Reversed Stupidity is Not Intelligence

Maybe I’m severely dating myself here, but I remember a time when the Republicans at least seemed like the lesser of two evils. I’ve heard about the studies showing how government spending and debt grew faster under Republican than Democratic administrations, meaning that I was fooled by surface rhetoric, but still, I remember a time when the Republicans seemed more libertarian-friendly than the Democrats, and I was actually telling people to vote Republican if no third-party candidate was available. As opposed to modern times when the Democratic Party is corrupt, spineless, and lacking in any discernible principle beyond individual campaigns for re-election, and the Republican Party is… maybe the phrase “anti-sanity” might describe it? It goes out of the realm of what I’m accustomed to thinking of as U.S. politics and into the realm of the sort of antigovernance one reads about in history books with titles like The Collapse of the Third Republic. I say this to emphasize that I was raised with no inherent prejudice against the name “Republican”; and I understand that many kindhearted people may still identify as “Republican” based on good feelings left over from before the Sarah Palin days.

The temptation to psychoanalyze people so you can dismiss their motives is very common; I know people who have psychoanalysis the way other people have bad breath. I see two relevant rationality tropes; the first doesn’t have a standard name, but I’d phrase it as “If you understand their core flaws so well, please demonstrate it by refuting their actual arguments and conclusions.” It does no good to explain at great length why nanotechnologists are immature utopians, or something, unless you can actually pull out a copy of Nanosystems and point out where one of the equations is wrong. (Why, yes, I do meet a lot of people who think they can produce solid judgments about difficult empirical or computational questions by sagely psychoanalyzing the motives of people who disagree with them.) Psychoanalyzing Republicanism, or Democratism, or Libertarianism, or whatever, does not absolve you of the job of refuting anyone’s actual arguments about what some particular regulation is going to do to the economy. (That really annoys me, actually; I feel an unusually strong impulse to hit somebody with a sock full of spare change whenever Party A is trying to conduct a modular argument about how reality works and Party B is responding with a self-satisfied literary analysis of their personality flaws.)

The other relevant trope is “Reversed stupidity is not intelligence” or as Robert Pirsig put it, “The world’s stupidest man may say the Sun is shining, but that doesn’t make it dark out.” It’s possible and perhaps even probable that a majority of people in the world who claim to believe in “quantum physics” do so for extremely bad reasons, and that what they believe in is sheer woo and nonsense. But to psychoanalyze these people’s flaws, even correctly, and even if they constitute a numerical majority of the people talking about “quantum,” says nothing at all about whether the smartest people who believe in “quantum” might perhaps be justified in doing so. “There is no cause so good that you cannot find a fool following it,” said Larry Niven. If you had a friend who was reliably wrong 99% of the time on Yes-or-No controversies, you could just reverse their answers to end up being correct 99% of the time. You would need to do all the work of gathering reliable evidence and processing it correctly just to be wrong that reliably. You would need to be superintelligent just to be that stupid. Hence the phrase, “Reversed stupidity is not intelligence.”

There are large numbers of embarrassing people who believe in flying saucers, but this cannot possibly be Bayesian evidence against the presence of aliens, unless you believe that aliens would suppress flying-saucer cults, so that we are less likely to see flying-saucer cults if aliens exist than if they do not exist. So even if you have truly and correctly identified a cluster of people who believe X for very bad, no good, awful, non-virtuous reasons, one does not properly conclude not-X, but rather calls it all not-evidence. On the other hand, having lots of low-prestige people babbling about aliens can certainly operate to lower the prestige of belief in aliens, since to profess belief in aliens would be to affiliate yourself with all these low-status people—you would probably feel a rather deep twinge of instinctive discomfort before you dared to publicly agree with them. This is one of the primary mechanisms whereby, if a fool says the sun is shining, we do not correctly discard this as irrelevant nonevidence, but rather find ourselves impelled to say that it must be dark outside.

The Reversed Stupidity trope has a famous and specific application to this exact question: “Although not all conservatives are stupid, most stupid people are conservatives.” We must attain a frame of mind where this statement, even if true, tells us nothing at all about the wisdom of conservatism one way or another, just like the vast hordes of believers in quantum woo say nothing about the truth of quantum mechanics.

