Near Field Stupidity Generators

Wednesday, February 23rd 2011

The prodigy in question, Freeman Dyson, now middle-aged, stared ahead, his incessant concentration on the road unbroken. He seemed mesmerised by the oncoming pavement, or by some idea or formulation glimpsed in the immateriality beyond the pavement. I asked him whether as a boy he had speculated much about his gift. Had he asked himself why he had this special power? Why he was so bright?

Dyson is almost infallibly a modest and self-effacing man, but tonight his eyes were blank with fatigue, and his answer was uncharacteristic.

"That's not how the question phrases itself," he said. "The question is: why is everyone else so stupid?"


The interesting thing about a particularly insightful person, or the particularly talented person, is that this is often the way the question phrases itself. They don't think, initially at least:

Wow! I'm splendid at this!

They think ...

Egad, why is everybody so crap at this?

The Question

But to be able to phrase the question this way, a person has to have had her talent confirmed or proven to herself and others. Then it can be labelled, recognised. It is something the person can be good at.

How do people usually do this?


Bob Dylan writes a song. People hail it as a work of genius. A person writes a really clever piece of code. A person builds an incredibly successful business. A person invents a new mathematical theory. Makes a new scientific discovery.

These are all demonstrations because they can be appreciated by, at the very least, peers of the person who demonstrated them. A great singer, dancer, sportsman, politician, scientist, etc - all performers of a kind. Even the categories of activity are a result of classifying performances.

Sounding Complicated

Only a few other people understand what the person is saying or doing. But those people assure everybody else that the person is on to something. And these people have demonstrated their ability in other ways, and are therefore reliable sources.

Sometimes these end up proving to be demonstrations of ability. Where technology catches up to the idea and demonstrates its import well after the original idea was conceived.

Sometimes they just disappear into history.

All this leads to ...

Other People Telling You You're Talented

This is where other people are impressed by a person and tell the person they are really clever, talented, or whatever it may be.

In all cases the person needs to demonstrate something that other people can see or understand for this to occur. A new machine, a great performance, a great speech, a group of experts assuring other people the person is on to something.

The problem is, what if a person's thinking is so singular it can't be demonstrated to others in any way? Can't be categorised, measured or compared? The technology isn't there, the experts aren't there ... people don't understand it, can't see it, don't appreciate it. Then what?

We have an interesting new problem. Perhaps the person will ask the question:

Why is everyone else so stupid?

In some cases, this is madness. Everyone else isn't stupid - the person asking the question is deluded, in one way or another. At least we think the person is. In other cases it is legitimate confusion borne of a unique perspective on things.

But in most cases, this won't be how the singular unrecognised intelligence sees itself.

It may not even think of everybody else as stupid. It might think of itself as stupid. See herself as the one who should fit in, so to speak. Reject her own natural disposition in favour of one that people do recognise. It makes life easier. Fit into a category that doesn't quite fit. Believe things you don't quite believe. Say things that you don't quite mean. Think things that don't quite make sense.

The Odd Ones Out

A truly singular intellect, talent or ability that others can't recognise is usually subsumed by social mores or declared to be, at worst, "madness" or at best, eccentricity.

But one thing is pretty clear. If you deny a person the ability to think in his own terms, you deny him sanity. You force him to think in other's terms. You create a conflict between that person's natural way of thinking and the way of thinking he absorbs simply by being social and trying to fit in.

But, oddly, often there will be a lurking sense of inferiority, stupidity, anger or self-loathing. Why can't I do the things everybody else does? Why can't I fit in? Etc.

But you could argue that this set of feelings - inferiority, stupidity, etc - directed inwards is actually the person's real feelings about the rest of the world. Feelings that he can't direct outward out of fear, manners, or whatever it may be.

But, somewhere, the question lurks:

"Why is everybody else so stupid?"

And turns into:

"Why am I so stupid?"

"Why is everybody else so mean to me?"

"Why does no-one quite understand me?"

"Why is life so difficult?"

"Why does what everybody else take for granted make no sense to me?"

Me, me, me.

This is where these characters go wrong.

The thing is, everybody has a singular intellect.

It will have unique characteristics that, used correctly, are optimal to make that intellect work well. But those unique characteristics often go unrecognised by others. With no ability to demonstrate them, the sociable person will invariably start to move toward absorbing ways of thinking that are recognised. The natural disposition somehow seems less real, less tangible.

For some, this proves hard to take. The way they see reality and the way they are told everybody else sees reality clashes. The conflict creates tension, tension turns to anger. Anger turns inward as sadness, depression, or outward as arrogance, anger or violence. Sometimes it is cynicism. Sometimes it is dark humour only that person understands. All in all, it often takes a form of singular detachment from social norms, from "reality", rendering a sense of self so profound it disproves the reality other people live in.

They have gone, for all intents and purposes, "mad".

But they are not actually mad, the world is.

Why is everybody else so stupid? I don't know. I'm too stupid to work it out :-).