It's Super Fun to Call Your Intellectual Adversaries Idiots. It's Also Super Pointless.

By Chris Mooney | May 29, 2009 1:25 pm

According to Amazon, a lot of people who buy Unscientific America are also buying another book that’s coming out soon, entitled Idiot America: How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free, by Charles Pierce.

On their face, these books may sound similar. And in fact, we probably agree substantively with Pierce in most of what he says about things like creationism (judging from the book’s description). I would go so far as to suggest that many readers of this blog would likely enjoy Pierce’s book, just as they would (I hope) enjoy our own.

Yet while it definitely gets people fired up, I would argue that it ultimately does little or no good to denigrate the intelligence of one’s intellectual opponents, whoever they may be–to call them “stupid,” “idiots,” and so on. Moreover, it’s rarely an accurate description on a factual level. As I’ve noted about vaccine refusal, for instance, high levels of education don’t seem to be any protection against this particular kind of “idiocy.”

We definitely have serious culture wars, we definitely have serious attacks on science, and we definitely have “scientific illiteracy” (which needs to be carefully defined). But I’m far from convinced that the root problems here have much to do with intelligence; rather, they turn on knottier matters like politics, culture, and religion. What’s more, if you really wanted to change someone’s mind, denigration of his/her intellect is the last thing you would ever do, for obvious reasons.

There’s much more to be said, but, well…that’s why we wrote a whole book about it!

Comments (21)

  1. This is a dilemma, not easily answered. Some people deserve to be called idiots for that’s what they are. I don’t hesitate in calling James Inhofe an “idiot” because in this case I do know that more soothing language will not elicit a more favorable response from him. Ideally we should make a detailed analysis that would allow us to gauge whether someone would change his or her opinion more readily if or not he or she was called an idiot. Sadly such analyses seem lacking. Different situations need to be handled differently. Sometimes calling someone an idiot would jar them enough, at other times it would put them off. More research on a case-by-case basis remains wanting.

  2. ?

    There is no gain in calling anyone an idiot under any circumstance. It only reveals insecurity and weakness in the caller.

  3. Erasmussimo

    Somewhat related to this is an opinion piece appearing in the New York Times on the emotional differences between liberals and conservatives. It appears that emotional attitudes, such as ease of being disgusted by situations or sense of loyalty to one’s group, play a larger overall role in political decision-making than intellectual or philosophical factors.

    I agree that it is always counterproductive to insult your intellectual or political opponent. But two factors complicate the problem. First, there are cases, such as denial of evolution, where the opponent truly *is* an idiot, because no amount of reasoned argument can possibly influence their position. These people are fundamentally anti-rational, so it is technically correct to call them idiots. Since there’s no way to convince them, there’s no point in worrying about obstacles to convince them. The problem then shifts to the moral fact that it’s wrong to say cruel things to people regardless of your assessment of the truth. It’s wrong to call a fat woman fat, even though she is. It’s wrong to call an uneducated person stupid, even though they are.

    Of course, we must also be careful not to be intellectually lazy and conclude that disagreement implies lack of intellect. AGW is a good example here. Yes, there are *some* AGW deniers who are blockheads — but there are also some ignorant stubborn AGW supporters. And there are also some AGW deniers who honestly disagree in their judgement of the scientific issues. While I think that a greater percentage of the AGW supporters are being intellectually honest, that doesn’t in any way permit us to assume that any given AGW deniers is not. On any given encounter between an AGW supporter and an AGW denier, there’s a nonzero probability that the AGW denier is better education and more honest on the issues than the AGW supporter.

    The second serious concern is the third-party effect. When we encounter somebody who disagrees with us, we must remember during our interaction that there are others watching. If we behave like boors, then we demonstrate to the third party observers that we lack the intellectual chops to make our case on its own merits. Indeed, it is always better to be sinned against than to sin in this regard. When you make your case calmly and rationally, and your opponent calls you an idiot, then third party observers will always be swayed in your direction. “Go ahead — make my day: call me an idiot!”

  4. Calling James Inhofe an idiot does not reveal “insecurity and weakness” in the caller. Ditto for most creationists.

  5. I usually go with ‘f_cking retards’.

    Almost every United States senator qualifies.

    What exactly did you expect from the people who elect them?

