Stupidity as a mental illness

byPhilGoetz2y10th Feb 2017132 comments


It's great to make people more aware of bad mental habits and encourage better ones, as many people have done on LessWrong.  The way we deal with weak thinking is, however, like how people dealt with depression before the development of effective anti-depressants:

  • Clinical depression was only marginally treatable.
  • It was seen as a crippling character flaw, weakness, or sin.
  • Admitting you had it could result in losing your job and/or friends.
  • Treatment was not covered by insurance.
  • Therapy was usually analytic or behavioral and not very effective.
  • People thus went to great mental effort not to admit, even to themselves, having depression or any other mental illness.
"Stupidity," like "depression," is a sloppy "common-sense" word that we apply to different conditions, which may be caused by genetics (for instance, mutations in the M1 or M3 pathways, or two copies of Thr92Ala), deep subconscious conditioning (e.g., religion), general health issues (like not getting enough sleep), environment (ignorance, lack of reward for intelligent behavior), or bad habits of thought.

Like depression, it may not be possible to develop effective behavioral therapy for stupidity until its causes are understood, the most severe cases may have physiological causes, and pharmaceutical interventions will probably be much more effective than behavioral interventions for such cases.

Like depression, as long as it's seen as shameful and incurable, people won't admit to having it and won't seek help for it, regardless of the type they have.

The only "anti-stupidity drugs" we have are nootropics.  But the nootropics we have weren't developed as nootropics.  Piracetam was, I think, developed to treat seizures.  L-DOPA was developed to treat Parkinson's.  No one knows who started using ginkgo biloba or what they used it for; it was used to treat asthma 5000 years ago.  Adderall derives from drugs used to keep soldiers awake in World War 2.

And none of them are very good against stupidity.  AFAIK, to date, not one drug has been developed by understanding and targeting the causes of different types of stupidity.  We have the tools to do this--we could, for instance, sequence a lot of peoples' DNA, give them all IQ tests, and do a genome-wide association study, as a start.

We don't research these things because society doesn't want to research them.  People don't conceive of stupidity as a disease that can be cured.  We need, somehow, to promote thinking of stupidity as a mental illness.  As something drug companies could make billions of dollars off of.

This could backfire horribly.  We could see affirmative action for stupid people.  Harvard would boast about how many stupid people it admitted.

But if we don't, we could see something worse--people will argue that stupidity isn't any worse than being smart (much as some deaf activists claim that deafness is a culture, not a disability), and demand protection of the stupid as an oppressed minority (or majority).  Like this:

We must stop glorifying intelligence and treating our society as a playground for the smart minority. We should instead begin shaping our economy, our schools, even our culture with an eye to the abilities and needs of the majority, and to the full range of human capacity. The government could, for example, provide incentives to companies that resist automation, thereby preserving jobs for the less brainy. It could also discourage hiring practices that arbitrarily and counterproductively weed out the less-well-IQ’ed. ...

When Michael Young, a British sociologist, coined the term meritocracy in 1958, it was in a dystopian satire. At the time, the world he imagined, in which intelligence fully determined who thrived and who languished, was understood to be predatory, pathological, far-fetched. Today, however, we’ve almost finished installing such a system, and we have embraced the idea of a meritocracy with few reservations, even treating it as virtuous.

                    -- David Freedman [no, not David Friedman], "The War on Stupid People," The Atlantic, July/Aug 2016

An obvious and simple first step to destigmatizing stupidity is to stop making fun of and heaping scorn on stupid people ourselves.  I've done this a lot myself, and so have many others on LW.

Stupid people controlling technology and civilizations developed by smart people are an existential threat.  To address the problem, we must destigmatize stupidity as being a disease, and treat it, before it's normalized as a protected class.