Last modified on 2023 Jul 23
“If you want to be successful in this world, you have to develop your own idiot detection system,” the governor of Illinois, JB Pritzker, recently told the Northwestern University Class of 2023. Pritzker, a billionaire and self-described “cheugy dad”, clearly knows a thing or two about successful commencement speeches: his talk has gone viral. While the 20-minute speech, which was organized around quotes from characters in The Office series, wasn’t entirely about idiot-spotting, that section of it seemed to resonate the most.
You can see why. We live in a golden age of grifters, bullshitters and scammers. We live in an age where some of the world’s most powerful people threw millions of dollars at Elizabeth Holmes, without doing proper due diligence, because she came from the right background and sounded like she knew what she was talking about. A fantasist like George Santos managed to successfully fib his way into government. And Marjorie Taylor Greene has a seat in US Congress despite routinely going on unhinged rants about, inter alia, the “gazpacho police”. Clearly not enough people have functioning idiot detection systems.
So how do you spot an idiot? Well, says Pritzker, it’s not always easy. “I wish there was a foolproof way to spot idiots, but counterintuitively, some idiots are very smart. They can dazzle you with words and misdirection. They can get promoted above you at work,” Pritzker said. “They can even get elected president.”
That said, there are some major signs to watch out for. The best way to spot an idiot is to “look for the person who is cruel”, Pritzker says. “When someone’s path through this world is marked with acts of cruelty, they have failed the first test of an advanced society. They never forced their animal brain to evolve past its first instinct … Over my many years in politics and business, I have found one thing to be universally true – the kindest person in the room is often the smartest.”
That is very good advice. But it’s a shame, I think, that Pritzker didn’t elaborate further. I think we could all do with a bit more of a comprehensive guide, don’t you? So I’ve helpfully put together the beginnings of one. Behold, five golden rules for spotting an idiot.
1. Beware of anyone who describes themselves as a “proud non-reader of books”
If someone boasts about being too smart for books, it’s a tell-tale sign they’re an idiot. Exhibit one: Kanye West, who now goes by Ye. “I am not a fan of books,” the rapper told an interviewer in 2009 as he did the press tour for his own book. (Well, calling it a book is a stretch: it was a 52-page collection of his thoughts called Thank You and You’re Welcome. Some of the pages were intentionally left blank and others just had a single “Kanye-ism” on it like: “I hate the word hate!” or “Get used to being used.”) The problem with books, Ye went on, is that they’re generally too wordy. “I am a proud non-reader of books,” he added. Which goes a long way to explaining Ye’s recent descent into an antisemitic and white-nationalist rabbit hole.
2. Similarly, avoid anyone who thinks that every book should have been a six-paragraph blog post
Sadly, Ye is far from alone in having a proud disdain for books. Over the past decade, the world has worshiped at the altar of Stem. We’ve fetishized data and technology and devalued the humanities. The result is a generation of policymakers and tech bros who think that books are useless and everything can be understood through a purely technical lens.
Take Sam Bankman-Fried, for example. Last year, back when the disgraced FTX founder was still being feted as a genius, SBF told the journalist Adam Fisher that he thought books were a massive waste of time. “I would never read a book,” SBF proclaimed. “I’m very skeptical of books. I don’t want to say no book is ever worth reading, but I actually do believe something pretty close to that. I think, if you wrote a book, you fucked up, and it should have been a six-paragraph blog post.”
Bankman-Fried, who is being investigated for allegedly misappropriating billions of dollars in customer funds, certainly knows a lot about fucking up.
3. Remember that wealth isn’t directly linked to intelligence
After Bankman-Fried told Fisher that books are for losers, the journalist had an on-page existential crisis about it. Why would someone ostensibly so smart say something clearly so stupid? After agonizing about it for a while, Fisher decided that “since SBF is obviously a genius, I should simply assume that, compared with me, SBF will always be playing at level N+1”. Just because Bankman-Fried was massively rich and successful, Fisher decided that everything he said must have some sort of elevated logic behind it, even if it sounded demented.
People assumed the same about Trump for a while: remember all the comments about how the former president must be playing “4D chess?” A lot of people had a hard time believing that someone so powerful could be so … idiotic. Instead, they convinced themselves he must be some sort of strategic genius. Turns out, no, he wasn’t.
4. Dropping “AI” or “ChatGPT” into every second sentence is a major idiot red flag
The same people who wouldn’t shut up about the metaverse a few months ago – despite being unable to succinctly define the metaverse – now won’t shut up about AI. Have you heard? AI is going to be a total gamechanger that’s going to disrupt everything and create a new normal. Honestly, if you took buzzwords away from these people they would have nothing left to say.
5. Keep a wide berth from people who obsess about their IQs
“People who boast about their IQ are losers,” Stephen Hawking once told the New York Times. See, for example, Donald Trump. The only thing Trump seems to love more than making creepy comments about his daughter Ivanka is boasting about how high his IQ is. He’s referenced his IQ at least 22 times but the most memorable instance might be when he tweeted: “Sorry losers and haters, but my IQ is one of the highest – and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure, it’s not your fault.”
An IQ score is a flawed measurement of intelligence – but boasting about one is a failsafe way to show people you’re a dimwit.
Arwa Mahdawi is a Guardian columnist
Congratulations on being one of our top readers globally – you’ve read many of our articles in the last year!
Allow us to cut to the chase. You are one of the Guardian’s most avid readers. We are proud that you turn to us so often for our independent, authoritative journalism.
We’d like to humbly suggest that as our work appears to bring some value to you, it is only fair to ask you to pay a modest something in return.
Our open journalism is supported by readers like you. We have no billionaire owner or shareholder – but this is a huge advantage: it means we have the freedom to challenge powerful, influential people and fearlessly chase the truth.
Your support will enhance this work, investing in journalism that’s always free from commercial or political interference. Give just once from $1, or better yet, power us every month with a little more. Thank you.