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27 June 2023

Beware the midwit trap

Sometimes the simplest explanation is the best explanation.

By Josiah Gogarty

It’s been quite hot recently. Luckily help is at hand: a copy-and-pasted list of tips for staying cool gets republished on news websites and circulated by HR departments around this time every year.

Some of them feel counter-intuitive. Shutting windows and drawing curtains kills all hope of the fresh breeze your sticky body craves but at high noon, when the air outside is hotter than inside, it has some logic. Worse is the instruction to drink scalding liquids like tea, which cool you off by first making you hot enough to sweat. But I don’t want to get any hotter, or to sweat. I want to get cooler. Drinking hot tea is temperature-regulation accelerationism, and the destination isn’t worth the journey.

Being informed by some appointed authority that the intuitive answer is wrong is a familiar feeling for many of us. This makes it all the sweeter when that expert turns out to be a deluded “midwit”. A midwit is someone of about average intelligence who believes that actually, the solution to any given issue is a bit more complicated than what people they regard as stupid assume. In fact, the truly brainy know that the simple answer is indeed the right one. 

Online, people make fun of midwits with a specific meme format: an IQ bell curve, with a character placed at each extreme and one above the bulge in the middle. The two on the fringes have the same caption – the straightforward truth about something – while the guy in the middle grinds his teeth and issues a long, complicated (and false) theory of his own.

One example of the midwit trap is investing. Above, the midwit – perhaps a Reddit-browsing amateur trader, or the solid kind of chap who works in wealth management – will go on about hot stocks and market conditions. The smart and stupid money, however, is all in index funds that simply track a market as it gradually gets bigger over time. A recent study of some 2,132 American investment funds actively managed by stock pickers found that not one beat the market in the five years between 2017 and 2022.

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Another kind of midwit, who might own a tidy little semi-detached abutting a grey-green field on the edge of town, can produce endless reasons for why Britain has a housing crisis: second homeowners, foreign speculators, land banking by building companies, existing units lying vacant, too much immigration, Airbnb hosts. But more important by an order of magnitude is supply. According to one Statista measure from 2021, the UK has about 354 dwellings for every 1,000 people, compared with 548 in France and 518 in Germany. The caveman-simple answer – “build more houses, price come down” – is the right one.

Yet just because midwits are often wrong doesn’t mean they always are. It’d be easy to make a midwit meme that endorsed an extreme approach to the pandemic: “Covid is just like flu”, or “zero Covid means zero Covid problems”. But neither of those are true. Events across the world showed how damaging it was to both let the virus rip and completely suppress it.

[See also: Cryptocurrency offers a vision of a more open, creative and free internet]

The reasonably effective strategies we stumbled upon – lock down before vaccines are available, space out vaccine doses until everyone has at least moderate protection, tolerate infections once their impact has been blunted – were classic midwittery in their inelegance and deferment to bureaucratic authority. The Covid inquiry that has just kicked off will last several times longer than the pandemic itself. But its tediousness cannot be wished away for the sake of a few tidy assumptions.

Just as some see an intrinsic truth in complication, there’s an equal and opposite tendency to see truth in simplicity. Take the aphorism that “it should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid” – doesn’t quantum physics famously involve a metaphorical cat that is simultaneously dead and alive? Even professional physicists don’t fully understand physics. It would be lovely, and it would feel right, if the equations you learned in school explained the world. The unnerving reality is that complexity has no correlation with truth at all, whether positive or negative. 

The idea of the midwit is not new. “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” wrote Alexander Pope 300 years ago. But the term itself emerged more recently, from alt-right internet forums. Blue-collar Trump voters instinctively grasped the truth, the reasoning went, which others learned through spending their waking hours on 4chan. Midwit Democrats, by contrast, were led astray by their pitiful little learning, gleaned from watching MSNBC, reading the New York Times and trying to read the New Yorker.

It’s an argument that can be endlessly repurposed. Centrist, expert-loving establishment types are just midwits, their mouths foaming with managerial jargon, jeer those on the populist fringes to the left and the right. Base political urges – lock up the criminals, tax the fat cats – are not just popular but wise. In fact, they’re wise because they’re popular. 

But everyone becomes a midwit when they have to defend their more unpopular opinions. The online right, so quick to sneer at hair-splitting technocrats, suddenly rediscovered its appreciation of nuance when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine last year. An avalanche of on-the-other-handism began: “Of course it looks like an unprovoked war of aggression which must be resisted by every reasonable means, but don’t forget what the White House said in 1990 about Nato expansion, and about the far-right element in Kyiv’s military, and what will happen to Western weapons after the war…” – and on and on it goes.

Politics is much more fun when intuition and “common sense” are on your side. But they’re capricious allies. Treat them like the lucky bounce of a ball or a videogame power-up – as an exception rather than the rule. They don’t mean anything more than good fortune. Because if you’re not laughing at a midwit, maybe the midwit is you – and you might even prove the dunce and the brainbox wrong.

[See also: Boris Johnson at a blockchain conference]

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