The stupidity of crowds

Nate Silver discusses crowd wisdom in his book, both how it can be right and how it can be wrong (the underlying issue with bubbles). This concept has a fairly specific meaning but I’ll misuse it a bit in this post since that fits in with the substance of the post.

This article caught my eye. Without clear indication who is actually writing the article the source of the information seems to be from the Merriam-Webster website’s logs. The article, in case you don’t read it, is discussion of the ten most looked up words of 2012 and it provides some grist for the mill of cutting comment.

First, they indicate that the words capitalism and socialism are the most looked-up words. You’ve got to be kidding I thought, people need to go to a dictionary to find out what these mean. But then again look at some of the signs the stupid tea baggers display, utter nonsense if you actually know what words mean. But of course tea baggers hear Sarah Palin (who also doesn’t know) say some word and quick as a flash it’s on the sign, verbal diarrhea spreading from the stupid to the gullible. It’s not just that it’s amazing people have to look these up, that’s bad enough, BUT, they’re going to a dictionary! How about Wikipedia or some other source. The couple of lines of definition is a dictionary is actually going to explain something if they didn’t already know what these words meant. Here’s M-W’s definition of capitalism:

an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market

In contrast here’s the first paragraph of the Wikipedia article:

Capitalism is an economic system that is based on private ownership of the means of production and the production of goods or services for profit. Other elements central to capitalism include Capital accumulation and often competitive markets. There are multiple variants of capitalism, including laissez-faire, welfare capitalism and state capitalism. Capitalism is considered to have been applied in a variety of historical cases, varying in time, geography, politics, and culture. There is general agreement that capitalism became dominant in the Western world following the demise of feudalism. Competitive markets may also be found in market-based alternatives to capitalism such as market socialism and co-operative economics.

Needless to say the Wikipedia article goes on at length to explore this topic but even it is a condensation of a great deal of material.

But back to the MW definition, what did our intrepid members of the public learn by getting the definition. Well, mostly a bunch of circular definitions. If you didn’t know what ‘capitalism’ means are you actually going to understand the concept of ‘economic system’, as in, what is ‘economic’, what is ‘system’, who defines the system, is it part of the internet, did the black helicopters and the Trilateral Commission decree it, etc. But the worst is ‘free market’. When I hear this bandied about 90% of the time the person saying it is actually clueless what this means, say for the aspect of Economics 101, see Microeconomics, Markets. So the definition tells you almost nothing unless you already understood the concept (and just needed to refresh your memory) and obviously you didn’t understand the concept if you’re looking this up. Sheesh, people, and you get to vote!

The article continues with other examples of words people are looking up:

Second, we got such hard to understand gems as: democracy, globalization, marriage and bigot. I wonder if any of the people who looked up democracy could then deduce that the U.S. is not actually a democracy but a republic and what the difference is, or whether anything one could label as a ‘democracy’ has ever even existed. Now I admit ‘globalization’, while literally obvious, might actually be subtle enough to justify looking up and getting:

the act or process of globalizing : the state of being globalized; especially : the development of an increasingly integrated global economy marked especially by free trade, free flow of capital, and the tapping of cheaper foreign labor markets

Amusing definition, probably not exactly what I would have said, but functionally literate, but again who much did anyone who looked up this definition learn. And finally my sarcastic response to ‘bigot’; if you had to look this up you probably are one.

Third, OTOH, looking up malarkey makes sense. Biden’s use of it triggered the interest and this word is tied to region, class and age so I suspect lots of reasonably informed people would have to turn to the dictionary for this. And meme, now that’s deserving of a lookup, but I wonder how much they learn from the definition, instead of the wonderful description of it in its actual original use in The Selfish Gene, one of the all-time great books by a fantastically brilliant guy, my man, Richard Dawkins.

an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture

This definition makes it sound a lot more like a virus rather than Dawkins’ original concept of it paralleling the gene, especially including the idea of mutation in the meme as it gets fixed in the population.

Fourth, as contradiction to my basic theme here, the stupidity of the public, is that schadenfreude made the list. No surprise most people would have to look this up, but the remarkable part is that they could spell it enough that the MW website could supply this definition:

enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others

I assume the people who looked this one up recognized: a) this describes the Republican party in general, b) it specifically describes Mittens and especially Ann, and, c) it is literally the founding concept of Ryan and his mistress Ayn Rand. But somehow I doubt that connection was made by many who looked this up.

So what does this all mean? Are crowds stupid (or perhaps more accurately ignorant) that they’re looking up words like these? I think so, but the interesting part is that at least they took the time and effort to look them up which gives me hope. I don’t recall the exact quote (or its origin), but something like: “ignorance can be cured, stupidity can’t”. So my title is probably too harsh and I was too quick to judge since at least they’re trying, even though it still bugs me that someone who has to look up the definition of democracy or capitalism gets to vote, but as Winston said, democracy is the worst system, except for all the others.

