Tuesday, July 19, 2016

New President Interview -- Part 36 What is stupidity? Part 1

New President Interview -- Part 36
What is stupidity?  Part 1

Q:  Albert Einstein was quoted as saying, “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity, but I am not so certain about the universe.”[1] It seems that Einstein was not able to solve the problem of too much stupidity.  What is stupidity and why is it so wide spread?  

A: The word, “stupidity” is emotionally charged.  People are quick to say “stupid” and call others “stupid.”  Stupid is not the same as foolish.  Stupidity is not the same as ignorance.

The educational goals of the College include teaching a body of knowledge that the student can use in the next step in the learning process.  At some point we stop being concerned about the facts (read data) and become more concerned with the analysis of information.  The best test questions do not require students to repeat lectures or what is in the reading, but rather require the students to take those facts and synthetize them into new knowledge.  All knowledge is derived from experience. It may be personal experience but more often knowledge is based on the recorded experience of others (i.e. reading or viewing). One could have a lot of knowledge and not know how to apply the knowledge in the real world.

Wisdom is the use and application of knowledge to a strategic advantage. Wisdom is the result of thinking, analysis and use of experience to meet the challenge of a new situation.  Stupidity is not applying knowledge to the situation at hand.  However, wisdom and stupidity are on a continuum. They are both based on outsider perception.  If you take an action that observer “A” thinks is stupid and the action has positive results, observer “A” is proved wrong.  Your action may have been creative, risky, and challenging but as long as the result is positive it is not viewed in the as stupid.

In classes and situations that teach clinical skills, students rely on the experience and wisdom of others so that actions can be done quickly without the need for new analysis.  This also applies to team activities.  One practices skills and actions so that in a real situation we know the roles of the team members and can predict what each member will do.

For example, here is brief list of what is done to treat lacerations.  The class would teach the nursing students the steps to follow, when analysis is done, and when a list of procedures is done.  Each step below will have routine questions and actions to enable a decision to be made for the next action.  For example, the patient will be expected to give a relevant health history to make sure the treatment will not make matters worse.  Prepared kits will be used for treatments so that the medical provider will not need to search for the individual items.

  1. Assess wound and patient.  Determine the extent of the injury and the affected parts of the body.  Rule out trauma.  Is wound contaminated with dirt or other foreign bodies?  If internal damage is present, follow another list of procedures. 
  1. Clean wound.  Access the best method based on the type of wound and injury. 
  1. Close wound.  Access best method of closure i.e. dressing only, sutures, adhesive strips, surgery, etc.  
  1. Instruct patient in post-treatment care.

Decisions based on wisdom ensure a positive outcome.  If the nurse forgot the ask about drug allergies and administered the wrong medication, that is stupidity.  If the health care provider didn’t have the right tool to treat an unusual situation, the creative use of items at hand is warranted.  In another time and place that action may be considered stupid or foolish.  In other words, stupidity may be situational or only in the eyes of the observers, not the actors.

This aspect of situational stupidity is one reason stupidity is so wide spread.  I picked a health related situation because a wrong decision would affect the healing of the patient.  In the business world the wounds are more difficult to access and cure.  Intelligent people are not immune from stupidity and foolishness.  They do not always follow what they have learned.  So called smart people think their actions are too smart for rules, protocols, and procedures.  However, there is a fuzzy line separating creativity and genius from foolishness and stupidity.

Smart people may think they are too smart for the rules to apply to them.  For example, since the teenage mind has not fully formed, they may perform actions that are reckless, dangerous, and/or foolish. They think that they are invincible.  One of the signs of maturity is the way people are able to separate diversionary activities and necessary activities.  Mature people know how to separate play and work.

Q: What does the college do to reduce stupidity?

