Over-Rating Intelligence, Insulting Stupidity, Intellectual Bigotry, and Why the Ivory Tower Insults Successful People

There is a caricature of certain successful people as being stupid. I never understood this but it is something that has prevailed in our culture.

It is an odd insult often thrown by the less successful at the more successful. If these successful people were really so stupid, why did they accomplish so much?

We have a tradition of calling our President ‘stupid.’

It goes back a long way. Many of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s enemies (including many in his own party) called him stupid and a lightweight. Of course, we do not think of FDR today as a lightweight … but that was a criticism of him for many years.

In my lifetime, almost every Republican President has been caricatured as being stupid. Gerald Ford was the clumsy bumbler portrayed. Anyone of that era remembers Chevy Chase’s hilarious skits on Saturday Night Live. 

But Ford wasn’t a clumsy bumbler. He was actually the opposite — Ford was a world-class athlete. He was voted the most valuable player on the University of Michigan Football team.

Then came Reagan. How could an actor be smart? The zeitgeist was that Reagan was stupid and he was being taken advantage of by other members of his party. It was so assumed that he was a dummy that there is a classic SNL Phil Hartman skit that is a parody of the parody. The skit was so hilarious because no one could actually believe Reagan could take control of anything.

Reagan may have been folksy, but he certainly wasn’t stupid. He played his “simple” status to his advantage.

George W. Bush was also depicted as stupid. Will Ferrell on SNL portrayed Bush 43 as a complete idiot. And just like Reagan, Bush was seen as stupid and being taken advantage of by evil powers (like Cheney, Rove, and Rumsfeld). 

But was George W. Bush stupid or was it more of an act? You would not think that if you saw his debate performance against Ann Richards for Texas Governor in 1994.

Now let’s look at our current President, Donald Trump. The Alec Baldwin caricature of Trump is that he is stupid and being taken advantage of (first by Bannon and then by Putin)

But whatever you think about Trump, the caricature that he is a dummy who gets taken advantage of by others just doesn’t ring true. No one really thinks people take advantage of Trump — the biggest real criticism is that he takes advantage of others.

Even with George H. W. Bush, the one recent Republican President no one could attack as being stupid, the ‘Ivory Tower’ still found a way to attack his ticket by calling Dan Quayle stupid. 

Everyone I know that worked for Vice President Quayle, like Keith Rabois, consistently remark how smart he was. So was he really stupid or did he just happen to misspell ‘potato.’  

What most people don’t know (or don’t remember) is that Quayle was looking at a flash card provided by the school that had the “correct” answer on it, spelled incorrectly. So, yes, Quayle did mess up—but so did the school. Whether Quayle should have known better (yes) or the school should have known better (yes), that one little letter was the vowel heard ‘round the world, damaging Quayle’s credibility and adding to the public’s perception that the vice president wasn’t the brightest crayon in the box. Quayle was embarrassed, of course. He later wrote in his memoir Standing Firm that “It was more than a gaffe. It was a ‘defining moment’ of the worst imaginable kind. I can’t overstate how discouraging and exasperating the whole event was.”


Calling someone ‘stupid’ is not a successful strategy in politics.

The funny thing is that calling someone stupid is not an effective line of attack. It turns out the main attack on George H.W. Bush (that he was out-of-touch) was much more effective than the attack on George W. Bush (that he was stupid).

Bill Clinton won on “it’s the economy, stupid.”  Eight years later, Al Gore lost on the campaign “the other guy is stupid.”

In the end, these types of attacks don’t work very well. In the end, no one really believes that a major party nominee is dumb. No doubt that Al Gore is a very smart man … but if he was really smart he would have found a way to run a better campaign.

While I don’t know a lot about politics, I will venture that the best thing politically that has happened to President Trump is the portrayal of him as stupid and unintelligent by Alec Baldwin. There are dozens of better attack vectors. If Trump wins re-election, Balwin’s portrayal might be deciding factor.

Why do we think these successful people are so dumb?

A lot of smart people think the people who are not smart in the same way as them, are just not smart.  

People that are really quick on their feet think people who need time to think things through are just not that smart.

People that are really good standardized test-takers think they are smarter than those that are not.

People that know a lot about history can think they are smarter than people that know a lot about hip-hop music.

We discount the bits of intelligence that we don’t have. 

Verbal intelligence is very difficult and we should not overly criticize people who learn orally (verses via the written word).

Bad grammar is another thing people love to criticize. 

Some people mispronounce words because they learned them by reading. There was a whole mockery of George W. Bush on how he pronounced the word “nuclear” and “Iran.”  

Signaling one’s intelligence is just so darn important.

People who think of themselves as smart like to remind others that they are smart. They can intentionally communicate in a way that makes it hard for people (who are not steeped in their world) to follow.  It is a bit of intellectual bigotry.

Intellectual bigotry can come from the right or the left. Just because it was levied on Republican presidents, does not mean that one side has a monopoly on this insult.

Another way of calling someone stupid is saying someone is a lightweight. That can be a common way the right insults the left. On example here is overweighting experience.

Why are academic papers so difficult to read?

