Once upon a time, confident in my knowledge of biology, I was certain that creationists were stupid. But then I read some of their articles and listened to some of their talks, and learned that some of them (not all of them! Some really did prove to be incredibly stupid) were extremely intelligent and well-educated — they were just profoundly wrong, and were using their minds to build elaborate rationalizations to shelter their errors from correction.

And then I discovered that a lot of scientists didn’t understand evolution very well either, and that many atheists were even more ignorant of science than their creationist opponents. So I’ve been learning that some very stupid ideas may be held by intelligent people, and vice versa.

Also once upon a time, content in my privilege of being a person of equanimity with few mental instabilities to trouble me, I was certain that the people who held those bad ideas, if not stupid, were surely insane. How could you believe the earth was 6000 years old or that gods existed or that prayer and UFOs and Bigfoot were real, all crazy ideas without a doubt, if you weren’t crazy yourself? And then, of course, it sunk in that most of the inhabitants of this country believe fervently in a god, so it would require a peculiar definition of insanity to argue that a majority of fully functioning, prospering individuals were all mad. They’ve got some crazy ideas, sure, but that doesn’t mean that the entirety of their behavior can be dismissed as the product of a damaged brain.

And then I met a great many smart, disciplined, hard-working, successful atheists and scientists who admitted to suffering from mental illness…and they were good people! “Crazy” isn’t grounds for rejection of individuals.

Don’t get me wrong: there really are lots of stupid, crazy ideas floating around with dangerous levels of popularity. But you can’t reject them with pat dismissals of their promoters as obviously stupid and disturbed.

So yes, I’ll think twice before concluding that someone with a crazy stupid idea is necessarily mentally ill.


  1. Chuck says

    I remember learning in my Psychiatry rotation that psychosis was defined as a “break with reality” with a specific exclusion carved out for religion.

  2. stever says

    “Insane” is a legal term that means something like “not to be held legally responsible for ones actions.” One can hold some spectacular delusions (like young-Earth creationism) and still be legally sane.

  3. johnharshman says

    You’re insane if you believe in your own, idiosyncratic crazy idea. You’re normal if you believe in a socially sanctioned crazy idea. Tinfoil hats, insane. Virgin birth, normal. Expanding earth, insane. 6000-year-old earth, normal.

  4. glodson says

    I think one of the more dangerous assumptions to make about a person with a seemingly insane idea is that they are either insane or stupid. Sometimes, this is the case. But sometimes, the person is very intelligent, sane, and even partly rational. However, they still have the wrong conclusion because of a failure to follow through on the rational part.

    I don’t want to talk about anyone else, so I’ll talk about myself. When I was a kid, I loved stories about Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. I didn’t know the idea then, but I was in the grip of confirmation bias. I would read books about them that were sure they existed. The thought was rooted deeply into my brain. But I managed to extract them with rational thought. I am rather proud that I managed to do that young.

    However, I failed to take these lessons I learned about critical thinking and apply them to my religion. The area I failed at but had learned through practice was getting past my cognitive biases. I tried to find ways to confirm all I read instead of looking for the faults. I tried to justify my rejection of the null hypothesis without any real evidence. I tried my best to find some apologetic argument that didn’t strike me as dishonest or illogical.

    Slowly, the rationalizations were seen for what they are, rationalizations. I was being partly rational. Because of that, I took all I had learned about critical thinking and built up internal defenses to reality, to evidence, to reason. I imagine that many of the more intelligent people who believe crazy things have done the same thing. Until they see the errors they are making, their ignoring of their own bias, they won’t ever listen to reason.

    Some people I know are confused as to why I hate this creationism mess. They know I am going to teach high school physics. What they don’t get is that I see the damage done to all of science thanks to the legitimizing of creationism is a science classroom. How can any of us expect kids to understand science when we have a fundamental theory of biology undermined by nonsense?

  5. says

    Only caveat I would have to add is that “mental illness” as you are using it here implies only physical damage to the brain. The only problem with that is, there are plenty of things, like Stockholm Syndrome , in which the brain is most certainly not damaged, or even necessarily malfunctioning, but where, I suppose you could say, the “data” has been badly corrupted, and yet, for some reason we still class those things as psychological disorders.

    As far as I am concerned, there are some ideas in the world which are, to use a computer analogy, a bit like everyone’s brain is running Windows 3.11, but a huge number of us have installed older software over top of newer, or just failed to install new software at all, and have nothing but a huge mess of buggy dlls floating around in our heads. (For anyone not understanding this, back in 3.11 there where few checks for version, and even when you where told something was older, you had the option of replacing the new, less broken, dll, with the older one, which came with your out of date application, so you ended up with a wide mess of broken things, due to old core system dlls replacing new ones, leading to strange behavior, crashes, etc.)

