Shayne Wissler
“… to understand is, above all, to unify.” – Albert Camus

Idiots

November 03 2016

Reality is complicated.

Consider launching a rocket. Lots of them just blow up on the launch pad. Most people don’t know how to build them, but if you look into it, there’s a lot of detailed planning, calculations, and construction where if any small thing goes wrong, then – BOOM!

Suppose someone was put in charge of building rockets who didn’t understand this. Maybe he knows someone’s brother and got the job. Maybe his mom told him he’s a special snowflake so he thinks he knows what he’s talking about when he doesn’t. Then he starts telling the people who do know how to do this how to do their jobs. People’s lives are at risk. But he’s an idiot, and he’s going to get people killed. He’s not an idiot because he doesn’t know what he’s doing; he’s an idiot because he doesn’t know that he doesn’t know and proceeds as if he does anyway. What makes an idiot an idiot isn’t a lack of competence, it’s a lack of self-knowledge about one’s own lack of competence, which then leads to a lack of deference to those who actually do know.

There’s an endless array of other things that idiots can mess up. From top to bottom, computers need an exacting discipline of building them, or they just don’t work. If it’s the hardware that doesn’t work then we often just throw them in the trash. If the software doesn’t work, the computer crashes and we lose work. Even the most properly educated people can slip up and create a bug that causes the computer to crash, so letting an idiot tell people what to do here would cause disaster. We already know that bad software does cause many disasters – many software projects fail, resulting in property destruction or death (I’m not blaming all of this on idiots; educated people make mistakes too).

“No doubt, when modesty was made a virtue, it was a very advantageous thing for the fools; for everybody is expected to speak of himself as if he were one.”

— Schopenhauer

A tragic aspect of our culture is that you can’t tell an idiot that they are one. You can’t give them the wake-up call that would efficiently help them get better. This is tragic for several reasons. Suppose someone’s idiot brother gets assigned as manager over a computer software company. It would be better, for his sake, if before he killed someone that he was told that he was an idiot, and that he should either learn how to do his job or switch professions. It would be better for the sake of the people he’ll wind up killing. It would be better for the sake of his coworkers, his company, his community, and just humanity in general. And yet, the educated guys can’t point that out – it would not be “team player” behavior. To efficiently prevent someone else from being killed would not be “civil.” So instead they talk behind the idiot’s back and come up with various schemes. Perhaps they try to cover for him, work around him, or even sneakily try to get him fired or demoted. This Machiavellian, passive-aggressive behavior is not only a waste of time it’s not good for the soul. Some educated people would just quit thereby making their situation better but the company’s worse. All this nonsense, because they couldn’t just point out that he’s an idiot. (We of course don’t want people who are not truly idiots being accused of being idiots, so obviously we need solid evidence and standards and so on that this guy’s education and self-knowledge is sub-par.)

I could multiply the examples of the mayhem caused by idiots to include buildings, medicine, scientific research, industry, and – politics.

Politics is an interesting case. Most people know that they don’t know how to build rockets, computers, and so on, and will readily admit as much. But in the realm of politics they suddenly believe, or at least act as if they believe, that they are experts! In politics, most people are in fact idiots! In fact, many people agree that most people are idiots (or at that the people who didn’t vote for their candidate are idiots), they just don’t think that they themselves are idiots.

So it is the case that for most serious disciplines, people readily accept that they aren’t experts and therefore should not mess around without learning first; yet in politics, suddenly we find that skill and knowledge doesn’t matter anymore, but only their “good intentions.” They really really want to help poor people, or “stimulate innovation”, etc.; therefore, they allege, what they propose is the best way (or at least a good way) to do it. The idea that this thought process is gross non-sequitur never occurs to them, and if you point out to them that it is, you’ll be on the receiving end of a lot of hate. “You don’t care about the poor! You don’t care about innovation!” they’ll say. If you say that good intentions just aren’t good enough, you’ve got to actually know what you’re doing, they’ll accuse you of being arrogant. “How dare you think you know more than I do, Mr. Know-it-all!” Would they ever make such a remark to a rocket scientist? Only if he’s talking politics. If he’s talking rockets they’re magically as humble as can be. Amazing!

How is this trick of turning people who would ordinarily be humble when they should be into complete idiots when it comes to politics accomplished? The key part of the answer is that their teachers are also idiots. “Hey Johnny, what is your opinion on the Civil Rights Act?” “Now Martha, we must be tolerant of everyone’s view, we all have a right to our opinions (except the opinion that some people are idiots who should just remain silent).” Imagine the teacher who taught that some people are idiots, and that society should learn how to help them understand the importance of knowing what they are doing before speaking or voting or otherwise acting as if they do. This is true and important, but in our society, there’d be a hurricane of self-righteous fury by the media, many parents, the administration, and then this much-needed Socrates would be fired. So we are teaching our children to be idiots when it comes to politics, and that’s why they grow up to be idiot adults when it comes to politics.

What does it mean to not be an idiot in politics? In our idiot-run society, this might seem to be a profound question, but in a basic sense it’s actually very simple, in the sense that it’s the same as how not to be an idiot in other disciplines – you have to actually know what you’re doing. How do we tell if you know? We ask to see your work. You show me how you calculated that such and such is how we should do this and that. And then we use what we might call “common sense” – i.e., we observe that you actually had good evidence for a given premise, and that none of your premises contradict any of the others. Logic and evidence – humanity has learned that these are the key to our most dramatic successes – except that it hasn’t completely learned.

This isn’t the whole answer, it is only the beginning of one, of course. A more complete incomplete answer is in Books.