The idiot paradox: Coping with stupidity in the modern age

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AI-generated image for illustration purpose only.

27th December 2023 – (Hong Kong) Stupidity has plagued humankind since the dawn of civilization. Yet in recent years, it seems like idiocy is spreading faster than ever before. Social media echo chambers, misinformation campaigns, and plain old human ignorance have created a perfect storm for stupidity to thrive.

This begs the question: Are people actually getting dumber, or does it just appear that way?

The answer is complicated. According to science, raw intelligence levels have increased over the past century due to improved education, nutrition, and healthcare. The average IQ today is higher than it was 50 or 100 years ago. However, it doesn’t always feel that way.

Why does it seem like there are more stupid people around than ever before? Experts point to several factors:

The Internet and Social Media

The advent of the internet has allowed misinformation and nonsense to spread farther and faster than ever before. Social media algorithms funnel people into echo chambers that reinforce their beliefs, no matter how ridiculous. Conspiracy theories, fake news, and ignorant viewpoints get shared to millions instantly.

This creates the illusion that stupidity is exploding, when in reality, it’s just more visible. People have always believed crazy things. Now we just hear about it nonstop.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

This psychological phenomenon states that the more incompetent someone is, the less they are able to recognise their own incompetence. Stupid people think they are smart. It’s impossible for them to grasp how little they actually know. When these people shout their half-baked opinions online or in real life, it seems like they are more abundant than ever. But they’ve always been there. Social media hands them a megaphone to proudly proclaim their stupidity to the world.

Anti-Intellectualism and Science Denial

In certain circles, intelligence and expertise have become dirty words. Pointing out errors in logic or fact is seen as elitist or condescending. This attitude enables stupidity to run rampant. When science and reason are cast aside, idiocy is bound to prevail. This troubling trend likely stems from a blend of ego, entitlement, and ignorance. When dim-witted people are empowered by social media and reinforced by peers, they cling fervently to whatever they want to believe, no matter how absurd. Evidence means nothing.

The Politicisation of Everything

Politics have infected nearly every facet of life, from entertainment to public health. When complex issues become politicized, nuance dies. Critical thinking goes out the window. All that’s left is picking a team based on ideology.

This tribalism rewards the most extreme, ignorant viewpoints with attention and platform. The loudest mouths get the most airtime, factual or not. This ultimately drags public discourse down to the lowest common denominator. No side is immune from stupidity, but the tribal mentality helps it metastasize.

Information Overload

The modern news cycle bombards us with a relentless stream of data, claims, and stimulus. It’s more information than the human brain can reasonably process. As a result, people latch onto whatever is shocking or reinforces their biases while ignoring subtleties and nuance.

This information overload taxes our mental resources and cripples our ability to think critically. Outlandish headlines grab attention over mundane facts. The more time we spend trying to process this firehose of data, the more stressed and irrational we become. This mental exhaustion enables stupidity to slip through the cracks.

So in many ways, the perceived explosion of stupidity stems more from flaws in information systems rather than an innate decline in brainpower. We are overwhelmed, underinformed, and incentivized to think reactively instead of rationally. Our decreasing attention spans and tribalism pave the way for idiocy.

Of course, true stupid people have always existed and always will. So how do we cope with them in this modern age? What’s the best way to deal with stupidity when it confronts you?

First, understand why they believe what they do.

As the old saying goes, “Don’t attribute to malice what can be explained by ignorance.” Stupid opinions are often born of limited experience and knowledge, not ill intent.

Next, ask questions.

Don’t attack or condescend. Gently ask how they came to that conclusion. Often stupid people have never had their views truly challenged, only reinforced in their bubble.

Pick your battles. Don’t waste time on trolls or those acting in clear bad faith. Focus efforts on reasonable people merely misinformed on topics that matter.

Frame corrections around shared values, not ideology.

Meet people where they are. Make your argument appeal to why their viewpoint could harm what they already care about. This avoids reflexive stubbornness.

Accept when people double down on stupidity.

You can’t reason someone out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into, as the saying goes. Some refuse growth. Don’t force it.

Set boundaries when stupidity becomes abusive.

You don’t have to tolerate cruelty, aggression, or stubborn ignorance. Walk away. Don’t become a punching bag for the dim-witted.

Lead by example.

Embody the change you want to see. Fact check yourself. Question your assumptions. Admit when you’re wrong. Apathy enables stupidity.

Trust in human progress.

For all the doomsaying, society keeps incrementally improving in knowledge, rights, health, and compassion. Our shared march towards progress outpaces any missteps.

Remember that loud fools on social media represent a vocal minority in society, not the majority. Billions go about their lives offline in peace, community, and growing understanding. The hateful and dim occupy spotlight, but most people are decent, thoughtful human beings. Don’t lose sight of that fact.

The perceived proliferation of stupidity can be disheartening. But it says more about the rapid evolution of our information systems than the human mind itself. There have always been – and will always be – stupid people. But throughout history humanity has inched towards enlightenment against all odds.

Our task is to keep plodding onwards despite the idiots, for they have always been here, and always will. We must weather their storm as society slowly grows away from the remnants of its ignorant past. Progress is not a straight line, but more a zigzag, swaying forwards despite the steps back.

Such is the idiot paradox of our modern age: Dealing with an apparent abundance of stupidity caused by flaws in how ideas now spread. But perhaps with wisdom and care, we can design systems and cultivate norms that make space for truth to bloom again. progress has always outpaced human stupidity. If we do not lose hope – and do not become what we despise – it always will. There is too much beauty in humankind for it to be otherwise.

This, too, shall pass.