  6. But I agree that the title should have been different. The invective should have craftily been saved only for the inside of the book.

  7. It’s utterly unproductive to debate with creationists, because they’re impervious to reason. It’s certainly worthwhile to write, speak, and teach, because that way you can inform people who are willing to learn. It’s also useful to critique things that creationists write. You can be brutally frank when appropriate, but if you resort to insults, it lessens your effectiveness. And if you waste your time arguing with a creationist, you’re a bigger idiot than he his.

  8. David Bruggeman

    Let’s not get crazy here. Charlie Pierce is known primarily as a sportswriter and frequent wiseass panelist (yeah, redundant) on NPR’s “Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me.” He expanded an Esquire article he wrote in 2005.

    http://www.esquire.com/features/ESQ0207GREETINGS

    Arguably his work is valued more for style than substance, and this is of a kind.

  9. Gaythia

    Along with it’s review of the book “Idiot America : How Stupidity Became a Virtue in the Land of the Free”, Amazon has a Q&A with Charles P. Pierce. In this, Mr. Pierce states that the theme of his book is “The Consequences of Believing Nonsense”. I would have liked this better as a title. He is the author of other political pieces for liberal magazines such as The Nation. Mr. Pierce strikes me as an ally, not an adversary.

    I agree with Chris that calling people idiots is counterproductive. From the point of view of analyzing the possibilities of persuasion, it matters if someone is dogmatically non-convertible or just misinformed, ignorant or indifferent, highly skeptical or simply cautious. And it doesn’t help to insult them in advance.

    I also agree with Erasmussimo that frequently it is not one’s direct opponent that one can convince but rather third party observers, and that frequently it is with these third parties that we can have the greatest persuasive impact.

    With regard to David Bruggman’s comment, perhaps as a sportscaster “wiseass” is an OK label, I don’t know.

    Perhaps we have room for more than one new book in our libraries.

  10. mk

    So Chris, Pierce using “idiot” to describe some people and their arguments is bad, but you using “absurd” to describe people and their arguments… that’s A-OK!

    Guess it’s just a matter of intensity, then? Hey if it works for you, it’s all good, right? Heh-heh.

  11. TraumaPony

    Calling someone an idiot may not be effective, but it sure makes you feel better.

  12. Jon B

    Ad hominem is the last resort of someone with no real counter-argument, so agreed that there’s no use to calling the anti-science morons what they are — even though that’s what they are.

    On the other hand, when people refuse to accept empirical evidence as the truth, what else can you call them but Idiots?

    It’s a paradox and a Gordian knot, indeed. Something that Occam’s razor cannot cut…

  13. A random passing physicist

    I agree that calling someone an idiot is not very persuasive, but then I don’t think persuasion is the purpose of these books, or the reason for their success. People enjoy them for confirming their worldview, for reinforcing the distinction between the in-group and out-group; and calling the out-group idiots, irrational, fundamentally anti-rational, unscientific, ignorant, blockheads, stubborn, dogmatic, etc. is both emotionally satifying and an important part of that reinforcement.

    *Everybody* is an idiot, some of the time. It’s human nature. The clever bit is not persuading your opponent of that fact, it is recognising it in yourself. It is only by continually correcting yourself, your own opinions, that you can gradually become a little less of an idiot. It’s a hard thing to do, and never perfectly achieved.

    One trick for doing it is to use your opponents in debate. Controversy is very helpful for keeping the arguments live, all the counters ready to hand, and the believers in a permanent state of vigilance and self-examination. It is only by the degree to which a hypothesis continually defeats all criticism made against it, honestly assessed, that we should feel justified in believing it. Generally accepted orthodoxy can easily drift back into error unchallenged, unnoticed.

    It is therefore absolutely *essential* that science continues to be criticised, for its own health. Indeed, that’s a large part of the scientific method itself – the never-ending attempt to test and falsify theories and hypotheses. Scientists openly cooperate with their opponents, encourage them to improve their arguments. Help them, even. To speak of “scientific consensus” is like talking about “rational surrealism”.

    Science is about techniques for doing precision engineering with flawed tools and instruments. It’s not about shouting that my instruments are more accurate than yours. That’s politics.

