The Taboo of IQ

Seattle Mariners starting pitcher Michael Pineda (36) (5709266340)

Michael Pineda

Why We Sidestep Stupidity, and Why We Sometimes Shouldn’t

In the 2nd inning of his fourth start of the 2014 baseball season, New York Yankees’ pitcher Michael Pineda was ejected, and subsequently suspended, for using pine tar on his pitching hand.

Though technically an illegal substance, pine tar’s use is an open secret due to the offsetting advantages it affords adversaries. In raw, cold conditions such as those endured that April evening in Boston, pine tar provides pitchers with a more reliable grip on a baseball while having little, if any, effect on its flight. The pitcher gains a grasp more in line with warmer weather and, in return, the batter is less likely to be summarily plunked by a runaway 95-mph fastball. In exchange for no harm, no foul is called so long as the rule is bent with gentlemanly discretion.

Michael Pineda displayed no such guile. Instead, he smeared a generous glob of the shiny, sticky stuff on his naked upper neck. Equally as bewildering was the incident’s timing: Pineda had been suspected of having pine tar on his pitching hand following a previous start – against these same Boston Red Sox, no less – and, now, was showing a command not present during a rocky 1st inning. In his uber-obviousness, Pineda was seemingly begging to get ejected – a wish Red Sox manager John Farrell begrudgingly granted by having umpires inspect the hurler’s gleaming, glinting neck.

Fueled by the already heightened media attention afforded baseball’s greatest rivalry, Pineda’s dazzlingly dumb behavior headlined newspaper sports sections for days, and provided hours of fodder for TV commentators and radio sports talk show hosts. The details were damning: Pineda had been warned of the substance’s illegality when suspicion mounted following his first start against Boston, and was well aware that the rule can be sidestepped through even minimal discretion. His uniform includes a black belt, for God’s sake – an ideal, color-matching accessory conducive for concealment. Despite this, Pineda slathered pine tar on his uncovered skin, a spot vibrantly visible to all on the field and, of course, to high-definition television cameras.

The incident’s most extraordinary takeaway is this: Though it would have been supremely simple to create a situation in which he had almost no chance of being caught – chiefly because no one wanted to catch him in the first place – Michael Pineda had, incredibly, created a scenario in which he had a near-zero chance of not being detected.

It was a nearly unfathomable act – one which, for media, demanded discomforting decisions.

Would they dare draw the clear conclusion given the undeniable, almost unbelievable facts? Would journalistic integrity trump safe, self-serving political correctness? Would the elephant in the dugout be addressed?

Would Michael Pineda be called what he so obviously is: incredibly and unequivocally unintelligent?  

The hemming and hawing that followed was eye-rollingly predictable. The majority of talking heads pulled a toe-the-line, “hate the sin, love the sinner” copout, calling the actions stupid without speculating on the actor himself. Those that did dare describe Pineda directly chose correctable diagnoses – words indicative of conditions that can be outgrown, such as “immature” and “naive.” These carefully crafted critiques all sought middle ground between the abject cowardice of saying nothing and the overt cruelty of saying everything… because the harshest aspect of unintelligence is its permanence. You can’t fix stupid, and none ventured so far as to pronounce Pineda unredeemable.

However, in stopping short of even entertaining the simplest of explanations – namely, that Michael Pineda just isn’t very bright – these same reporters allowed judgment to instead be passed on them. A journalist’s job is to draw conclusions from facts, and their collective failure to do so proved them not only disingenuous but, given their trade, unprofessional.

Sometimes the truth hurts. And here, the facts point to the awkward, inconvenient truth that Michael Pineda simply is not an intelligent person.

The coverage of Pinetar-gate is a particularly poignant example of a tiptoe-on-eggshells act played out in a plethora of more mundane, day-to-day scenarios throughout society. The media’s methods of ignoring – or at least marginalizing – the dimwitted elephant in the room mirrors our own public posturing.

Sidestepping Stupid

We all do it. Who among us hasn’t been asked to explain the impetus behind someone’s puzzling action – a real boner committed by a colleague, a friend, a family member – and, rather than reveal a truth proven by dozens of previously-witnessed incidents of idiocy, publicly produced an alternate explanation? We aimlessly deflect. We artfully dodge. We outright lie. At worst – in the most damning of dilemmas – we curtail our criticism by naming a fixable flaw in the same mealy-mouthed fashion as the pseudo-journalists who so delicately dissected Michael Pineda’s oh-so-telling tarring.

In these instances, it is ingrained in our senses of established social graces and, correspondingly, of self-preservation to choose politeness over purity. And more so than any other defining personal attribute – kindness, generosity, loyalty, even physical attractiveness – discussion surrounding intelligence seems to get the most of the former and the least of the latter.

