Mars Rats and Tin-Foil Hats

I admit it. I am fascinated by idiots.

My twisted interest leads me to spend at least a little time each week watching shows like World’s Dumbest and Ghost Hunters. I don’t know…maybe it’s that I spend so much of my time trying to think clearly and teaching others to do the same. Enjoying stupidity vicariously gives me a temporary break from the discipline of logic.

Idiots come in classes, I have found. The first category, Plain-Vanilla Idiots, is the least interesting. These are the ones for whom the spark of inquiry landed on a wet wick. We all know one. Their most salient characteristic is low energy and mental lethargy. Like the guy who can go for months without reading a single word. Or who can watch a fishing cork for eight hours straight.

Then there’s the Inebriated Idiot. To me, that is kind of like cheating. Authentic idiots don’t need alcohol. These are the folks who do things drunk that they would never consider sober. For example, without even a minimum of gymnastics training, they try to do handstands on a keg. Back when I drank, my sober self was pretty level-headed. The drunk me on the other hand has: 1) stuck his head in a metal-bladed ceiling fan, intentionally, 2) enticed a blue crab to pinch his finger, 3) fallen face-forward onto the corner of a desk for no reason at all. All resulted in significant injuries but insufficient embarrassment to stop drinking at the time.

Idiot feeds crocodile

Stoned Idiots are a close relative of inebriated idiots, except their monologues are just interesting enough to keep listeners’ attention for a few seconds. Whereas the drunk shouts, “Whublfwumbubuh…,” the stoner collects his/her thoughts and says things like, “The universe is holographic, like because everything is included in everything…(pause)…whoa…and your mind is the only reality.” “Holographic” got you to listen; the rest reminded you that neither pot nor alcohol enhances intelligence.

Next is the Angry Idiot. Needing neither alcohol nor anything else to fuel his rage, the angry idiot is just plain mad at everything and everybody. Traffic brings out the best in angry idiots. It may take as little as an overly cautious driver ahead to set him off. “&%*&$# did you get your license at Sears? Jesus! Yellow means go, not wait for retirement!” Fortunately, most angry idiots die early in car accidents or get shot by people who have had enough.

The Conspiracy Idiot wants to tell you something only he knows, but that everyone else would know if they only listened to him. He/she uses the phrase “wake up” a lot, usually followed with “sheeple.” This breed of simpleton can explain everything with a single reference to a small band of Overlords, usually the Illuminati, who control everything from nuclear weapons to Presidential bowel movements. Lack of evidence is for them the strongest evidence–it shows just how clever our real rulers are.

The Star-Spangled Idiot muffles the sound of reason by wrapping thick layers of the American flag around his ears. His/her idea of America is strange by thinking peoples’ standards, mostly because it confuses freedom with doing what your “country” asks you to do. Do not try to explain to these folks that it is the values that are important, not the piece of ground on which they are practiced, unless you want to hear “Love it or leave it” used as a last retort.

Now my favorite–Mars Rat Idiots. These are the same folks who see the Virgin Mary in delivery pizza. Since finding signs of extraterrestrials and divine intervention in food items is passe, these imaginative idiots have taken to finding them in pictures from outer space. If you don’t know what a Mars Rat is, do a quick key word search. If you don’t think that rat is real (after all, it’s a photo!), you probably have a hole in your tinfoil hat.

Now, before we all get too self-satisfied, let’s each think about times when we could have been placed in one or more of these categories. Yeah, I know, me too. We all fall prey to shoddy thinking and irrational biases at times. The difference is whether that is your basic orientation to the world or an anomaly. One mistake doth not an idiot make, but a thousand just might.

The reason that we have such a wonderful country is that our Founders, while far from perfect, were dedicated to reason. The reason that we have so many terrific medical advances, communication devices, and luxuries is that most scientists and some businesspeople are dedicated to reason. The reason we have idiots is because some people won’t listen to reason.

Thinking clearly has never been more of a virtue than it is now. The antidote to every single problem we face is sharpening our intelligence for the battle ahead, not indulging in half-baked conspiracy theories and looking for extra-planetary rodents. Not every idiot is salvageable, but many can be nudged toward thinking more clearly. The best weapon? A well-placed question.

Without sounding like a pompous jerk, respond to idiocy with sincere, intelligent questions. Our first instinct is to kill the bad idea with a good one:

“This photo shows life on Mars. A rat! They lied to us! Or maybe they TOOK a rat to Mars…”

“It’s not a rat, stupid. There are no rats on Mars” rarely works to expand the other’s rational awareness. This one is best answered by “Hmmmm…do you think there are other explanations that might work better, like the play of shadows in a grainy photograph?” Or, “Could this be like playing Stairway to Heaven backwards, where you think you hear “Satan” even though it’s just noise?

I have found that when I respond to questionable assertions with intelligent and diplomatic questions, I get a gush of agreement (in itself, no indication that I am right) as if much of the world is as baffled by idiocy as I am. Often, people state outright that they are relieved that someone at least tries to have a balanced, well-thought-out viewpoint. In many cases, even the original poster shows signs of reconsidering. There is hope.

Since idiots are as resilient as cockroaches and will be here long after the last spark of civilization has died out, I don’t expect to change the world. But maybe, just maybe, I can clean up my little corner, one idiot at a time.

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About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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