The Danger Of Stupidity

Posts in this series

In the first post in this series, I quoted Charles Sanders Peirce for the proposition that the only reason we think is to relieve doubt by coming to a belief. We don’t necessarily seek the best belief, or some objectively correct belief (if there is one), though we might, and it might be best if we did. All we really want to do is to relieve doubt.

But that leaves out people who don’t ever doubt anything. It also points to people who claim to think but who aren’t interested in the solution with the best chance of meeting their most important needs; just something that relieves them of doubt. The pandemic has produced excellent examples. Media coverage and life experience have caused many people doubt. They look for relief from the doubt. They don’t need the best answer, or a sane answer, they just need to settle whatever their doubt might be.

David Byrd

In June 2020, Tennessee State Representative David Byrd of Waynesboro, TN voted for a resolution stating that the mainstream media has sensationalized the coverage of Covid-19, and that the General Assembly

… congratulate[s] the people of Tennessee for clearly seeing that the mainstream media has sensationalized the reporting on COVID-19 in the service of political agendas.

Byrd was diagnosed with Covid November 25, went into the hospital December 5, was on a ventilator for 55 days, lost his liver and required a transplant, and came out of it urging people to get vaccinated. He got sick before the vaccine was available, and he claims never to have been anti-vax. He now thinks Covid is dangerous and urges people to get vaccinated.

It’s hard to say what goes on in people’s minds, but the statement about sensationalizing the pandemic is an important clue. Assuming that he actually believes this, what exactly was he talking about? Media coverage wasn’t bloody. I think it didn’t go far enough in showing the frightening situation of sick and dying people. TV reporters did not show actual patients, or corpses. If Byrd had seen video of people breathing by ventilator, he might not have been so blasé about his own risk. If he had listened to Covid patients trying to breathe on their own, he might have thought twice about hanging around with potential vectors, including his equally ill-informed colleagues. Did he think it was political and thus damaging to Trump? Would political fault matter to sick and dying people, or people who didn’t understand the danger? Did he feel the same way about the absurd emails and Benghazi frenzies?

No, I think we can safely analyze this in Charles Sanders Peirce’s terms as expressed in The Fixation of Belief (1877):

The irritation of doubt is the only immediate motive for the struggle to attain belief. It is certainly best for us that our beliefs should be such as may truly guide our actions so as to satisfy our desires; and this reflection will make us reject every belief which does not seem to have been so formed as to insure this result. … [T]he sole object of inquiry is the settlement of opinion. We may fancy that this is not enough for us, and that we seek, not merely an opinion, but a true opinion. But put this fancy to the test, and it proves groundless; for as soon as a firm belief is reached we are entirely satisfied, whether the belief be true or false.

Byrd had a doubt about Covid that he wanted to relieve by finding a belief that would satisfy his desires. His only desire was political, not his personal safety. So he fixed on a political belief. Sadly that was a bad guess about the best thing for him.

Phil Valentine

Phil Valentine is a conservative talk radio host on WWTN-FM in Nashville. Here’s his blog post on the vaccine dated December 17, 2020. After ranting about Hillary Clinton and the dearth of credit to Trump for getting the vaccine out there, he says:

I’m not an anti-vaxxer. I’m just using common sense. What are my odds of getting COVID? They’re pretty low. What are my odds of dying from COVID if I do get it? Probably way less than one percent. I’m doing what everyone should do and that’s my own personal health risk assessment. If you have underlying health issues you probably need to get the vaccine. If you’re not at high risk of dying from COVID then you’re probably safer not getting it. That evokes shrieks of horror from many, but it’s true. I’m weighing the known versus the unknown.

I suppose we might ask what these “unknowns” are, or whether he plans on getting the pneumonia and shingles vaccines, but that’s too picky. Maybe he’s just not very smart. Here’s his take on climate change, echoing the idiot Senator Imhofe with his dumb snowball. Valentine does his own reasoning and research on the pandemic. It might have been better to start with a question like this: scientists, including epidemiologists, virologists, and public health experts say Covid is dangerous, and that the vaccines are safe and work, so everyone should get a jab. Now how am I different from everyone else? Why isn’t that the best advice for me?

