10/13/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

How Stupid Do They Think We Are? I Dunno. How Stupid Are We?

That nasty schoolyard adjective, the "S Word," "stupid," has returned to the national discourse right on schedule, as politicians, pundits, and celebrity political hobbyists from both sides accuse their opponents of trying to pull a fast one on the American Public. It's intended to belittle by suggesting that the other guys are not just con artists but lousy con artists, at that. We might fall for a more complex, craftier lie but, come on, how stupid do you think we are?

But behind the bluster lies a fear: maybe we (and, by "we," we mean you) really are stupid enough to fall for the other side's blatant attempts to manipulate us. After all, Democrats have spent the last two weeks trying to educate the public at large about Sarah Palin's record and to expose her as a political cavewoman. Those calling for Palin to be exposed would never admit that they think the public is stupid, just that it doesn't know as much as we do. And yet Palin's popularity has only increased. It may be just a matter of time before the soft elitism of "the public just isn't sufficiently informed" gives way to the harder line of "what the hell's the matter with people??"

Of course, it's possible, indeed likely, that politicians have a pretty good idea how stupid we are and tailor their messages, their distortions, and their running mates accordingly. While "how stupid do they think we are?" may be a rhetorical question, it deserves an actual answer. Since we can only guess what others think, let's start by asking the more basic question: "how stupid are we?"

Not all of the 170 million registered American voters can be geniuses. Some, about half, undoubtedly have intelligence that is technically, mathematically below average. But being below average isn't really the same as being stupid. "Do they really think our intelligence is below average?" isn't a question you often hear on the campaign trail. It doesn't have quite the same ring.

To narrow the stupid pool down a little further, we can look at a standard psychometric bell curve, which would predict that about 15% of us are pretty stupid. But, still, knowing how many of us are stupid doesn't tell us much about how stupid we are collectively or even in large voting blocs. Furthermore, I think most of us would agree that intelligence is rarely uniform and not necessarily inversely proportionate to gullibility. Thus, even college professors may find themselves sending their banking information to the widow of a recently-assassinated Nigerian Finance Minister from time to time. "How gullible do they think we are?" is really closer to the heart of the matter, though again it lacks the polarizing potency of "stupid."

According to an admittedly controversial study done by Drs. Richard Lynn of the University of Ulster and Tatu Vanhanen of the University of Tampere in Finland and published as "IQ and the Wealth of Nations," in terms of estimated average IQ the United States ranks only 22nd among the 81 countries for which reliable data was available or could be extrapolated. So, one answer to "How stupid do they think we are?" could be "not as smart as China, Austria, or Hungary." As for the 59 countries Lynn and Vanhanen say we are smarter than (including Canada, Peru, and Barbados), perhaps their politicians don't ask their voters the same questions ours do.

But again, which countries we are smarter than, even if accurate, will always be a relative, and thus inconclusive, measure.

No, at the end of the day, "how stupid are we?" is a question that each of us must answer for ourselves according to the view through our own subjective periscope. Speaking personally, the public never seems smarter to me than when it agrees with me, and absolutely idiotic when it doesn't. I think you're pretty stupid when you get all worked up about a movie or a song or a political candidate that I think is highly overrated. And I suspect that I'm not the only one who feels this way.