Academic papers are incredibly hard to read. I have a lot of trouble getting meaning from a paper (behind the summary). And these papers seem to be getting harder to read and understand over time. An academic paper in 1919 is a lot easier to read than a similar paper in 2019. Is that just signaling?

The antithesis of an academic paper is anything written by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell is brilliant because he can clearly tell a story and write important concepts in ways the average person can understand. Gladwell gets much-maligned that he is TOO simplistic … but that is the point of his brilliance.  

Why is it more intellectual to read a fiction book than watching a movie?

Why is it more intellectual to read a non-fiction book than to listen to the same audiobook?

Summation: the ivory tower insult of calling successful people is not only false, it is also ineffective. 

special thank you to Samo Burja, Erik Torenberg, Ben Casnocha, Peter Thiel. 

18 thoughts on “Over-Rating Intelligence, Insulting Stupidity, Intellectual Bigotry, and Why the Ivory Tower Insults Successful People

  1. Andrew P

    You left out Joe Biden. He really is as dumb as a post. He may have some political charisma, but is box of rocks stupid.

  2. nyinpb

    Your article raised some excellent points that need to be said and heard. I am a New Yorker, and was raised to think Southerners are stupid…that the Southern Drawl was sign of a simpleton and a racist. After years of doing business in small towns and Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas, and can attest that the stereotypes are false.

  3. Henry Miller

    “Stupid” is an easy, unimaginative, insult that more accurately describes the insulter than the insulted. It’s like “racist,” meaningless in a literal sense, conveying only “I don’t like you” and offering a weak excuse for the dislike.

    If you want to insult someone, at least come up with a more imaginative reason. Trump is an uncultured boor. There, I insulted him, and I offered a pretty much incontrovertible reason why I don’t like him personally–though I generally approve of his policies. Democrats are Big Government control freaks who, given their way, would rob me and diminish the quality of my life. Another well-founded insult.

    1. Gary Lee

      For much of what passes itself off as “culture” these days, many would wear the insult “uncultured” as a badge of honor….

  4. Joe Lammers

    Interesting article. I think part of the reason academics tend to call successful businessmen or politicians (mostly politicians on the right) is envy. They believe that they, as academics, should be in charge.

    1. Sub Framer

      academia is filled with “degreed” persons that have actually accomplished nothing in their field of alleged expertise. calling others stupid is a way of deflecting this truth.

      1. Tim

        There was an old saying in law school: Those that can do. Those that can’t teach. That pretty much sums up tenured academia.

  5. george227

    Reagan was addled by Alzheimers and Quayle was really stupid, thinking Mars and Earth are in the same orbit. The Dubya did not know there were three competing powers in Iraq before the invasion. And all of the conservatives got fooled by them.

  6. subframer

    academia is filled with “degreed” people that have never actually accomplished anything in their field of alleged “expertise.” they know this, internally, so calling people “stupid” is a way of deflecting, turning the conversation away from the fact that they’ve actually done very little, save sit in a classroom and regurgitate.

    1. ksquire

      Is this speaking as an academic? From experience? Most academics I know are quite accomplished and go back and forth easily – I have a colleague who left to be a CEO and described it as employing the same skill set.

  7. ksquire

    Real Americans don’t use big words and it’s not like having pretty words is part of the job description. What should matter is how you stare down the enemy.

  8. Yair

    Academics are just bitter they swore an oath of poverty. They take it out on their colleagues who chose money. It is an issue of resentment.

  9. John Moniz

    “Stupid” is a standard insult delivered by the left toward republicans for the last 50yrs. They are all stupid and Nazis. It is a form of intellectual bigotry and political dishonesty.

  10. Maria Caruso

    The philosopher Spinoza said that stupidity was a type of mental illness where people could not see beyond their own immediate interests.

    I think that’s largely what’s meant when people call politicians like Trump stupid. He doesn’t take care of the most vulnerable, he attacks others, he lies, he protects his own status and wealth. He doesn’t “get” love, compassion, or courage. He’s “stupid” morally and spiritually. Other conservative leaders have been seen in similar ways, because they have similar problems. I’m always surprised that a man with such a selfish vision is considered just fine by conservatives.

  11. Anonymous

    Really? How many of these smart people bribed their way into schools?

    For the elite “intelligent” is a style rather than a characteristic. You have to read the right books, see the right movies, use the right words, and live in the right state and city performing the right non-manufacturing occupation. Doesn’t matter if they are good books or if you understand them, doesn’t matter if you are overlooking a more appropriate word, and it doesn’t matter if you are good at what you do- if you have the style you are intelligent and if you don’t you’re not. This allows some hack who works for a politician or writes for the leftist press to claim he is more intelligent than a millwright at a refinery, nothing to back it up, he “just is.”

  12. Peter Noone

    Even academics don’t understand academic jargon. This was demonstrated by the “Sokal Hoax”, where a computer randomly generated academic papers with post-modern sounding jargon, and peer-reviewed academic journals were fooled into publishing them.

    A recent version of the same experiment was done where Mein Kampf was re-written to sound feminist, it was also published by peer reviewed journals. Some of the peers offering reviews even criticized it for not “going far enough”:



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