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Why Are People So Stupid?


Gordon A. Long

Chapter One


1      Every Kid Knows That

When I was a kid in the fifties, I read a Canadian adventure book that made an impression on me. I’m not sure of the title, because it was most of my lifetime ago. It might have been Traplines North by Stephen W. Meader, because I loved that book, but I can’t get hold of a copy to check. Perhaps one of you readers can confirm this for me.

The book seemed very realistic, but there was one detail which struck me, and has given me food for thought ever since. Being a northern boy myself, I always enjoyed the parts that took place in winter; the snowshoeing, trapping, and other activities familiar to me always seemed very true to life. However…

1.1      Small Stupid #1

In one episode, a character suffered from frostbite, and the advice of the experienced woodsman was – some of you older folks will have guessed it — to rub snow on it. I did the reader’s equivalent to a double take. Rub snow on it? Here you have someone with frozen skin, and you rub – note that’s rub, not just place – cold, icy, snow on it. I couldn’t believe anything so stupid. I was only 10 years old, and even I knew that was wrong.

I was an avid reader, and once I was on the lookout for it, I soon discovered that all sorts of people – the ones everyone calls “common knowledge” — believed in this inanity. Napoleon’s surgeon general recommended the practice. Of course Napoleon lost 440,000 men on the way back from Moscow, most of them to hypothermia, so you’d think people would listen to his advice with some reservation at least. When I joined the Boy Scouts and started taking “modern” first aid, I was happy to learn that medical science had, indeed, caught up with common sense in that area, and putting the affected area in warm water was now the accepted treatment. But even then I wondered. How did such a stupid idea get to be so popular?

Which brings us the first time to the question posed by this book. How do the “authorities” come up with idiocy like this?

1.2      Small Stupid #2

Let’s look at another example; “90% of body heat is lost through the top of your head,” they say. Or 70% or 80% or whatever. Nobody with any brains ever believed that, but “experts” and others have been quoting it for years. It serves to remind us that “they” really means “anyone who says what I want to hear.” More on that later (Ch B Cognitive Disasters) So where do these stupid ideas come from, and why do they become so universally accepted?

Here’s a worse example:

1.3      A Serious Stupid: Bloodletting

All right. Those first examples were two Small Stupids that are more notable for the stupidity they demonstrated than for the harm they caused. Big deal.

Let’s look at bloodletting, another historical medical practice that was much more widespread and far more harmful.

The practice developed in ancient Greece, but became widespread from the Middle Ages onward. The Medieval theory was that the interior of the body was filled with four humours: blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile, relating to the four Greek classical elements of earth, air, fire and water. Keeping the humours balanced meant keeping the patient healthy. Doctors of the time believed that blood was the dominant humour and the one in most need of control. Probably because its “regulation” was more dramatic and less smelly than the others. In order to balance the humours, a physician would either remove “excess” blood from the patient or give him an emetic to induce vomiting, or a diuretic to induce urination. Heaven knows how they got rid of black bile, whatever that was.

This idiocy was in widespread use for about 2,000 years that we know of. It was only in the 19th Century, when medicine was developing its present scientific methodology and knowledge that the practice died out. It is interesting to note that even as late as 1923, the “Father of Modern Medicine”,William Osler, recommended bloodletting. Of course, Osler, besides his many talents and accomplishments, was well known as a practical joker. Makes you wonder.

One British medical text recommended bloodletting for acne, asthma, cancer, cholera, coma, convulsions, diabetes, epilepsy, gangrene, gout, herpes, indigestion, insanity, jaundice, leprosy, ophthalmia, (I had to look that one up to be sure: inflammation of the eye) plague, pneumonia, scurvy, smallpox, stroke, tetanus, tuberculosis, and for some one hundred other diseases. 

You know, it must be nice to be a doctor. Sooner or later your patients are all going to die anyway. Who knows whether the treatment you prescribe kills them?

A glance at a typical medical treatment from 1824 ought to give you a good idea of how idiotic it got. This was recorded as typical treatment, mind you, not because it was anything special.

A French soldier was stabbed in the chest during single combat. At the scene of the accident, he fainted from loss of blood. When he arrived at the local hospital the doctors immediately bled half a litre (20 oz.) from him “to prevent inflammation”. During the night he was bled another half litre. Early the next morning, the chief surgeon bled the patient another 285 ml (10 oz,). During that day, he was bled five more times. Medical attendants removed more than half of his normal blood supply, to cure a patient whose worst problem was the loss of so much blood already that he had passed out!

(BTW, my conversions out of metric and into the old system are only round numbers, so don’t get picky. If this bothers you, look for other examples in this book of “lingering cultural traits whose time is long gone.”)

