Common sense: The cure for ignorance and stupidity

Martin Luther King Jr
By Dan Butcher

Do you know any stupid people?

Perhaps, perhaps not. What each of us considers being "stupid" varies widely. Many people, myself included, likely cannot perform linear algebra to save their life. Calculating eigenvectors is more difficult than trying to navigate 80 years of conscious existence.

To some, that makes me stupid.

Others, might find my language and grammar to be subpar. They might mock me by asking if I flunked out of the Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can't Read Good. Or that I used the wrong form of "its" or "there." They might hear me say "mi español es muy mal" or "boku no nihongo wa totemo dame da yo" and think I'm stupid for butchering foreign languages in addition to my native English.

Then there are those who find some of my humor to be immature and, thus, "stupid." Humor brings laughter and laughter brings smiles and smiles are signs of happiness. But happiness is unique and individualistic, much like humor and much like what people think is "stupid." This makes it difficult for those outside of the humor circle you're engaged in to necessarily understand what is going on and/or why a particular thing is funny.

The reality of humanity, in my opinion based on 50 years of existence on this planet is that there are stupid people in this world. Stupid people of all races, genders, nationalities, religions, heights, weights, sexual preferences, and age.

Was it Einstein who said "there are two infinite things in existence: the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former?" Or maybe someone else. I'm willing to bet someone will tweet in the near future how I screwed up the quote. I'm willing to accept that.

What I want to propose to you is a theory on stupidity. There are two types of stupid, in my opinion, and the distinction is of incredible importance to this conversation and life in general. To me, stupidity is broken into two sub-categories: ignorance and idiocy.

Ignorance is by far the most common form of "stupidity" that we encounter. It's what all of us as human being possess. Ignorance is a lacking. Not just a lack of knowledge, but a lack of training, and, most importantly, a lack of awareness. If there is one thing that education is supposed to teach us, it's precisely how many metric craptons of stuff we simply don't know. It could be ignorance in math, science, languages, medicine, law, religion, how to cook, how to fix a car, how to trade stock options, ignorance into why the sky is blue, why everyone looks different, why accents occur, or why there are so many bad drivers on the road.

I like the driving example because driving clearly demonstrates the concept of ignorance and awareness. When you are in a moving vehicle on the highway, constant danger exists in the form of other cars, medians, potholes and more. We are able to drive and survive precisely because we are aware of these dangers; we're aware of the danger others pose to us and the danger we pose to others. This is why we have mirrors to check other perspectives that we cannot see by facing forward. It's also why we have turn signals, so that the flashing light catches our attention, causing us to register awareness that another seeks to take an action. It's also why we have laws banning texting while driving, because the tunnel vision and distractions that occur remove your awareness. They can make you ignorant of road activity.

Ignorance is "curable." You can teach those who are ignorant. You can realize that someone lacks a certain awareness and move on. When a person suggests a really stupid idea for a car fuel cell, like a mini-nuclear reactor surrounded by concrete and iron because, you know, that keeps the radiation at bay, you forgive their ignorance into how that stuff really works.

Ignorance, while curable, can also be incredibly dangerous. Take ignorance with guns, for example. I'm willing to bet some of you reading have been to a shooting range. Have you ever seen people ignorant in how to handle firearms at a range? I sure have. Teenagers, college kids, and even adults with their fingers all over the trigger guard, waving the barrel around while chatting. Even unloaded, that is ignorant and dangerous. But it happens. And those people need to be made aware of what they're doing so that they can change and function more safely and efficiently.

The real problem in the world is idiocy. Idiots are those who not only don't know, but cannot be changed because they don't care to know or don't want to know. They are fixed, unchanging, and willing to die being stupid. An ignorant person says 1 + 1 is 3, but comes to learn 1 + 1 is 2 after explanation; an idiot says 1 + 1 is 3 and you're a neuron deficient spider monkey for believing otherwise. They also think the world is flat because no one has really walked around the entire planet or because they haven't personally witnessed someone walk around the entire planet. Idiots are blind to their beliefs, unable and unwilling to allow even a hint of skepticism into their being.

When I say "beliefs," I don't mean religion, though there are those people and I will address religion in the future. By "beliefs" I mean anything that we think we know to the point where it cannot possibly be affected by change. To be unaffected by change is to be either divine or dead, such a fundamental part of universal existence or something that has ceased to exist. Everything else changes. Our bodies and minds, our thoughts and feelings, our cells, the weather, age, death, life, and more. Change is the only real fundamental truth to existence in my mind. Then again, that's my opinion; I could be wrong and reserve the right to change my opinion at a later date.

Thomas Jefferson, one of our esteemed founding fathers, very much realized the need for education in the populace of a democracy. He believed education critical to preserving liberty. I concur wholeheartedly.

Education, the ability to learn, the ability to reason and think critically imparts upon us all a guarded openness. We open ourselves to other perspectives of the world from various speakers, but can use the magnificence of the human brain to shield ourselves from false and/or misleading statements.

Such "spin" that politicians tend to engage in, single perspectives of one party or another that the masses gobble up because party trumps truth is what leads the deterioration of liberty.

