10/21/2014 01:46 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

Texas-Sized Stupidity

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Does sheer stupidity drive human history? According to the late, great historian Barbara Tuchman, it does to an alarming extent. Tuchman's final book, The March of Folly, makes that case. Tuchman does not mean the Moe, Larry and Curly sort of petty stupidity; the follies of those who, alas, are just not very bright. She means the truly grand acts of stupidity, the intellectual malfeasance of smart, educated, and powerful people whose boneheaded decisions have sometimes harmed millions. She presents case studies of willful, obstinate stupidity that defied common sense and even self-interest. You might disagree with the details of some of her examples, but her general point about the pervasiveness and insidiousness of culpable stupidity can hardly be gainsaid.

Another name for willful stupidity is irrationality. What is irrationally? Perhaps the most illuminating analysis was made by the brilliant and tragically short-lived mathematician and philosopher W.K. Clifford (1845-1879). Clifford says that we have epistemic duties, that is, we have certain obligations with respect to how we hold our beliefs. If we hold our beliefs in a responsible manner, fulfilling our epistemic duties, then we are acting rationally. Epistemic duties require us to subject our beliefs to critical examination and willingly revise or release them when they are contrary to evidence and logic. On the other hand, we violate our epistemic duties when we believe irresponsibly, for instance, when we accept preposterous scenarios rather than plain facts, leap to conclusions in defiance of the most elementary canons of inference, or permit wishful thinking to substitute for sober judgment. To neglect your epistemic duties is to act irrationally, to be voluntarily stupid.

There is also a narrower and even more pernicious sense of irrationality that I wish to distinguish from the sort of dereliction of epistemic duty mentioned by Clifford. I make the distinction at the end of this essay, after developing a detailed example. I draw upon Texas politics, the wellspring for every type of stupidity and irrationality.

For those who live outside of Texas, the Republican candidate for Governor in next month's election is the current Texas Attorney General, Greg Abbott. As Attorney General, Abbott has the duty of upholding Texas laws when they are challenged in court. Lately, of course, courts nationwide have been ruling in favor of same-sex marriages, and laws prohibiting such unions in many states have now been struck down. Texas laws unequivocally recognize marriage as between one man and one woman, and deny the legitimacy of all other unions. In a brief filed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Abbott, argued in support of Texas marriage laws.

The issue of same-sex marriage propels some Texas Republicans into paroxysms of bigotry (actually, with these folks just about anything will do that). The knuckle-dragger response to same-sex marriage is to declare that if we recognize same-sex unions, soon we will have people marrying horses or inflatable dolls.

To his credit, Abbott abjures such low-I.Q. rants. In fact, Abbott is a very clever guy. He knows that opponents of same-sex marriage have little to say when asked what harm it does. For instance, how is a happily-married heterosexual couple harmed by having a happily-married gay couple next door? In his brief, Abbott contends that "It is enough if one could rationally speculate that opposite-sex marriages will advance some state interest to a greater extent than same-sex marriage will." Note what a light burden of proof he gives himself. He doesn't have to prove anything about same-sex marriage, only "rationally speculate" that it is less beneficial.

What arguments support his speculation? First, he says that Texas law encourages procreation which is needed " ensure economic growth and the survival of the human race." Odd. I was not aware that Texans needed encouragement to procreate. In fact, Texas' population is booming. What about the world? The human population is projected to reach nearly 10 billion by 2050. Also, some same-sex couples do procreate. Surely, Abbott has heard of artificial insemination and surrogate motherhood. Further, if an essential aim of Texas marriage laws is to encourage procreation, and therefore to discourage non-procreative unions, then what about heterosexual couples that cannot procreate? Should not the law be written to deter unions between heterosexual individuals who are infertile, or elderly, or disabled in a way that prevents natural procreation?

Abbott's second argument is that "...Texas laws reduce unplanned out-of-wedlock births and the cost that those births impose on society. Recognizing same-sex marriage does not advance this interest because same-sex unions do not result in pregnancy." Pause to contemplate the sheer illogic of this claim: Same-sex marriages do not result in pregnancy (false), therefore, laws honoring the marital commitments of both same-sex and opposite-sex couples will be less effective in discouraging out-of-wedlock births. Logicians would call this a textbook instance of non sequitur. Everybody else will just scratch their heads and say "Huh???"

To be fair, Abbott only claimed to "rationally speculate." He is speculating, but not rationally. This, then, is the narrow sense of irrationality I wished to identify. Irrationality in this narrow sense is not stupidity, whether willful or not. Irrationality in the narrow sense, the kind deployed by Abbott, is a conscious stratagem, an intentional effort to construct a counterfeit of reason. It is a deliberate effort to muddy the waters -- obscurantism, in other words. Knuckleheads cannot produce such refined, artful irrationality. It takes a really smart person like Abbott to generate something that resembles logical argument but which is really just nonsense on stilts. It is bad when someone is not able to think rationally. It is worse when they refuse to do so. It is worst of all when they use high-level intellectual abilities to generate obscurantist claptrap.