On the sentence: the intelligent gives way

the world domination of the stupid is built!

Maria von Ebner – Eschenbach

(19th century Austrian writer and novelist)

Sometimes we ask ourselves why so many stupid people are in responsible positions. By “stupid” I do not mean people possessing a different opinion or ideology – I know very intelligent Socialists (and stupid Conservatives) – but people of definitely below-average intelligence. But simple stupidity is also not the whole point. A simpleton who at least knows that he is one and therefore knows his place and does not forward any claims to society is not really dangerous and may life a happy life – at least not disturbing others [1]. The dangerous combination, the poisonous brew to borrow a phrase from Sir Karl Popperconsists of  stupidity in the sense of being inept to master rational questions, mixed with ignorance and arrogance. But it seems that this is a driving combination to the top of some (mainly political) hierarchies.

The whole thing was already some time ago scientifically investigated and has a name [2]. It is named the Dunning-Kruger-effect. This is a  cognitive distortion, meaning that relatively inept people posses the tendency to overestimate their own capacities and underestimate the capacities of others. This popular term derives from a publication by David Dunning and Justin Kruger, dated 1999. Within psychological literature it has not been used (maybe due to incompetence?) but is at home in academic and social media discussions outside of psychology.

“If someone is really incompetent then he not even realizes that he is inept. … The properties one needs to find a correct solution are exactly those you need to recognize if a solution is correct or wrong,” David Dunning says.

My addition is that you have to be learned and intelligent enough to recognize which challenge or question is beyond your intellectual capacities. That includes a certain abstention from vanity, as some people are to vain to admit to themselves or even to others that they have limits of erudition. As Otto von Bismarck remarked, vanity is the mortgage on the character of man which has to be deducted to get the net value.

Dunning and Kruger had recognized in previous studies that for example by learning a text, playing chess or driving ignorance leads to more self confidence than knowledge. So knowledge is not only power but also a burden. At Cornell University both scientists researched that effect in further tests and concluded in 1999 that less competent persons:

  • Tend to overestimate their own capabilities;
  • Do not recognize or see superior capacities with others;
  • Are not able to measure the amount of their own incompetence;
  • may through education and training not only raise their own competence but may also learn how to evaluate others and themselves better.

In other words, they might be able to go from puffed-up know it all (like me) to a decent, rational thinker (like me). My personal addendum is that nothing makes one more eager to make a decision than a profound under-nourishment of real information. That seems to be the ‘recipe for success’ of some generals and many politicians.

Furthermore, this lack of competence and intelligence seems to go hand-in-hand with the tendency to command other people around. Therefore, we may see such people blossoming in all types of authoritarian structures. On the other side, hierarchical systems are necessary and (modestly applied) most useful.

Popper reminded us [3] to teach the student how difficult it is to gain secure knowledge,  but the plethora of 3/8 more deformed than educated, half-wits, loud mouths and busy bodies forms a phalanx eager to steamroll the educated ones. Also, the outstanding French diplomat and statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord is reported [4]   to have made  a distinction as follows: intelligent and industrious at the same time does not exist (as the clever ones avoid work and can easily burden the stupid’s with it), intelligent and lazy he is himself, stupid and lazy may be useful for representation and protocol but stupid and industrious is a dangerous combination and the Almighty lord shall protect us then.

Dunning and Kruger did show that weak performances go much more hand-in-hand with over self-confidence than strong performances. Maybe real achievers are just more modest than the mediocre ones. [5]

The challenge is to select the right people, to have good schooling from the very beginning, to emphasize classical and philosophical education, and to strive for clean and decent heads of organisations. Because one thing is true always: ”The fish always rots from the head” and first class bosses have first class colleagues, employees and civil servants and second class ones, third and fourth class subjects. As Machiavelli taught us, “if you like to judge a prince, look at his courtesans”. If we look around, it does not look pleasant. And so we are back at Ebner-Eschenbach’s quote that giving way to inept men and idiots established their dominance. But why should that be ?

But we, the normal citizens, shareholders, or whatever, must stop being too polite to such people. Finally, there is only one good but harsh answer we should give the arrogant debili, inepti et suspecti , the one answer Charles de Gaulle gave them: “Ils sont censé allez merde”.

1) Horst Geyer, Ueber die Dummheit (On stupidity), VMA publisher, Wiesbaden, p 307f

2) Source: Wikipedia article on the ‘Dunning – Kruger’ effect.

3) The Open Society and its Enemies II, Francke, Munich, 3rd edition, 1977, p 353

4) Geyer, ibid, p 25

5) In the year 2000, Dunning and Kruger received the satiric Ig-Nobel prize in the field of psychology for their study.