You Are Not Stupid

In Science by Brian Koberlein15 Comments

“So what do you do for a living?” I always cringe a bit when that question comes up among strangers, because when I reveal that I’m an astrophysics professor the response is almost always the same. “Um…wow…. You must be really smart!”


No, Tyson didn’t say this.

While it’s often intended as a compliment, it really isn’t. Smart didn’t allow me to become an astrophysicist. Hard work, dedication and the support of family and friends did. It’s also one of the most deeply divisive misconceptions about scientists that one can have: scientists are smarter than you. Part of this stems from the idolization of brilliant scientists. Albert Einstein was so smart that fictitious quotes are attributed to him. Media buzzes whenever Stephen Hawking says something about black holes. Any quote by Neil Tyson is a sure way to get likes on Facebook. We celebrate their genius and it makes us feel smart by association. But this stereotype of the “genius scientist” has a dark side.

For one there’s expectation that to do science you must be super smart. If you struggle with math, or have to study hard to pass chemistry, you must not have what it takes. The expectation to be smart when you don’t feel smart starts to foster a lack of self confidence in your abilities. This is particularly true if you’re a girl or minority where cultural biases presume that “your kind” aren’t smart, or shouldn’t be. Lots of talented children walk away from science because they don’t feel smart.

Dr. Ben Carson: not stupid.

Dr. Ben Carson: not stupid.

Then there’s the us vs. them mentality that arises from the misconception. Scientists (and fans of science) are smart. Smarter than you. You are stupid. But of course, you’re not stupid. You know you’re not stupid. The problem isn’t you, it’s the scientists. Scientists are arrogant. For example, when I criticized a particular science website for intentionally misleading readers, the most popular rebuttal was that I (as a scientist) was being elitist.

Where this attitude really raises its head is among supporters of fringe scientific ideas. Some of the strongest supporters of alternative scientific ideas are clearly quite intelligent. Presidential hopeful and evolution denier Ben Carson is a neurosurgeon. Pierre Robitaille made great advances in magnetic resonance imaging, but adamantly believes that the cosmic microwave background comes from Earth’s oceans. Physicist and Nobel laureate Ivar Giaever thinks global warming is a pseudoscience on the verge of becoming a “new religion.” None of these folks are stupid.

Actually, that's pretty clever.

Actually, that’s pretty clever.

If there’s one thing most people know about themselves it’s that they’re not stupid. And they’re right. We live in a complex world and face challenges every day. If you’re stupid, you can quickly land in a heap of unpleasantness. Of course that also means that many people equate being wrong with being stupid. Stupid people make the wrong choices in life, while smart people make the right ones. So when you see someone promoting a pseudoscientific idea, you likely think they’re stupid. When you argue against their ideas by saying “you’re wrong,” what they’ll hear is “you’re stupid.” They’ll see it as a personal attack, and they’ll respond accordingly. Assuming someone is stupid isn’t a way to build a bridge of communication and understanding.

One of the things I love about science is how deeply ennobling it is. Humans working together openly and honestly can do amazing things. We have developed a deep understanding of the universe around us. We didn’t gain that understanding by being stupid, but we have been wrong many times along the way. Being wrong isn’t stupid.

Sometimes it’s the only way we can learn.


  1. The thing that’s always bothered me with the genius label is that people are implying that you simply lucked out and hit the jackpot on the genetic lottery- which only serves to make people like that feel better about their comparative lack of persistence, sacrifice, and hard work.

    I’ve dealt with this more than I’d like in my life- I can count the number of people who’ve said: “That must have been a lot of work” on one hand.

  2. “So when you see someone promoting a pseudoscientific idea, you likely think they’re stupid. When you argue against their ideas by saying “you’re wrong,” what they’ll hear is “you’re stupid.” They’ll see it as a personal attack, and they’ll respond accordingly.”

    You are skating on very thin ice when calling those who consider alternative models pseudoscientists, as by definition astronomy can also be shown to be a pseuodoscience. The standard model is based on one big assumption, and that is that the stars can be seen from outside of Earths atmosphere, by eye, or with a regular camera. Neil Armstrong stated quite clearly that stars were not visible from the Lunar surface, or from cislunar space. His statements were never addressed by NASA. There are also EVA astronauts from both the shuttle days, and from present ISS EVA missions who have stated clearly that when looking away from Earth, into deep space, that nothing is visible, it is the blackest black you can imagine.
    If this is true, then all the accepted models collapse, so the assumption that stars, or anything else, can be seen from clear space must be addressed. NASA will not allow independent experts to examine the evidence, another definition of a pseudoscience. Put a regular telescope outside of Earths atmosphere, and lets see what is visible, there’s the test. Hubble can see the stars you say, but obviously you have no understanding of how Hubble functions, and I doubt there are any astronomers who really do, as the ‘guts’ are still classified. Astronomy is not a REAL science, and most astronomers not scientists.

