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Ignorance vs. Stupidity: Yes, There Is A Difference

April 21st, 2007

bush-stupid-ignorant-miserable-failure.jpgThis is an essay on ignorance and stupidity that I originally wrote back in 2003 as part of an English assignment for one of my brother’s college courses. As an experiment, I posted it to a few different forums after the end of that semester just to see if the forum readers thought that I could write well enough to eventually pursue a career as a freelance writer. The essay proved to be controversial; some of the replies were rather unfavorable, but none of the critics ever offered any constructive suggestions. Now that I have my own blog, I figured that I might as well post it here since I could probably stand to spice things up a bit.


Many people seem to think that there is really no difference between the words ignorance and stupidity. In fact, people will sometimes use these words (or their derivative forms) interchangeably. For example, I have often heard people say things like, “Those redneck hillbilly people are just dumb, ignorant, and stupid.” However, these two words actually represent very different concepts. While browsing through a discussion forum, I saw an anonymous quote that seemed to summarize the difference between these two words very nicely: “Ignorance is not knowing. Stupidity is knowing and doing it anyway.” In other words, ignorance has to do with a simple lack of knowledge or education, but stupidity results when a person already possesses the necessary knowledge, yet continues to engage in behaviors that are patently illogical.

Although the phenomenon of ignorance is still widespread today, it was even more common in medieval times. Some well-known examples of medieval ignorance include the belief that the earth is flat or the belief in (or fear of) witches and witchcraft. There was also much ignorance about subjects such as women, sexuality, and childbirth. In the early medieval period (400-1000 AD), many Europeans believed that the cycles of the moon were somehow connected to women’s menstrual cycles (possibly because both cycles are approximately one month in duration), and that women were “creatures of the night” who derived their powers from the moon. This little tidbit of ignorance would produce interesting results whenever there was a lunar eclipse. When the image of the moon became obscured in this way, people believed that women would lose their sexual powers, and be rendered unable to bear children. Although the idea of women being temporarily unable to bear children may seem appealing to some of us in the modern world who live in overpopulated areas, this was not seen as a favorable situation in the medieval world. This is because most families tried to have as many children as possible due to the relatively high death rates from disease, violence, malnutrition, and the like. Thus lunar eclipses were often feared. Such fears were the symptoms of ignorance.

One particularly humorous example of early medieval ignorance comes from a book that I read some six years ago entitled A History of Private Life: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium. With regard to the much-ballyhooed sexual powers of women, authors Phillipe Aries and Georges Duby noted,

A woman who wished to cause impotence undressed, covered herself with honey, and rolled around on a pile of wheat. The grains were then carefully removed, placed in a hand mill, and ground by turning the handle clockwise rather than the normal counterclockwise. With the flour thus produced, the woman baked a bread which she gave to the man she wished to ‘castrate’. Since the flour had been milled in the wrong direction, the stimulating effects of nudity and honey were nullified and the man was unsexed. If, however, the flour was milled normally and the dough kneaded between the woman’s thighs (that is, on her genitals), the result was the opposite; bread baked with this dough could be used to arouse desire in a woman’s husband or a man she wished to seduce.

While this sort of ignorance may seem humorous to a modern audience (When I first read this, I laughed with such vigor that I nearly fell out of bed), it often produced irrational fears of women in the minds of medieval men, resulting in a kind of shrill misogyny that persisted in the forms of unfair double standards against women. Unfortunately, many of these double standards were codified in both secular and Church laws. It was not until several centuries later that the first feminists of the modern era could begin to repair the injustices that were caused by this form of ignorance.