Instead, I’ll guess he read some stuff about Covid, and decided he knew best about his own body and its ability to shut down the virus. He thinks we should all make our own decisions about our health, apparently without reference to expertise. He thinks we marvelous Americans can handle the complexity of the pandemic in the same way we decide between tacos and huevos rancheros. He places no value on scientific information or conclusions, doesn’t know any statistics, doesn’t grasp the principles of epidemiology or virology, doesn’t understand and probably doesn’t believe in the principles that underlie the vaccines, and doesn’t think any of that is important. I’ll bet he can’t do his own taxes, though.

And, guess what: nearly dying has converted him to a vaccine believer.

Valentine at least recognized that the right question is his personal safety; but he doesn’t know how to think about that problem, and just happens to come out in the same place as David Byrd.

The disinterested, the ignorant, and the prejudiced

There is a large group who just ignore the problem, or believe nonsense. I won’t use names, but they’re all over: people who just couldn’t quite get around to getting vaccinated, or who are convinced that it’s a trap or a hoax. Here are some examples.

These are people who aren’t paying attention. I am grateful for the people reaching out to them. They are doing what needs to be done.


In the first post in this series, I hinted at my view that bad thinking is central to the success of the Oligarchy in spreading their self-aggrandizing lies. I hope this discussion helps us see how well that works.

In an earlier series I argued that democracy only works if there is a sense of community among the members. As we face the pandemic and the desperately dangerous climate disaster, we need to operate as a community. We have to operate on the principle that no one is safe unless we are all safe. We have to settle our doubts in the way that will enable us to flourish, not in ways that fit our prejudices.

[Image Source: “I Did My Own Research” by @GQPMonitor]

73 replies
  1. Ed Walker says:

    Valentine worked for WWTN-FM radio. In the late 80s the station went into bankruptcy with staggering debts. My law partner, John C. McLemore was appointed Chapter 11 Trustee, and operated the station for maybe 18 months before we got it stabilized and sold. I got to work on a bunch of interesting things, including holding on to the license after the power levels dropped and we couldn’t pay for new amps. Eventually we sold it at a nice price in unusual circumstances, and paid a nice dividend to unsecured creditors.

    My wife and I left Tennessee a few months after we retired.

      • TooLoose LeTruck says:

        In its better moments, that show was actually pretty damned good…

        The Thanksgiving ‘Turkey Drop’ episode remains one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen on television…

        “With God as my witness, I thought turkeys could fly…”

        • bmaz says:

          The turkeys are hitting the ground like sacks of wet cement! The crowd is running for their lives!

          When I do a Thanksgiving post, I still attach that video. It is, seriously, one of the best clips in comedy ever.

          • Lawnboy says:

            Whilst waiting for the tee off, one of my team arrived in the most unfortunate golf attire. Before I could call him “Herb Tarlik”, another duffer said ” See, it’s true, it does pay to be at the circus when the clown dies”.
            Agreed, one of the great tv shows.

            • TooLoose LeTruck says:


              Herb Tarlek… the late, great Frank Bonner…

              I just googled him… sadly he died in late June…

              He played that part to perfection…

              Like Ted Knight as Judge Smails in Caddyshack…

          • RooDude says:

            INAL and this is my first time to comment. Rather than responding to some of the other incredible subject matter typical of this sight I’m weighing in to say that I grew up in a small town in northern Arkansas that I do think was the inspiration for this WKRP episode. The town had/has their annual Turkey Trot festival in October and one of the most popular features – other than the parade, the wild turkey calling contest, the Miss TurkeyTrot beauty pageant, the Miss Drumsticks contest (which I believe now allows men to show off their gams), an associated home high school football game – was the Turkey Drop that occurred periodically during the town carnival. A small plan would fly over the courthouse square and drop live turkeys to the gathered throngs below, young and old alike. I chased many a turkey (they could and often did survive the flightless plunge) as a youngster but never caught one. Not totally Shirley Jackson – like but in hindsight I’m pretty sure it was as surreal as it sounds to an “outsider”.
            I since relocated to NYC and now am in the Delaware coastal area…where there used the be held the Punkin Chunkin contest.
            Not sure of the status for either festival.

