Stupidity as a mental illness

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.