    It appears that the only reason certain things are not classed as “mental illness”, is much the same as running Win 3.11, and having someone insist, “I need the old version 3.21.2 dll for my Mine Sweeper 3D, so leave me alone.”, while the stuff we do recognize is more like, “Agh.. another virus.” The fact that version 3.21.2 ***is*** a virus, and Mine Sweeper 3D is spyware, not official releases, never enters into anyone’s minds, since, sadly, 90% of the population doesn’t have an anti-virus program installed, and even many that do, fail to detect all of the spam-ware and viruses out there. ;)

    So, yeah, not buying the, “Just because something looks like, functions like, and causes cognitive dissonance like, Stockholm Syndrome type conditions, its not a mental disorder, if its really, really, really, common place!” A segfault is a segfault.

  6. Becca Stareyes says

    Kagehi @ 5

    A lot of mental illness is defined by how much of a handicap your thought processes are to you, (or how dangerous they are to other people).

    Let me use myself as an example. I have a generalized anxiety disorder. Looking at my behavior (both before it got bad enough to require treatment, starting treatment, and now that medication has stabilized my mood), it’s easy to see that my anxiety is a normal brain process that is misfiring. Many people feel anxious before a deadline, or meeting new people. Where my anxiety became a problem is that I spent months on end feeling like every interaction with someone I didn’t know well (and some I did) was full of me making a fool of myself and every thing I had to do at school was the end of the world (or my career in science) if I didn’t do it perfectly.

    Now, if I had to draw a line between ‘normal grad school anxieties’ and ‘mental illness’, I don’t think I could, because it’s a fuzzy line. For that matter, I wonder if I could ‘manage’ my mental illness by working a lower stress job than being a ABD grad student looking for an academic job. Similarly, I’d say there probably is a similar fuzzy line in cognitive biases and not questioning everything — at times, everyone lets things slide since it seems like ‘common sense’, and we have things to do. But being too credulous or unwilling to question beliefs can cause problems in ordinary life.

    (And I’d say that many ‘moderate’ religions try to make it easy for adherents to get by in society with minimal trouble, because it makes it easy to just go with it. Even fundamentalist Christianity tries to set up its own ‘shadow businesses’ so adherents aren’t troubled by their beliefs.)

  7. says

    You have to remember that people are born with zero knowledge of concepts like resurrection (by a paramedic with a defibrillator) versus resurrection (by praying over someone who’s been legally dead for four days). People get their concepts of what works and what doesn’t from social cues and most people couldn’t tell you what the defibrillator does anyhow.

    Once you’ve got it in your head that the prayer might work, it’s easy to say things like “How do you know prayer has never worked? Have you looked at every example?” And of course if you’re surrounded by a plausibility structure you have the illusion of good evidence everywhere you turn.

  8. Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts says

    So yes, I’ll think twice before concluding that someone with a crazy stupid idea is necessarily mentally ill.

    Stop using “crazy” as a pejorative.

  9. philipc says

    Thank you! I don’t think “crazy” should be used to dismiss people or ideas, and it would be best to stop using it entirely, but I still think your conversion qualifies as a full-scale atheistmas miracle.

  10. lostintime says

    We use words like ‘crazy’ to characterise ideas that we strongly disagree with without necessarily thinking that the people who hold those beliefs suffer from mental illnesses. How do people feel about the word ‘delusional’ though? I think it’s defensible because although there’s a specific medical definition, it seems to have been contrived to arbitrarily exlude mainstream religious beliefs, and so it’s only a matter of convention that it isn’t applied to faith in general. I think we can use words like crazy and delusional in a generic sense without slighting people who have specific mental illnesses, and it’s clearly possible to be delusional about some aspects of reality while remaining perfectly decent, sane, intelligent and reasonable about everything else.

  11. Rodney Nelson says

    So I’ve been learning that some very stupid ideas may be held by intelligent people

    I know this to be true from personal experience.

  12. grahamjones says

    I like this explanation, from Breakfast of Champions, by Kurt Vonnegut.

    And here, according to Trout, was the reason human beings could not
    reject ideas because they were bad: “Ideas on Earth were badges of
    friendship or enmity. Their content did not matter. Friends agreed with
    friends, in order to express friendliness. Enemies disagreed with
    enemies, in order to express enmity.
    “The ideas Earthlings held didn’t matter for hundreds of thousands of
    years, since they couldn’t do much about them anyway. Ideas might
    as well be badges as anything.
    “They even had a saying about the futility of ideas: ‘If wishes were
    horses, beggars would ride.’
    “And then Earthlings discovered tools. Suddenly agreeing with
    friends could be a form of suicide or worse. But agreements went on,
    not for the sake of common sense or decency or self-preservation,
    but for friendliness.
    “Earthlings went on being friendly, when they should have been
    thinking instead. And even when they built computers to do some
    thinking for them, they designed them not so much for wisdom as for
    friendliness. So they were doomed. Homicidal beggars could ride.”

  13. Dick the Damned says

    I’ve recently been internet arguing with a couple of delusional people, associated with proselytizing organizations, one in the UK & the other in the USA. One was trying a Socratic approach with me, the other was referencing scientific papers that purportedly supported creationism.

    I shut them both up with what i believe are good arguments that even they couldn’t deny. I just wonder how they are now. Have they re-thought their beliefs? Sad to say, i doubt it. From past experience, i think these people can just ignore evidence against their faith beliefs, & dismiss it. They then blithely move on to something else, & forget it.