          • matt fischer says:

            Decades ago Richard Sanders, who played Less Nessman, would come to parties that my family hosted. I will always remember the time he arrived clad in a full-on tuxedo — and red sneakers.

          • TooLoose LeTruck says:


            That was the other quote I was thinking of…

            Well, that and Les Nessman’s immortal words…

            “It was like the turkeys mounted a counter-attack….”

        • dude says:

          I lived in Cincinnati when the middle of the road stations were just beginning to dip their toes into rock-n-roll and tv news anchors were trying to lengthen their hair. That is one of memories that added to my enjoyment watching Mr. Carlson and Herb Tarlik. Back then, it was WKRC playing Robert Goulet and Buddy Greco songs throughout the day while WEBN was slowly rising as the “underground FM” station playing all that “hippie” music. The contrast was so striking.

        • Artemesia says:

          The Turkey Episode on WKRP and the Trolley Car Episode on The Good Place are two of the greatest moments in American television.

    • Silly but True says:

      Valentine unlike many of his modern radio hosts does not really have a body meant for radio. He convinced himself of a falsity.

      With his words:
      “ I’m just using common sense. What are my odds of getting COVID? They’re pretty low. What are my odds of dying from COVID if I do get it? Probably way less than one percent. I’m doing what everyone should do and that’s my own personal health risk assessment. If you have underlying health issues you probably need to get the vaccine. If you’re not at high risk of dying from COVID then you’re probably safer not getting it…”

      Born in the 1950’s, his age placed Valentine absolutely at a high(er) risk from getting it, and dying from it.

      Common sense should have told him that regardless of how low he believed the risks generally were, his own specific risks due to his own specific age, increased them magnitudes higher.

      His perceived “common” sense was wrong. His sense wasn’t common, it was contrary to the directions given at time for people like him.

      He appeared to be in decent good shape, and probably didn’t have chronic conditions he was aware of. But he certainly had much cause to be more concerned than he was.

      • Alan Charbonneau says:

        Cognitive biases: “A man hears what he want to hear and disregards the rest”

        People are so alienated by the “other side” they don’t believe anything unless one of their tribe says it. My first stint in Texas was 2000-2010 back then it was hard to get radio reception. My sister asked if that meant Rush Limbaugh was the only thing available and I said “nobody that liberal”. Back then it was a joke, but by 2015 I read an article about this tribalism and one woman said she didn’t believe anyone in the media now. “Not even Rush, he’s too liberal. Only Hannity”

        When Trumpers hear a statement of fact that they regard as unpleasant, they rush to sources who will tell them the “truth”. People went to Fox News not to learn about Trump, but to have any inconvenient facts a\explained away for them. No matter how ridiculous the story, they had at least the flimsiest of covers.

        Echo chambers are not good for democracy, but not many people care, esp on the right.

        p.s. on the topic of stupidity, in the late 1980’s or early 90’s there was an air show crash. The pilot had a strut break off the tail. He was interviewed by a television station. He said that “a plan can fly with one tail strut missing, in fact it can fly quite well. But to equalize the stresses, I’m going to remove the other strut as well”.

        I then saw film of him attempting a maneuver, the tail being ripped off the plane, and him plowing into the earth from a couple hundred feet at 90 mph. The impact killed him instantly which was good since the plane was soon engulfed in flames. A little bit of knowledge may be dangerous, but zero knowledge is fatal.

  2. TooLoose LeTruck says:

    “No one is safe until we’re all safe.”