Bleedings continued over the next several days. When the wound became inflamed, the physician applied 32 leeches to the worst sections. Over the next three days, there were more bleedings and they stuck on 40 more leeches. The result? The guy actually recovered, although it took him 3 months. During the first month they removed more blood than the total amount originally in his body.  

George Washington died of a throat infection, supposedly caused by weather exposure. 2/5 of his blood was drawn out in an attempt to cure him. Doesn’t it make you wonder?

(“They” also tell us that you can’t really get a cold from exposure to cold weather. Should we believe this? We will talk about intuition later.)

When you look at the obvious evidence of what happens when you take blood out of people, and humanity’s millennia of experience with violent death, you have to be thinking, ”How could such a stupid idea even get started?”

Let’s try the logical approach, to see if we can answer this question.

It has been suggested that this practice was influenced by observation of the menstrual cycle. It is easy to see how a bunch of ignorant people (most of them men) could be brought to believe that women were possessed of foul humours that increased at certain times of the month, and that after a spate of bleeding they were miraculously cured.

In regard to the other humours, Doctors would have also observed that with stomach illnesses, regurgitation of a lot of bile would often bring relief. It would be natural to suspect that there was too much bile in the stomach. Of course, a lot of mothers were saying, “That sounds pretty stupid; he ate something that didn’t agree with him, and now he’s getting rid of it,” but who listens to mothers?

 A more likely motivation for the blood-letting technique is that it is dramatic and impressive, and it makes it seem like the practitioner is doing something. Look at it from the doctor’s point of view; if you don’t do anything and the patient gets better on his own, you don’t get paid.

Whatever the reason for its beginning, the fact remains that it bloodletting happened. Just as did electric shock therapy for snakebites, trepanning for epilepsy, and the sale of the various snake oils and elixirs upon which modern Americans waste $27 billion annually, exceeding the amount spent on biomedical research.

1.4      How Does Such Stupidity Arise?

We have just seen three examples of situations in history where educated people with good intent perpetrated behaviours that anybody could have told them, even in their own time, were completely stupid. How come? Why weren’t they laughed out of the agora the first time they even mentioned bloodletting? Why didn’t that French soldier’s friends bring their sabres into the hospital and let some blood in their own way, in defense of their friend?

Well, the first and most obvious answer is that everybody isn’t that bright. It helps to remind ourselves that half the population of the world is of below average intelligence. While you might counter this bit of wisdom with the fact that the vast majority of people are within such a narrow range of mental ability as makes no nevermind, there is one other factor that amplifies the situation. It is the tendency for problems to compound themselves. I call this cumulative stupidity.

1.4.1     Cumulative Stupidity.

This is a phenomenon that occurs when an average person commits a normally stupid act, which we will call a Small Stupid. No problem; they happen all the time (like forgetting to use the car turn signal). But then another person comes along, and not realizing that an error has been made, acts in a slightly stupid way as well, making the situation worse (forgetting to shoulder check before changing lanes). If, through bad luck or bad planning (See the section below on Committees) a third person (a pedestrian texting while crossing the street) adds another minor bit of stupidity to the situation, then we are rapidly approaching a Big Stupid and somebody gets killed.

Let’s see how cumulative stupidity might work on a larger scale.

When knowledgeable people (notice that’s “knowledgeable,” not “smart,”) are trying to give out advice to the general populace, they are caught in a cleft stick. They remember that 50% of their target audience is of below-average intelligence, and they have to try to predict how the dummies will react to their advice.

The cleft stick part is the quirk of human nature that people of all levels of intelligence have, as Paul Simon suggests in “The Boxer:”

“A man hears what he wants to hear, and disregards the rest.”

So the wrong people always take the advice that doesn’t apply to them, and the people who need the advice ignore it. We know, for example, that if we say, “Our study shows that the problem with the…(insert your country’s name)…economy is that our workers are not working hard enough,” then fascist bosses will use the quote as an excuse to thrash their workers even harder, the workaholics will think it applies to them and increase their self-destructive behaviour, and the lazy workers will say, “I’m all right, Jack. They’re not talking about me.”

If, on the other hand, we say, “Our study shows that …(country name)…workers are working too hard and are overstressed, and this is causing error and injury in the workplace and strain in our social fabric,” we know that all the lazy workers are going to use the comment as an excuse to lay back even further, the workaholics will disregard it, and the business community will deplore it as another example of the commie-pinko-leftwing ideas that are destroying our country.

The big danger is that someone will take our advice the wrong way, cause a Big Stupid, and blame us, because we told him to do it. We might even get sued for it.

Caught in this bind, the pundits often water down their advice to the point where it’s basically useless. In the worst case they come up with something completely bizarre. This usually happens when those making up the advice are formed as a committee.   How a Committee Functions (Or not).

