Back in March, at the Nerd Nite before the one I spoke at (video hopefully coming this weekend!), there was a talk called “Stupid Question: Is Fire a Solid, Liquid, or Gas?” by Craig Fay.
It was a really good talk, which also happened to boil down a concept really well. You’ve probably heard the expression “there’s no such thing as a stupid question”. Well, there might be, but if you’re willing to ask it, at least you can potentially learn something. To borrow another phrase, “ignorance is fixable”.
Craig basically boiled down the premise to this:
Stupid Question = Curiosity (desire to know it) + Misunderstanding (what they don’t know)
And of course, since last October when I started this blog, I’ve been drawn like a magnet to anything involving curiosity, so I loved that he came up with this “equation” (in quotes because let’s face it – not real math).
I found a picture I took during that presentation on my phone and decided I wanted to talk briefly about it. I’ve been having a minor, friendly debate with a friend recently, over the idea of are stupidity and ignorance the same thing, and is one fixable and one not?
Ignorance, according to google, is defined as:
lack of knowledge of information
Stupidity is defined (again, according to google) as:
lacking intelligence or common sense
Now, ignorant is listed as a synonym for stupidity by google, but stupidity is not listed as one for ignorance.
They sound like they are virtually the same thing, but in thinking a bit deeper into it, stupidity is arguably the lacking of ability to understand or interpret information (even once you are given the information), whereas ignorance is merely a lack of information.
We all do “stupid things” sometimes, or maybe to put it another way, we often do things “without thinking” (or watching what we are doing/where we are going). It seems to me that the adjective “stupid” gets thrown around too liberally (or worse yet, people get called “retarded” when someone is really just meaning to imply they’ve done something foolish or ignorant). Being mentally handicapped is a separate thing entirely, so please do not misuse that term.
But I think Craig’s talk was great because it showed that even “smart” people who are into science and learning, can still have things they don’t know, and act based on incomplete or faulty information and arguably “do stupid things” (like read the comments section on YouTube videos)
The other funny part is the idea of “common sense”, which one of my friends regularly points out to me “is not common at all”. Let’s look at the definition from Wikipedia:
Common sense is a basic ability to perceive, understand, and judge things, which is shared by (“common to”) nearly all people, and can be reasonably expected of nearly all people without any need for debate.
Basically, it’s supposed to be stuff that everyone knows, is rational, and forms the set of rules we all follow to live our daily lives. But arguably the education system doesn’t well-equip every kid (and not every parent is amazing either), so not everyone has the same toolkit of knowledge and critical thinking skills.
I do dumb things all the time. But I ask a *ton* of questions. In fact, I’ve even gotten into the habit of prefacing some questions with “this might be a really dumb/ignorant question, but I want to know better”. I think that’s the key, people are afraid to ask questions and get made fun of for not knowing, or having a few things wrong, but we should instead be applauding them for identifying the gap in their knowledge and trying to correct it.
That is part of why this blog exists – to help bust myths, raise awareness and teach critical thinking skills (which I myself am still developing). I can and will ask the stupid questions for all of us 🙂