    Pretty succinct summation of the human condition if I’m not mistaken there, Ed…

    It should also be a campaign slogan…

    • Ed Walker says:

      It is a good line. It’s based on a line from The Ministry For The Future by Kim Stanley Robinson, Chapter 4, “No one is safe until all are secure.” I think my version is a better slogan. It’s repeated a couple of times in other forms.

      I read the book recently: it’s really good, as are other of his I’ve read.

      • P J Evans says:

        That one really is good; I also like his “Science in the Capital” trilogy (the one-book summary of that is “Green Earth”).

      • Parker Dooley says:

        First chapter of that book describes what happens in a large city when the wet bulb temp exceeds humans’ ability to cool by sweating — and the power goes out. One of the most horrifying scenarios I have read, and not necessarily fiction. Thanks, Ed for mentioning it. The same principles (of stupidity) apply to climate denialism. These appear to be built into human risk assessment. I recently used the example of those who fear flying, but will happily drive to Logan airport through Boston traffic. See Kahneman & Tversky “Thinking Fast & Slow”.

          • Parker Dooley says:

            Not sure what you mean, TooLoose. I think I am alluding to an apparently built-in error in risk assessment in humans (drivers to airport), and to a consequence of climate change (not overcrowding) as predicted in a work of fiction.

        • Artemesia says:

          That first chapter of Ministry for the Future makes very clear what will happen to literally billions of earthlings if global warming leads to lots of 120 degree humid days. Humans literally cannot live at those temperatures. It is one of the most vivid and terrifying pieces I have ever read. Before that I didn’t actually know what ‘wet bulb’ temperature was. The future we are leaving to our kids is terrifying.

  3. Rapier says:

    Dietrich Bonhoeffer, describing the mindset of the German people in the 1940s, Letters and Papers from Prison

    “Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice. One may protest against evil; it can be exposed and, if need be, prevented by use of force. Evil always carries within itself the germ of its own subversion in that it leaves behind in human beings at least a sense of unease. Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed – in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical – and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental. In all this the stupid person, in contrast to the malicious one, is utterly self satisfied and, being easily irritated, becomes dangerous by going on the attack. For that reason, greater caution is called for when dealing with a stupid person than with a malicious one. Never again will we try to persuade the stupid person with reasons, for it is senseless and dangerous.”

      • TooLoose LeTruck says:

        Sadly, ‘Easily irritated’ is also a really apt description of me, all too often…

        ***hangs head in shame***

      • stacey says:

        I think natural consequences of one’s actions are an excellent persuader for stupid people. It doesn’t ALWAYS work, but apparently watching 600,000 “not-me’s” have consequences of a deadly virus ravaging through our midst was unconvincing to many to duck for cover in some fashion. And now that at least nearby “like-me’s” are being affected some persuasion is happening among that group. I mean sometimes a stupid person does not survive the lesson, but there’s obviously not much to be done about that.

        A cartoon I’ve seen but can’t find now. A person says “You can’t fix stupid!” a devious looking Coronavirus particle dude with side-eye glance says back to her “I can fix stupid.”

  4. Peterr says:

    Eleven years ago, Charlie Pierce published “Idiot America,” which plumbed the depths of a certain kind of political figure in US history – the Idiot. (No, the Idiot did NOT simply appear in the 1970s or 80s.) Central to the book are what he calls the Three Great Premises of Idiot America:

    1. Any theory is valid if it sells books, soaks up ratings, or otherwise moves units.
    2. Anything can be true if someone says it loudly enough.
    3. Fact is that which enough people believe. Truth is measured by how fervently they believe it.

    What these Great Premises explain, as Charlie describes, is the movement to diminish experts (see #2, e.g. your local COVID deniers). Indeed, anyone can be an expert, if you get enough followers, minions, to get behind your loud voice (see #1, e.g. Rush Limbaugh, Tucker Carlson, et al.). But Charlie’s not just talking about individuals. He’s talking about a nation that moves toward deciding that these Three Great Premises are a better way to organize our common life than voting in elections or embracing a shared political structure.

