I’m stupid, and so are you

You don’t need to be the world’s greatest psychologist to predict that telling your audience they’re all stupid is not the best way of endearing yourself to them. Still, I thought it might be a provocative way of getting their attention, and since I included myself among the ranks of the dim, perhaps they wouldn’t be offended after all.
When I tried this at the Aye Write! book festival yesterday I was careful to apply the lessons learned at the first running of the workshop, at London’s Hayward Gallery a few weeks ago. The workshop was tied in with the book Do You Think What You Think You Think? which Jeremy Stangroom and I wrote together. In London, three members of the audience were very indignant about my accusations of stupidity, for the good reason that they thought intelligence was not just about logic, and when I got talking, most of what I discussed was about was the human tendency to thinking illogically.
I happily conceded the point, but with some reservations. It’s clearly true that good thinking requires more than just a firm grasp of logic, but logic is more important to most types of good thinking than many allow. Put simply (perhaps too simply), logic is simply the working through of the implications of accepting that it nonsense to assert both that something is true and that it is false at the same time. Of course, many statements are partially true and partially false, or appear to be contradictory. But embracing literal paradox is the last resort, and when people clearly contradict themselves, everyone can see that this is a sign something is wrong. Indeed, when politicians do it, we jump on them and accuse them of hypocrisy.
So in Glasgow I got the caveats in early and that was probably why the vocal resistance in London was absent north of the border.
I still find it odd, however, that claims for human stupidity are ever controversial. The evidence of our irrationality is all over the place. By coincidence, Nicholas Lezard, in yesterday’s Guardian, recommended a 1982 book by Stuart Sutherland called Irrationality, which is full of examples of how badly we think.
My other talk at Aye Write!, on the philosophy of the Simpsons, is full of other such reminders. The Simpsons constantly mocks the pretensions of the human race to greatness. Everyone is satirised, whatever their intelligence or status. In one episode, the Mensa group gets to run Springfield and the result of their “enlightened” rational rule is disastrous. (Comic Book Guy: “Inspired by the most logical race in the galaxy, the Vulcans, breeding will be permitted once every seven years. For many of you this will mean much less breeding, for me, much much more.”)
But then maybe the series contains another clue as to why we don’t like to be criticised for illogicality: not being fully logic is what makes us feel human, and in The Simpsons it is the failings of the characters which make them lovable. Most would agree with the lyrics of that nauseating Dean Friedman song: “We can thank our lucky stars that we’re not as bright as we’d like to think we are.”
Well I’m not thankful for my stupidity, but nor am I going to deny it. It’s a bit like drug addiction: the first step to recovery is to accept you have a problem. So here goes: “My name is Julian Baggini and I’m not very clever.” It sounds like the kind of thing Socrates might of said – in a Simpsons episode, that is.

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