21 Comments

This is one of the best essays I have read in ages. Kudos to Brian.

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A quibble: Dunning and Kruger’s work showed that students who were ignorant - not stupid - weren’t aware of their ignorance and thought they’d tested better than they had. They did better when taught what they didn’t know. Not knowing what you don’t know is common, even among the intelligent.

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Or as my scientist father used to say, the mark of *real* intelligence is to know where you're stupid.

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Apr 23Liked by Brian Klaas

'the fool thinks himself wise, the wise man knows himself to be a fool'

- that Shakespeare guy

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Or as we say, “He is too dumb to know he is dumb” or more simply “Bless his heart.”

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I think this is a terrific article, but it still misses some key aspects. Information does not preclude stupidity. I would argue that you could read Aristotle or Lao Tzu everyday and you will not get any smarter If you are stupid. The accumulation of knowledge does not in any way improve your cognitive abilities to integrate, process, andd utilize that information in a coherent pattern that exemplifies intelligence. I think one of the leading thinkers in the world today on intelligence, particularly in other species and in particular lower life forms like slime mold is Mike Levin at Tufts University. While not on substack, I think he has the best blog/website around in the world of intelligence among many species, discussing all sorts of things about the nature of the mind and intelligence and such. It gets a little geeky and weird sometimes. But he is truly brilliant and you might want to check him out at: https://thoughtforms.life/

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Agree. Levin’s ideas on collective intelligence are mind blowing. I’ve watched this video too many times!

https://youtu.be/U93x9AWeuOA?feature=shared

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Apr 23Liked by Brian Klaas

Rivetting article.

For world class stupidity the Darwin Awards surely – a 2009 winner from South Carolina painted his face gold to disguise himself during a robbery (despite the clear warnings on the spray paint can) – shortly after the robbery he stopped breathing. A shame McArthur Wheeler didn’t qualify for a Darwin given his outstanding effort – but for an award your entry must also remove you from the gene pool.

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Aka throwing chlorine in that gene pool!

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Apr 23Liked by Brian Klaas

Wonderful, I knew where you were going, but what fun getting there.

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I’ve never known how it was defined in academia but I’ve always felt that intelligent meant knowledgeable and smart was one who assimilated knowledge quickly. Stupid, therefore, was someone who acquired knowledge slowly vs naive who was one who hadn’t acquired the relevant intelligence. I’ve always felt people were “quick”, “slow”, (or “stubborn”) and that none of those precluded intelligence. Innovative is the talent of re- organizing intelligence in new ways. For truly innovative people, dilemma is simply naïveté.

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The idea of disappearing ink ignores the fact that humans spread around the world and became very creative and skillful tool users (and boat builders and art makers and..,) before they ever invented writing. It’s language that is the key — humans were sharing innovations over a wide area and time span just by showing and telling.

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Great article Brian, thank you. You reinforce everything I loved in the wonderful film, "My Octopus Teacher"--with backup.

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I have long loved this topic (both octopussies and the varieties of human intelligence). On the latter, the quality I have found most useful in judging people's intelligence is a quality I call "brightness." As far as I can tell, it isn't measured by IQ and CERTAINLY not by educational level. A lot of very "booksmart" people lack it. It is a something it involves a mix of quickness of thought, curiosity, willingness to explore new ways of doing things, a willingness to HEAR when other people explain something to them, a willingness to question beliefs or facts they thought they believed it. And so on. It may be required for a true sense of humor, certainly for a sense of the absurd that is behind much humor.

Above all, it is the ability to apply all that to the process of daily life, not just a particular "field" of intellectual endeavor. I suspect a deficiency in this is behind the absent-minded-professor idea. About those guys I know well--I was married to one for 25 years. He was top of his limited field (an abstruse form of applied math). Invited to speak at world conferences. And in daily life he couldn't find his way out of a paper bag. He got us kicked off our health plan because he didn't think it was important to return the form needed to keep us on it. His reasoning was that one shouldn't have to do that. I found out when I tried to make a well-child appointment for our baby daughter. He always argued with me about what I needed to do our taxes, because the rules "didn't make sense," and (luckily for me, after our divorce) simply didn't file his own taxes for two years: not because he was some sort of tax rebel, but because he didn't find it interesting.

He wasn't lacking in "brightness" entirely, but it didn't show much when faced with an everyday problem. My kids' term for it was "clueless." There were multiple instances of this. Pick up a cat from a stay at the vet and not think to ask whether it had been fed or whether we needed to feed it or whether the meds should be taken with or without food. Unable to remember that Monday was garbage day. On and on.

I've noticed this difference in others, including several of his colleagues (and commiserated with their wives). I dealt a lot with small contractors in my job and was always amazed at how much "brighter" they could be than some of their attorneys. I taught college level English in classes for the "educationally disadvantaged" who didn't have the test scores or grades to get into the university. But someone figured out they were "bright" and put them in the program, and boy, were they. They often had no clue what a sentence was, much less a paragraph--but man, they were quick to get the point if you explained it and explored with them what their misconceptions were.

That octopus who figured out how to turn out the lights--he was bright. I wonder if he had a utterly flexible sense of humor.

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Why is stupidity still so widespread in humans?

Fun. Because the stupid things we do, have done, may try; may well repeat---in spite of previous unfortunate results....are fun. Or hold that promise.

I've heard (ocean myth?) that dolphins are the ony species besides ourselves that have sex, for 'fun'.

We do see other mammals caring, and showing what appears to be affection for their young. Doing other things that remind us of...us- even engaging in activities that appear to have no intent other than amusement. They appear to be having 'fun'.

Brian, any instances that you are aware of where a mammal will (knowingly?) do harm to itself, in the prospect of, or during the process of...having fun? Tests have shown that rats will self inject with cocaine, to the point of death. But rats won't come up with a means to start free basing the stuff, to improve the 'fun'. We do that: we invent whist; we turn it into something more sophisticated, Bridge. Spears become AR-15's. Our ability to store our learnings means our 'fun' continues to evolve. As Stupid continues to be entertaining; we will continue to practice it. Are we gonna die from fun?

It might be fun if you wrote a piece on one of mankind's great carcinogens: Amusement.

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The concept of cephalopods developing intelligence out of necessity - needing it to survive a harsh environment with their squishy bodies - is very interesting. It seems like evolutionarily developing intelligence has consistently required some kind of sacrifice... for cephalopods it was their shells, for humans it was the complications that come from our big ol' noggins and complex brains (like dangerous childbirth and prolonged development prior to adulthood)

I also wonder if it would be a possible for a species to reach the level that we have without some kind of exbodiment of knowledge; it seems like the ultimate superpower for reaching the top of the food chain.

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Big fan of yours - some updating to Dunning-Kruger is in the literature e.g. Nuhfer, E., Cogan, C., Fleisher, S., Gaze, E. and Wirth, K., 2016. Random number simulations reveal how random noise affects the measurements and graphical portrayals of self-assessed competency. Numeracy, 9(1), p.4.

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I’m sure this information can be found somewhere, but I’m a recent subscriber and would like to know who does the illustrations for your articles? I love the style (and of course the whimsy) very much. Thank you, Maura Sullivan

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So good, thank you!

Trying to imagine the intelligence necessary to control that camouflage is dizzying. It looks like fine resolution, fast rate of change and amazing diversity of colors (even luminescence?!) That is mind-bending complexity that requires real computing power. And I wonder if they can be trained to remember and reproduce video at some basic resolution.

I don’t know but makes me awfully uneasy about the calamari fritti!

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author

People can make their own judgments—but I will never eat octopus!

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