    For example . . .

    Anthony Fauci is firm, polite, but not at all loud (until Rand Paul called him a mass murderer, that is). That’s great for talking to other scientists and people who respect science, but it gets you nowhere with the broader Idiot America (see #2).

    Closer to home for me, the heads of the two big hospitals in Springfield MO (southwest Missouri) finally had enough of the idiots in their corner of the world. Usually, they are great competitors, but on COVID deniers, they are united. On July 1, they cut loose.

    Steve Edwards, CEO of Cox Health:

    32% symptomatic pos. rate, very concerning! (From 4%) 4 pediatric Covid inpatients yesterday. Age…a few weeks old to 18 y/o

    If you are making wildly disparaging comments about the vaccine, and have no public health expertise, you may be responsible for someone’s death. Shut up.

    Emphasis in the original. There’s also a great chart (as of July 1, of course) attached to the tweet.

    Erik Frederick, CEO of Springfield Mercy:

    99.5% of COVID deaths over a 6 month period are unvaccinated. So if you’re vaccinated there is a light at the end of the tunnel. If you’re unvaccinated that’s probably a train.

    That was 6 weeks ago, as southeast Missouri was leading the nation in new cases, the growth of hospitalizations, and deaths. Since then, it’s still bad, but they got the attention of enough Idiots to begin to bend the curve a bit in southwest Missouri. It’s still bad, and their hospitals are full and diverting cases to KC and elsewhere, but it’s not going through the roof as it was before.

    It’s not just that they were loud – it’s that they were voices who were usually calm and quiet who finally let loose.

      • RWood says:

        Stupid is alive and well and on its way to Sturgis.

        “Stupid chose stupid and flock to super-stupid event to exchange stupid with other stupids so every stupid can then bring stupid home and share with their local stupid.”

        Big sale on used Harley Davidsons this Christmas!

      • Pete T says:

        You can’t fix stupid.

        With heartfelt apologies for the misogyny of Ron White so I won’t post the YouTube clip.

        And I don’t suppose adding an adjective to thinking – like critical thinking – helps a whole lot. But it used to be taught in schools. Sadly no more. Gone the way of phonics and a whole bunch of basic math skills I owe to the Dominican Nuns of elementary school.

        • gmoke says:

          That “critical thinking” thing sounds suspiciously like “critical race theory” and will be stomped just as hard, if not more so, by the (self)righteous.

          • Artemesia says:

            I spent my career researching the kind of education that leads to citizens who can deal with ambiguity and ill structured problems (all the important social problems with no obvious solution). Critical thinking can be taught to many but it depends on a level of cognitive development that most people don’t attain — they could with appropriate experience, reflection, education — but they usually don’t. And of course the word ‘critical’ as in ‘critical thinking’ or ‘critical race theory’ means to stupid people — teaching children to criticize us.

  5. joel fisher says:

    What to do? I believe the GOP “thinkers” have opted in to Trumpland/Foxland and the other nether realities to make money. People who propagate lies to make money need to be sued. For the life of me I can’t figure out how just making something up about a public figure is basically protected speech. Put some of the national surplus of personal injury lawyers to work. And another thing, why isn’t a piece of shit like Phil Valentine (and his employers) jointly and severally liable for a % of deaths in TN? Even better: a specific listener–now the dearly departed–who got the lowdown on Covid from highly trusted, pos Phil. Is there some sort of FCC regulation that’s implicated? You say 1st Amendment; I say fire in a theatre.

  6. earlofhuntingdon says:

    So, belief exists to dispel doubt, or fear of the unknown. Primordially, that might be the nighttime fear of what’s slithering at the end of this bough. Contemporary examples could be built around insecurity in health, jobs, education, children, the future, the Other.

