How to recognize and deal with stupid

 | January 15, 2009 5:55 pm

What would the world be like without Ann Coulter?  While some might say, "a much sunnier and happy place," I am not so sure.  Sure, Ann continually manages to rile people's feathers, and often comes off like a sociopath; but she also says things which are interesting or provocative every once and awhile.  After all, she is an author and being provocative sells books.  (Sounding like a sociopath also sells books, sorry to say.)

Book selling, however, isn't why I bring her up.  A few days ago, Ann appeared on a popular daytime talk show called the View.  I'm not really the View's target demographic, but I had a few minutes and caught it on YouTube.  Watching Ann either pound or get pounded is usually entertaining.  The next eight minutes were creepily familiar to far too many staff meetings, dinner barbeques, and family parties I have attended.  In the clip, Ann beautifully plays the case of the asinine dimwit who has an idea and intends to be heard; no matter what!

This got me thinking about something I've had to do far too often: deal with stupid, duplicitous or extremely difficult people.  Dealing with stupid isn't fun for anyone.  It's often messy, and far too often it is more divisive and just downright nastier than it has to be.  After viewing the video, i thought I would share some thoughts on how to manage stupid.

Recognizing Stupid

Recognizing stupid is important.  You can't actually manage something if you don't know it's there, right? 

Here's the basics on stupid.  It is completely different in both nature and disposition than its closely related cousins, ignorance and idiocy.  Ignorance and idiocy are fairly innocuous and not usually destructive.  Stupidity, however, is amazingly devastating.  Hurricane Katrina and the Iraq War would have been far less disastrous if a number of relatively intelligent people hadn't acted in an extremely stupid manner.

Stupid is typically heard in the voices of teenage boys when they start a sentence with, "Wouldn't it be cool if ..." and end that thought strapped to a backboard in an ambulance.  Stupid is willfully single minded, proud and pathetic.  To be stupid you have to overlook, ignore and displace.  Stupid is insisting on the shut, locked, barricaded door that is labeled "Closed" for no other reason than it happens to be there.  Stupid is dangerous.

Stupid On Parade

Stupid also happens to be on fine display during Ann's eight minutes on the View.  Consider exhibit A, where Ann is responding to a question about "What is her problem with single mothers?"

Whoopi Goldberg: [Reads from Book] "Single motherhood is like a farm-team for future criminals and social outcasts.  70% of inmates come from single parent homes.  Hollywood actresses use single motherhood as a way to promote their careers."

What is your beef with single mothers?

Anne Coulter: We now have 30 or 40 years of social science research.  This is just dressed up numbers crunching.  I'm just giving the numbers.  80% of inmates in prisons are raised by single mothers.  About 70% of the runaways ... and juvenile delinquents, juvenile rapists and juvenile murderers are raised by single mothers.  And the point is that it didn't happen by accident.  The illegitimacy rate alone has gone up by 300% alone since 1970.

Let me highlight where the stupid really starts in that sentence: "It's just dressed up numbers crunching.  I'm just giving the numbers."  Everything after is really just window dressing.  "I'm just giving the numbers," are famous words which have been used to justify all kinds of stupid, inane and duplicitous bullshit for the better of 5000 years.

Just to clear, Ann is not just giving the numbers.  Her statement blatantly ignores good research design, statistical nuance and important ideas like correlation or causality.  It is, in a word: stupid.

Correlation and Causation

Let's just quickly review why.  Ann is cherry picking statistics to support her particular view of reality.  This is not necessarily wrong, it is just a foolish way to craft your thoughts.  For her book, she has the thesis that "the left's focus on helping people has actually created victims."  She is, therefore, obsessed with tracking down potential "causes" of crime without considering them in their proper context.  This is also where we hit on the biggest weakness of Anne's argument.  It is a fallacy to think that just because something is correlated (or related) to an event that it is also the "cause."  There is nothing inherent to single motherhood which causes crime.  It is, oddly enough, related with another factor which just might though: poverty.  Let's explore correlation and causation using an example only marginally related to either crime or single motherhood: AIDS, sex and homosexuality. 

First, the facts: male homosexuals are much more likely to get HIV.  Put another way, being gay is correlated with a higher incidence of AIDS.  It is not, however, correct to say that being gay causes AIDS.  Why is this so?

The answer is fairly straightforward.  We know that transmission of HIV causes AIDS.  We also know that sexual intercourse is one way which the HIV virus may be spread.  What may not be known, however, is that not all types of sexual intercourse spread the virus with equal efficacy.  Put a slightly different way: just because you have sex with someone who is HIV positive doesn't mean you will get HIV.  While a heterosexual man can get HIV from an infected woman, a heterosexual woman is far more likely to contract HIV from an infected man.  The literature appears to indicate that female to male transmission is actually a fairly rare event.  So, the cause of the infection discrepancy between heterosexual and homosexual AIDS has nothing to do with being gay (per se) and everything to do with sexual practices.  Both sexual practice and increased HIV incidence correlate with being gay.  In cases where they are all related, actually getting at the root of the whole mess can be extremely difficult. 

Naturally, Coulter eschews the inherent complexity and narrows in on only the components which bolster her argument.  That is a hallmark of a willfully stupid (or duplicitous) person.  Coulter essentially admits as much later in the interview.

Anne Coulter: "I consider race and ethnicity ... I cite a study which says that if you take single motherhood out of the question (if you control for it), the black and white crime rates are exactly the same."

So she was smart enough to control for one factor, but not for the factor that matters.  If it's really single motherhood that causes crime, then 70% of the children will be criminals regardless of socioeconomic status; even if the child is the offspring of the super rich.  Let's consider the children of wealthy and affluent individual,s the Hollywood actresses who have made their careers on single motherhood, if you will.  If single motherhood is the cause of crime, then approximately the same number of these individuals should end up in prison.  Of course, they don't.  Everyone knows that there is a tremendous divide between the rich and poor.  The crooked poor go to prison while the crooked rich go into government.

How To Win

But knowing you're right isn't necessarily helpful against rampaging stupid.  Here, however, are a few things which might.  If you watch the View, both Barbara Walters and Whopee Goldberg do a great job of putting these skills into practice.  Whopee was even successful at making Coulter back off on her "single mother actress" schtick.  That ain't easy.

  • Stay Calm!  If you become emotional or flustered when dealing with Stupid, you will lose.
  • Understand that you are not going to change Stupid's mind.  Most conversations with stupid people are actually about winning the agreement of others, most importantly decision makers.
  • Slow the conversation down.  To win against Stupid, you and others must be calm.  You need everyone to be thinking rationally.  If Stupid hijacks the conversation and moves into emotional territory, that is just the beginning of the end.
  • Stop and ask for clarification.  Ask follow-up questions.  Most stupid talking points fall apart when they have to explained or expounded.
  • Reiterate and repeat.  Make sure that you understand what Stupid is saying.  Allow Stupid to understand what they are saying.
  • Stick to the facts!  Don't allow for speculation.  When "someone said" or "I read somewhere" comes up, ask for the source.  These two lines are used to justify all kinds of imaginary reference material.

If you follow these simple guidelines (most especially the first, Stay Calm!), you can stave off most attacks of stupid.  It served both Whopee and Barbara Walters well.  It has served me well in fielding doctors, medical students and residents.  One last bit of advice: remember that debates can be fun and don't take anything personally.  That comment which pissed you off was probably just stupid anyway.

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