Tag Archives: Paul Krugman

The Stupid Person’s Idea of the Clever Person

Speaker: Julie Burchill? Elizabeth Bowen? Ezra Klein? Paul Krugman? Andrew Sullivan? Hermione Eyre? William Donaldson?

Target: Stephen Fry? Aldous Huxley? Dick Armey? Newt Gingrich?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I heard an uncomplimentary quip applied to an intellectual. Here are three versions:

  • The stupid person’s idea of a clever person
  • The dumb person’s idea of a smart person
  • The stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like

Would you please help me to trace this expression?

Quote Investigator: In 1936 Irish author Elizabeth Bowen published a review in the London periodical “The Spectator” of a book by Aldous Huxley. She began her piece with a pointed remark about Huxley: 1

Mr. Huxley has been the alarming young man for a long time, a sort of perpetual clever nephew who can be relied on to flutter the lunch-party.

Interestingly, Bowen employed the saying under analysis, but she did not imply that Huxley was stupid; instead, she reiterated that he was clever. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

He is at once the truly clever person and the stupid person’s idea of the clever person; he is expected to be relentless, to administer intellectual shocks.

Many others have used similar constructs, but Elizabeth Bowen’s remark is currently the earliest known instance.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1936 December 11, The Spectator, Mr. Huxley’s Essays by Elizabeth Bowen (Review of The Olive Tree and Other Essays by Aldous Huxley), Quote Page 24, London, England. (Online archive at archive.spectator.co.uk; accessed January 3, 2018)

It Is Difficult to Get a Man to Understand Something When His Salary Depends Upon His Not Understanding It

Upton Sinclair? H. L. Mencken? William Jennings Bryan? C. E. M. Joad? Christopher Matthews? Paul Krugman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Financial incentives can compromise the critical faculties of an individual. Here are four versions of this insight:

  1. Never argue with a man whose job depends on not being convinced.
  2. It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.
  3. It can be very hard to understand something, when misunderstanding it is essential to your paycheck.
  4. It is rather pointless to argue with a man whose paycheck depends upon not knowing the right answer.

I think either muckraker Upton Sinclair or curmudgeon H. L. Mencken employed this expression. Would you please trace it?

Quote Investigator: Upton Sinclair ran for Governor of California in the 1930s, and the coverage he received from newspapers was unsympathetic. Yet, in 1934 some California papers published installments from his forthcoming book about the ill-fated campaign titled “I, Candidate for Governor, and How I Got Licked”. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

I used to say to our audiences: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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Notes:

  1. 1934 December 11, Oakland Tribune, I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked by Upton Sinclair, Quote Page 19, Column 3, Oakland, California. (Newspapers_com)