Tuesday, November 26, 2013

When should we admit that somebody is perhaps a bit stupid?

Going through the newspapers that have accumulated while we were away, I came across this little piece in the Guardian on women supposedly going off contraception because it is too bothersome. The commenters on the online version have raised issues with argumentation from anecdote but that is not what immediately occurred to me.

I have a twentysomething friend in the US who, for purposes of preserving our friendship, I'll call Mary. As Mary is a human being, she likes to have sex. One thing Mary does not like, however, is contraception. Being on the pill made her "crazy"; getting an IUD felt, she says evocatively, "like having a hair caught in my throat"; and condoms "just don't feel good*. We all know that." So for the past dozen years ("at least") Mary has been using an alternative method: she hasn't been using any contraception at all.
Instead, she has worked out a formula that she calls "amazing" and I call "voodoo". It involves a combination of relying on various smartphone apps with names like Period Tracker and relying on the guy she is sleeping with (she is not in a long-term relationship) to "behave" – in other words, pull out in the nick of time. That she has not become pregnant since switching to her voodoo system proves, she says, that it works, "although there have been a few plan B [morning-after pill] moments". Mary is not crazy. She is not even stupid.
This is a line of thought that has often bothered me, as it can be seen in all too many contexts. Religious beliefs, discrimination, ideology, denialism, whatever: "my friend believes [some ridiculous superstitious nonsense], that shows that even very intelligent people can believe such things," or "Prof. Smith is highly educated but still a creationist, that shows that not every creationist is an ignoramus."

Sorry, but being stupid or an ignoramus is about the content of one's beliefs. And if somebody's beliefs are sufficiently idiotic, then should we not at some point admit to ourselves, no matter how much we like or respect them otherwise, that they might indeed be a bit stupid? Or an ignoramus, depending on context? Yes, we all probably hold some silly or harmful beliefs, but if it is a whopper and if they should know better, then at some point the line has to be drawn, because them being nice people and otherwise good at their jobs is not the issue when assessing overall idiocy and ignorance.

Note, by the way, that I consider the "if they should know better" in the sentence above to be crucial. When somebody is called an idiot in conversation or perhaps a cranky opinion piece or blog, that is virtually never because they are actually mentally handicapped. Civilized people do not complain about somebody with an IQ of 65 being stupid because clearly somebody who is truly incapable of understanding something and of making better choices has a bloody good excuse for it, just as somebody who is blind has a good excuse for overlooking a flashing warning light. The reason for referring to somebody as an idiot is generally that they do have the mental capacity to understand and to make good choices but are too lazy or biased to do so.

It is really the same with all those insults. Civilized people do not call somebody an ignoramus for growing up one of the poorest countries of the world and never having had the chance to go to school, but it appears quite appropriate to call somebody an ignoramus who had the privilege of a good university education and all necessary information at their disposal but merely preferred to ignore all facts and arguments that contradicted their cherished faith or ideology. Shouting "are you deaf???" at somebody who actually is deaf is a dickish move, but shouting the same at somebody who can hear but obviously did not listen when important safety information was imparted to them may be quite justified.

But there is more than one fallacy at work in the piece linked above. The writer does not only excuse the woman who behaves stupidly from stupidity through the implication of her being otherwise "not stupid", but also through the argumentum ad populum:
Mary is not crazy. She is not even stupid. In fact, she is increasingly typical of her generation.
Again, it has been questioned whether that last sentence is actually true. But assuming for a moment it is, why is the possibility that the majority of a generation might be stupid or crazy dismissed as obviously unworthy of consideration?

Again, the yardstick should be the stupidity or craziness of the beliefs people hold, and just because a lot of people believe something that does not mean that the belief is not stupid. From those two observations should follow the conclusion that it is possible for the majority of people to be stupid or crazy. They only have to believe a lot of stupid or crazy things although they should know better.

And surely if we look around us, or open the newspaper or perhaps a history book, we will find plenty of evidence that that situation regularly occurs. Just to grab one example at random, we currently rely, from the local to the global scale, on a transport system running nearly entirely on a non-renewable resource, meaning that we have heavily invested in something that will have to be completely discarded and replaced in the medium term future.

It is at least in the realm of possibility that our descendants 1,000 years from now would have a different opinion on whether our contemporary society is insane than we do now, and look back on us with the same bemusement as we do on witch hunts. And regardless of what you think about the facts of the matter in either case, the argument that a belief cannot have been stupid or crazy because it was a majority position at one point simply does not sound very convincing once it is spelled out clearly.


*) Later in the piece a lot of hay is made from the observation that contraception is still mostly the responsibility of women. True, but sadly this important point is somewhat undermined by the above sentence indicating that 'Mary' herself rejects the most traditional method of contraception used by men.

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