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Stupid Is as Stupid Does

“One of my great frustrations in today's political climate is that devotion to Trump is 100% emotional,” a colleague wrote recently. “His supporters just ‘feel’ that Trump is right. It has no factual, analytical basis. No amount of evidence, no logical argument can sway them...they will dismiss it out of hand. I have encountered this in many talks with Trump supporters. Part of me says ‘they are just not smart enough to be worth talking to’ but there is more to it than that. What do you think?”

My colleague’s ascertainment—help me understand why people can be so (let me use the word, not his) ‘stupid,” reminded me of the famous words Forrest Gump uttered in the eponymous-entitled film, ‘Stupid is as stupid does.” And that got my mind churning…just what is ‘stupid’?

The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as showing poor judgment and lacking intelligence. Synonyms include dimwitted, fatuous, thick-headed, and weak-minded. Antonyms include smart, bright, and astute.

Historically, the term ‘stupid’ can be traced to understandings introduced by the Greeks and Romans. The word we use today entered the English language in the mid-16th Century. It comes from the Latin verb stupere. The Anglicized version, ‘stupid,’ is derived from the word, stupor, which means to be numb or astonished. And astonished is what we are (a lot) these days.

‘Stupid’ is the focus of academic study and research. At Occidental College in Los Angeles students can take Professor Glenn A. Elmer Griffin’s “Stupidity 180,” known formally as Critical Theory/Social Justice 180. The course covers the work of philosophers, such as Avital Ronell (author of Stupidity), novelists, social commentators, and filmmakers.

We often conclude that stupidity is a lifestyle for some people we know and observe—that is, stupidity appears to be a recurring pattern of thought and/or behavior.

Professor Griffin describes the course as “an artifact of our nature as finite beings and one of the most powerful determinants of human destiny.” He continues: “Stupidity is … a corollary of knowing and an element of normalcy, the double of intelligence, rather than its opposite.”

Among many treatments in the academic literature, James F. Welles distinguishes ignorance (the lack or want of knowledge) from stupidity (conscious, deliberate choice to believe or act). The aforementioned Avital Ronell pursues that line of reasoning by describing stupidity as a deliberate choice that “fatigues knowledge and wears down history…/and is/…linked to the most dangerous failures of human endeavor.”

How so? Nassim Nicholas Taleb describes one way in his Foreword to Carlo M. Cipolla’s oft-cited book on the subject, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. Taleb affirms Cipolla’s Third Basic Law of Stupidity, which states that ‘a stupid person’ “harms others without procuring any gain from her/himself (italics added)—in contrast to the much more predictable bandit who gains something from harming you.”

I can attest to that interpretation from analyzing the many times I have been stupid/acted stupidly. And that personal conclusion brought something important to mind. In the film Forrest Gump, Gump did not ascribe stupidity to others. He attributed it to himself.

Following Gump’s lead, let’s think about stupidity as a belief or act that applies to all of us, not just to those we label ‘stupid.’ Put another way: we are also what we attribute. As one source put it, “He/she might be intelligent, but he/she is still stupid.”Cipolla’s Second Basic Law of Stupidity says as much: “The probability that a certain person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.” (italics added)

That said, it is easy to classify others as stupid. From experience, we often conclude that stupidity is a lifestyle for some people we know and observe—that is, stupidity appears to be a recurring pattern of thought and/or behavior. Stupid is as stupid does, as Gump said. But with dismissiveness, there is something else: stupidity becomes a closed circle, both attribution and explanation.

Ironically, it is ‘stupid’ to think that way. A different interpretation of Ronell’s words—‘linked to the most dangerous failures of human endeavor”—tells us why. We can fail to ask and answer a fundamental question, namely, “Why does a person think and/or act in a way that we (or others) might label ‘stupid’?” That is precisely what my colleague asked, and I applaud him for it.

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An example will help illustrate why that question is so important. It is easy to classify those who have not gotten the COVID-19 vaccine as people who are self-focused and uncaring. They privilege their right not to get vaccinated over acting responsibly (for the public good) by getting vaccinated. But rather than judge, let us try to understand.

With that in mind, what does research tell us about vaccination choice-making? According to a national study conducted by Surgo Ventures, 57% of those surveyed fall into two groups. At one end of the continuum (40%) are ‘Enthusiasts,’ people who value the opportunity to take the vaccine and have either gotten vaccinated or will get vaccinated soon. At the other end of the continuum (17%) are ‘Conspiracy Theorists,’ people who believe that the vaccine is connected to one or more ‘plots,’ such as ‘the government is using the vaccine to plant a microchip.’

What about the other 43%? 20% are watchful, meaning they follow and analyze the vaccination experiences of family members, friends, and others in their social circle before deciding what to do. 15% say they are delaying because of cost/time issues—issues that researchers found are not new when viewed in relationship to respondents’ past health practices. And 9% distrust the system, a conclusion many respondents said is also a result of their past experiences.

If you read the study findings as I do, most of the unvaccinated have good reasons for not getting vaccinated.Only about 1 in 5 persons are acting foolishly, perhaps stupidly, when viewed from a public good perspective. They are Conspiracy Theorists, after all, a group we can dismiss. But should we?

Since late 2019, Conspiracy Theorists have promulgated a Wuhan Lab source of COVID-19 in contrast to the mainstream alternative that the COVID-19 pandemic came by way of zoonotic (animal-to-human) transference. The Wuhan Lab explanation was rejected consistently by professionals and loads of other ‘reasonable thinking’ people. As early as April 2020, National Institutes of Health Director, Dr. Francis Collins, dismissed the possibility as ‘conspiracy.’

Today, the interpretive frame of reference is different. The ‘Conspiracy Theory” may indeed be what happened. And, if it is found to be true, the implications—as Thomas Frank argued recently in The Guardian—are enormous. ‘Earthquake-like,’ he named it because it will call into question matters of trust. For example, we turned to science for a response to the pandemic, Frank writes, “but what (if we learn in the end) that science is in some way culpable for it?”

The purpose here is not to attribute believability to Conspiracy Theories or to call science into question. The purpose is to point out how important it is to refrain from rushing to judgment about ‘stupid people’ and ‘people acting stupidly.’ We can be stupid in so doing. A reasonable and measured alternative—just as my colleague pursued—is to ask and answer a basic question: “I’m not sure what is going on here? I need to understand.”

David Murray put it well in his book, An Effort to Understand. Murray asserts that we would be better off if we “redirected some of the intellectual energy we use to draw distinctions and describe our differences and, instead, applied that energy to see one another more clearly. And we would see ourselves more clearly as a result.” (italics added)

“Stupid is as stupid does?” There is more to it than that.

Thanks to David Conner for the opening quote and to Steve Chupack for bringing David Murray’s book to my attention.

POSTSCRIPT: The idiom Stupid is as Stupid Does seems to be related to language Chaucer introduced in the 14th Century. Chaucer asserted, “Handsome is as Handsome Does.” Later, in the 18th Century, Oliver Goldsmith included that idiom in the preface to The Vicar of Wakefield. Back then, the words pretty and beauty were often used to expand the idiom’s generalizability. Irrespective of word choice, it means “good deeds are more important than good looks.”

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Today—in contrast to an historical understanding with a moral reference—“Stupid is as stupid does” is descriptive in nature. It says that “actions are an indicator of intelligence or the lack thereof.” 

You can listen to this essay on my podcast channel, Under the Radar with Host Frank Fear.

Frank Fear