Welcome back to “Doggerel,” where I discuss words and phrases that are misused, abused, or just plain meaningless. I’ve encountered my share of trolls who just seemed intellectually incapable of grasping the issue of the day. In some places, there are enough such trolls that some skeptics may start making hasty generalizations. While today’s doggerel has some grain of truth from that, it’s not that simple.
I find the topic of stupidity to be more complex than an IQ number or level of education. Intelligent, educated people are perfectly capable of being stupid. I’d go so far as to say that intelligent, educated people are capable of more profound forms of stupidity than the average person because they can devise more elaborate rationalizations. They can have a little bit of understanding of a topic and act recklessly on general rules because they weren’t aware of important, relevant nuances and exceptions, for example.
Intelligence and degrees don’t make a person a skeptic, though they can certainly contribute to making a more effective skeptic. Skepticism is about how we approach questions about reality. A big part of that is being aware of our own brain’s flaws, and that awareness is quite often the difference between a skeptic and a believer. When we accuse you of a cognitive bias, we aren’t calling you stupid, we’re calling you normal and trying to make you aware of that built-in flaw and asking you to take it into account. When we question an experience of yours, we typically aren’t calling you a liar, either. Being sincere and being accurate are two entirely different things, and human perception and memory aren’t objective. People often see what they want to see and dismiss things that don’t fit their worldview. People often interpret or remember events in a manner that supports what they already believe. It’s quite important to remember that “people” includes you.
That’s why skeptics seek out objective measurements, prefer double-blind experiments, and why we like science in general. Scientific methodology exists because we’re aware of all the sneaky ways we can bias ourselves and make mistakes. If we weren’t so adept at fooling ourselves, we wouldn’t need such countermeasures. Acknowledging our potential for bias is the first step in overcoming it, and it’s quite often the hardest step for people to accept.
That’s where I think much of this doggerel comes from. The people who shout it think that the cognitive failings we point out are somehow personal, rather than universal. They think that we’re claiming that those flaws are particular to them when we’re actually trying to demolish the idea that they have a special immunity. In terms of brain processing, the playing field is usually much more even than you think. The real difference between a skeptic and a non-skeptic is usually one of awareness, not raw intelligence. That is where I try to focus my arguments, since you can change someone’s awareness by talking about issues they don’t normally talk about. The assertion that one side is just plain stupid or otherwise inherently inferior essentially negates any chance of progress by assuming the disagreement is based in an inherent difference, rather than due to correctable obstacles to understanding. It conveniently diverts blame when the disagreement could easily be due to bad arguments, bad evidence, or flawed perception. It also distracts, since such arguments tend to devolve into fights over IQ scores, grades, or who has more intellectual accomplishments, rather than what the correct stance on the central issue really is.
I think the focus on awareness also brings a culture clash into perspective: It’s anti-elitist and anti-authoritarian in many ways. Claims of greater intelligence do not grant a free pass in the skeptical community. If you make claims about reality, you should be ready to put work into justifying your claims like anyone else. Anyone can question an expert or point out apparent logical fallacies, regardless of intelligence or education. Pseudoscience is typically built on a framework of illogical, unevidenced, and inconsistent rationalizations. In those cases, asking for clear answers to simple “obvious” questions can expose the folly that prevented the construction of more accurate science in its place. A scientist’s authority is based on the quality of the work supporting his statements, not his intelligence.
In contrast, a lot of non-skeptical communities elevate their gurus to unquestionable authorities. Anyone who raises questions that potentially challenge that authority is deemed arrogant for thinking they can share the same rhetorical space as the authority. Rigid hierarchies often form to discourage “low” individuals from questioning their alleged superiors. Naturally, this makes them more vulnerable to exploitation. The lower ranks are often placated with assertions that they’re superior to outsiders, who aren’t special enough to understand the secret knowledge.
Skeptics like myself may get frustrated with individuals who don’t live up to intellectual standards, but I don’t assume it’s an inherent lack of intellect behind it. If I had to pick a number one problem I have with my internet opponents over the years, it’s usually that they won’t listen to what I’m saying. The stupidity that follows is usually born of inability to respond to points because they’re trying to pigeonhole me into their script and failing to notice that I act contrary to their depiction of me, or they’re just looking for key words to get riled up about without looking at the ideas I try to communicate. That kind of stupidity can be corrected, but it’s not easy.