So I salute the people who looked up words, at least those who had a genuine desire to learn something.


About dmill96

old fat (but now getting trim and fit) guy, who used to create software in Silicon Valley (almost before it was called that), who used to go backpacking and bicycling and cross-country skiing and now geodashes, drives AWD in Wyoming, takes pictures, and writes long blog posts and does xizquvjyk.
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3 Responses to The stupidity of crowds

  1. Stand back, he is back to blogging. I love my Kindle as I can look up words I am unsure of or have never seen, right then and there. I have been trying hard to get back to both blogs, but I am amazed how many interruptions I get. People don’t realize how much time a blog takes. I have spent hours on the phone this week with my insurance company over their mistake. I should haven’t to tell customer service what the solution is or the insurance company needs to pay me.
    You should start a blog called Group and I would be happy to contribute the many links I run across. I is amazing how many reaalllllly dumb things that people do and say. You have been on a real tear lately, Bud. LOL

    • dmill96 says:

      The dictionary feature in Kindle is terrific and I extended it use by doing highlighting of the words I looked up. Then, if you plug Kindle into USB port of your computer, it appears as a mounted drive and you can navigate it to find a folder (I forget which but it was reasonably obvious) that contains a file which is all the highlighting you’ve done (for any purpose). Periodically I get that file and yank out a collection of words I looked up in dictionary and then add then to a drill list (if I feel like I want to remember the word). Any kind of drill (I started this once with Italian food terms after going to a restaurant, in California, whose menu was entirely in Italian and I felt silly having to ask about almost every dish). Anyway, any kind of drill is good while on long boring drives, plus returning to it every now and then for refresh.

      Oh yes, even just “whipping out” posts takes a lot of time. I have a huge backlog of topics where I snip a URL and make a couple of quick comments on ideas into a file, then hope to come back to then. But part of what I like about blogging is that once I get into the writing my thoughts expand beyond what my original concept was (also bad, as the primary cause of the excessive length and rambling of some of my posts, I should probably write “with the flow” but then apply a sharp editorial pencil to clean up).

      I actually believe the public is getting more ignorant (or conversely times are more complex and the public is just the same as it used to be but therefore can’t handle modern issues). It is a standard whine for “older” folks to complain that others are not as sharp, but it’s also hard to have perspective about how stupid I might have once been when others were complaining about me (or as some still might). But I do believe there has been a shift (certainly all the testing in the education system shows it) in last couple of decades and I attribute a lot of it to the (for-sure) anti-science attitudes that are widespread (often for selfish reasons, like the Koch’s junk science climate denial) but also general anti-intellectualism. I know lots of people complained about Dumbya that the criteria (vis-a-vis Kerry) as “the guy you’d like to have a beer with” was met with many people saying, No, I want the president to be smarter than me since he has a tough job and I want someone good in it. By the time we got to Sarah Palin (and all the spin to defend an obviously dimwitted candidate who was also unbelievably uninformed) there was constant railing against “elites”, i.e. anyone with education, knowledge, and/or just believed that people who do task should actually have expertise at those tasks (I always wanted to ask Sarah Palin supporters if they wanted a doctor who had flunked out of med school treating them to see if they really opposed “elites”, as any competent doctor would be).

  2. dmill96 says:

    On this tone I find another snippet bemoaning yet another drop in collective American intelligence:

    On average, fourth-graders scored 218 out of a total of 500 points, and eighth-graders scored 265. The top-performing fourth-graders (in the 90th percentile) only netted a 266; in eighth-grade, these students got a 311; and in 12th grade, they scored at 334.

    The 90 percentile only is getting 66.8%!

    90 percentile fourth-graders beat the average of eighth-graders! I suspect this is what I’m reacting to since it appears “average” is really low.

    Fourth-graders were tested on words like created, spread, clenched, outraged, puzzled and striking. Eighth-graders were expected to know anecdotes, edible, replicate, specialty, laden and permeated. High school seniors were asked about prospered, capitalize, articulate, proactive, mitigate and delusion. As NCES described it, these words are used in written language across a variety of content areas.

    Real tough vocabulary test, eh? I don’t see the words for seniors as any harder than for eighth grade. I might cut seniors some slack if they couldn’t explain capitalize in terms of a finance/accounting concept but the rest sure don’t seem tough. As I remember SATs that required subtle distinctions between far more obscure words than these in the word analogies section I wonder was the SAT scores look like for this group.

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