Seeing the stupid

Once upon a time, I tried to learn to play poker. I never learned to play very well, but I did learn some other interesting things along the way. For one thing, David Sklansky’s books have a lot of game theory. But on a more practical level, one of the books I read had a great piece of advice on “seeing the stupid.”

The point, as applied to poker, is this: when you learn to play poker, don’t just play online, go to casinos. This is because when you play online and you wind up playing against a stupid opponent, it can be hard to believe they’re as stupid as they really are. That’s a problem, because poker is all about taking advantage of other people’s mistakes. But when you’re sitting across from someone at a poker table in meatspace, it’s a lot easier to convince yourself they’re really that dumb. You can see the stupid.

Now here’s the non-poker application: a couple weeks ago, I was in a bar when I over heard an argument, with one guy arguing a very woo-ish position. First, he insisted that they still hadn’t found the missing link in human evolution, leading  me to regret that my iPhone doesn’t get 3G coverage in Korea, because I couldn’t show him this picture. I explained this to him, which led him to accuse me of having no idea what I was talking about. But lest you think he was arguing from a Christian fundamentalist perspective, he then switched to claiming there was scientific proof of reincarnation.

Then, best of all–I swear this is a direct quote, since wrote it down almost as soon as I heard it–he said, “What is the best way to control people? Through the media, through the food, and through the water.” This immediately led to me making jokes about “precious bodily fluids,” leading the guy (who apparently had never watched Dr. Strangelove) to respond that this was “well documented information.” Uh huh.

What struck me, though, was how differently I might have reacted had similar claims showed up in a comment on my blog. I might be tempted to say, “wow, what a stupid thing to say,” but I think part of that is a background expectation that people who comment on my blog are going to be fairly smart. Smart enough that it might be worth my while to post a long explanation of why they’re wrong. But in person? I just laughed at the dude. I could see the stupid.

In the future, I think try to follow a policy of before responding to dumb blog comments, imagine that the commenter is just some random person rambling on in a bar. Should make dealing with dumb comments somewhat more entertaining.

  • Patrick

    I was at a gaming convention once, and while I was relaxing with some friends, overheard a group of people discussing environmental policy. One person kept making dumb comments, until he finished with the extensively detailed and fervently endorsed claim that the ultimate demonstration of the idiocy of environmentalists was their support of wind power. He reasoned thus: all energy has to come from somewhere, and wind power comes from the movement of the air and the rotation of the earth. If we take energy out of the air with wind turbines, there will be less of it, and eventually none of it. Then there will be no wind, or possibly the earth won’t spin.

    I didn’t have the heart to get involved, or to tell him that wind is powered primarily by the sun, or to tell him that even if he was right, a wind turbine would be vastly less dangerous than a wall. And we already have lots of walls.

    • Jim Baerg

      The guy couldn’t find a plausible argument against windpower? Like the the difficulty of storing power for when the wind isn’t blowing, or high construction & maintenance costs for the amount of energy produced.

  • davidct

    Are you sure that person was really stupid. He could have just been demonstrating the arrogance of ignorance supported by years of confirmation bias. It is difficult sometimes to tell the two apart. I find it very discouraging to find so many intelligent people who hold stupid ideas. They will support them with stupid arguments with a certainty on which reason has no effect.

    • JamesM

      That falls under the umbrella of stupid.

  • piero

    In meatspace I usually refrain from calling anyone “stupid”, because they might be psychpaths with a jacknife in their pocket.

    Once I called a driver a jerk, because a red light caught him in the middle of a crossing, so that neither he nor I could move. The guy got off his car with an iron bar in his hand, and it was obvious he intended to break my windscreen and then break some of my bones. Fortunately he was an idiot, because he forgot to apply the handbrake, so he suddenly realized his car was on a collision course with a rather large and sturdy bus. He had to run back to his car, and by then the light had changed to green, so he was forced to leave the area.

    I believe we usually underestimate the number of psychos walking the streets, and losing one’s life for the pleasure of winning an argument does not seem to be a convenient transaction.

  • Bronze Dog

    I’m reminded of one conspiracy nut named Debra who I confronted in meatspace and invited her to comment on my blog. I’m not sure how my perception of her might have been changed, but I will say she was indeed pretty silly in addition to standard conspiracy theorist stupid. I suppose if I met her online first, I might have only gotten her ideas about one specific topic, instead of seeing a long, long list of conspiracies that she handed out for one of the store owners to Google, thus summarily informing me about the breadth of her gullibility.

    To give people a taste: She went to a comic and game shop, buying copies of a Marvel series, where I met her. I think the series was called Secret Invasion or something, where it’s revealed that Skrulls had been impersonating lots of superheroes and villains. She was buying them because she was convinced that the Illuminati or whatever shadowy group of overlords were passing on secret instructions through the comics.