Why smart people need stupid people but don’t know it and what that says about smart people.

Posted on May 4, 2011


This is one of those ‘barely has anything to do with archaeology’ posts. I read this rant, Ignorance Today, from Massimo Pigliucci, a Professor of Philosophy at the Graduate Centre of the City University of New York.

Basically, he lauds the poor state of critical thinking in the world today. He believes that

on the one hand, we are constantly bombarded by expert opinion, by all sorts of people – with or without Ph.D. after their name – who tell us exactly what to think (though rarely why we should think it). On the other hand, most of us are woefully inadequate to practice the venerable and vital art of baloney detection (or, more politely, critical thinking), which is so necessary in modern society.

He then goes on to say that because of this lack of thinking

we keep allowing ourselves to be talked into supporting unjust wars (not to mention actually dying in them), or voting for people whose main job seems to be to amass as much wealth for the rich as they can get away with. It is also why so many people are duped by exceedingly costly sugar pills sold to them by homeopathic “doctors,” and why we follow the advice of celebrities (rather than real doctors) about whether to vaccinate our kids.

He continues on his rant to say that we need to mandate critical thinking in our schools now because all schools are only preparing us for the job market (ha, what university is he thinking of that actually prepares someone for the job market in archaeology? some do a decent job but it’s debatable on well you can actually prepare someone).

I have several problems with his line of thinking. The first, which is related to the title of this post, is that Dr. (Mr? it is not clear if he has a PhD) Pigliucci is a professor of philosophy. If he truly wanted people to have critical thinking he would be out of a job. He should have added to his list of things stupid people do- take redundant classes that provide no valuable contribution to their future welfare, such as Philosophy.

I can easily make the argument that you can get critical learning skills from a computer programming course instead of philosophy BUT you also get a valuable skill that will in all likelihood benefit your job prospects in the future. Of course, better job prospects will lead to higher salaries which in turn leads to a better quality of life. It is well document that being poor kills. So the “smart thing” to do would be to never take a class that gives you a redundant skill, like critical thinking, and not any other benefits.

Now before you go crazy defending the value of a Philosophy class/degree let me say I have degrees in archaeology which by the same logic would be redundant as well. This not to single out philosophy but to highlight the hypocrisy in this line of thinking. The point I am trying to make is that most of the people who complain about the ignorance of others usually benefit the most from it. Dr. Pigliucci should be grateful for ignorant people as they are the ones taking his philosophy classes and keeping him employed.

The second problem I have with this is that the idea of the ‘smart thing’ is subjective. For example, he says, “allowing ourselves to be talked into supporting unjust wars (not to mention actually dying in them)” but a just or unjust war is a subjective opinion. Furthermore, while I believe that kids should be vaccinated this does not mean the doctors are right about whether or not vaccines cause more damage then good. What it means is that I believe that correlations presented by doctors are better indicators of what to do then other forms of information. My choices could be wrong. We know so very little about the world that most of our ‘knowledge’ is just a series of correlations. If there is one thing we should all know is the Correlation is not Causation.

The third problem is that, in essence, Dr. Pigliucci thinks everyone should be more like him and think critical. If you do not think the way he does then that makes you ignorant. Ignorant is just a nicer way of calling people stupid. Really, the good doctor thinks people who do not think like him are stupid. I have to say I resent that implication and that might be why I have blogged so much about the subject. I may not agree with everyone’s decisions, who supports the Yankees (baseball), but like Socrates I know I do not know everything. It is unfortunate that Dr. Pigliucci started with that in the opening of his paper but ended up in the completely other direction. Unless, of course the majority of his paper was sarcasm which means I missed it. Oh well, here is hoping it was sarcasm.

Posted in: Wildcard