    These people are obviously not stupid, but there is something going wrong in their brains. It is -giving too much weight to currently held beliefs, at the expense of rethinking their world-view. There are evolutionary advantages to having that approach. They can think a response quickly, while people like me take time to come to a decision. Obviously, in a species of co-operative apes, there’s room for both approaches.

  14. joe321 says

    PZ, it seems that you are trying to cateforize all proponents of irrational ideas as either suffering from a mental condition or being intelligent but misinformed. I think there is one other huge group: the dishonest. For exzample, some politicians professing a belief in a world created 6000 years ago are doing so for political gain (sadly) so those people are neither mentally ill nor are they woefully misinformed. Likewise an author of a UFO book may not believe a word of what he/she writes but knows that such a book will sell better than a book debunking UFOs.

  15. don1 says

    It’s not unusual for intelligent, well-sdjusted people to believe in palpably silly things. A while back a colleague and I were chatting about watching telly and we had both watched a programme on the history of extreme ‘beauty’ treatments. I mentioned the segment where women in the Victorian era would have surgery to remove ribs so that their waist could be corseted ever tighter. My colleague replied, ‘Yes, I know. They had their spare ribs removed, awful.’

    I wasn’t quite sure how to take that, as she is highly intelligent and very capable and a nice person and a good mate. I knew she was a cradle catholic but she considered the current pope ‘creepy’, had told me she would never leave her children alone with a priest, never went to confession and shrugged off church instruction as irrelevant. She would show up at weddings etc but her observance was the minimum necessary to avoid upsetting elderly relatives.

    So I said,

    ‘Spare ribs?’
    ‘Yes, you know how women have more ribs than men?’
    ‘How would that happen?’
    ‘Well, the whole Adam and … oh.’
    ‘You do know that that didn’t happen?’
    ‘Yes. Shut up.’
    ‘I’m just saying the Garden of …’
    ‘Yes. I get it. Shut up.’

    Later we had a laugh about it, but she said she was quite embarrassed and annoyed to find herself proposing as fact something based on an old fairy tale. But it had sneaked inside her head and had never cropped up again until then. Once it was in he foreground it was clearly ridiculous, but it had always been deep in the background.

  16. nmcc says

    I find that it’s quite common for otherwise sensible people to hold barmy – and, indeed, sick – ideas. My favourite example of this tendency is your very own Ophelia ‘Col. Kurtz’ Benson. According to her, it’s perfectly reasonable to describe people who express their ‘free thinking’ by doning an American military uniform and, at the behest of a religious dolt, going cheerfully off to drop bombs on women and children (always on the women and children, of course, since the men folk are all away in their armies being terrorists) thousands of miles away as ‘good people’, whilst someone who uses the word ‘cunt’ is completely beyond the pale because it might offend some women. I think that view is, not only nuts, but utterly disgusting to boot. But then again, as recent events have shown, a rather large portion of the atheist ‘community’ (Har! Har!) are as mad as a box of frogs generally.

  17. Doubting Thomas says

    Somewhere back in my own study of psychology it was explained to me that the term “stupid” referred to the act of making choices or decisions based on emotional reactions rather than logical reasoning. Much of mental illness is attributable to such emotional reasoning or reaction. The schism in schizophrenia is the split not in personalities but between emotional response and reality. A person who clings to religious ideas in the face of scientific facts does so from an emotional attachment to those ideas. Religion is only “crazy” to the degree that it is harmful to the individual or others.

  18. Lofty says

    And once again the PC crowd destroy a word which originally meant something else, just because of its co-opting as a word for mental illness. I suppose there was once a fashion in the 50’s and 60’s for differentially-thinking paving. And plastic can develop a surface of fine fissures which can never again be called “crazing” for fear of offending someone.
    Which word will be next? Beware of reading old books, words can main and kill when redefined.

  19. says

    You just have to think of Plantinga and other apologists for nonsense, who make the point that if we evolved there’s no reason to suppose that we evolved to understand the truth about the world.

    Yeah, you think? Here you use a pretty decent intellect to endlessly repeat stupid “arguments” for God that have nothing to do with finding truth, and everything to do with avoiding truth?

    No, we would not expect humans to have evolved to actually know truth, but instead to understand the world well enough to deal with it, while maintaining social fictions that might actually be quite contrary to truth.

    Sure, we do have the perceptual abilities and, when properly taught, the capacity for discerning the truth (of course not the Truth) of much when we’re truly being relatively “objective”. But humans spent much of history wondering just what connection dreams had to the spirit world, and wondering how to prove that our own religious fictions were in fact True. We did evolve to be tribal, not so much to care about what really is the most accurate portrayal of the world.

    Glen Davidson

  20. dantalion says

    “So yes, I’ll think twice before concluding that someone with a crazy stupid idea is necessarily mentally ill.”

    A wise bit of learning.

    Sometimes the smartest (and even the sanest) people are affected by various mental issues. No need to tar the ill by associating them with the willfully stupid.

    The thing about people with crazy stupid ideas is some of them actually are crazy or stupid (or dishonest), but a great many are working off of bad information. Perfectly good reasoning applied to bad data can yield reasons to believe anything, and a lot of thoughtful intelligent people have developed their information pool in the creationist bubble, where church propaganda and apologetics have poisoned their calculations.