In contrast to simple ignorance, stupidity occurs when people have a sufficient supply of knowledge, yet persist in doing things that are irrational or even dangerous, and that are often contrary to their own interests. Stupidity usually originates from extreme stubbornness, force of habit, or false rationalizations made by people who simply refuse to accept the consequences of their actions. One form of stupidity that I have noticed occurs when teenagers or young adults continue to have promiscuous sexual encounters, often without using any form of birth control, even though they have been told over and over again that their actions could have deleterious consequences such as pregnancy, venereal diseases, unnecessary abortions, or children that they are not really equipped to raise, at least not without causing much unwelcome stress for other people in their lives. Interestingly, when presented with facts and logic, many of these same people will become offended or even look down upon those of us who have managed to remain celibate in our younger years, especially when they realize that we may not have as much sympathy for them as they would like.

Driving while intoxicated is a particularly dangerous case of stupidity. In spite of the barrage of ad campaigns that we have endured since the 1980s, many people continue to think that the rules of logic do not apply to them, and persist in attempting to operate motor vehicles even though their judgment and physical capabilities have been seriously impaired by alcohol or other drugs. This kind of stupidity can be very dangerous because innocent people can be injured or killed if an intoxicated driver should cause an accident. Fortunately, since the public awareness campaigns began, alcohol-related traffic deaths have declined somewhat, although they are still a significant cause of death for young people in the United States.

The people who carried out the 9/11 attacks could be seen as displaying an extreme example of stupidity. Killing innocent people in this manner has arguably done much harm to the reputation of their professed Islamic faith (at least in the Western countries), and it has further perpetuated the cycles of war and violence in the Middle East. Although the attackers seemed to think that they were martyrs, the consequences of their actions are almost certainly detrimental to their cause. Whether Allah will ever see fit to forgive them for their illogical behavior will probably never be known.

In the United States, cigarette smoking is probably one of the most common examples of stupidity. Not long ago, I overheard a radio talk show host who stated flatly, “Smokers are stupid.” He pointed out how illogical some of the smokers who called in to the radio show really were, and many of them became offended when he challenged their behavior. To a casual listener, this sounded like kind of a cheesy “shock jock” tactic at first, but he did seem to have a point. Deaths from smoking-related illnesses such as lung cancer and emphysema have been among the leading causes of death in America for the past several decades. Furthermore, unlike many other habits, there do not seem to be any redeeming qualities or benefits to smoking that could offset the health risks. However, before the 1960s, smokers could be seen as suffering more from ignorance than stupidity, because the true health dangers of smoking were not known at the time. In fact, smoking was often portrayed as glamorous and was perceived as being much more socially acceptable than it is today. Still, for the legions of smokers who have started smoking after they already knew of its true consequences, one could seriously question the logic of their behavior.

Both ignorance and stupidity are conditions that have been with us since the beginning of humanity, and many people have sought to alleviate their most damaging effects. Of the two, ignorance is probably the easiest one to “cure”. Stamping out ignorance can be accomplished by efforts such as disseminating more knowledge and making sure that our children receive a good education. Stupidity, however, is a more pernicious beast because eradicating it often requires people to break old habits, accept responsibility for their behavior, and understand the concepts of logic and sound reasoning. Acts of stupidity can still be prevented though, as long as people are willing to examine the logical effects of the choices that they make, and are able to use good judgment in cases where their actions may cause harm to themselves or others.



23 Responses to “Ignorance vs. Stupidity: Yes, There Is A Difference”

  1. comment number 1 by: Anthony

    I completely agree with you…well written…read my latest blog about ignorance and stupidity…holla

  2. comment number 2 by: munchkin

    this is very helpful information and that if somebody needed to know something about ignorance and stupidity this is the perfect website to go to and an excellent source of information

  3. comment number 3 by: Karlonia

    @Anthony:

    Thanks - I’ll read your post as soon as it is published.

    @munchkin:

    Thank you for the encouragement. It is always good to know that people are actually reading my articles and benefiting from the information.

  4. comment number 4 by: James

    Bravo!!! Bravo!!!

    3 cheers!!!! man u took the words right out of my brain1!!

  5. comment number 5 by: spider

    is there any similarities in ignorance or stupidity?

  6. comment number 6 by: Rosa

    This is a very good essay maybe you should have went to school and wrote it for yourself instead of letting your little brother take all your credit.

