People Are Idiots. A Cynical Observation

April 15, 2010 | By | 36 Replies More

The video below from TED is chilling in many ways.  Michael Specter touches on observations about the resistance people have toward anything that seems to threaten their hobbit-hole view of the world.  A little of this, as he rightly points out, is fine, even agreeable, but when it burgeons into matters that threaten lives and seek to derail all that has made this present era as wonderful as it is—and it must be stressed, in the face of overwhelming negative press, that we are living in a magnificent period of history—then it loses whatever quaint appeal it might otherwise have.  We respect the Amish, but they don’t tell the rest of us how to live and try their level best to be apart from the world they disapprove.  When you see people filing lawsuits with the intent to halt necessary, beneficial progress because they have bought into some bogeyman horror movie view of science or politics or morality, it behooves us to come to terms with a fundamental reality with which we live today.

First, though, the video.  Watch this, then read on.

Okay, what reality?  That many people are just idiots.  I cannot think of a more tasteful way to phrase it.  But when you consider the list, justifications and rationalizations fade.

The Tea Party.  The Anti-vaccine Movement.  The Birthers.  Young Earth Creationists.  Medjugorje.  Deepak Chopra.  PETA.  Free Market Capitalism.  Global Warming Deniers.  Holocaust Deniers.  Abstinence-Only.  Just Say No.  The Shroud of Turin.  Astrology.  Texas Board of Education.  Evolution Deniers.  Frankenfood Protesters.  Homeopaths.  Herbalists.  Psychics.  Scientology.

I could go on.  The list above I chose because in each instance the movement in question lies to suit their own end; in each case evidence to prove them mistaken or flat wrong is not only available, it is widely available.  In some instances the scientific evidence is so overwhelming as to constitute grounds for considering opponents of the scientific (or historical) view to be somehow malicious subversives if not outright loons.

But more pointedly, in each of these cases, adherents to the various subjects listed seem not to even bother with looking at contrary evidence.  They don’t argue with the evidence because they don’t even know the evidence and when, under certain situations, they are confronted with it they simply deny its validity.

Underlying this is an unwillingness or inability to educate themselves—some because they have no time, others for less understandable reasons—and yet they embrace their cause and go off with it as if they had looked into the matter and found the position they advocate unassailable.  Dialogue is often pointless because they either won’t listen or, in my opinion more likely, can’t understand a contrary point of view.

It is this last that I address here.  We have seen many posts on DI talking about the deplorable level of education.  Here is where it is telling.  These causes, these institutions, these movements are not embraced by people in general (I believe) because they have made a good case but because they have either promised something their followers want very much or they have scared the hell out of them.  The combination of wishful thinking and imbecilic fright is deadly.  It is not a question of being skeptical of authority, it is a matter of people finding a hole and pulling the earth over it after they climb in.

If dialogue happened, something productive might emerge from all this.

The Tea Party is basically a Libertarian movement based on a complete rejection of taxes.  Idiocy.  No state, good or bad, can function without the support of its citizens, and taxes are necessary to maintain community.  Who do they think will build the roads, maintain the water system, support the common defense?  They assume, because some things are happening with which they disagree, that Washington is now a criminal institution and they wish to strip it of resources, not stopping to consider that their ability to protest itself is something that exists because we have a government that protects their right to do so.

Anti-vacciners.  As Mr. Specter pointed, the research has been done, the numbers are in.  Something may well be causing a jump in autism, but it’s not vaccination, and suspension of vaccination programs—he was nice about it—will open the floodgates to a world of hurt no one today under the age of 40 in the United States has clue one about.  The research is rejected.  Why?  There may be many plausible reasons, but a major one, if not the major one, I think, is because these folks don’t comprehend the science.

Frankenfood?  I have never understood this.  Just what do people think crossbreeding is if not genetic engineering?  Crude, hamfisted, perhaps, but genetic engineering.  The potential to feed people and increase nutrition is inestimable, but—“I ain’t puttin’ that in my mouth, ’cause a guy on tv said it would have unforeseen consequences and it ain’t Nat’ral.”

(Forgive the snarky tone—on the other hand, the title ought to given indication of my attitude.)

Global warming?  An island of the Indian coast which has been the subject of a territorial dispute since Partition has simply disappeared.  The ocean swallowed it.  No more dispute.  Ice shelves are melting in Antarctica that have been solid for millennia.  Among all the other perfectly sound reasons to cut back on emissions, we can add this one, and yet…an yet…as if arguing over the degree of change human action can claim makes any difference.

Here’s what I think.  I think people, by themselves, singly, off alone with one or two others, can be brought to a condition of reasonable cognition in which the world and its vicissitudes becomes somewhat comprehensible.  I think if you put these people back into large aggregates, they lose I.Q. along with perspective, and it becomes more important to identify with the group than to follow one’s own reasoning.  I think people want desperately to feel they have some control over their own lives and maybe over the world.  And I think people want to be attached to something heroic.