An enlightened people is the greatest counter to horrible politicians that exists in democracy. It also does wonders to counter lobbyists seeking to woo our representatives with anti-democratic and anti-capitalistic ideology.

People living in ignorance need to be enlightened, need to be given the tools and opportunity to understand. Such is the only way to make a good, informed decision.

Those who fail to understand, those who receive the teaching but then ignore the points being shared without counter points of their own, they are idiots and they hold democracy back. They hold themselves back and they hold the rest of the republic back due to their purposeful desire to ignore more logical evidence out of spite, hate, or any other reason.

The more we can educate Americans, the more we can clear the cloud of ignorance over each and every one of us (myself especially!), the better off our democracy will be.

Awareness will allow us to really grill our politicians. It will force our potential representatives to explain themselves. It will destroy the blight of soundbite politics facing our nation. My thoughts are quite verbose- purposefully so.

The number of pages does not make the content better, rather it provides more opportunity for making readers aware. And in the case where questioning of thoughts/data might exist, I provide references for you to check out. All in the name of clearing any ignorance in the matter.

We are all ignorant. We're born that way. But we have the freedom and ability to transcend such ignorance. Logic, reasoning, and critical thinking is the means in which we do this.

Have you ever seen a story in your Facebook feed that has made you pause and say, “Wait, what?”

We have reached a stage in society when people think they know everything simply because they read about something in a random Facebook article.

When anyone with an opinion and PhotoShop can create internet content, people now have a false sense of security when it comes to what passes as facts and knowledge. And in this day of keyboard warriors, the only way we can fight for the truth is to do our own digging.

The only way to combat ignorance in others, is to confront our own.

Admitting that we don’t know everything is not a sign of ignorance; it’s a sign of self-awareness. It is impossible to be an authority on every single subject, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t be knowledgeable about a variety of subjects. The key is quality, not quantity.

We have to take the blinders off — the ones that tell us we know everything there is to know simply because we tried something and it worked out for us. Starting an argument in the comment section of an article (that you may not have even read in its entirety) because you disagree with it, is only showing your ignorance.

Even the most well-versed person doesn’t know everything, but admitting that goes a long way. That is confronting our own ignorance, so that we can move a conversation forward, instead of keeping it steeped in assumption. In fact, the ones unable to admit their own lack of knowledge are often the most ignorant, not the folks who can comfortably say, I don’t know.

We can’t be authorities on every single thing there is to know in the world. But if you know what you don’t know, you might be able to stop yourself from sounding like a real idiot.

And let’s face it, faking your way through a conversation is rarely the best way to get your point across. There will be someone who will see through your bullshit, and then you’re gonna look worse for lying than you would have if you simply said “I don’t know” or even — gasp — “I was wrong”.

Bottom line: Admitting your lack of knowledge isn’t a sign of weakness or stupidity, but doubling down on unsubstantiated claims and starting fights with strangers on the Internet to support your conspiracy theories sure is.

Let me be clear: By “stupidity” I do not mean a lack of knowledge, education, skill or savvy. I do not mean it as some immature, all-purpose playground insult. I want not to offend but to diagnose.

In that spirit, I offer a different, more philosophical definition: Stupidity is a kind of intellectual stubbornness.

A stupid person has access to all the information necessary to make an appropriate judgment, to come up with a set of reasonable and justified beliefs and yet fails to do so. The evidence is staring them right in the face but it makes no difference whatsoever. They believe what they want to believe. Not only do they have no good reasons for thinking that what they believe is true — there are often good reasons for thinking that what they believe is false. They are not acting in a rational manner.

Of course, everyone is stupid sometime or other. We have all fallen headlong for some product because it looks cool or because some celebrity we like but who has zero expertise tells us he has one, despite there being no reason whatsoever for buying the item and maybe even good reasons not to buy it. We often make choices on the basis of emotions like hope, fear, love, envy, pride and anger — instead of reason.

What is the solution to our creeping national stupidity? Learning how to gain more information from a variety of certifiably reliable sources is an important first step. But what the American public really needs are lessons in how to be rational, how to assess that information — distinguishing between real evidence and fake evidence — and end up believing only what one is justified in believing. We could use more lessons on what it means to be rational and how to be responsible citizens who are familiar with the difference between a valid and invalid argument, and who know an unjustified belief when they see one.

Changing people’s cognitive behavior will not be easy; it may even be a fool’s errand. By young adulthood, we naturally become stuck in our ways of forming and abandoning beliefs.

I like to think that the key lies in more philosophy, and more of the humanities overall. Most people, if they study philosophy at all, do so only in college — typically to fulfill some distribution requirement.

But what if we start exposing young people to common sense well before they become undergraduates?

There is no reason why high school students, even children in elementary school, cannot absorb the basic lessons of rationality and critical thinking that come from studying the great thinkers of the past and of today, and the problems in ethics, politics, epistemology, metaphysics and aesthetics that they address.

If there is a cure for stupidity, I am convinced that this is it. I hope I’m proven right.

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