All about stupid people who are too stupid to know they’re stupid

I had an idea for a crazy science fiction story set on a strange fantasy world in which the most powerful nation is taken over by a tangerine coloured moron with the emotional maturity of a spoilt four-year old who, alas, imagines himself to be the smartest individual that ever existed. Chaos and hilarity ensues.

I never wrote it. I mean, the idea’s so obviously far-fetched that I’d have trouble suspending disbelief for readers. Even fantasy has to have some grounding in plausible reality and this scenario – well, it wouldn’t ever happen in the real world.

The point about a certifiable idiot thinking they are the most intelligent person around, though, is not just plausible but well known. The logic runs like this: genuinely intelligent people are aware of their limitations. Stupid people are not. It was on this basis that Dunning and Kruger came up with the proposal that some people are so blind to their own limitations that they imagine themselves experts in whatever field they have adopted as their own.

Artwork by Plognark http://www.plognark.com/ Creative Commons license

I see that one happening all the time in history. It’s one of a number of fields where it superficially appears dead easy – merely an act of copying data out of archives – where anybody can do that, assign themselves the label ‘an Historian’, and be taken seriously as such. I can cite plenty of examples where people qualified in other areas – accountancy, for instance – have sailed on with their self-assigned career as ‘an Historian’, utterly oblivious to the relentless interpretative gaffes and outright contextual mistakes they make. They also judge others, including professionally qualified historians, on their ability to repeat data. I mean, history’s merely about copying data out of archives, isn’t it, and your worth is a person is measured on how accurately you can copy the material and the ‘knowledge’ you have of isolated factoids. No skill really needed – how hard can it be?

Never mind that sources frequently vary between themselves, meaning that even empirical data has to be understood and evaluated for its quality, and that there are necessary techniques for doing so. Just to venture back into the realms of implausible fantasy, imagine some politician, a total doofus, who gate-crashes his way around world diplomatic circles, drops gaffes and makes a complete dolt of himself, all the while proclaiming how intelligent and amazing he is. Centuries later, historians are confronted by a whole pile of contradictory material: some of it declaring how intelligent this doofus was, some condemning him for being a moron.

Which one is correct? Professional historians have an analytical toolkit and methodologies for being able to work all this out. But you wouldn’t know if you thought history was about copying raw data and being able to ‘know’ the same – oh, and bagging anybody as worthless who hadn’t copied it correctly.

You can see where this is going – multiple ‘an Historians’ screaming and tearing at each other like deranged psychopaths, because they have opposite ‘facts’ about the same thing and each treats anything different to their own ‘facts’ as proof of the incompetence of the other ‘an Historian. Or they go about bagging professional historians the same way because they have no concept of the nature of analytical process, and regard the professional conclusions as ‘opinion’.

The reality is that history is always going to be a discussion. One, hopefully, civil – but alas, so often not. And that’s quite apart from the other problem of loose-cannon doofuses who imagine they are capable. Thoughts?

Copyright (c) Matthew Wright 2019

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6 thoughts on “All about stupid people who are too stupid to know they’re stupid

  1. The only thing worse than an idiot who doesn’t know they’re an idiot is an idiot who doesn’t know they’re an idiot and to whom other idiots have granted great power. Hopefully the human race will endure long enough for historians to understand how so many idiots were able to come together in the same place.

  2. I had a little bit of sport with this notion in my fiction book. Multiple people/groups were interpreting historical events in many different ways and often getting it wrong. In one case someone who’s interpretation was the most outrageously wrong spoke insultingly to the one who got it right. We see this all the time. When I was growing up, Vikings were portrayed as vicious stone-age barbarians bent on destruction just for the joy of it. Now I find out they had established the world’s most extensive trade routes, connecting Europe to the middle-East and Asia. Hardly a possible accomplishment for mere wild-eyed killers.

    1. Yes, I enjoyed that part of the book particularly! History is always re-written to suit current times and needs, and it’s the engagement with current need that usually makes the re-write gain traction. Back when I was at university the interpretation of the New Zealand Wars was being revised on the back of a PhD thesis by someone a year or two ahead of me. His interpretation keyed directly into the priorities of emerging post-colonial thinking and gave him immense personal status in the field. It also meant that his ideas became the only way to view that period. Everybody else was subsequently judged on whether they agreed with him (thus copying him) or disagreed (and thus were intellectually worthless). The fact that this guy was flat ignorant of military matters, and demonstrably so on every level, did not stop the juggernaut. And, as always, critics of those who refuted him failed to see the subtleties.

  3. “The reality is that history is always going to be a discussion. One, hopefully, civil – but alas, so often not. And that’s quite apart from the other problem of loose-cannon doofuses who imagine they are capable. Thoughts?”

    Your post is really on two topics of course, the first being on the paradox of intelligence and self awareness, which is close to the paradox of ignorance and self awareness, the two of which often travel together. That is, while those who are stupid are often not aware of that fact (on rare occasion they are), the intelligent are indeed aware of their limitations as a rule (although sometimes they are not). This is common and well demonstrated, and in fact according to those who have studied it, nearly everyone actually overestimates their own intelligence.

    I’ll deal with this first, and your second point, which is on who can claim to be an Historian.

    On the first point, a lack of intelligence combined with the belief that a person is intelligent certainly gives rise to nightmare scenarios, but I’d maintain that the ignorance problem is a bigger one. The stupid may burn, but its ignorance that sets wildfires. Only education can combat that, but it can combat that. Which leads me to the second point.

    In your second point you raise the debate between trained historians and amateur ones. This is a real debate and there are a lot of bad histories published out there currently by those who simply have the means of publishing. AS a published person myself, I’ll note that I don’t hold a degree in history, but a B.S. in one of the sciences and a J.D., but I’ll also note that I was very close to a B.A. in history at the time I completed my B.S. and had to head out into the world to search for work, and frankly my credentials in some limited areas are about as good as anybody’s, perhaps augmented by the J.D. which trains a person in analytical thought (although I’ve often thought that the field that entitles somebody to work in is afflicted frequently by those holding it having the first to paradoxes). I note this as I’ve watched the Historian v. “historian” debate ensue, I’ve also watched the upper reaches of at least American education decline in my view, leading to the second paradox. It’s now perfectly possible to acquire a bachelors degree in an American university and even a masters or doctors agree without taking a foreign language at any point, for instance, which is absurd, in my view. It’s additionally possible to go all the way through to a doctorate and come out with very little training in history or any of the “arts” which is a crime against education.

    But before I go too far in that, the upper reaches of many academic departments are filled with students pursuing courses of study of no to little value that will come out convinced of their intelligence but actually be schooled in their ignorance. I’ll spare the details but awhile back I took a look into the qualifications of somebody who had set themselves up as a historical gatekeeper and found them not only to still be a student, although at the upper reaches of their education, but with “expertise” in an area limited to an area of trendy social science development such as to have a history that was much more theoretical than real and of no real value to the advancement of any historical field than studying the history of the television watching preference of field mice would be.

    So problems abound.

    How to take this on is another matter. It would involved the reconstruction, at least in the U.S., of education at the pre university level. Having said that, I’m encouraged as my own recent experience with this has shown that the education that demographic is receiving now is vastly superior to the one I completed in the early 1980s.

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