    Authoritarian neoliberals see their job as to sow discord – fear – to atomize us into individuals, lest we join in common cause against them. In a world of doubt, the safest place is the belief that, whatever his faults, the leader is right. If you manufacture enough fear, you can take stupidity out of the equation. DeSantis and Abbott seem bent on achieving that.

    • stacey says:

      Yes, I think Doubt and the Unknown are interchangeable here in that anytime there is a “void in one’s sense of security” (i.e., how it’s always been: predictable weather or economy, gender identities, power relationships, what you can say/not say, etc.) one needs desperately to fill that void with something, most often denial of the change, or what caused the void to appear. Thus the climate isn’t changing, the economy is fine, blacks are still less than, women should still smile and look pretty, and the pastor/boss/father is always right or knows best. Awe! Can’t you just feel the pressure relieving once those things are re-established in that mind?

      One of the reasons why stupidity is so ramped up in these times is that the more voids one experiences, as sited above, the more ‘patches’ one needs to find to fill the voids, or bridge the change or the uncertainty with familiarity or certitude. The best place to get certitude from is an authority figure like a pastor, a president, or a famous person or influencer. Their stock goes up when predictable reality gets wobbly and people look for handles to hold on to in those turbulents.

      Byron Katie, one of my favorite authors talks about the “I-don’t-know-mind” and how once you can rest in that space and not NEED to know what you can not know, and still feel at peace, then you no longer NEED to believe whatever your mind tells you is true, or obviously what anyone else tells you is true. And you can just let reality show you the way of it. It doesn’t mean you can’t know reality, but you no longer need to pretend to know reality just to feel better.

      To a LOT of uncomfortable people a stupid patch over a void of unknowableness or wobbly reality of any kind is better than going to bed in the void of “I don’t know”. That’s the scariest bedtime story EVER, any monster beats THAT!

  7. OldTulsaDude says:

    “A Florida radio host who railed against Dr. Fauci and vaccines has died from COVID-19”

    A Day in the Life (of a Florida Radio Host)

    I read the news today, oh, boy,
    about a man who’d really made the grade
    and though the news was very sad
    I just had to laugh,
    when I read that paragraph

    He blew his mind out sans a mask
    and didn’t know ’til he had breathed his last
    that he didn’t need to die
    all he had to do was take a little poke
    and stop his lies

    I’m really glad he’s gone.

  8. Hug h says:

    “At least two thirds of our miseries spring from human stupidity, human malice, and those great motivators and justifiers of malice and stupidity: idealism, dogmatism and proselytizing zeal on behalf of religious or political idols.”
    -Aldous Huxley

  9. darms says:

    i also did my own ‘research’ on Covid-19 – took a good look at the potential side effects. (!) Well, we’ve been masking since 1/2020, got the vax as soon as it was available and are still wearing masks in public. Covid-19 is some scary sh*t, the delta variant looks to be worse & who knows about the lambda variant. Oh and as an added bonus, neither i nor the missus have had a cold or flu since 1/2020…

  10. Mgallopavo says:

    Thanks for the Peirce reference. The discussion aligns with a question I have had for many years. Why isn’t there a larger advocacy for the importance of uncertainty as a fundamental element of the human condition? There are plenty of loud voices for both theism and and atheism, but card-carrying agnostics don’t seem to have a visibly large constituency. And yet the expression of uncertainty is a foundational need. For example, hypothesis testing is a cornerstone of science, but the lovely epistemological framework of the Sequential Probability Ratio Test (‘Yes’, ‘No’, but also, crucially, ‘I don’t know and thus I will take more data’ all coupled with a notion of confidence/uncertainty) is rarely invoked even in principle. Yet, in fact, everything is (contingent and) sequential. Bayesian updating is perhaps an alternative path, but look closely at what passes for it and you see a lot of hat and none too many cattle outside the easy problems. In my scientific career I cannot recall encountering an over-representation of uncertainty, but underrepresentation? In terms of published research, the entire system is devoted to it, both statistical and non-statistical. But without valid representation of uncertainty you can’t make valid comparisons and without valid comparisons you can’t predictably learn. The degree to which underrepresentation of uncertainty slows scientific learning is probably profound. Yet it seems very difficult to fight that noise. Peirce’s argument for the removal of doubt as primal need independent of any notion of actually answering questions, rings sadly true for me.