We speak openly of another’s level of intellect only when we sincerely find it above average. Conversely, the opinions we voice about our own smarts overwhelmingly trend toward the self-deprecating or, at best, the uncertain. These mock-modest statements fly in the face of what we really think of our own intellect; in fact, a recent YouGov poll found that only 4 percent of Americans think they are less intelligent than the average person, a figure that throws modesty – as well as factuality – to the wind.

At least publicly, then, the only persons we are comfortable calling unintelligent are ourselves. In the polite-yet-painful process, we do an awful lot of wishy-washy withholding or, at times, total tongue-biting in our assessments of our fellows. Too much honesty, we surmise, isn’t always the best policy.

But neither, I would argue, is too much caution.

As the ridiculously restrained reactions to Michael Pineda’s stupidity-fueled suspension show, sometimes the unwillingness to speak openly about another’s intellect makes, ironically, the speakers themselves look stupid. Sometimes stupid is as stupid doesn’t.

This is not, let me state, a call for complete candor. In the vast majority of cases, we are wise to keep our fool mouths shut rather than out an idiot. There are, however, situations where being truthful is more important than sparing someone else’s feelings or, for that matter, protecting our own reputations for kindness or modesty. A prime example of this can be seen in the American education system.

Rightly so, we begin our five-year-olds on as close to an even playing field as possible. Though sizable discrepancies in facility quality, teacher competence and class size certainly exist between the affluent and the underprivileged, kindergarten is, generally, standardized instruction for our youngest learners. Similarly, elementary and middle schools equip students with basic prerequisites for real-world relevance; noone is succeeding in adulthood without knowing how to read, write or multiply. Some kids are quick learners, others develop more slowly but, regardless of perceived differences in intellect, all are presented with necessary fundamentals.

In high school, however, this continued standardization becomes a primrose path of political correctness. By the teenage years, as individual patterns become more established and school subject matter more advanced, it is easier to reliably distinguish reasonably intelligent students from ones who simply aren’t that booksmart. By that time, an ever-widening chasm has formed between those excelling with A’s and B’s and those struggling to earn C’s and D’s.

Regardless, we continue to bang the deceptive drum of “you can be whatever you want to be,” despite knowing full well that this blanket statement simply doesn’t cover everyone. We then send these well-below-average students off to colleges with skyrocketing tuitions, from which they emerge, four years later, with a solid 2.0 GPA and a quarter-million-dollars of debt.

For fear of being derided as insensitive, we do the dim a disservice in our safe, selfish status quo-isms. Tabling this taboo could lead to more tenable outcomes, such as steering those for whom college may not be practical toward more pragmatic and altogether useful environments like trade schools or apprenticeships.

Our friendly-to-a-fault fashion of education is merely the most prominent of situations where an honest discussion about intelligence would be…well… intelligent

For example, though the unexceptional are always going to win their fair share of elections, perhaps we could have been spared the candidacy – and subsequent punditry – of those clearly nowhere near smart enough to hold high-level national office, such as the near-Gumpian Sarah Palin.

Closer to home, perhaps clueing in a terminated employee on the real reason he’s being let go – that he’s not bright enough to handle the position’s responsibilities – would save him, and his family, future firings from similar jobs. Often enough, a firing isn’t a result of laziness or insubordination, but rather flat-out incompetence. Foregoing sterile, cold corporate parlance for brutal honesty is, of course, turbulent for both sides in the short term but, over the long run, may serve as a responsible reality check in a situation where peoples’ livelihoods are at stake.

In almost all cases, I think, our refusal to publicly factor in intelligence is less about sensitivity to others’ feelings and more about our own fear of getting our hands dirty – of sticking our necks out in situations where honesty intended to help can be construed as meanness intended to hurt. We hide this phobia behind a veil of politeness, which provides the simplest escape route from the bumpy road of candor. We are wise wimps.

To that I say, to myself as much as anyone else: Get over yourself, stupid.

Christopher Dale is the founder of, a blog discussing politics, social issues and sobriety.  His work has appeared on The Good Men Project and, among other places.

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37 Comments on "The Taboo of IQ"

  1. Damien Quinn | May 20, 2014 at 10:05 am |

    >>>”In the vast majority of cases, we are wise to keep our fool mouths shut rather than out an idiot.”

    The idiot in fear of being outed when one opens their mouth, or types in this case, is oneself.

    I don’t know much about baseball, much less about Michael Pineda, but I’m sure he has one of the most developed kinesthetic intellects in the US.

    Christopher Dale may not value this type of intellect, clearly, but baseball fans seem to think it’s pretty important. I’d also make the point that Mr. Pineda is clearly pretty competent, seeing as he is at the top of his field, which is more than can be said for Mr. Dale.

    • Gjallarbru | May 20, 2014 at 10:12 am |

      Cheating in obvious fashion is stupid, especially when you go from “top of his field”, to being suspended. Even stupider when it all could be easily avoided. As Gump said, stupid is what stupid does. The point of the article is that Pineda made his level of intellect clearly observable by his own devices. Mr Dale has point.