    Depending on what information an individual has seen, there are scenarios where a 6,000 year old earth is the most logical conclusion.

    The greater good that atheists can do is not to call people idiots. But to continue making information available and continuing to debunk these already debunked beliefs until everyone has seen reason not to believe them. Of course the willfully stupid and willfully dishonest will continue to believe. Let them. They are fewer than you might think, far outnumbered by the honestly misinformed and the lazy thinkers.

    Mockery has some value (particularly since some of these beliefs are based on the surrounding culture’s approval than any logical process), but mockery is not what’s most useful. Calling a person crazy or stupid may sometimes be called for, but it misses the point. Focusing on the person at all is a mistake. The person isn’t what matters. In this context they are merely hosts for ideas.

  21. Chuck says

    Stop using “crazy” as a pejorative.

    That ice cream was crazy good! That was a crazy awesome speech! It’s just crazy how smart that gal is!

    I’m not sure it’s better as a compliment.

  22. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    most people couldn’t tell you what the defibrillator does anyhow. – ChristineRose

    Indeed, and it is quite counter-intuitive: the function of a defibrillator is to stop the heart! If you’re “flatlining” (asystole), it’s completely useless.

    I’m trying to decide if nmcc is British or socially awkward. – Loqi

    Contrary to what many British misogynists claim, “cunt” is, usually, both extremely rude* and a gendered slur in Britain. Amusingly, we Brits (or more specifically we English) are stereotyped both as socially awkward, and as suave sophisticates.

    *BBC rules restrict its use far more than they do that of “fuck”, for example.

  23. Tony ∞The Queer Shoop∞ says

    Some commenters seem to believe using ‘crazy’ as an insult is similar to ‘retard’. I get the latter, but not the former.

  24. Sastra says

    don1 #20 wrote:

    Later we had a laugh about it, but she said she was quite embarrassed and annoyed to find herself proposing as fact something based on an old fairy tale.

    The casual assumption that women must have fewer ribs than men because “the Bible says so” doesn’t really strike me as a necessarily religious assumption, however. I used to think this was true even though I had no faith in the Bible, and had never been raised with it. I simply assumed that the writers of Genesis must have written the Adam and Eve story with the bit about the rib in order to explain WHY women had one less rib than men had.

    After all, many of the tales in religion are ‘just-so’ stories, after-the-fact inventions which are supposed to satisfy our curiosity about seeming anomalies. It’s actually difficult to wrap your mind around the idea of a story made up in order to explain a common fact … which apparently nobody had ever bothered to check up on, like number of ribs. A lie, that’s easy. A needless lie — that’s unexpected.

    Smart people being really, really good at rationalizing stupid things — that’s also to be expected. I think a lot of people reason very well from very bad starting premises. In many cases, they begin with a category error, such as placing “the existence of God” into “moral issue” instead of “empirical matter.” That’s why believing in God is compared to believing in love — or believing that love ought to matter. They start off confused and then make sense on their own terms.

  25. Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts says

    Some commenters seem to believe using ‘crazy’ as an insult is similar to ‘retard’

    Yes, similar in kind, not in magnitude. It is a term often used to dismiss and marginalize people with mental disabilities and is often used as a pejorative (in which case it is dismissing a person or idea by relating it to those with mental disabilities). That is how I see it, at least, though I am neurotypical and am not speaking from experience or any kind of authority.

    I get the latter, but not the former.

    Could you elaborate on why?
    On “crazy” as an ableist slur:
    Possible substitutes for “crazy”, that can help you be more specific with your criticisms, while still avoiding adding to ableist culture:

  26. says

    In re the rib thing, I’ve heard that “rib” is a mistranslation/bowdlerization to some extent, and that the actual “just so story” in question might have been an attempt to explain why human males don’t have a baculum (os penis/penis bone), unlike most other placental mammals, and even other primates.

    Of course, that explanation might itself be a “just so story”, but at very least it’s an amusing one.

  27. says

    Oh, and as for why things like “crazy” and “mad” are iffy insults (and even “stupid” under some circumstances), I think Woo_Monster pretty much has it. I don’t know if they’re quite as important to remove completely from one’s vocabulary as stuff like “retard”, but they’re at very least worth some thought, and it’s definitely a bad choice to use them on or in the presence of people for whom they might represent genuine terms of marginalization.

    And of course once you get to the point of, “I really wouldn’t want to say that to/in front of X,” there’s the question of whether it’s such a good idea to say it at all…

  28. Tony ∞The Queer Shoop∞ says

    I understand why ‘retard’ is an offensive, ableist insult.
    I do not understand why ‘crazy’ is. Yes, I do agree that it has been used as a perjorative to describe someone acting in a non normative manner. But I see crazy being used in a non insulting manner…”I am crazy in love”…”did you see that dudes crazy parkour moves?”…”I went to finish xmas shopping. Boy the mall was crazy.”

    ‘Crazy’ strikes me as a term that has moved beyond an insult. ‘Retard’ carries a very specific meaning where ‘crazy’ does not.

