The Problem of "Stupid Man Reports"
How do you handle those who can't understand?
“A stupid man's report of what a clever man says can never be accurate, because he unconsciously translates what he hears into something he can understand.”
― Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy
Reading the above quote, I discovered a name for a problem that arises whenever one tries to explain complex concepts in public: “stupid man reports.”
A "stupid man report" is a response to or criticism of an idea that completely misses what the idea being criticized actually said.
Here is an example of a “stupid man report”:
"You said Christianity is monotheistic, yet you actually believe in three Gods!” - a stupid man responding to the concept of the Holy Trinity
The concept of the Trinity is complex theology. You can see how a stupid man might mistake it for polytheism. Yet, the above response is, well… stupid.
The challenge of “stupid man reports” is that the time required to correct them is often asymmetrical to the time required to make them.1 Saying “it’s polytheism” takes two seconds. Explaining the concept of the Trinity is an essay or book-long answer. Even if you did write a full essay explaining the concept, the stupid man would likely not understand.
When I searched “trinity theology explained” this was the first hit that came up:
“The trinity, simply put, refers to God being One person, but existing in three coexisting, coeternal, cosubstantial persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. They are distinctive, and connect with us meaningfully in different ways, but they are One. We worship all three as equals when we worship God.”2
This is a good explanation… except that a stupid person’s eyes will gaze over at the words “coexisting, coeternal, cosubstantial.” Too many syllables. That explanation would go in one ear and out the other, while the “you believe in three Gods” explanation would stick because it is simple enough a stupid mind can understand it.
Plus, what if the stupid man receives multiple different explanations? Many theologians would explain or understand the concept of the Trinity differently. Even though none would understand it as “polytheism,” the stupid man might highlight these different understandings as “contradictions” and use them to throw away the whole concept and reinforce his previous misunderstanding of “three Gods.”
All this also assumes the stupid person wants to understand. Often, stupid people want to feel right, because they so rarely are and it’s much easier than trying to understand, which is difficult for stupid people. Getting to dunk on people they disagree with is a far easier dopamine hit to reach for than genuinely trying to understand another perspective. What stupid people lack in intelligence, they often make up for with confidence and stupid people judge the winner of debates to be whoever sounded most confident rather than who spoke the truth, which means any attempt to debate stupid just reinforces the problem.
There may also be people who are not stupid, but evil, who exploit these misunderstandings to attack complex ideas they dislike. If someone doesn’t like the concept of the Trinity, the “polytheism” misunderstanding benefits them since it ensures an idea they don’t like won’t be understood. Creating understanding becomes even more difficult if there is opposition running interference.
In a genuine “stupid man report,” the problem isn’t malice or intentional misrepresentation but that the person responding lacks the intellectual ability to comprehend what you are explaining to them, so instead, they create a dumbed-down version of what you said and respond to that. If the report spreads, the dumb idea no one believes is discussed as if it was the complex idea actually shared.
Once you understand this concept, you’ll see it everywhere. There are “stupid man reports” on every side of complex issues. If you are intelligent and trying to share a complex concept, these “stupid man reports” can be frustrating. No one likes to be misunderstood. Yet, trying to correct these reports often feels like trying to “fix stupid,” and as the saying goes, “you can’t fix stupid.” Yet, if we can’t fix it, what can we do?
Normally, I end these articles with a conclusion, but here, I’d like to instead end with a question: How should I handle “stupid man reports” on my own work?
When someone responds to my ideas in a way that reveals they completely misunderstand them, should I respond and write an explainer? Or would that be trying to “fix stupid?” How should I handle the fact there are also people who don’t like me or my ideas and will intentionally misrepresent any explanation I give?
Let me know in the comments.
This is very similar to the problem Brian Earp articulates in his paper “The Unbearable Asymmetry of Bullshit.”
“The Trinity Explained So Even You Can Understand.” Christian Wake-Up Call, 16 May 2022, christianwakeupcall.com/the-trinity-explained.