People Are All Idiots! Then What?

Gonna use ableist language in this post, obviously, but not as an endorsement, also obviously – I hope.  A common belief of misanthropes in all walks of life is that they are the lone sane or intelligent person in a world gone mad or gone stupid.  You get that a lot in comments on FtB.  Observe my comment policy in the sidebar before you bring that here, please.  I just wanted to get out an idea that’s been occurring to me a lot lately.  I’ve been running into the cognitive deficits of others pretty often, and the big plagiarism video focused a lot on the question of “why plagiarize?”  I feel these things are related.

When I say I’ve been running into the cognitive deficits of others, you might reasonably infer that I think of myself as superior to those people in intellect and worth – that I am being ableist.  But I believe you can acknowledge that somebody has a deficit in a non-ableist way, for example, when developing policies to allow the cognitively impaired full access to a good life.  It’s what you do with the observation of that fact that matters.  Do I think people are less valuable than I am because they would do worse on standardized tests?  Worse at math, reading comprehension, elementary logic?  No.

Do I think I am the end-all be-all of genius?  Fuck no, I feel the limits of my own ability to think every fucking day at my job.  It sucks.  It sucks worse for the people I deal with, and I feel bad for them.  My job is, in part, trying to explain information that makes me feel feeble-minded to people who find that information fully paralyzing.

The picture I’m starting to get, the half-baked thesis I’m dropping here, is that huge swathes of humanity are much less intelligent than society expects them to be.  We expect certain basic abilities in modern life – attention span, reading comprehension, math, awareness of cultural concepts and trivia, wit, spelling and grammar, whatever.  You might see people being slack about some of these and scoff, say there is no standard, but that’s a facile way of looking at shit.  Witness the way people get dogpiled for embarrassing themselves on social media.  These expectations are unevenly enforced, but they do exist.

(Quick aside on race and class:  I’ve talked to an upper middle class white person who was hatefully resistant to understanding the most basic aspects of the laws and policies they were dealing with, and a user of thick AAVE with multiple children dependent on social benefits -your “welfare mom”- who effortlessly intuited subtleties of the even worse laws and policies they were being subjected to.  You can’t judge cognitive ability from how educated a person sounds.)

This situation has not resulted in people rising to those standards, because they fucking can’t.  The actual result of those standards is a lot of fakery.  People learn how to pretend they’re more capable than they are.  Some buy their own act and get overconfident, but most live in terror of being discovered.  It’s not always imposter syndrome, because – if I’m right – the average person is genuinely not as cognitively capable as we expect them to be.  This is not unlike the way we expect everybody to be more slim and physically adroit than most people are capable of being.  We’re all doing our best to not get attacked for our deficits, and if I’m right, huge numbers of people passing as able right now are actually mentally deficient by mainstream standards.  They’re suffering for it.

The shittier skeptics will just mock the gullible.  The more idealistic skeptics might see this issue and think, well, we’ll just help enlighten them.  They’re right that nobody deserves to be gulled, but they’re wrong to think it’s possible for most people to reach a point of skeptical competence that will prevent it.  We’d do better to push for laws and social mores that protect people from deception.

If you see somebody struggling with some cognitive task, cut them some slack.  You’ve surely struggled with thinking at some point in your own life, or will in the future, should you experience senescence.  Don’t call attention to it, just help them get past the situation discreetly and move on.  That’s all I have for now.  I don’t believe education and outreach is useless, but it could be useful to get a more realistic view of its limitations.


  1. Jacob letoile says

    On a similar note, the “reasonable person” standard in law, defined by people who wouldn’t recognize a reasonable person bringing them coffee

  2. says

    It’s certainly too much to expect people to spot plagiarism. The more shocking thing about it is that it went on for so long with so many viewers. You’d expect at least some people to spot it, and there were some people–but not enough for it to reach public knowledge.

    One possible reaction is, “how can people be so stupid (derogatory)?” But a better response is “Evidently, we actually are that stupid (non-derogatory)”. We just can’t rely on ourselves to figure this stuff out. We have to rely on each other to cover each other’s failings. But then there will be some people will choose to betray that trust. There are no easy answers.


    (obscured by GAS for diet talk) Approach globally, and assume nothing. I think western diet plays a significant role here – we drown in sugar and carbs. Seven years ago I dropped off the western diet. It is not easy if you are active in the outer world. Almost all fast food is bad. Restaurant food is heavily carbs and you don’t know where the sugar is. But shopping and eating at home are easy – fresh vegetable matter and organic animal matter. So how do we change this part of culture?

  4. says

    Sig – true facts, no easy answers is becoming the theme of our lives lately. or always was.

    Wiess – kinda feel like deleting this comment and banning you. i’ll just wait and see what you say next in my comments, if anything. i don’t love diet talk, whether i have a rule about it or not, and it seems like outrageously off topic nonsense.