  29. nmcc says


    I think it depends on the context. There’s a 2 part programme hosted by Germaine Greer that’s viewable on YouTube dealing with the origin, history, usage etc of the word in which the word is used constantly. I’m almost certain it was on BBC2. I was somewhat surprised at Greer’s attitude as she seemed to be positively in favour of its use.

    Just to help you out…in regard to the first, I suppose it depends on your view of the much cogitated ‘Irish Question’ and, in regard to the second, not so ‘socially awkward’ as to be socially unaware that regardless of whether I am black or white, male or female, straight or gay, able-bodied or disabled, my degree of ‘equality’ is directly proportionate to the depth of my pockets – which, I suspect, makes me somewhat more socially competent than most of the participants in the recent ‘debates’ on here.

  30. Tony ∞The Queer Shoop∞ says

    Thanks for the links. Just read the first. I am not wedded to ‘crazy’. I don’t think I am completely convinced it is always a slur, but enough doubt has been planted that I may try to avoid using the word.

  31. Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts says

    I don’t think I am completely convinced it is always a slur, but enough doubt has been planted that I may try to avoid using the word.

    I am in the same boat that you seem to be in now. I just have enough doubt, and have heard enough criticism of the term as a slur, that I just want to avoid it (and occasionally tell others to do so as well).

    Easy enough to do (kind-of, it is hard to change language habits. I just meant it is easy enough to at least try to change).

  32. Tony ∞The Queer Shoop∞ says

    Now that I think of it, I cannot find an appropriate synonym for ‘crazy’ in my examples @38. In each example, the word describes an action or situation that is not ‘normal’. There really isn’t a way to use ‘crazy’ that doesn’t boil down to being neurotypical or not.

  33. Tony ∞The Queer Shoop∞ says

    Changing language habits isn’t easy, is it? I still catch myself wanting to call someone a ‘sonovabitch’. I am happy that I no longer default to using ‘retarded’ to describe any activity, and I try to inform others why it is a term to avoid using.

  34. Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts says

    To comment on the OP, and not just one word of it…

    Following hours after hours of debate with my good friend, whom I consider to be extremely intelligent, on the topic of 9/11 trooferism, I shed the notion that all believers in woo/magic/gods/conspiracies…etc. are necessarily anything more than just wrong.

    So, yeah, good message in the post. Wholeheartedly agree. Just disagree with some of the language because of concerns about splash damage.

  35. Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts says

    Tony ∞The Queer Shoop∞,

    Changing language habits isn’t easy, is it?

    It took me ages to drop “retard”. I still use the word “crazy” far too often. It is certainly easier to call out others’ problematic language than it is to completely expunge all splash-damagey terms from my own vocabulary.

    When I am having conversations now, I tend to pause more when I speak. I will be about to blurt out something harmful, catch myself, and then be stuck trying to find an alternate word in my head. It is annoying sometimes when I break up the flow of what I am trying to say to rack my brain for the perfect, most descriptive and accurate expression. But, these pauses over language are also helpful in that they force me to think about exactly why I am criticizing some policy/person/idea.

  36. lostintime says

    Could someone suggest a synonym for crazy that isn’t abelist? Or are we to avoid all suggestion that ideas might not just be irrational, but actually erratic? I’m genuinely interested, the concept of abelism is fairly new to me. If ideas can be delusional, why can’t they be crazy?

  37. chigau (違う) says

    Woo_Monster said

    But, these pauses over language are also helpful in that they force me to think about exactly why I am criticizing some policy/person/idea.
    [my emphasis]

    This is one of the best reasons for dropping all the quick-and-dirty insults.

  38. Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts says


    Could someone suggest a synonym for crazy that isn’t ablest?

    Just saw that I linked to the same article twice in my @35. Here was the second link, which gives non-ableist alternatives to “crazy.


    Briefish excerpt:

    Someone who disagrees with you for reasons that make no sense is not necessarily “crazy.” They may be illogical, irrational, misleading, taking an emotional position, lying, not making sense, not thinking, incapable of critical thinking, an asshat, an assclown, a dipshit, beyond irrelevant, rationalizing, arguing an unsound position, arguing without foundation. They may also be naive, mistaken, confused, misled, misinformed, uninformed, ignorant. What they’re saying may be absurd, nonsensical, half-ass, ridiculous, ludicrous, full of shit, bullshit.

    Someone who acts like an asshole may or may not be mentally ill – neurotypical people are fully equipped to be assholes. They may be entitled, violent, aggressive, toxic, rude, mean, cruel, deranged [see note here], selfish, having delusions of grandeur, inconsiderate, full of shit, a user, a jerk, an asshole. Modifying these words with adverbs or incorporating them into colorful phrases – “farcically entitled” or “too selfish to live” – makes them far more powerful and memorable in written language than “crazy.” Other choices include: incapable of getting along with anyone, thinks so highly of him/herself, refuses to listen to anybody, never admits s/he’s wrong, doesn’t care about anyone but him/herself. That’s really just scratching the surface. There are so many ways to vibrantly describe someone’s bad behavior with pinpoint accuracy – and that accuracy gives your words power.