  7. comment number 7 by: Barry Meskin

    In no uncertain terms. Perfect. Excellent. A+++

  8. comment number 8 by: Gidget

    Oh my goodness!!! Thank You!! I’ve been trying to explain the difference between ignorance and stupidity to my boyfriend. Yet he still can’t manage to understand. But I think the reason he has such difficulty is because he associates the word ignorant with ignoring.

  9. comment number 9 by: Karlonia

    @Gidget:

    I am glad to see that you seem to have found what you’re looking for. Hopefully your boyfriend will be able to eliminate some of his ignorance after reading this essay, although he could also choose to ignore it and remain ignorant. Hmmmm….

    @Rosa:

    Unfortunately, I had already graduated from college by the time that I wrote the essay; nevertheless, it would be interesting to see how it would have been received in my English classes back then.

    I’m not terribly worried about others receiving credit for the essay because I still hold the copyright to it as the original author. Eventually I was even able to make some money on it by selling a few copies of the article at Constant Content (a fairly popular website for freelance writers).

    @spider:

    This is a good question actually — I really can’t think of many other than the fact that both ignorance and stupidity can make people look/feel pretty dumb once they are revealed. Perhaps there are others who can provide more examples of similarities.

  10. comment number 10 by: Kostas90

    I wouldn’t agree that smoking is necessarily stupid or ignorant. People are aware of the risks and choose to smoke anyway because they enjoy it, and consider the risk acceptable, and it is impossible to say that anyone is wrong about that, since it is a matter about their own lives, and only the individual can fully understand the value of their own lives.

    Please don’t think I’m a smoker though, I value my life too highly for that kind of behavior.

    Other than that, a fairly good essay.

  11. comment number 11 by: mark

    Many people seem to think that there is really no difference between the words ignorance and stupidity. How do you qualify that statement? I would suggest that most people that are not stupid would know this already. It appears you are going to great lengths to state the obvious. I think it would be more appropriate to say ignorance is lacking a certain knowledge and stupidity is the inability or refusal to learn. Nuff said.

  12. comment number 12 by: Dick Bishop

    I asked the question and you have given a perfectly logical and cogent answer. As a former smoker, however, I can well understand why those who remain “hooked” do take offense. The habit is insidious and more than one person in the medical field has indicated that it is a habit more difficult to break than heroin or crack…that’s some pretty serious competition!

    Thank you for your essay. I also enjoyed your writing style. It’s a bit formal for me “…laughed with such vigor” might be “…laughed ’til I cried,” but this is your style, therefore, you must feel comfortable in what you write. I wish you all the luck in the world as you pursue a writing career.

  13. comment number 13 by: elaine

    I really enjoyed your essay. The only thing that I would (and this is just me) consider changing is that in the last paragraph you say that in order for stupidity to be “cured” people must take responsibility for their actions. I think there are plenty of people that live their life in stupidity and still take responsibilty for their actions, yet continue to make the stupid decisions. Personally, I think it’s more of a taking responsiblity for their own well being and stop their self-defeating behaviors.
    Other than that, your essay brought a smile to my face. :)

  14. comment number 14 by: Eric

    Sorry but frankly, i would never consider turning this essay into any english teacher.

    First off, while your definition of ignorance appears to be acceptable, your definition of stupidity seems to fit more with the phrase “irrational action”. An irrational action can be considered stupid but this is only an example of stupidity not a defintion. I would say that while ignorance is a lack of knowledge, stupidity is a lack of the ability to efficiently learn or proccess information in order to gain knowledge.

    Also, your thesis statement seems to argue the difference between ignorance and stupidity whereas your body paragraphs simply gave examples of two throughout history. If i were to rewrite this i would attempt to explain the significance of the examples in relation to their definitions as opposed to their impact on society.

    Also, i noticed that you used lots of pronouns, in the essay. English teachers hate that!

    hope this helps

    Keep writing!