    [I once asked my wife if she or anyone she knew had ever published an ‘average’ research image. She just laughed.]

    [Also, I have no idea if the name I am using today matches the one I used many years ago. Apologies.]

    • Ed Walker says:

      This Peirce piece and its companion, How To Make Our Ideas Clear, between them make up a large part of the foundation of Pragmatism. Both are well worth reading.

      I usually think in terms of ambiguity instead of uncertainty. In the sciences, we can at least hope to deal with uncertainty. But in the social sciences or in real life, we are almost always stuck with ambiguity, not only in understanding a situation, but even in determining what our needs and desires might be, how to rank them and how to address them sensibly. Mostly we only really know what we think after we do stuff and see how we like the outcome.

      But I think we agree that there is little of this among the vast majority of us humans.

      • Mgallopavo says:

        I incline toward uncertainty as a habit of 40+ years as a theoretical and then applied statistician or even quantitative epidemiologist. [ I probably started thinking in earnest about some issues after a 1974 course encounter with Morris DeGroot’s Optimal Statistical Decisions. His careful axiomatic treatment of Utility left me with a “Yow, the weeds are a lot thicker than I thought.” ] From my statistician’s perspective, ambiguity is a more specific notion–an aspect of classification/misclassification. I sometimes pitch dichotomization as the most powerful analytic device in our rational toolbox—and the one most subject to misuse. But then you head toward polytomization and the subjective choice of number of categories, their boundaries, and whether there is ordering. And quickly you are bumping into the social sciences or real life, where just framing the question can overwhelm.
        The notion of which question goes to another of my late season statistical/philosphical concerns. In addition to seemingly instinctive underrepresentation of uncertainty in science, I almost never see pauses to consider contingency–to what extent is my understanding (completely/highly) dependent on the specific question I asked? Or, had I asked a different question would I (eventually) arrive at the same understanding? I do see a lot of people wrestling with causal inference, which is related and heartening. Outside science I suppose there is a lot more discussion of contingency in the form of cause. Perhaps because goals tend more to action than description? I see plenty of parsing of DJT as cause versus symptom. With regard to vaccines I suspect conservative media might have managed the disinformation on its own.

    • skua says:

      Perhaps certainty of theism or anti-theism provides a sound base for feelings of self-righteousness, and from there heightened emotionality and fervency are but a step away.

      I suspect however that human neurology heavily biases against “the certainty of being uncertain” forming a strong basis for self-righteousness.

      • Mgallopavo says:

        Down at the bottom of the Wikipedia entry on agnosticism there is a lovely reference to Richard Dawkins pulled from The God Delusion, where he describes his “Permanent Agnostics in Principle” (PAPs) as engaged in a “deeply inescapable kind of fence-sitting”

        • skua says:

          I’m confident that there is a Buddhist, and probably more than one, who divides humanity by where they place them on the central issue of the correctness of Mahayana over Theraveda. Maybe there is some localised benefits from their work, though globally hopefully they do little harm. And may they be as competent in their day job as Dawkins is in his.

  11. ducktree says:

    Enlightenment and consciousness (“thinking”) are not end states. Both are continuing processes . . .

    Kind of like the Senate.

  12. matt fischer says:

    Effective misinformation bypasses analytical reasoning. No one is fully immune given our above-noted instinctual discomfort with uncertainty. And some of the smartest are especially good at rationalizing irrational beliefs (i.e. are good at being especially stupid). Thus I question the utility of addressing the issue in terms of stupidity.