  39. lostintime says

    That’s a great link, thanks. Being more precise in our criticism is more effective at disabusing people of bad ideas, so i’ll think about using less generic terms in future.

  40. Tony ∞The Queer Shoop∞ says

    I agree, that is a great link. I’ve been exploring several of the other ableist terms they cover. Very informative.

  41. CompulsoryAccount7746, Sky Captain says

    Over time, you can try to gauge how compartmentalized or systemic someone’s irrationality is. If they come to absurd comclusions on a variety of subjects, and maintain them after information is offered, you can at least decide they don’t meet your standards for a generally trustworthy/competant/etc person. Or that in your opinion it’s not worth risk of one of their really bad ideas unexpectedly turning up in a domain where it could do harm.

  42. hypocee says

    I find it useful to distinguish between mental “illness” and mental “injury”. A poorly developed leg and a broken leg may have exactly the same practical effect, but the causes and sometimes the prognoses differ.

  43. says

    A lot of mental illness is defined by how much of a handicap your thought processes are to you, (or how dangerous they are to other people).

    Oh, definitely, I am just not entirely convinced that, given the long history of certain sets of questionable beliefs basically bolstering, promoting, and/or encouraging, other, often even more questionable ones, that it is necessarily either a) necessary, at this point, or b) a good idea, to wait for absolutely incontrovertible evidence of harm to oneself, or others (or even everyone), before concluding that, at minimum, certain… beliefs have a higher than average incidence of giving people bad GPS directions, and landing them in some version of Narnia, instead of the real world. At minimum, they need warning labels, “Keep away from children.”, or, “May cause additional problems when taken in combination with other similar ideas.” lol

  44. alwayscurious says

    I go through periods of time where I solve lots of Sudoku puzzles. Occasionally, it happens that near the end I realize I’ve made a mistake several moves back. So I get left with a puzzle that is internally contradictory. Some of the boxes I know for sure (the printed ones), but it’s mostly a hopeless tangle of boxes I’ve filled in–some are definitely wrong; some are certainly correct. Depending on how devoted I feel, I will either start all over or simply throw the puzzle out.

    This could be a metaphor for misguided thought processes. Somewhere along the lines, a box was filled in wrong and that particular box formed the basis for filling in more boxes. By the time the inconsistency was noticed, the mistake was long embedded and a fix no longer simple. Unlike the Sudoku puzzle, it is no simple task to throw it all away or erase everything & start over.

    ***To resolve the Sudoku problem, I’ve taken the reliable precaution of annotating my earliest moves. In the event of a mistake, I review my crude ‘history’ and gain a rapid handle on identifying the mistaken box(es).

  45. says

    Do we have a five-letter or two-syllable word for illogical, non-following, hard to predict patterns or actions? ‘Cause seriously, we need a common word for that.

    That’s the only problem with just banning words; we need to replace their position in the lexicon.

  46. says

    PS, Woo_Monster, Sniffer of Starfarts: Your article isn’t particularly helpful. It just runs over the same things which is in my head: that many of the words will just come back around to the same problem, and most alternates are too long or don’t mean the same thing.

    That’s not answering the question, it’s agreeing it’s a difficult question without an answer. Why don’t we discuss it rather than saying ‘done’ when it’s not done?

  47. says


    Oh, and see the comment from Keori, too. If anyone has standing to laugh at this nonsense, she does.

    Flouncing is melodramatic, I realize, but I gotta say it here: This place has become absolutely fucking ridiculous. Like Ing said the other week: “The rules are literally nicer to advocating genocide and murder than of using careless language. What the fuck happened here?”

    Internet SJ happened here, and it’s just as stupid (can I still say that, or is that ableist here now?) here as it was on LiveJournal and Dreamwidth and as it is on Tumblr.

    BTW, Woo Monster, you might want to think twice about linking to a site that whines about phrases like “I feel your pain” and “What’s your damage?”, and words like “scab” in the labor sense, as “ableist.” FWD was a big damn joke during its not-short-enough existence to everybody who wasn’t up their own ass with internet SJ.

  48. says

    I came here to say pretty much what Crissa said. Also, a word for ideas that are so patently contradictory to observable reality that they have no place even being discussed outside of fiction writing workshops

  49. says

    This could be a metaphor for misguided thought processes. Somewhere along the lines, a box was filled in wrong and that particular box formed the basis for filling in more boxes.

    Even better example would be actual logic puzzles. Not paying attention, and misread some phrase, like, “blah blah did this thing before blah (who wasn’t the one with a square hat), and its its got like 12 people in it, and like 6+ columns, and a lot of rules, your basically screwed without starting over entirely.

    Even the sudoku puzzles that link 5 different matrices (one in the center and four tied to each corner), are not that big of a bloody mess when something goes wrong. But, yeah, if some baseline idea is wrong, all understanding of the entire tree of related concepts goes wrong too.

  50. frankensteinmonster says

    so it would require a peculiar definition of insanity to argue that a majority of fully functioning, prospering individuals were all mad.

