold up as testaments to our intelligence are the very things that are likely to do us in: automobiles that spew pollution and greenhouse gases; weapons that flat-out kill anything in their path; electricity produced in ways that affect the environment in much the same way as vehicles; industrial agriculture that poisons land, sea, and animal, inflating the food supply and setting us all up for serious population overshoot; genetic engineering which promises to destroy what little adaptivity is left on this planet; you get the picture.

Now, I do not wish to be misconstrued as saying that people who are knowledgeable are inherently bound to do stupid things. Knowledge and intelligence do at least tend to correlate with one another (Remember, knowledge is a product of intelligence). What should be evident here is that those with knowledge of any sort should always proceed with caution. Intelligence could then be marked also by one’s capacity to accept that their knowledge is extremely limited and, therefore, should not be acted upon at all. Recognizing and admitting to one’s own ignorance is a clear sign of intelligence. Intelligence begat knowledge, and knowledge begat stupidity. Ignorance is just ignorance – ever present and inescapable.


Daphne said...

I actually don't think that knowledge begets stupidity (since you have defined stupidity as the ability to obtain and understand knowledge, we really need another name for doing an act that has bad and unforeseen consequences). I think that stupidity with the knowledge begets much greater consequences than if we didn't have the knowledge. But on the other hand intelligence with knowledge give us much greater benefits than without the knowledge. So knowledge doesn't create stupidity it just multiplies its effect.

My son has a humorous saying on his wall:
"Knowledge is power. Power corrupts. Study hard be evil." It is humorous because it seems the scary truth and yet it isn't really true. We know knowledge doesn't make you evil (or stupid). But we do have to be very careful how we control our knowledge and who we put in power.

Cookiemouse said...

Pandora has a lot to answer for. Perhaps there is a difference between knowledge of the facts and knowledge of context. An ecological system is the context of complexity. We are limited by the bandwidth of our perception and our lack of awareness. Should the human dependent ecosystem collapse and take us with it, what is left will continue to evolve. Knowledge is power. Power corrupts. Absolute knowledge corrupts absolutely.

Theresa said...

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, my dad always says.

What we need more of, in my view, is wisdom. I roughly define wisdom as the judicious and compassionate application of one's intelligence to the knowledge at hand.

Very interesting post - thanks for sharing it!

spelled with a K said...

I'll second Theresa's notion.

Any intellectual pursuit must be tempered with wisdom.

Brett said...


I don't think we disagree as much as you say. Recall in my definition of stupidity that, among other things, it entails a misapplication of knowledge. An example would be generalization. A toddler learns that this four legged animal at grandma's house is called a 'kitty' - it is knowledge gained. Then the child does something both interesting and (cutely) common: they generalize the term so that any living thing with four legs is a 'kitty' whether it's a cat or not. In this microcosmic example, the toddler has used new knowledge to achieve a level of stupidity which was not possible before the knowledge was gained. It was smarter to have no name for horses or dogs than it was to have the wrong name.

I would argue that - as you say - knowledge multiplies the effect of stupidity. Where we might diverge is that I would contend that the profoundness of the outcomes should have some bearing on the magnitude of stupidity. So, two acts of stupidity with relatively equal levels of reasonableness can still be heavily distinguished from one another by the magnitude of the outcomes. A stupid thing which harms nothing or no one is arguably less so than an act which harms many.


You bet there's a difference. Knowledge - or, rather, acknowledgement - of context might well be the benchmark of wisdom. 'Facts only' people - like horses on the side of the highway - are more comfortable wearing blinders as they forge a path through life. Or maybe they're just stupid...

Theresa and K,

I would agree that the world needs more wisdom, but I would define it differently. Wisdom, for me, would be the mindful and continuous application of the acceptance that knowledge is limited and that intelligence can sometimes be misleading. We do not have the complete picture, so what might seem intelligent could actually be stupid. "I don't know," is perhaps the most honest and wise statement a man or woman could make. But our narcissistic obsession with our intelligence compels us to believe that those who "don't know" are not worthy of respect and have nothing to contribute to society.