With all that said, I find it quite plausible that:

(1) Political scientists have correctly identified major contributing psychological factors of conservatism in some substantial clusters of Republicans, i.e., what they state as contributing psychological factors to identification with the modern U.S. Republican party are indeed such factors in many or even a majority of such adherents, including factors Ravenclaw types like me tend to consider nonvirtuous, such as dislike of novelty and need for closure; and also that:

(2) Michael Shermer is also well justified in complaining that they structured their research and phrased their results with clearly biased political affiliation; with malice aforethought to treat Republicanism as a disease and psychoanalyze it; and without a corresponding effort to find non-virtuous-looking psychological factors contributing to some people identifying as Democrats, the other major political power group that happens to be around in the early 21st-century United States. They lumped all “conservatives” into a single cluster; not explicitly disclaiming that you can find a fool following any cause, nor that reversed stupidity is not intelligence; and that they did all this because in the realm of political academia, getting in a few good punches on the Republicans is more likely to help your career than hinder it.

But I also think that in the end, science is not under any obligation that its results never favor one political party over another, and that results like Haidt’s classification of moral justifications, or Tetlock’s research into taboo tradeoffs, are allowed to be what they are, even if someone could potentially use it to put some random political party in a bad light.

With all that said, Michael, if you would prefer less government spending, I think you’re better off not naming yourself as “conservative” at this point. Reversed stupidity is not intelligence, nor is morality a see-saw: whatever sins the Democrats may have committed in your eyes, their downward motion doesn’t push the Republican Party upward. Government grows under Republicans and under Democrats, and arguing over who grows it more slowly is missing the point; even if you vote for the lesser of two evils you shouldn’t go around identifying your self-image with them. We should only let ourselves identify with causes and groups that are actually, y’know, good in a non-comparative sense—never with the mere lesser of two evils.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Liberty and Science by Michael Shermer

    Michael Shermer discusses scientific findings about belief formation. Beliefs, including political beliefs, are usually the result of automatic or intuitive moral judgments, not rational calculations. One cluster of those intuitions presumes that human nature is malleable; these usually produce a liberal politics. Another group of intuitions presumes that human nature is static; these tend to produce conservatism. But Shermer argues that humans really fall somewhere in between — malleable, within some important limits. He argues that this set of findings should produce a libertarian politics.

Response Essays

  • Is That Your True Rejection? by Eliezer Yudkowsky

    Eliezer Yudkowsky suggests that the partial mutability of human traits is an auxiliary reason at best for Michael Shermer’s libertarianism. Take that fact away, and Shermer’s politics probably wouldn’t go with it. Yudkowsky says that his own small-l libertarian tendencies come from the long history of government incompetence, indifference, and outright malevolence. These, and not brain science, are the best reasons for libertarians to believe what they do.

    Moreover, we make a logical error when we infer shares of causality from shares of observed variance; the relationship between nature and nurture is cooperative, not zero-sum. One thing, however, is clear: Human genetic variance is tiny, as indeed it must be for human beings all to constitute a single species. Environmental manipulation can only achieve so much in part because of this universal human inheritance.

  • Should Libertarians Trust the Monkey Mind? by Joe Carter

    Joe Carter invokes an argument by philosopher Alvin Plantinga: If purely naturalistic evolution created the human brain, then we should expect our brains to be tuned for survival, not for truth detection. Michael Shermer appears to agree, at least so far. But if this is the case, then we have no reason to consider the theory of purely naturalistic evolution, or for that matter any other set of propositions, to be true. Under this rubric, truths are at best possible; they can never be necessary. Indeed, the monkey mind can never know that it knows the truth.

  • The Evolution of Liberty by Ronald Bailey

    Ronald Bailey argues that the freedom envisioned by classical liberals is congruent with science and democracy, and that the progress of all three together has enriched much of the world in the last two centuries. The enemies of this libertarian project hearken back to tendencies from mankind’s evolutionary history; for much of that history, experiment of any type could often be fatal, and therefore we find within us what may well be an evolved resistance to experiment. This resistance manifests politically as either conservatism, or a yearning for a purer, more primitive time, when noble savages walked the earth. It is a vice found on both left and right, Bailey argues, and one for which the antidote is libertarianism.

The Conversation