    On the contrary, frankenstein’s monster came to the conclusion that the majority of humans is simply mad. That it does not prevent them from functioning in daily life is surely a good thing, but they are still mentally ill. Try to define it away any way you can, but if you are permanently incapable of accepting evidence and changing an obviously false/irrational belief, then your cognitive cogs are broken. period.

  51. John Morales says


    In re the rib thing, I’ve heard that “rib” is a mistranslation/bowdlerization to some extent, and that the actual “just so story” in question might have been an attempt to explain why human males don’t have a baculum (os penis/penis bone), unlike most other placental mammals, and even other primates.

    Yeah, PZ joked about it some time ago: The ladies already knew about our lack, of course.

    (I see NatGeo still hasn’t got the old comments up yet… I’ve given up on them)

  52. unclefrogy says

    I have a friend who is sensitive to the use of the word crazy also I often get caught upon the distinction of it as a negative. The word has been around for a long time and has had and still does have many uses other than a the pejorative insult. Insults in of themselves are meant to be offensive and there are many that are liberally thrown around hear that I do not like or use myself.
    I myself have a couple of very old crazy quilts which are very beautiful with odd irregular patches of fabric sewn together in barely discernible patterns. Was not the word crazy also used as a descriptive from the 50’s in the hipster lexicon without the negative implications especially in regards to wonderful music and art?
    I am aware of some peoples sensitivity to images in language of mental illness that regards any mention of it that may have a negative value judgement attached to it.

    I for one do not share that and can embrace my own madness my own insanity and admit that there were times when if I had given voice to what I was feeling and thinking I would have been locked up. I was not wholly within reality but locked into my own mind. So crazy need not be “evil” or “bad” or the fault of anyone who may suffer from it but more a description of a state of mind, maybe of fragments of thoughts that may not usually go together but sometimes can offer profound incites or hopeless confusion.
    if anyone is interested read Howl.
    crazy is not only the middle class reactionary negative insult some think it is.
    uncle frogy

  53. nightshadequeen says

    To me, it really just boils down to one distinction. Am I calling something “crazy” because I feel that something of that horribleness can only be produced by someone who had to have had messed up mental processes*, or am I calling something “crazy” because it (appears) to break the boundaries of logic and/or order?

    *This might be unclear: I’m trying to lay out the thought process behind calling something “crazy”; I certainly don’t believe this to be true.

    The latter – to me, that’s okay. “Crazy” is being used to identify what’s different – but in a neutral (“crazy quilts”) or good (“crazy awesome parkour”) way.

    The former – personally, I’d search for another word. Firstly, that usage feels like it…tars with a wide brush. There are certainly neurotypical people who hold..um..rather unconventional beliefs. I’d…basically rather not assume insanity over GIGO.

    That said; I agree with those who say it’s not as bad as say, “retard” or “cunt” or even “dick”. AFAIK “crazy” is not a medical term. IMO, it falls more under “something I’d make a personal rule over” and not under “something I’d try to preach”.

    That said:

    Dear Ms. Daisy Cutter,

    While calling out people with horrible ideas is certainly more important, IMO we can also point out when people use language that tar other people unfairly. It’s not like there’s a limited amount of calling-out one can do. Yeah, it’s probably more important to hit the genocide point first, but gentle (or not-so-gentle) reminders to consider exactly who you’re insulting before using a word have their place.

  54. nightshadequeen says

    Argh. Didn’t mean to wall-of-text again.

    tl;dr: Won’t use it myself, not something to preach, but langage does matter and for certain words it’s important to call people out.

  55. Lofty says

    I was going to chime in with my thoughts on the word “retard” but I see Wikipedia have done it better:
    It was a replacement for earlier terms deemed offensive and has been replaced in its own time. What euphemism replacement next?

  56. says

    My main concern about “crazy” and “mad” and “stupid” and “idiot” and so forth is about their use as hostile slurs against people.

    I’m not terribly fussed about calling something a crazy (in a good way) idea, or crazy/stupid awesome, or crazed glass, or “It’s a Mad Mad Mad etc. World”. I think I’m even mostly okay with, “Ken Ham is crazy/an idiot if he thinks we’re gonna buy his creationist crap,” or “This nonsense that Ken Ham is promoting is just crazy/stupid,” or, “You’re taking Ken Ham seriously? Are you out of your mind?”

    But “Ken Ham is a crazy/stupid person,” (as opposed to, “Ken Ham is an unpleasant person who is irrationally committed to poorly justified ideas, to the detriment of everyone else around him.”) strikes me as maybe at least a little bit off, even given that Ken Ham doesn’t have any known mental illness diagnoses or intellect/education-related marginalization. And if Ken Ham actually *was* mentally ill, learning disabled, or undereducated, I’d consider it completely inappropriate to slur him as “crazy” or “stupid”.

    I don’t know if I can easily articulate a hard and fast rule here, but I think in my mind it probably comes down to just something like, “Don’t be a jerk,” which, in these kinds of discussions maybe implies, don’t argue in a way that’s solely designed to hurt the other person and that has no value whatsoever for framing your argument for your audience (including bystanders). And especially don’t argue in a way that might do collateral damage to those innocent bystanders in addition to your opponent.