      By the way, fancy verbiage like “kinesthetic intellect” is a copout. Intellect, as intended in the article, has nothing to do with throwing a ball.

      • Damien Quinn | May 20, 2014 at 11:21 am |

        Having your muscles fire in an efficient way (kinesthetics) is an entirely mental process, which makes it a form of intellect. I’d presume it wasn’t a form of intellect Mr. Dale had in mind when writing, but that was my point.

        There are plenty of “smart” people who cheat in an obvious way and get caught. Just google “academic fraud” for thousands of examples that prove IQ and the ability to cheat effectively are utterly unrelated.

        Honestly, I just think that setting yourself up to pass judgement on someone else’s overall intellect based on a few examples of incompetence or unwise decision making seems a little presumptuous on the part of the judge.

        • Gjallarbru | May 20, 2014 at 11:42 am |

          I’m not convinced having coordination and good depth perception is “mental” as it is neurological. Intellect and reflexes, although both brain related, aren’t the same kind of capacity at all.

          As for your academic fraud example, do not confuse the ability to absorb and regurgitate data to be intelligence either. I won’t argue with you that there are a load of pretty stupid “smart people” out there. Having been to an university is no certitude for the presence of intelligence.

          But I do think that putting pine tar where everybody can see it is an objectively stupid thing to do, if you’re not supposed to use it. I don’t think myself an asshole for agreeing that the act demonstrates stupidity at some level. Which makes me think you missed the point of the article. The article questions why mentioning a stupid act for what it is makes one an asshole. The article questions your exact reaction. You seem to have no problem judging me to be an asshole, why can’t I call the guy stupid?

          I will however grant you that I don’t know the man well enough to make a final judgment (nor do you know me well enough). I will also admit that he might posses some redeeming intellectual property, not easily perceived here. Still, not protecting his career any better can’t be construed as a probable sign of a great intellect.

          • Elizabeth Slough-Mills | May 20, 2014 at 12:14 pm |

            I apologize for going off-topic, but I adore the way you write. (That is not something I say with any frequency, by the way.)

          • Gjallarbru | May 20, 2014 at 1:24 pm |

            Many thanks for the complement. English is a second language for me, but I do take pride in trying to write properly. I don’t always succeed, as my native French gets in the way, especially with spelling. Your compliment has made my day!

          • Damien Quinn | May 22, 2014 at 1:17 am |

            Alright, at this point I’m going to ask you to define intellect, according to you it isn’t a mental opperation like kinesthetics and it isn’t the type of mental opperations that accedemics use when preparing something to be published, research, creativity, opperational knowledge and so on. So what is it then, purely not doingg stupid things? We all do stupid things my friend.

          • Gjallarbru | May 22, 2014 at 7:16 am |

            You have trouble reading, or just reading me?

            What I mean by intellect is mental, or the ability to reason, to project, to analyze and come to a conclusion. The greatest intellect leading to the attribution of the status of genius in the truest sense.

            For your “kinesthetic intellect” to be an actual “mental” operation, some intellectual effort should happen. Something like making an actual calculation, taking in actual data like the weight of the ball, the distance, wind speed, wind resistance. Yet, that guy does none of that I’m sure.

            What a pitcher does is to rely on basic, unconsciously operated mechanisms of the brain. Yes, it means his brain is more capable of managing depth and coordinating muscle movement than most, but that is not intellect. The biggest idiot of the world can have great reflexes, and a freakin’ genius can be a total klutz. In other words, not everything happening in the brain is an intellectual operation.

            And yes, we all do stupid things. Yet I have done nothing as stupid as advertising for all to see that I am using something illegal. That happens to be entirely beneath me, and hopefully beneath you, which would make Pineda stupider than both of us.

          • kowalityjesus | May 24, 2014 at 11:28 pm |

            Well, is the difference between e.g. the ‘extreme talent of a scientific genius’ and the ‘extreme talent of a pro baseball pitcher’ simply knowledge-acquisition/training and a genetic predisposition to excel in the necessary aspects of the field?

            Nobody said this guy didn’t work fuckin hard to go pro, even if he is physically more capable of accomplishing that feat. My bone to pick would be on WHY the one extreme talent is valued over the other, which I think is the REAL stupid thing.

          • Gjallarbru | May 25, 2014 at 7:46 am |

            If that is your bone to pick, yes, lets ask why sports celebrities receive millions in salary, while researchers that work on cures received barely interesting salaries. Why is that sports, which are an entertainment industry, is valued more by so many, than scientific endeavor? Why is it that all those sports fans, wearing company logos, don’t realize they are cheering on corporations before anything else. All those shirt wearing, flag waving fans/consumers, are giving free advertisement for their favorite corporations. Ask me why I don’t value throwing a baseball as much as I value knowledge and reasoning…

            But no one said Pineda didn’t have a talent for baseball, just that he’s an idiot nonetheless. The mental effort necessary to understand that you don’t advertise your cheating isn’t that high, and Pineda didn’t manage that. Perhaps its genetics, perhaps its just because Pineda never bothered to develop his mental abilities, but that wasn’t the question.