  5. says

    It seems to me that whenever a field opens up, shortly after the early adopters come the scammers and phonys – usually around the same time the money starts to appear. Vlogging is big business, now, and a lot of the first round of vloggers have shut down or had to level up their operations to compete with slickly produced clickbait. One of the points I liked about hbomberguy’s piece was his analysis of how the plagiarists were making money by edging out people who actually produce content. A couple of the vloggers I used to follow are now complaining that they dropped their jobs and made vlogging a career, then the market got flooded with slick crap – and the plagiarists go right along in that. One of the things I’ve noticed is that there are a lot of folks on TikTok who simply post quick shorts ripped from other people, boost the eyeballs coming toward their one identity, then try to shift the user-base to another identity.

    I was also fascinated by hbomberguy’s point that ChatGPT will be a great tool for plagiarists. Just have it re-write your script then read it. Heck, have the AI generate the voice, too. Am I the only one who has noticed a LOT of AI voiceovers?

    Remember when banner-ad trollfarms sprung up back in 2016? Like weeds, they choked out interesting content until eventually people stopped falling for the links and the trollfarmers moved on to something else. It seems as if the scammers will constantly shift and innovate – anything, so long as they can avoid doing honest work. [Actually, I recall an article about trollfarms that said a lot of underpaid people do the actual trollfarming work and the master trollfarmers’ job is to sit in a cybercafe somewhere coordinating the operation] Anyhow, my personal theory is that scammers and spammers (and “legitimate marketers”) will cram into a new market niche until they crap it up so thoroughly it loses its economic value and then they go someplace else. We just have to wait for them to go someplace else. Although, the plagiarist/scammer hookup is pernicious because they can create apparently interesting well-researched content by stealing it.

  6. says

    I suppose when the plagiarists go fully automated, we’ll have to do fun things like put easter eggs in our content: “hey if you’re reading this in someplace other than Marcus Ranum’s blog, this has been plagiarized!” (in an AI generated voice)

  7. Jazzlet says

    Yeah, I encountered a lot of people who would have been classed as stupid by the PTB when working in housing benefits, but what this really meant is that they hadn’t passed the various tests the UK uses to distinguish who will be the higher paid drones, because the establishment find that kind of “intelligence” useful. That grading of children, and the education they subsequently got, is still done in some parts of the UK and is incredibly damaging; the idea was that the “stupid” ones would get a good practical education fitting them to be lower paid drones. Of course what actually happened was lots of taxes were spent on the grammar schools and far less on the secondary moderns, so those that failed at ten had a little chance to get educated in the things that they could do, let alone catch up if they were just bad at tests or had an off day on the day of the eleven-plus; even on the establishment’s own metrics the system failed. But my housing benefit experience showed me that a lot of those so-called stupid people had specific educational problems, like being unable to read, or “intelligence” that didn’t match the establishment’s most valued attributes. Which lead me to understand viscerally that in a way I had previously only understood intellectually that they were all still people.

  8. says

    jazz – i had a customer on the phone once who was being actively scammed by one of those horrific con artists that pretends to be a long distance lover, then spouse, to the victim. he still would not believe he was being robbed. in the course of the convo he revealed he was a stock piece of shit racist US conservative. but he was still a disabled person reliant on social services for life, and having his life fucking demolished by someone taking advantage of his intellectual deficits. i don’t want that to happen to anyone, still hope he took my advice after the call was over. why does life have to be like this? sucks.

  9. says

    It may be off-topic, but I think it round-about relates, so let me just give it a shot:

    But shopping and eating at home are easy – fresh vegetable matter and organic animal matter.

    I think this is rather questionable. Whether it’s easy depends a lot on where you live, what economic class you are, and whether you’ve been taught how. Availability of food is location-dependent and the freshest food is rarely the cheapest. Also, cooking a meal from scratch is a skill and if you don’t know how to do it, you’re likely to just end up with an over-priced, half-way edible mess. You don’t have to experience that very often before you abandon that idea.
    It only seems easy when you already know how. What if you don’t? Sure, there are recipes available on the internet, but are they possible to make on the single hot plate in your student apartment? And does everyone even know how to follow a recipe? It just occurs to me that I was taught how when I was maybe six years old. That’s a lot of catching up to do for a twenty-something individual learning for the first time.

    This then ties back to the subject of general competence. It’s all well and good to point out that something can technically be done, but do people actually know how to do it? All the people? The solution that works for an individual does not automatically apply to a population.
    Some people can’t make a ham sandwich without both breaking the wrench and neutering the cat. Expecting them to go down the grocery aisle and pick out fresh ingredients, within a set budget, and turning them into a palatable meal is just plain unrealistic. Somebody needs to help them or it simply won’t happen.

    I’ve been toying with this idea that communal eating is a way forward. I intended it for reasons of social cohesion, but it might also be a teaching environment for just this sort of thing. Perhaps, in general, what we need is more opportunities for social skill-sharing. That’s the best part of youtube, after all (even if it sometimes fails us). Maybe more of that, but in-person?

  10. says

    still diet talk. in context also felt like it was saying “eating bad” is damaging our brains, which would be hella specious, also a shorthand way to say fat people are stupid and it’s their own fault because they don’t do this one “easy” thing. irredeemable comment.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.