I also think people don’t want the ideological rug pulled out from under them.

There are many ways to achieve the feeling of control.  Most are easy, moronic, short-term, and destructive.  The hard one, the one that works, is to actually learn how to think and to learn how to tell the difference between nonsense and reality.  This is hard to do and often, even the best thinkers, get it wrong.  But it is the only way that leads to long-term success.

But I also believe that people don’t want to be responsible.  Ultimately, when you look at the list of idiotic things people defend, as if they were defending the ultimate meaning of life itself, at the core of them is a free ride from responsibility.  “Oh, I won’t know what I want Washington to do, so I’d rather they didn’t do anything.  And to make sure I don’t have to be responsible about any outcomes, I want to make sure they CAN”T do anything.”  “Oh, I don’t want to take responsibility for my life, so I’ll do whatever my astrologer tells me—after all, if it’s in the stars, it’s just fate, and I have no control.”  “Oh, I don’t understand anything about genetics and all that, so I’d like to make it so none of those questions ever come up and I don’t have to think about it.”

If I thought most of this came from people who had given any reasoned thought to these matters, I might be more tolerant.  But I don’t think so.  Religion has generally been replaced, not by reason but by the closest Cause of the Week.  Something to Believe In.  Something to give the impression that you have a say in what’s going on, but really all these movements are about not wanting to have a say and not wanting anyone else to have a say, either.  Even if some of these non-choices lead to unwarranted deaths, it would be “better” to live in a “natural” world than—than—

Than what?  Understand the world?  Find out that there are some things you just can’t do, but that there are other things you can if you only take the responsibility?

I didn’t mention health care.  It’s more complex, but it ought to be on the list.  The opponents to a national health care system reject it because, they say, it’s Socialism.  Yet they will readily agree that the current system works poorly and costs too much.  They would like it fixed.  How?  Not by law.  Oh.  Then how?  Well, there has to be a way to do it without federal involvement.  What might that be?  The Market.  But the Market hasn’t done anything but drive costs up and decrease certain services.  The Market doesn’t work.*  Gee.  I guess someone has to bar insurance companies from certain practices and costs generally have to be brought in line.  Who will do that?  I don’t know, but if the government does it it will be Socialism and we’ll be doomed.  There has to be a way to fix it without—

—without changing anything.  Bottom line.  Fix it but don’t change anything.  A clearer expression of wishful thinking is hard to find.  And they have been fed the line so long that anything the government does on behalf of its citizens is automatically Socialism that they cannot see through to a different solution—one that will indeed involve the government—no matter what.

Fix it without changing anything.

There is only one way to describe that.  Idiocy.

Thank you for your patience.

* The Market…in fact, the Market does function on its own, but most people would be hard put to claim the outcomes are desirable.  The way the Market would “fix it” would be to let bubbles grow like cancer cells and when they can no longer be supported, let them burst.  Economies collapse, people die, chaos ensues.  That is how The Market functions.  I dare say, that is not what people want when they say they want the Market to decide.


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About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (36)

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  1. Niklaus,

    Some of the nonsense about $600 hammers is true. My father worked in the defense contracting industry for a time and explained that the difference between consumer goods and government goods was often a simple change the government demanded that made the item a specialty product—at considerable cost. Another factor, believe it or not, was Mil-Spec packaging—merchandise had to be shipped in such a way as to survive cataclysms. Sometimes the packaging cost more than the item.

    To add insult to injury, a normal part of such contracts is a government-imposed gag order prohibiting as company from talking about a contract in any way, including defending itself from charges of fraud. The government never bothers to step forward and explain why the company won't respond to these charges and so often the company looks like the bad guy when all they're doing is abiding by the terms of the contract.

    There is a lot of this that goes on and full explanations are never forthcoming because one side is constrained from explaining and the other side is content to let the public assume what it wants.

    Fraud happens, but not nearly as often as the general public seems to think.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:


    Those notoriously bad tenured teachers are just as common in private schools as they are in the public system. They are, in actuality, a rarity. A bad teacher in the public system is newsworthy, while a bad teacher in the private system is quietly ignored.

    One reason government civil services seem inefficient is that they are often understaffed. Take the example of the DMV. A few years ago, I went to get my license renewed, I had to wait in line for four hours, and it was an ordeal. the problem was that changes in the law required everyone to get a new photo for their license.

    In Tennessee, each of the 95 counties had one driver registration and testing center, and the state has around 6 million registered drivers.

    With the average number of clerks at the centers at 3, each has to be able to process 250 applications per day if you assume everyone who applies shows up in a mechanically regular rate.

    Doing a bit of math, at peak efficiency, each clerk would have to process an applicant from start to finish in 1.8 minutes. It takes longer than that to take the photo.

    Yes this is inefficient.

    However, over the years, the DMV has, with the help of the state lawmakers, streamlined the system. Now, one can renew online, by mail, and rarely needs to have a photo made, as the photos are digital and kept on file. Occasionally a renewal requires a new photo.