  15. comment number 15 by: bingogeorge4

    I consider Ignorance the most dangerous thing in America

    The uninformed, the uneducated, and the unwillingly committed.

    George

  16. comment number 16 by: Edward J. Turk Ohio

    Given your explanation, I must conclude that the Obama administration is stupid. The president knows that the majority of people were against his health care bill, yet he approved it with the majority vote that he said he would not accept during the campaign. He knows the majority of people support Arizona’s repeat of federal law regarding immigration enforcement,yet he refuses to protect our southern border and additionally sues Arizona for enforcing federal law. He knows the economy is in the tank and unemployment is not turning around, yet he continues to say the economy is turning around. There are additional examples of his administration being inept. I need to get a better understanding of terms such as idiot, moron and dumb to see if there is a better term to pin on this admininstration.

  17. comment number 17 by: Malcolm D.

    Edward, I completely disagree with you. You’re making generalizations such as “the majority of people”, meanwhile from news and opinions I read; the majority of people are for the health care bill, the majority of people are against Arizona’s actions, and the majority of people believe the economy will turn around slowly. Obviously you receive news/opinions/facts from different sources, and even debating this subject has no value to it. Granted, I think the Obama administration can improve but I also think it’s the Senate as well, and seeing as how we elect them, it’s the people who need to be informed, not the President.

    There is very little one person, whether republican or democrat or independent, could say to convince someone of either hard right wing or hard left wing that they’re misinformed, ignorant, or stupid.

  18. comment number 18 by: pseudo Gidget's boyfriend

    Many posting should consider a course in Latin, or, minimally, Google the origin of the word.

    ignōrāre vs. stupidus

    “Ignorance is not knowing. Stupidity is knowing and doing it anyway.”

    “Ignorance is bliss,” is contradictory to this article. One can not be blissful if one does not know blissfulness.

    This may be well written, but logic and philosophy have been ignored. (ignore…. get it?)

    The writer will be well suited for a career in modern news media.

    Political comments must be welcomed with an ignorant proselytizing picture at the top of the page.

    ps. Gidget, your boyfriend is neither ignorant and stupid, but you are welcome to argue, ignorantly, further.

  19. comment number 19 by: Beau millican

    a colorful and interesting read on wonderful topic, possibly over researched and possibly offensive to some, as for myself i found you insights clear and true, while your elaboration of the research you entered in while some may argue are without merit in answer the difference your article adress, i found it delightful to say the least. kindly refrain from sharing my email i included it to give you the option to share any future endevors of yours i may find entertain as i may forget where i found you in the first place

  20. comment number 20 by: rinda

    when I first looked into the difference between the two words, I thought that I would find that ignorance was ‘ignoring’ what you know…. & stupid would be more about not knowing…. now I sort of look at stupid like stupor - the lack of cognition….

  21. comment number 21 by: B.T.

    I really enjoyed reading this article. I’m not sure if you are still looking for constructive criticism, but I’d like to offer advice anyway. I like the use of examples, but be sure that they are not so extensive to the point of writing about something off-topic. Also, when trying to give your piece a stronger voice, refrain from writing in the first person, because it takes the reader’s focus off of the point you are making and puts it on the reader himself (due to the reference of “I” or “our.”) Lastly, years, like 1980, 1960, etc, do not need apostrophes when referred to in a plural sense. 1980s will suffice. I appreciate your standpoint on this topic, and I thought it was an overall effective compare/contrast essay.

  22. comment number 22 by: Dennis

    An issue is brought to bear by Edward J’s comment… We have an information, or rather disinformation, source that preys on peoples fears and paranoia and is accepted as gospel by a substantial segment of the population. Their information is usually either opinion masquerading as fact, or demonstrably false, yet their adherents will hold to these claims as fact. Are these Fox News viewers ignorant or stupid ?

  23. comment number 23 by: Dont Believe the Liberal Media

    I believe a majority of this great country has become stupidly ignorant!

    This problem can be easily remediated simply by removing all the warning labels and let the problem sort it self out…

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