December 2, 2011

The Irrationality of Idiots

If Everyone Else is Such an Idiot, How Come You're Not Rich? - Megan McArdle
I run around calling a whole lot of people and/or things stupid, dump, moronic, or some other variation of idiot. As the above quote exemplifies, saying such things tends to be a bit dangerous, since if everyone else was an idiot, you should be rich as hell. My snarky reaction to that, of course, would be that I'm not rich yet (and even then, "rich" in the sense of the quote is really just a metaphor for success, depending on how you define it for yourself), but in truth there are very specific reasons I call someone an idiot, and they don't necessarily involve actual intelligence.

To me, someone is an idiot if they refuse to argue in a rational manner. If you ignore evidence or use nonsensical reasoning and logical fallacies to support your beliefs, you're an idiot. If you don't like me calling you an idiot, that's just fine, because I acknowledge your existence about as much as I acknowledge the existence of dirty clothes on my bedroom floor. It's only when there is such a pile of dirty laundry lying around that it impedes movement that I really notice and clean it up. In the case of suffocating amounts of stupidity, I usually just go somewhere else. The rest of the time, stupid people can only serve to grudgingly function in a society, not take part in running it. This is because designing and running a society requires rational thinking and logical arguments, or nothing gets done.

I can get really angry about certain things, but I must yield to opinions that have a reasonable basis, if only to acknowledge that I might be wrong, even if I think I'm not. Everything I say or do must have some sort of logical basis, even if it originated from pure intuition. So long as you can poke legitimate holes in an accepted theory, you can hold some pretty crazy opinions that can't be considered illogical, though perhaps still incredibly risky or unlikely.

All the other times I call someone an idiot, I'm usually being lazy when I should really be calling the action idiotic. For example, I can't legitimately call Mark Zuckerberg an idiot. If I call him an idiot, I'm not forming a legitimate opinion, and its probably because he did something that pissed me off and I'm ranting about it, and you are free to ignore my invalid opinion, at least until I clarify that what he did was idiotic, not him. Of course, sometimes people repeatedly do things that are just so mind-bogglingly stupid that it is entirely justified to actually call them a moron, because they are displaying a serious lack of bona fide intelligence. Usually, though, most people are entirely capable of rational thought, but simply do not care enough to exercise it, in which case their idiocy stems from an unwillingness to use rationality, not actual intelligence.

I bring this up, because it seems to be a serious problem. What happens when we lose rationality? People can't compromise anymore, and we get a bunch of stupendously idiotic proposals borne out of ignorance that no longer has to pass through a filter of logical argumentation. All irrational disputes become polarized because neither side is willing to listen to the other, and the emotions that are intrinsically tied to the dispute prevent any meaningful progress from being made. Society breaks down in the face of irrationality because irrationality refuses to acknowledge things like, people are different.

Well gee, that sounds like our current political mess.

I am an aggressive supporter of educational reform, and one of the things that I believe should be taught in schools is not only rational thought and logical arguments, but how rational thought can complement creativity and irrational emotions. We cannot rid ourselves of illogical beliefs, because then we've turned into Vulcans, but we must learn, as a species, when our emotions are appropriate, and when we need to exercise our ability to be rational agents. As it is, we are devolving into a prehistoric mess of irrational demands and opinions that only serve to drag society backwards, just as we begin unlocking the true potential of our technology.


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