One of the main missions of the College and academia in general is spread knowledge and hopefully lead students to wisdom.  It is hard.  For example, this week a student felt she had been mistreated. She completed a nurse assistant certificate program two years ago, but failed her license exam.  She wanted to return to school to study in the registered nursing program.  Some courses needed to be repeated because they were too old.  She registered for the courses, but she did not attend most of the sessions and received a failing grade the classes.  She claimed that she was mistreated by the professor and the nursing program.  She complained to the teacher and dean.  Eventually the complaint came to the president’s office and I supported what the teacher and dean already told her. This is an example of stupidity because she failed to learn from her experience.  The wise thing for the student to do should have been examine herself to figure out how she could demonstrate academic responsibility.  The College has tutors and counselors who could help her.

We try to teach students how to make decisions based on knowledge and facts.  Some students require more help than others.

Asking directions is not a sign of stupidity.  Ignoring directions and expecting positive results is stupid.  For example, signs are placed to guide visitors and regulars to the correct places.  Sometimes the creators of the signs didn’t make the best instructions or did not place needed signs and people need to ask for help.  Once they get the help, it is stupid not to follow directions.  If the person giving the directions says to go right and points right, it is stupid to turn around and go the wrong direction.  If the sign is not clear, we have to change the sign.

People also need to recognize their own physical limitations.  A student walked up two flights of stairs and was clearly not in good physical condition. The student was so out of breath that she couldn’t talk for more than five minutes. When informed where the elevators are located, the student answered, “I know about the elevators.  I just wanted to prove I’m Supergirl.”  This student didn’t understand her limitations and gave an answer that was not very mature.  (Analysis of maturity was based on the nature and tone of her delivery.  A comic or sarcastic remark would have been delivered differently.)

Q: One of the missions of education that you mention often is that we teach independent and critical thinking and encourage life-long learning. What is your opinion of the Texas GOP 2012 party’s platform concerning education?  The platform says: “We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) … critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”[2]
How does this platform fit into your definition of stupidity?

A: This platform was the product of ill-informed party members.  The Texas party platform is reviewed every two years and approved plank by plank (item by item).  There is no vote for approval of the document as a whole.  Historically the platform has provided more material for political commentators than for those running for office. The document is unenforceable and is largely ignored.  The plank concerning education does not appear in the 2016 version, but other foolish planks are included such as, “we support defunding and abolishing the departments or agencies of the Internal Revenue Service, Education, Energy…”  I suppose they expect everyone to live together in peace and not need any revenue, education, or energy.

Most of the items on the GOP plank have little connection to research evidence or even common sense (sechel in Yiddish).  Scientific evidence is the prime basis of learning.  Everyone starts life as a scientist performing hundreds of experiments to learn about the world.  Experiments performed at an early age teach children what to avoid, what is dangerous, how to be cautious and what to welcome and enjoy.  For example, a child learns to generalize that all stoves could be hot and approaching them requires caution.  

If an item in the plank made a suggestion based on research, that would be ok even if not everyone agrees. Items that are based on faulty or non-existent evidence are either stupid or foolish.  A political party cannot just say, “no,” without proposing a positive and better solution.
Rote learning or memorization based learning does not teach students how to learn and adapt to new situation.  In some ways it is the difference between training and education.  Critical thinking skills are essential for education; rote learning may be the same as training.  Understanding causality is part of the scientific method and lead one on the road to wisdom.

Q: Is there a correlation between intelligence and wisdom?  In other words, do intelligent people act foolishly?

A:  There are multiple kinds of intelligence[3] including intellectual-logical, personal, linguistic, personal, and kinesthetic.  That discussion is best left for another article.    Smart people sometimes act foolishly and stupidly because they have not integrated their intelligence across all disciplines.  A truly integrated intelligent person would recognize a what they know and what they don’t know.  They would attack an unfamiliar situation with knowledge seeking behaviors.   

