Re: The "stupid" masses

Eliezer Yudkowsky (
Fri, 27 Dec 1996 00:00:12 -0600

Anyone ignorant enough to talk about "the stupid masses" is no better
than they are (and no worse than I am). I have some hard knowledge of
human emotional natures that Chris Hind doesn't because I've been
studying evolutionary psychology while he was propagating the "them vs.
us" meme. If he studied evolutionary psychology, he would lose the
self-righteousness and be as good as it gets. If the "stupid masses"
were kicked awake by "the impending Singularity" or something like it,
they'd be as knowledgeable as any Extropian. If America's underclass
was given access to a real education - not the condescending crap they
dish out in gang-controlled public schools - and chose to use it, they'd
be as good as "the stupid masses" or the rest of the middle class. The
only ones immune from this gentle upgrading are the ones who've had
their brains neurologically damaged - hence my participation in the War
on Drugs.

Stupid masses? Picking on you because they're secretly envious? I
think you're picking on them because my own superior intellect makes you
feel insecure. You don't think my intellect is superior? Denial,
motivated by pure envy. You know I'm right. See how self-righteous it
sounds when somebody else does it?

The truth is that there are no stupid masses who hate and fear anyone
smarter. Smart children are often outsiders, and they get picked on
because they're outsiders, not because they're smart. The stereotype of
the beer-swilling, self-righteous fool who resents all those goddamn
scientists who know something he doesn't is simply false. I'd be
surprised if one percent of the population matched it. Technophobia and
science-bashing are motivated by *fear*, not resentment - altruistic
fear for the planet, fear of being replaced, fear of disruption, fear of
the new, fear of what you cannot understand. And though all these fears
may be misguided - which they sometimes aren't - they are all normal
emotional responses, saying nothing about intelligence.

I don't see activists stirring up resentment by talking about "those
smug, white-coated geeks who think they're so smart." Resentment of the
rich, yes. Resentment of large corporations, yes. Resentment of
technology that displaces jobs, yes. Resentment of scientists? I
haven't seen it. We aren't rich, we aren't famous, we don't drag others
down to survive ourselves, half the good things in life are justly
credited to our efforts, we destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and so
on. If scientists became millionaires, it might be a different story.
As it is, scientists are popular heroes and the authority figures on
everything, or at worst, mystical witch-doctors.

Stupid masses? What makes you any better than they are? I am reminded
of two(*) ancient stories. The first is that of a white man, speaking
to an Indian, trying to impress him with the vast knowledge of
civilization. "He drew a small circle on the ground. 'This is what the
red man knows.' He drew a larger circle around it. 'This is what the
white man knows.' The Indian drew a great, wide circle around them
both. 'Here is where the red man and the white man both know
nothing.'" The circle always widens, but nobody is in a position to

No. There are no stupid masses. The majority of the selfish masses
would risk their lives to save a drowning child. The majority of the
resentful masses would treat a scientist with more respect - if less
adulation - than a football player or movie star. How many articles
begin "Football players now think" or "Movie stars now think?" The
majority of the ignorant masses may not know how a nuclear weapon works,
this I admit, but the majority of Extropians don't seem to be too
familiar with cognitive science (and I don't know enough physics). The
apathetic and cynical masses don't have a cause worth fighting for;
they'd be up and marching in a flash if they did.

> For example, the populace that votes for somebody who promised them no
> taxes and lots of free booze. This may look like a good idea to every
> particular person, but politically it may be disastrous.

I don't think the "populace" is as short-term or small-minded as you
think. Look at what happened to the Republicans when they tried to
touch Social Security; look at the amount of heat generated over
abortions. If politicians win on a bread-and-circuses platform, this is
the fault of the politician and his equally uninspired opposition, not
the populace.

I deny your superiority and I deny the rational origin of your
thoughts. The "stupid masses" meme derives from the persecution
complex. It derives from self-righteousness and ego-salve. I refuse to
divide humanity into me (scientists, countersphexists) and everyone else
(ignorant masses, mortals), in accordance with the dictates of my
tribe-oriented emotional nature. My ethical system prohibits it; all
conscious beings are ethically symmetrical. But if I did divide the
world into two parts, anyone ignorant enough to do the same wind up on
the wrong side.

And, finally, I deny your abstraction. Each human represents a hundred
billion neurons, a hundred trillion synapses, carrying twenty
quadrillion pulses per second, forged by three million years of
conscious evolution and a billion years behind that. Stupid? In AI,
we've learned respect for human intelligence the hard way. The "masses"
may be stupid; the individuals, never.


(*) Oh, and the second story? Once there was an astronomer in Darkest Africa, there to observe a full eclipse at high noon. As it so happens, he is captured by the cannibal P'Tuki. Being the clever sort, he thinks of using the eclipse to awe his captors. "Say," he asks the guard, "when are you going to cook me?" "Well," says the guard, "we usually cook our prisoners when the sun is in the middle of the sky." "Great," thinks the astronomer. "But in your case," continues the guard, "since everyone is so excited, we're going to wait until after the eclipse."

--       Eliezer S. Yudkowsky

Disclaimer:  Unless otherwise specified, I'm not telling you
everything I think I know.