  14. MadScientist

    I’m all in favor of calling them idiots. People who care to think would read and maybe say “hey, I’ve been pretty stupid, I’ll try to change” while true idiots will insist on deluding themselves into believing things which are not true. Personally I think if we don’t call them idiots they would see that as a tacit acceptance that what they believe is true. This is painfully obvious when dealing with IDiots. All I ask is that while calling them idiots we also supply the arguments and proof why they are idiots; when someone just starts screaming and cursing rather than supplying information, I rightly conclude that they’re just a foul moron.

  15. Elegiac View

    I’m in agreement with Erasmussimo, and especially with A random passing physicist. Calling someone an ‘idiot’ will not help further the debate. It will only make an opponent more defensive, which in turn induces irrationality. If, however, a person finds himself being called idiotic, he should not fall into that trap; rather, he should listen calmly to his opponent, and attempt to explain why he thinks he is right. If he is able to do this with enough emotional restraint, it should do wonders for the argument. Although the opposing side may not express it, they may be very impressed by his ability to speak without bias, even in the face of insult.

  16. KF

    Let me get his straight — you are criticizing a book YOU HAVEN’T EVEN READ? You argue that it does little or no good to denigrate the intelligence of one’s intellectual opponents — yet you are basing your assumptions about Pierce’s arguments on a book title and an Amazon page description?!? Such is the state of intellectual laziness in America, I guess. For my part, I’m going to read both books before I form an opinion about either one — but I admit that, knowing what I now know about your intellectual rigor, it will be difficult to feel comfortable that any conclusions you draw rest on a firm foundation.

  17. MarkR

    Of course he hasn’t read it himself, that’s part of the very pattern Charlie Pierce is provocatively calling attention to: the public doesn’t hold anybody accountable for not know what they’re talking about.

    Sure the Republicans got smacked in 2006 and 2008, but that was for screwing up worse than people in control have in many decades, perhaps all the way back to the Civil War. They so negatively effected so many peoples lives in so many ways, that those people HAD to do something or risk locking all this behavior in as the norm.

    People did not punish them for all the thousands of official false pronouncements because most people don’t have that long a memory or attention span these days. If Katrina had been handled properly, if Iraq had had some fake resolution, if the stock market had collapsed two months later, McCain would have been elected.

    It’s all about accountability. As long as people like my parents, brother, co-workers, neighbors don’t hold anybody with economic or political power accountable for their actions, the power positions will only be held by people who don’t want to be held accountable for anything.

  18. Mick VanValkenburg

    Perhaps he’s calling them idiots because they are idiots. All those who come one here wringing their hands about how this doesn’t persuade are only kidding themselves.

    The point isn’t to persuade the idiots because that’s not going to happen. The point is to make the debate more honest and straightforward. All you hand-wringers, while being polite, are granting your opponents an undeserved seat at the table of rational argument. You’re tacitly allowing that we have two equal arguments here that need to be reasonably and politely considered. But we don’t have that at all. It’s the equivalent of saying that we can’t call lying politicians liars because that corrupts the dialogue. But what if lying is just what they did?

    I’ve never understand this fear of harsh language in opposition to ignorance or evil.

  19. Little nitpick:

    John B: “Ad hominem is the last resort of someone with no real counter-argument, so agreed that there’s no use to calling the anti-science morons what they are — even though that’s what they are.”

    Calling someone an idiot is not an ad hominem – it’s just an insult.

    Saying that person x’s arguments must be wrong because, as everyone knows, he’s an idiot – that’s an ad hominem.

    I shall now go back to lurking and reminiscing about the old days when Mr Mooney didn’t rely on quote mining, well poisoning and whining peevishness. I really miss the author of ‘The Republican War on Science’ – he had balls.

  20. Fallsroad

    Chris:

    In light of the recent blogspat over your new book it occurs to me to ask:

    Have you read the book in question?

    Does the author actually call anyone an idiot? Perhaps “Idiot America” is used as an illustrative phrase to make a point, without specifically calling anyone an idiot? You are aware idiots actually exist?

    It’s fairly stupefying that you have thrown repeated hissy fits over a negative review and some unkind comments about your book, decrying the fact that *some* of those making comments (though not the review) you dislike haven’t actually read the tome, yet you turn around and functionally do exactly the same thing.

    It’s only bad when folks you disagree with do it? I honestly don’t follow, but perhaps I am an idiot.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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