Why Stupidity Wins

We now have most of the world's information right at our fingertips. But we're not necessarily getting smarter.

We now have most of the world’s information right at our fingertips. But, as Adam Gopnik notes, we’re not necessarily getting smarter:

In a practical, immediate way, one sees the limits of the so-called “extended mind” clearly in the mob-made Wikipedia, the perfect product of that new vast, supersized cognition: when there’s easy agreement, it’s fine, and when there’s widespread disagreement on values or facts, as with, say, the origins of capitalism, it’s fine, too; you get both sides. The trouble comes when one side is right and the other side is wrong and doesn’t know it. The Shakespeare authorship page and the Shroud of Turin page are scenes of constant conflict and are packed with unreliable information. Creationists crowd cyberspace every bit as effectively as evolutionists, and extend their minds just as fully. Our trouble is not the over-all absence of smartness but the intractable power of pure stupidity, and no machine, or mind, seems extended enough to cure that.

It’s probably the single most frustrating thing about blogging: Even long-settled facts are still subject to “debate,” and it’s now easier than ever to link to “authoritative” accounts “proving” things that are wildly wrong.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Science & Technology,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. tom p says:

    You can’t fix stupid.

  2. jwest says:

    “Even long-settled facts are still subject to “debate”………

    It depends on whose definition of “long-settled facts” you use. In a recent discussion brought on by Don Rumsfeld’s new book, an acquaintance (of the liberal persuasion) seemed to think that the aluminum tubes purchased by Iraq prior to the war were determined to be for use as rocket bodies for MLRS rounds. He mistakenly thought it was a “long-settled fact”.

    Without continued debate on subjects liberal mythology places in the “settled fact” category, people would blindly believe lunacy such as vaccinations causing autism and AGW. Closing discussion on any topic is rarely a good thing.

  3. Tano says:

    “t the intractable power of pure stupidity”

    He must have seen that Frank Luntz Iowa-GOP focus group video that Doug posted yesterday…

  4. Michael says:

    @jwest: Ah, you prove his point so well.

  5. Ben Wolf says:

    News flash, jwest. Your acquaintance was the smart one in your conversation.


  6. An Interested Party says:

    “Without continued debate on subjects liberal mythology places in the ‘settled fact’ category, people would blindly believe lunacy such as vaccinations causing autism and AGW.”

    Even most of the conservative authors who post on this site believe in global warming…and I’d really like to know how the “vaccinations causing autism” meme is a liberal thing…

  7. Ben Wolf says:

    I’d like to know how vaccines cause AGW.

  8. jwest says:


    Assuming you have neither the capacity nor expertise to go into the technical aspects of the aluminum tubes, let’s just concentrate of the general concepts in play. This is a good example of how information, disconnected from reason and logic, produces “established facts” that the uniformed take to heart.

    In order for you to believe that Iraq was going to use the last iteration of the tubes for production of rocket motors, you would need to believe:

    • High Iraqi officials placed a great value on 81mm ammunition for a field artillery system even though the Army wanted 107mm and 122mm equipment.
    • These same Iraqi officials thought that it was better to produce these rockets internally as opposed to purchasing the complete, armed, ready-to-use munitions from a number of existing suppliers.
    • Although the complete, armed, ready-to-use rockets available to Iraq were fully allowable as defensive, conventional weapons under all the UN sanctions, Iraqi officials decided it was better to clandestinely import motor body tubes of a size and material clearly forbidden– at the very time Iraq was bribing international officials to have sanctions eased.
    • Iraqi engineers and program directors didn’t realize the implications of cost and difficulty associated with the modifications of dimension on inside diameters of the tubes.
    • The increase in cost from the original $9.40/tube to the final $114.80 (as reported by Larry Wilkerson the evening prior to Colin Powell’s UN presentation) was reasonable to spend on a rocket motor casing.
    On top of accepting everything listed above, you would also need to believe that it was total coincidence that:

    • Iraqi officials decided they needed to produce magnetic bearings internally.
    • The same officials decided to add high-precision balancing equipment to their inventory, even though it was forbidden by the sanctions.
    If everything above is something you find perfectly reasonable, you can relax in a world of “settled facts and science”. If something on that list strikes you as being a little too odd or unreasonable to be true, you need to keep asking questions.

  9. Ben Wolf says:

    You didn’t even read the link, did you? I handed you the conclusions of the Iraq Study
    Group, and you couldn’t even be bothered, could you?

    Provide me a link to an official report confirming the tubes were for a nuclear program. One conducted after the invasion, when investigators had full access. I dare you.

  10. Ben Wolf says:

    From the Study Group report:

    “ISG has found that high-level Iraqi interest in aluminum tubes appears to have come from efforts to produce 81-mm rockets, rather than a nuclear end use.” (Comprehensive Report, p. 160)


    “In the course of this investigation, ISG did not uncover evidence of a program to design or develop An 81-mm aluminum rotor centrifuge. (Comprehensive Report, p. 159)

    Go apologize the the man who was right, jwest, and admit your mistake.

  11. jwest says:

    I’ll try to type slower next time so you have a chance of understanding the point.

    The information I listed is contained in the Duelfer Report. What you are missing is the ability to read the words then make an independent assessment of the facts and come to a conclusion if they make sense.

    Tying everything back to Joyner’s article, the point is that what some people blindly accept as fact should be questioned.

  12. Ben Wolf says:

    I’m glad you finally admit your mistake: the tubes were, in fact, purchased for rockets, something you denied in your initial post. Pity you can’t delete those things.

  13. Ben Wolf says:

    Excerpt from the new bestseller, The Essential Jwest:

    “I don’t let facts get in the way of my beliefs. Anyone who does is clearly a liberal.”

  14. TG Chicago says:

    “Even long-settled facts are still subject to “debate,” and it’s now easier than ever to link to “authoritative” accounts “proving” things that are wildly wrong.”

    And, as jwest shows, it’s even easier to believe things that are wildly wrong without bothering to link to any “evidence” at all.

  15. Bob says:

    Or you could read Megan McArdle

  16. Muffler says:

    Having facts and making use of them are two very different things. People knew that apples fell to the ground… that didn’t bring any formal theory of gravity for thousands of years. Intelligence and recall of facts do not equate to each other. People educated in how to interpret facts and draw inferences, patterns, questions and construct ideas are going to be able to use the internet better then just looking up information randomly.