    “So it is among all men, those are farthest from felicity who strive most earnestly for knowledge, showing themselves double fools, first as they are born men, and then because they have forgotten that basic condition, and like the giants make war on nature with the machinery of their learning.”
    — Erasmus, Desiderius (from “The Praise of Folly” (1509))

    • skua says:

      And yet the planes mostly take-off, fly and land safely, the phone calls go through and the food arrives in the supermarket.

      Whatever kind of fools they are, what they do results in what we call major sucesses.

      • matt fischer says:

        I included the quote from Erasmus as a call for humility. We’re only human, with all the complexity that entails.

        • skua says:

          I struggle with how to work with my own and others’ idiocy and intelligence.
          Sometimes human intellectual intelligence looks so powerful, and at other times we seem little more than “stimulus -> emotional response -> intellectual justification of the emotion” machines.

  13. Lex says:

    We can be pretty sure that humans have always been animals of community. Some theorize that language developed to handle group living in bands greater than 25 individuals. We can also assume that the “natural” order would be for groups to form on familial and locational bonds. So it’s interesting how modern society has broken and then reformed bonds of human community. From class (likely the first reformation) to the complexity of today which is still class-based though textbook definitions of class don’t hold very well when applied to the US, to political-media beliefs, to race. I’m not willing to argue that capitalism developed the current divisions of community with intent but it (as an economic and political system) has maximized its return on the organization of society. The Atlantic had a recent piece about the American shopper’s behavior and the classist undertones/history of American consumption.

  14. Ed Walker says:

    Several people call into question my use of the word “stupid”. It was, I admit, a lazy pick, but there was some method in the randomness: when the choices are personal survival and anything else, it just seems objectively stupid to pick anything else as your goal. I’m not sure it’s useful. But I am so frustrated by people unwilling to see actual threats to their health and well-being.

    • P J Evans says:

      Even more so those who deny that there even could be a threat, or that the real threat is the preventive medicine which is available to them at no charge.

  15. Epicurus says:

    Lex, re: your thoughts on formation of groups and development of language there is a book “Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language” by Robin Dunbar that would be interesting to you.

    Re: your observation of capitalism maximizing its return on the organization of society, there is a biography of Joseph Schumpeter by Thomas McCraw titled “Prophet of Innovation” that I would recommend, especially Chapter 21 on Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Schumpeter coined the phrase “creative destruction” as an essential component of capitalism (and directly related to divisions of community) intertwined with innovation. Schumpeter sees capitalism as one form of management of change and “identifies capitalist entrepreneurship with technological progress itself” (McCraw). Of interest to you might be the chapter part on “his much-quoted argument that capitalism has developed the seeds of its own destruction – not for economic reasons but for social ones.” (McCraw)

    • earlofhuntingdon says:

      “Creative destruction” elevates the inevitable to the intentional and desirable. Applied to monopoly power – which he considered temporary rather than self-enabling and persistent – that might be true. But in its normal course – certainly in the unrestrained extreme American version of capitalism – that monopoly power is not creative, it’s just destructive.

      • Epicurus says:

        I agree. I am not sure when monopoly power is ever creative except in maintaining its own power. Creative destruction I tend to see as the creator of wealth in different ways for society and individuals going forward but a great disruption for those in the present. Where creative destruction creates significant individual wealth I see it as a prime generator of oligarchy and all its ills.

    • matt fischer says:

      Thanks for the link. I appreciate the intellectual distinction between the terms ‘dumb’ and ‘stupid’, but their pejorative equivalence limits their utility in the marketplace of ideas. If our goal is persuading people to reach conceptual frameworks that lead to better judgment, I suspect we get there quicker with compelling storytelling than with disparagement.

  16. greengiant says:

    I see the desire to have some control over something, anything, especially in times of stress. Something does not fit your view of reality, make up a fake reality or get one from Faux news already invented for you. White male getting a smaller piece of the pie because of globalization, equality of gender, race, national origin and/or wealth redistribution got you down? Go for that fake reality.
    Can not deal with Covid? Go fake reality, no mask, no vaccination.

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