    1. I can’t tell if you’re seriously making the above argument or if it’s just satire about asstrology I’m not getting. From my experience the strongest indication of pseudoscience is any kind of conspiratory claim.

    2. “Neil Armstrong stated quite clearly that stars were not visible from the Lunar surface, or from cislunar space. His statements were never addressed by NASA.”

      There’s nothing to address. It’s well know that the sunlight lunar surface washes out faint starlight. And if they couldn’t see stars in cislunar space they COULDN’T FREAKING NAVIGATE.

    3. Are you saying you believe stars to be atmospheric phenomena?
      This is easily tested by comparing the position of the stars from different places on Earth. If they were just in the atmosphere, you wouldn’t see the same stars at the same time in different places on Earth (say a 1000 km apart for instance).

      If you are saying that astronomers do have the right distance for stars and the atmosphere is sort of a reverse filter that allows us to see the them, then how would that work? Light can’t travel through a vacuum? But something else is travelling through vacuum then turning into light in the atmosphere. Now you have to explain that as well :S And if that is the truth, why hasn’t it been discovered by others and announced? There’s no harm in it, is there?

      I have been in air planes and seen stars, so how far up do you have to go before you can’t see them? Also, there are plenty of astronauts who have seen stars (here’s an interview with an astronaut: , but I guess they could be lying?

    4. Sigh. Why are comments like this one allowed to stay, and my honest question about Brian Whitworth’s paper deleted? I wasn’t trying to say Whitworth is right; I just wanted to know if Prof Koberlein had any thoughts on the subject, since he seems quite well-read not just on astrophysics.

      “World as virtual reality” may seem like a crackpot proposal, but when I see serious guests invited by Neil dG Tyson discuss the very same subject, it doesn’t seem like a POV which one should just dismiss out of hand.

      1. Author

        Comments go into a moderation queue based upon comment history, which I have to then approve manually. Links are one of the flags (because spam). You posted the first comment at 1am my time, and then complained about its lack of appearance at 7…

        1. Yeah… pardon my ethnocentrism outrunning my self-awareness of time zones. I tend to assume that I’m bringing the continental United States with me wherever I go…

  3. You are talking about mindset. When children are told they are good at something because they are “smart” they immediately stop working hard because if they later make mistakes jy will mean they are no longer “smart.” Also called the damning power of praise.

    But if you tell a child, “Wow! You did good. You must have worked very hard to do that well,” you are praising their voluntary hard work and not an innate “gift” that makes the special.

    Don’t praise gifts. Praise effort.

  4. Long time reader.

    Just went through EU debate. Can’t believe it went from Feb to Aug.

    Now I understand why you stopped replying to stupid comments recently 🙂

    Thanks a lot professor for your unique way of simplifying Astrophysics mumbo jumbo 🙂

  5. Qoute: “The problem isn’t you, it’s the scientists. Scientists are arrogant. For example, when I criticized a particular science website for intentionally misleading readers, the most popular rebuttal was that I (as a scientist) was being elitist.”
    Brian, the problem is that sometimes the scientists are REALLY arrogant. The history remembers some striking cases. For example Lavoisier who has denied the cosmic origin of meteorites – “The stones can’t fall form the sky, because on the sky there aren’t stones” (The translation is my and may be bad). Lavoisier is one of the greatest scientists but… In my language there is a saying: “I nay-mudriyat si e malko prost”. I searhed in the dictionary and found the English equivalent: “Even a wise man stumbles.” So that when we say: “This is a science.” or “This is a pseudoscience.” must be very careful.

  6. Im going into astrophysics this year and this is a problem ive always struggled with. I always doubt myself because I do struggle occasionally, and I feel that even if I can make it through my phd I won’t be able to accomplish anything ‘great’ because Im just not that smart. Thank you for this inspiring post. 🙂

  7. The origin of the universe is N-O-T currently known by ANY scientist.

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