    To be clear, I’m not advocating about avoiding general offensiveness, name-calling, criticism of dearly-beloved bad ideas, or mockery; all those things have their places. I’m just saying that if you want to offend somebody, or call them a name, or roast their sacred cows, or make fun of them, it’s probably preferable to avoid doing it in the way a playground bully might. Does this help at all to give a better idea of what grounds there might be for a legitimate complaint here?

  57. mildlymagnificent says

    I think you can be reasonably safe if you stick to best practice for using a word like racist. You don’t use it to name or describe the person, you name or describe the action or the idea.

    In that way you can use expressions like crazy about you, mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more!, he went bananas, and a lot of common expressions. So long as you avoid directly attaching them to a person you’ll be OK most of the time. I’m rather attached to some Australianisms like mad as a cut snake and a few others, even ‘a few kangaroos short of a national park’ as a euphemism for silly or stupid. Maybe you can get away with such things only when they’re uncommon. Once they lose their novelty value they have to line up with other entries in the thesaurus to behave properly in ordinary speech and writing.

  58. says

    re: things like crazy quilts etc., that’s just eymology; ‘crazed’ means cracked/having visible fault or damage lines, as pottery that’s partially broken. The metaphor for irregular thought processes is obvious, of course, similar to ‘crackpot.’

  59. says

    While I agree, in general, about the idea of addressing the ideas, not the person, its a) hard to break the habit, and b)… frankly, I would tend to suspect, probably 90% of the people whose ideas are being addressed in such terms won’t, don’t, or fundamentally (due to investment in the idea), see the distinction anyway. Some of them, not even if you explain it too them.

  60. carlie says

    There’s what, maybe a couple of dozen terms that have been pointed out as being “-ist” in some way total? Maybe three dozen, tops? There are a lot of other words. I’d much rather have those conversations be very short “hey, that word is problematic because x” and then the response “ok, will keep that in mind” and then just use another word next time, instead of huge amounts of discussion on back and forth on the intricacies of every possible meaning and nuance and exactly how bad word x is in comparison to other words in the category and why and so on. I agree that our time would be better spent kicking ass over bad ideas, but I think it would be just as easy (or easier) a solution to just go ahead and stop using words seen as problematic than to say to just shut up and stop being oversensitive. I just don’t see any reason to ever try to fight to keep using a specific word that is obviously a problem for people you care about, not when there are so many other words out there.

  61. says

    I tend to agree, carlie, and it seems to me that a sufficient reason for problematizing a word ought to be, “People I’d rather not hurt are telling me it hurts them when I use this word in this way.” However, I suspect the difficulty with that is probably that some people (e.g. those who get invested in defending words like “cunt”) don’t consider those who are offended by the word to be people they’d rather not hurt. The mere fact that someone is offended by a particular word immediately puts the offendee outside the offender’s circle of concern.

    I’ve been on the other side of this myself, a little bit. After I freed myself to some extent from the linguistic prudery of my upbringing, certain “curses” like “fuck” and “jesus”(*) gradually became rather casual parts of my vocabulary. I generally can avoid using them in places where I’m genuinely concerned about upsetting someone, since I usually tend to be more reserved about my self-expression in those situations anyway, and even if I do swear in such a situation, usually it’s not a problem, or, at least, the people who have a problem don’t say anything. But there have been a few situations where I’ve sworn in the presence of somebody who actually did voice objections, and sometimes those objections have just made me think something along the lines of, “Why the hell should I care if my language offends your prudery and/or ridiculous religious sensibilities? The problem isn’t my language, it’s your pearl-clutching, dark age censoriousness, and there’s no way in hell I’m going to let myself be ruled by that.”

    So I can understand how it feels to have someone try to take away what you see as a perfectly good word/phrase that feels comfortable on your tongue and expresses your thoughts just *so* and shouldn’t bother any reasonable person. And while one or two such losses might be a tolerable cost to maintain a particular relationship or community membership, I can certainly see how there can be a point where it just feels like too much to be worthwhile. But I don’t think that’s really a good excuse to just reject language requests out of hand as slippery slopes toward total bowdlerization of the language, (e.g. suggesting that “crazed glass” and “crazy quilt” might become taboo if we decide to be a little more careful with “crazy”). At the very least it seems like it’s not too burdensome for people challenged on their language to be expected to start from a perspective of, “Okay, I’m listening, why is this word harmful, and what alternatives do you suggest?” and finish with, “I’m not sure yet if I’ll change my usage or not, but I’ll at least think about what you said.” I suspect that if the Monument brigade had done that, things in the community would be in a hell of a lot better shape than they are now, even if the usages ultimately didn’t change one whit.

    (*) I derive my permission to use this one, despite being an atheist, from the churchy lady in Bullshit! episode about swearing. Being a believer in Jesus-Christ-her-Lord-and-Savior, she explained that “holy cow” and the like are more appropriate substitutes for taking her Lord’s name in vain. The only logical interpretation I could come up with for this is that she was trying to tell viewers that it’s only okay to blaspheme religions you don’t believe in. Therefore, she and her ilk ought to have no problem with li’l ol’ atheist me blaspheming all religions, including their own. So I do. :D