Monday, January 15, 2007

Elective stupidity

A number of recent tedious and fruitless conversations have had the effect of turning my thoughts to a concept which I will label elective stupidity. Elective stupidity is stupidity by choice. Electively stupid persons are joyfully ignorant and scatterbrained; relentlessly inattentive, and wilfully obtuse when they consider a mildly complex issue put before them (or a mildly vexing problem which they might encounter in daily life).

The key attribute of the electively stupid person is that he or she has the potential intellectual capacity to examine an issue or problem in some depth, but he or she chooses to not use that potential.

It is not always easy to determine if a person is practising elective stupidity - after all, the obtuse and scatterbrained person may simply be stupid - how can we know for sure?

For example, and as noted above, I have had a number of recent pointless conversations with a person who would appear to the casual observer to be brainless. But I happen to know that in the past, this person has demonstrated a high degree of cognitive competence. The question arises in my mind: in our recent conversations, was this hitherto intelligent person (a) practising elective stupidity, or was he/she simply (b) deteriorating mentally?

After some reflection on this issue, I devised a perfect hypothetical test which would have established the truth of the matter. Alas, the test will have to remain a thought-experiment as it is probably not ethical.

THE TEST Bind the scatterbrain to a chair and hold a pistol to his or her temple. Make the following statement:

"Right, I am about to make a brief and simple statement of fact or opinion. I want you to listen to the statement carefully without interruption. Then I want you to reply to the statement in such a way that you give some minimal evidence that you have heard and understood the general nature of my statement. You do not have to agree with me or disagree with me - merely provide evidence that you paid some attention to what I had to say. If you interrupt me during my ten-second statement, or if you cannot give a topic-relevant response, I will be forced to pull the trigger."

Given such an incentive, the electively stupid subject would presumably comply with the instructions. The genuinely stupid could not. (The gun would not be loaded of course, as I would never shoot a genuinely stupid person.)