    The last time I renewed my license, I had to go in for a new photo. The entire process took 10 minutes. I walked in, handed my paperwork to a receptionist, who ask if I needed to update my address, and since I did not, I was directed to a computer kiosk where a reviewed my info and paid the fee with my check card. After a short wait of two or three minutes, I was called up to the clerks desk, where i was given the vision test and directed to the photo area. The photo was taken and in a few more minutes my license was ready.

    But most people still have that "image" of the typical DMV.

    Mark, '

    back in my senior year at high school, rather that take a sixth period study hall, I opted to be a student assistant to the chemistry teacher. I remember very well the catalog published by an educational supply house that used odd names to justify high prices for common items. Two that I recall were the "disposable lab towels" at $4 per package (a single roll package of paper towels that was available for less than a quarter at any grocery store, and the $70 "Turner Bunsen Burner" which was a common propane torch, available at every hardware store at the time for about $8.

    What happens often with government contract bidders is that underbid, then file for cost overrun extensions. Another problem is that the bid specification has to accurately describe what is needed without actually naming a particular vendor or product. A specification based on an older hammer, may include a hickory handle painted olive drab, and the bidders will justify the item as a specialty product because the handle is wood instead of fiberglass and resin, or because it is painted green, or both.

    The military contracts usually have a gag order attached because even seemingly innocuous information such as how many hammers are order might be useful to an enemy. EX a large shipment of hammers to a deployment center may indicate an increase in troop deployment, the hammers needed to build baracks at a foreign base. But if NDAs are used only on selective contracts, it will certainly draw attention to them.

    I still stand by my point. Much of what is touted as fraud and inefficiency in government is actual fraud and inefficiency from the private contractors.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Niklaus: Regarding the bad tenured teachers, I hear the horror stories from other teachers, many of whom flee the districts. I must admit, though, that it seems as though the "bad" public schools tend to have the bad tenured teachers, whereas there are many excellent public schools that tend to hire good teachers who are also tenured. One of my daughters went to a Catholic grade school for 1 1/2 years. A terrible principal ran off many of the excellent teachers, and they needed to hire a new competent principal to rebuild. That's an example of a private school with good times and bad, and I suspect that it's a common phenomenon over time that schools, private and public go through cycles of more and less excellent education, depending on many things other than whether the teachers have tenure. I do know, however, that when a public school goes bad, it is extremely difficult to get rid of the incompetent or unmotivated teachers, and it's because they are tenured.

  3. Niklaus Pfirsig says:


    Education requires effort on the part of the schools, teachers, students and parents. Generally speaking, private schools can be selective about who they admit while public schools cannot. This leaves the public schools with the under performing students.

    Many public school districts have charter schools, where private companies are contracted to run the schools independent of the school board and on a results only basis. After several years of results from large school districts, based on the aggregate averages of standardized test scores, the charter schools actually perform worse than the public schools.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    Some of my best classes were because of bad teachers. I like to learn; always have. But I abhor rote exercises and bulk memorization. One of the few tests that I ever cheated on was a regurgitation of the full list of Supreme Court Chief Justices, their tenures, birth dates, and home towns. I think I did right, as I have yet to imagine a use for this information.

    But I remember several teachers who gave up on me, and sent me to the library for a semester. I only had to show up for (and often set the curve on) tests. I learned a lot through independent and unguided reading.

    Blaming the teachers is not really helping the situation. By the time kids get to school, their academic trajectory is generally foretold. I learned well because of parentally instilled values.

    Good teachers can really help those who are merely willing to learn. But bad teachers cannot stop those who are determined to.

  5. I agree with Dan. Sometimes I think the metric for what qualifies as a good teacher is one who manages to instill the lessons in spite of willful resistance from the student. Blaming teachers is just another manifestation of trying to pretend that kids have no say in their participation in school, which is a form of adult blindness I've never understood. No matter how "good" my teachers were, they could never overcome the fact that I hated being in school. How is it their fault if I didn't learn?

    (But I always did well on tests—like Dan, learning was taking place, just not on their timetable.)

  6. Erich Vieth says:


    More evidence for you:

    "Michele Bachmann is now asserting that the issue of Internet network neutrality, known as "net neutrality," is an evil Obama administration plot to censor the Internet."

    This is truly Orwellian.

  7. When you get to the bottom of that piece you can begin to understand where she's coming from. Net neutrality means corporations can't impose restrictions, either, and in the bizarro-speak of the Libertarian Right, anything that blocks corporations (read: rich people) from doing whatever they want is unAmerican, and in this case a form of censorship. It's twisted, but in a way consistent.

  8. Sparky says:

    So in his video when he says that vitamin supplements are crap – and then later says that adding vitamin A to rice is a good thing… ahhh what?

    If he is so fond of science he should get treatment for his ADHD. He speaks so fast and paces so much I wonder if he's on cocaine.

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