            The question motivating the article is why is it improper to point out stupidity when is is objectively identifiable? I ask the same question myself. Just like why it was OK for Quinn to call me an asshole because I called Pineda stupid? What is worse, is that Pineda’s stupidity is objectively observable by his actions, my supposed “asshole” nature is purely subjective.

        • Elizabeth Slough-Mills | May 20, 2014 at 12:12 pm |

          As are you, too, given the evidence you’ve so generously supplied. Pineda is a dolt. How nice that y’all stick up for one another.

        • Adamas Macalz | May 21, 2014 at 1:31 pm |

          where the author fails is the fact that he doesn’t differentiate between cunning and intelligence. You can be intelligent as hell and generally lack guile, and vice versa. there are way too many types of intelligence for me to give much credence to IQ. my uncle couldn’t read or do math for shit, but he had a photographic memory and could take apart and put back an entire car, because he could imagine it in 3d.

  2. Gjallarbru | May 20, 2014 at 10:06 am |

    I think that part of the problem is that idiots have the obvious advantage of usually not knowing they’re idiots. They tend to be at least oblivious to their “condition”, so why “awaken” them to a reality where they would feel inadequate. Second, the most obvious block against criticism is that intelligence sometimes escapes formal objective definition. Granted, sometimes stupidity is objectively noticeable. But to figure out when to point it out, and when not to, isn’t clearly defined and will never be.

    Finally, in the case of Pineda, I wonder how the fact that he is clearly a member of a ethnic minority forbade a direct criticism of his intelligence. From personal experience, telling a white guy that he’s dumb is going to make it personal. But telling a black guy he’s dumb (at least when you’re white), there’s a fat chance you will be called out as a racist. I’m not saying there is a direct link, but my own experience would suggest ethnicity is a factor in criticism these days.

    • Anarchy Pony | May 20, 2014 at 12:27 pm |

      The Dunning-Krueger effect. Being too incompetent to realize that you’re incompetent. There’s also a corollary where competent people underestimate their competence.

    • erte4wt4etrg | May 20, 2014 at 1:03 pm |

      Of course it is. You can’t call out a minority if you’re white, they nail your balls to the wall. Just cover your eyes and go la la la la

  3. Smart people can be just as stupid as stupid people.

  4. erte4wt4etrg | May 20, 2014 at 12:48 pm |

    balance, brain and heart.

  5. Denis-André Desjardins | May 20, 2014 at 1:00 pm |

    “A journalist’s job is to draw conclusions from fact” in fact, NO, it isn’t! A journalist is to report the facts, not to interpret them in any way.

  6. BuzzCoastin | May 20, 2014 at 1:04 pm |

    if anything it highlights the collective stupidity of MLB
    ’cause pine tar is widely used
    and all you have to do is act like a Homeland politician
    and pretend the emperor has no pine tar

    this kid was stupid
    the same way the little boy who saw the emperor naked

    • kowalityjesus | May 24, 2014 at 11:16 pm |

      you have a good point, but if pine tar were officially condoned, we would see the return of the spitball, but the pine-tar ball, because you can’t easily regulate how big of a glob you use on a pitch.

      It’s funny that this is one of those occasions where we collectively acknowledge something where everybody fears exposure but actually still participates in it. It’s sort of like a bunch of employees coming together to have an intervention with one guy who seems to think it’s alright to blatantly pick his nose with relish in a board meeting.

  7. emperorreagan | May 20, 2014 at 1:37 pm |

    Professional sports are about spectacle and illusion.

    You have the PED thing in a similar vein, where the illusion of a clean sport is important, even where the vast majority are using PEDs. The sin isn’t using PEDs, it’s getting caught.

  8. the author needs a lesson in logical fallacies…sorry, but this article is also rather stupid – IQ is not a golden metric and serves as a poor measure of “general intelligence,” there are many, many others :

  9. Echar Lailoken | May 20, 2014 at 4:28 pm |

    Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterward.

    Vernon Law

  10. mannyfurious | May 20, 2014 at 5:59 pm |

    Part of the problem is who is defining “stupid?” Maybe the MLB is stupid for leaving a stupid rule in place.

  11. The answer: it is easiest to see nothing but virtues in those we care about, and nothing but flaws in those we don’t care about.

  12. kowalityjesus | May 24, 2014 at 11:06 pm |

    I wish they had just told me why they fired me from my last job: I was making everyone there look stupid. I’ve lost more friends…

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