“Smart” people may act foolishly because they don’t understand the rules of knowledge seeking. Failure to follow an information seeking strategy is a cognitive fallacy.   In their thinking they are “too smart” to do so.  These people tend to act foolishly through the commission of one or more of five cognitive fallacies:

(1) Unrealistic optimism. They believe that they are so smart that they can do whatever they want and not worry about it; 

(2) Egocentrism. They focus on themselves while ignoring their responsibilities to others.  They are concerned only with what benefits them; 

(3) Omniscience. They believe they know everything, instead of knowing what they know and seeking what they don’t know; 

(4) Omnipotence. They believe they can do whatever they want because they are all-powerful; and 

(5) Invulnerability. They believe that they will get away with whatever they do, no matter how inappropriate, dangerous, or irresponsible it may be.

Some of these “smart” people are just young and naïve.  With enough trips around the sun they will learn the patterns of the world and how they fit into the divine order of the universe.  They will outgrow their naivety and grow in wisdom.[4] 

The antidote to foolishness is to learn how to integrate knowledge.  This is called wisdom. Wise people are able to apply their intelligence and creativity toward a common good. They learn to balance their own personal interests, the interests of those around them, and the interests of the community and state. They learn to balance long and short term goals.  They learn values and the big picture and how they shape new environments and situations. They creatively solve problems. We lead students toward wisdom, but we don’t teach wisdom.

Q> We are out of time for this interview.  The next part will continue the study of stupidity with questions based on a study on conception of stupidity based on observations and will discuss “Dumbth” Thank you very much.


Allen, Steve.  “Dumbth” : the lost art of thinking. Revised edition.  Amherst, NY : Prometheus Books, 1998.  Steve Allen (1921-2000) was a talk show host and comedian, who wrote 50 books and more than 8500 songs.  This book was written because of his daily frustration dealing with dumb behaviors.  He coined the word “dumbth” for these situations which show a lack of thinking.

Balazs Aczel, Bence Palfi, Zoltan Kekecs. "What is stupid? : People's conception of unintelligent behavior." Intelligence  Volume 53, November–December 2015, Pages 51–58.

Huzar, Tim.  “Neoliberalism, Democracy and the Library as a Radically Inclusive Space” 2014. Retrieved July 17 2016 from: http://library.ifla.org/835/1/200-huzar-en.pdf

Ramsey, Ross. “Analysis: Texas Republicans, in Their Own Words” Texas Tribune, May 15, 2016.  https://www.texastribune.org/2016/05/15/analysis-texas-republicans-their-own-words/ .  The Republican Party of Texas 2016 Platform may be found here: https://static.texastribune.org/media/documents/rpt-platform-2016.pdf  None of the comments posted had anything other than distain for the planks of the platform.  Some called the GOP various words meaning crazy and insane. Retrieved on July 17, 2016.

Ryan, Patti, and Lisa Sloniowski. "The Public Academic Library: Friction in the Teflon Funnel.” Eds. Higgins, Shana, and Lua Gregory. Information Literacy and Social Justice: Radical Professional Praxis. Sacramento: Library Juice Press, 2013. Pages 275-296. Print.  Retrieved on July 17, 2016 from Toronto, Ontario, Canada : York Space of York University : http://yorkspace.library.yorku.ca/xmlui/bitstream/handle/10315/26285/publicacademiclibrary.pdf?sequence=3

[1] Bite-Size Einstein edited by Jerry Mayer and John P. Holms. New York: St. Martin's, 1996, page 38.

[3] See the works of Howard Gardner such as his 1983 book Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences or his 2006 book Multiple Intelligences: New Horizons in Theory and Practice.

[4] On the door to my office is posted “Enter to grow in wisdom.”  This is why I used this picture for the beginning of this article. This saying, originally donated by the class of 1890, is copied from Dexter Gate on the campus of Harvard University on Massachusetts Avenue.  The message as you leave states, “Depart to serve better thy country and thy kind.”  For more information, visit: http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2008/6/3/enter-to-grow-in-wisdom-span/