The Allure of Idiocy

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By Dayrius Tay

In 1995, a well-built middle-aged man robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. Bucking the trend, he stormed in sans disguise, even smiling at the security cameras on his way out. Delusional crackpot or drug addict? McArthur Wheeler was neither. Following his inevitable arrest, he watched surveillance tapes in disbelief, mumbling to bemused interrogators that he ‘wore the juice’. Wheeler somehow convinced himself that smearing lemon juice on himself would render him invisible. This outrageous story featured in the 1996 World Almanac as the epitome of idiocy. Wheeler had larceny in his heart, but little in his head.

Wheeler wasn’t mentally handicapped and was perfectly lucid committing the crime. How did he wind up deluding himself? This prompted a pair of researchers to embark on a series of experiments investigating illusory superiority. Participants were asked to complete a test on their competence in a skill, like humour or grammar. They then estimated their performance relative to others. The results were shocking. The poor performers massively overestimated their aptitude while the best underestimated their scores marginally. This paper has spawned multiple studies confirming the existence of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Smart alecs are often too ignorant to be cognizant of their own ignorance, while experts fall for the ‘curse of knowledge’, erroneously assuming others are capable of comprehension at the same level as themselves. Quoting from the original research paper, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

The Dunning-Kruger Effect also manifests on a societal level in tribal communities following contact with an advanced civilization. During World War II, American and Japanese militaries fought over numerous Pacific islands. Large amounts of supplies were dropped in the process for soldiers, who often shared it with islanders.

As Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” For the islanders who toil tirelessly for meagre wages, summoning drops of supplies at their whim and fancy is decidedly supernatural. To process the huge culture shock along with its accompanying social strain, islanders took to creating apocalyptic fantasies and emulating White behaviour to elicit more supply drops, building mock airstrips, complete with straw airplanes and a controller with wooden headphones. Of course, the cargo never came, hence the term ‘cargo cult’.

Idiocy generates absurdity and is an endless source of amusement. While you delight yourself in the hilarity of others’ folly, remember that the closest dimwit is often in the mirror.

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