Take the frostbite thing. You can imagine the committee of doctors for the French Imperial Army, or whoever was creating the Manuel de Survie d'Hiver, discussing what to tell their soldiers about treating frostbite.

(To avoid even more misunderstanding, I have translated the conversation into English. Having different languages is another Big Stupid. Why doesn’t everybody speak…[insert your favourite language]… like me?)

“We have a problem,” some bright light suggests. “These soldiers are pretty stupid. When they have frostbitten fingers, they want to put their hands in hot water. They have no feeling in their fingers, so they won’t know how hot the water is. They might scald themselves.”

“Sacré Bleu! (Sorry. If I translated that into English, I’d have to censor it. Be PC at all times. Can’t afford a lawsuit.) We can’t be giving out advice that might make people injure themselves,” says the head of the committee, whose career might be affected by adverse publicity. “What can we tell them that they can’t mess up?”

“Well,” some genius on the committee suggests, “Snow has insulating properties.”

“That’s right,” opines another. “And where there is frostbite, there is usually snow.”

The accountant on the committee rubs his hands together. “And it doesn’t cost anything.”

You begin to see how the IQ of a committee varies inversely with the number of members involved. Cumulative stupidity.

The real joke comes centuries later, long after the stupid practice was debunked and thrown on the scrap heap of historical oddities. Researchers into hypothermia have discovered that, when bringing hypothermic patients back to normal temperature, it can be fatal to heat up the extremities quickly, because the rush of cool blood back into the bloodstream can cause a drop in core temperature, sometimes fatal. 

Yep, the idiots had a grain of sense. They just didn’t know enough to apply it properly.

It’s the same with the “80% of body heat” argument. I suspect that this idea was thought up by a committee with the best of intentions; they were trying to persuade people to cover up their heads in the cold. Interpreted another way, it could be seen as correct. Possibly 80% of hypothermia problems are caused through insufficient head insulation.

However, that statistic couldn’t be used to persuade people to change their behaviour, because it applies to everybody else (80% of the population). People need a fact that applies to themselves specifically (80% ofyour heat loss). Studies have shown* that, when presented with the statement, “90% of people perform (insert your favourite stupid act) on a regular basis,” 83% of survey responders indicate that the statement does not apply to them.  This demonstrates that either,

1. people who respond to surveys are smarter than everyone else, or,

2. somebody is lying.


*I did not actually look up any tests on this subject, because:

   1. I’m sure there are some that prove my point,

   2. You can get a study done to prove almost anything,

   3. People only quote the studies that prove their points,

   4. People only listen to the studies that agree with their ideas,

   and 5. Because of all of the above, I want you to become very, very leery of studies.

1.4.2     So why do pundits create stupid ideas?

Because they know people don’t listen, and they try to second-guess the people, and they guess wrong.

Of course, because these theories were created by the medical “science” of their time, they soon became entrenched in the lore, and thus unassailable.

And that brings up the second answer to the question of how these Stupids propagate.

1.4.3     Fighting City Hall

For a whole host of reasons, most of them unintelligible to the outside observer, once something has been entrenched in the lore of the ruling cadre, it is very difficult to remove it. Check out the “House of Cards” theory of Science on Page 24. The basic premise is, “That’s how we’ve always done it,” which absolves the incumbent of any responsibility to logic or humanity.  PAGEREF houseofcards \h

I don’t intend to discuss this concept at length. Unlike some of my more creative theories later in the book, this one is quite self-evident. Most of us are aware of the establishment’s power to maintain even the stupidest practices, and also its need to destroy anyone who might challenge its supremacy.

Just as with individual humans, the stupider the practice, the stronger the emotional reaction from the establishment. Ask Galileo. By 1660, it had been known for at least 2000 years that the earth was round. Anyone with any observational skills could prove it. Anyone except the church. Heaven knows why they thought they had a stake in the argument, but they threatened to burn Galileo at one if he didn’t recant his heresy. So he gave in. Galileo wasn’t stupid.  

1.4.4     Ego

Ah, yes. Even less comment required about that one. People love to feel superior. Now, in the Information Age, a favourite pastime is to feel superior by having information that other people don’t have. No matter how questionable the source.  

1.4.5     Control

There was a time (over a thousand years in recent Western history) when humans didn’t have to think too much. They just lived their busy little lives and trusted in God to tell them what was right and what was wrong. This gave the clergy a certain amount of power for the first few hundred years, because they got to interpret God’s word. Once the printing press came along people got to read the Instruction Book themselves, and they got much more control over their lives. Hence the Protestant Reformation.

And then came Science, and people began to have uppity ideas. They thought that, since God wasn’t really controlling the world, and since Science could give humans all sorts of knowledge about how the world worked, then perhaps humans could control the world. And they were right. Sort of. This gave rise to all of today’s ever-increasing science and technology, with which we are demonstrating a lot of control over the world, but not so much control over ourselves.

