Let’s talk about stupidology!
Stupidology is the science I made up that studies the many forms stupidity takes. We stupidologists are not interested in identifying some people as stupid. In fact we believe that some of the stupidest people are also the most intelligent. We contend intelligence is competence at avoiding stupidity, and it’s easier to avoid it if you’ve done a lot of it and know from personal experience what it looks like.
Most stupidities appear to be universal. The classic example of this got me interested in the subject. That is the all-off-all-on error. Even highly educated people fall for thinking that if what you’re doing doesn’t work and doing the exact opposite of it also doesn’t work, then there is no hope.
I discovered this by watching people at a college try one of two identical doors. When they failed at pulling on one they invariably switched doors and pushed the other one. They switched the door they were trying and the direction of force on it. When that didn’t work (because one door was a push-door and the other was a pull-door), at least half of the subjects I observed were ready to give up, thinking they had exhausted all the possibilities.
Upon reflection I had to admit I’d been there myself. After years of studying examples like that I still fall for the same trick of the mind. It seems to be hard-wired into all of us.
And still, occasionally I spot some stupidity in the wild I can’t classify.
There was the case of the belligerent solipsist. I first saw this in graduate school around the same time as the door observations. I was on a team of math instructors whose job included tutoring calculus students. I was assigned to tutor someone who was said to be a “hard nut to crack.”
“We’re giving this guy to you, Wes, because no one else knows what to do with him.”
I already had a reputation for being the one to shepherd the crazies. “We’ll fight fire with fire.”
He was a committed solipsist. Before I could help him in any way, he demanded I prove I was real. I said I didn’t have to be real. In fact, the Socratic method is clearer if I am merely a manifestation of his mind, given that the whole idea of the stupid method was that the student already “knows” the answers anyway, because all math is just Platonic forms in your head. So he wanted me to prove I was a Platonic form.
So I said to him, “You know, just because you’re a solipsist doesn’t mean you can’t play along with us nonexistent images.” He couldn’t accept that, so I said, “Well, we images are going to give you a nonexistent fail for the course. Because the fail won’t be real, I’m sure you’ll be fine. Goodbye. NEXT!”
Speaking of tutoring: Several years later I tried selling my tutorial services here in Seattle, and my very first client turned out to be a woman who was of the view that since she was paying me to help get through her math course, that meant I should do all her homework for her. How do you classify that?
Or, speaking of solipsism, what about when someone you’re talking to starts to explain they have neither feelings nor thoughts about anything at all, because they have no consciousness?
Why do I attract people like this? Is there a sign on my forehead, “Nutters welcome”?
I asked this guy, “Who did you say again who isn’t conscious?”
He answered “Me. I was talking about myself.” Unlike the solipsist, he was prepared to acknowledge my existence and even accept my assertions that I was conscious, but he denied ever having conscious thoughts. I said, “So, what you’re saying, if I understand you correctly, is that you think you are not conscious and never have been?” And he said yes. And I thought, whoa, what an outlier. Where do I put this gem in my taxonomy of stupidities?
And now Donald Trump has actually said that he believes that he has legal authority to pardon himself for anything, because as president he is in charge of all the law. Trump isn’t even in charge of all the law in Washington, D.C.
When I build the Natural History of Stupidity Museum, our president is going to require an entire room to himself.
Dr. Wes Browning is a one time math professor who has experienced homelessness several times. He supplied the art for the first cover of Real Change in November of 1994 and has been involved with the organization ever since. This is his weekly column, Adventures in Irony, a dry verbal romp of the absurd.
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