Of course, given the nature of the world, we are finding that the more we learn, the more we learn we don’t know. But that’s all right, we just keep learning more.

However, there was a down side to this. A certain segment of the population (which we will deal with firmly, later in the book) grabbed onto this idea of science and technology, because they thought they could use it to control people.

In 1836, German playwright Georg Büchner wrote a play called Woyzeck, in which a poor soldier deteriorates into madness as a result of taking part in a doctor’s experiment that has him eating nothing but peas. This was a satirical look at real scientific thought at the time, which considered that if we could control everything that went into a person physically and mentally, we could then control everything that came out, namely thoughts and actions.

Unfortunately, this sort of thing appeals to a certain element of society, and incredible stupidity resulted. Büchner may have joked about eating peas, but apparently in private schools attended by the sons of Prussian nobility, the boys were lined up to use the bathroom only at specific hours of the day, and required to report the quantity and quality of every bowel movement. No wonder Freud developed the term, “anal retentive.” Of course, with our new, enlightened child-rearing techniques, the term has passed into disuse.

The “scientific control” theory persuaded scientists and politicians that people could be controlled. This led to the social repressiveness of Victorian England and Imperial Prussia and contributed to the development of one of the three Great Stupidities of the 20th Century: Fascism. Interesting that the second Great Stupid, which happened at a similar time for apparently opposite political reasons but actually similar social ones, was Stalinism. Of course, Stalin probably only killed about a million people. Chairman Mao and the Chinese Communist party killed about 50 million. Between the three of them they killed more people than ever in the world before. In every case, the issue was political power over their own country. They weren’t fighting an outside enemy; they were killing their own people. Makes you look at your neighbor differently, doesn’t it?

The great killer in human society and politics, the great destroyer of projects, plans, and people’s lives, the Ultimate Stupid, is the desire to control.

1.5      How Could They Be So Stupid? - Four reasons

1. People believe what they want to believe

2. People like the status quo

3. Ego

4. Urge to control

5. Yes, I know, I said four. Number 5 isn’t a reason for stupidity, it deals with the reason we ask the question. The important last point we must remember is that sometimes the people aren’t being stupid at all, and it’s the observer who is misinformed. We see this kind of situation when we are driving, and the idiot in front of us slams on his brakes for no reason at all.

We must watch our own egos. This could save us from a lot of hassle, embarrassment and road rage.

There are many other reasons for stupidity. If you glanced at the Table of Contents on your way in, you will see that there are foxes and cowboys and queen bees and several important myths that need to be discussed if you really want to understand this problem.

At least, that is if you want to understand it my way. I realize you already have your own answers to the title question, but yours are probably wrong, and mine are right (see “Ego” above).

1.6      Why are people in general so stupid?

This book will give you three answers to that question. If you agree with them, you could stop reading now. Or you could go on reading for the entertainment value. It always makes us feel good when the experts agree with us.

1. We are stupid because…well, because we’re just stupid. It happens. With a little help from our friends, we can reach great heights of stupidity (or depths, depending on whether your cup is half full or half empty).

2. We are stupid for a “good reason.” That happens too, more often than we’d like to admit. The “good reasons” are the fascinating part, and rarely reasonable, so they are the main focus of the book.

3. We aren’t stupid at all. The person who asks that question, on the other hand…?











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As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

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Raven's Wing

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Erik Kort

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Mysteries of Shetland

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The Cold Forever

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Ava's Man

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Ava's Man

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The Best Laid Plans

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Wordscapist: the Myth

Arpan Panicker

Murder and Mendelssohn
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Drawing Conclusions
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The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon
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The Dead in their Vaulted Arches
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The Commons Book 1

The Journeyman
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At War With Satan
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Phobos: Mayan Fear
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Linton Robinson

The Great Gatsby
F. Scott Fitzgerald

You Can't Get There From Here
Gayle Forman

Psychic Warrior
T. D. McKinnon

Peter R. Stone

Butterman (Time Travel) Inc.
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Winter Fire
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Canadian Pie
Will Ferguson 

Bertie Plays the Blues
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Miss Timmins' School for Girls
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The Twelve Rooms of the Nile
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The Importance of Being Seven
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Cupcakes, Trinkets, and Other Deadly Magic
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Unnatural Habits
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Book I of The Glaring Chronicles

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The Hundred-Foot Journey
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The Crooked House
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Eye Candy
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Season of the Harvest
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Chronicles of Trellah Book I:
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The Casual Vacancy
J. K. Rowling
Alexander McCall Smith
Charlotte Henley Babb

David Litwack 
G. T. Denny
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Steve Umstead
Mark Everett Stone