xkcd vs Idiocracy

(vs me)

I’ve not seen Idiocracy, and I suspect from a quick read of the Wikipedia article that it’s probably a bit crap, but xkcd’s review of the central concept made me so cross that I had to make a parody. Yes, that cross.

(Since it’s a parody, it would be worth reading the original first if you haven’t already.)

Image licensed under Creative Commons. Thanks to xkcd for the original cartoon and xkcd sucks for the font, humor [sic] sans.

xkcd is so true.

I know, right? Randall really handed it to Idiocracy, especially with that hilarious ‘new theory’ putdown.

I’ve not seen the film, but clearly there can’t be anything in the idea that intelligence is being dragged steadily downward.

Right on, hat dude.

Yeah, except everything I just said was wrong.


Yes, this frame is pointless filler.

Randall’s evidence-free, anti-sanctimonious sanctimony does nothing to answer Idiocracy’s claims. it’s not fascism to acknowledge that less intelligent and less wealthy parents have less time to spend with more children. Surely the idea that intelligence is hereditary, some combination of genetics and parenting, can’t just be dismissed out of hand?

But look at how popular—

And then he backs it up with a rhetorically elegant recursive put- down, which sounds smart but adds nothing.

Look—all we need is a quotable, easy-to-digest quip about—

New theory: people like xkcd because the alternative is treating unpopular speculation with a degree of respect.

Idiocracy’s premise certainly seems like common sense of the sort that would be dispensed by people who spell it ‘commonsense’ and are scared of the people next door because they’re immigrants. But just because it feels like the sanctimony of a Mail-reading moron, doesn’t make it wrong.

xkcd is equally guilty of going for a populist, ‘common sense’ vibe: why present evidence, when a near-caricature of left-wing egalitarian rhetoric will suffice?

It’s not ridiculous, though it does smack of right-wing elitism, to suggest that socioeconomic position, intelligence and caring about raising children might be correlated. It’s also definitely true that poor people have more babies, whether comparing the developed and developing world or looking within a given country.

It’s an interesting question as to what effect the possible feedback loop that these premises create would have. It’s not necessarily bad—Huxley’s Brave New World needs its epsilons and, at the risk of being branded an even more sanctimonious elitist, so do we. The ideal composition of society in the future is obviously neither all-genius nor all-idiot, but equally obviously near-impossible to predict.

It’s not clear whether there is a feedback loop, nor obvious whether its effects are good or bad. If it does exist, and is bad, it’s a can of Aryan worms to solve. However, telling your detractors they’re not gonna get laid because their opinion is so repugnant amongst middle-class physics majors does not seem like the way forward to me.

xkcd’s trademark hover text, revealed by putting yer mouse over the cartoon, does make two good points though: it’s possible that technology will give us cognitive enhancement before any of this might happen. And we do seem to be fucking the climate up.

Additional reporting by Tom Fuller.


  1. Monroe does offer the argument that “more harm has been done by people paniced over societal decline than societal decline ever did”. Although no evidence is immediately presented, the fact that you have in the sixth panel a mention of a limited breeding programme it appears the context is the concept of eugenics. The problems with this are patently obvious to anyone within reach of a history book.

    I read the comic as a fairly standard (and quite amusing) argument against a repugnant position. Although totolatarian eugenics is a thing of the past, a form of “soft” eugenics has been applied in recent history:

    In Singapore in the 80s, University Graduates were offered financial incentives to marry and have children (there were also some more laughable schemes such as courtship classes in the undergraduate curriculum). At the other end of the scale women of poor education were offered money if they agreed to be sterilised. (Source: 3rd Reith lecture 2009 – also see http://www.springerlink.com/content/n5217110723l53x5/)

    I hope that people find that concept horrific. I certainly do. I think it is that sort of thinking that Monroe is combatting here, rather than the correllations you discuss in your post.

  2. The problems with [eugenics] are patently obvious to anyone within reach of a history book.

    Indeed, as I mention in my article… But the problems of a society comprising too many feedback-loop–bred eejits are also readily apparent, so obviously if the loop were to exist, we would be left trying to decide between the lesser of two evils. Describing either as ‘horrific’ does not address the question.

    Fact is, to stand by and watch is as much an ethical decision as implementing a distasteful eugenic policy (or a more acceptable, less direct incentive structure) and, as a consequentialist, I think it’s our duty to adopt whichever leads to the better world.

  3. | But the problems of a society comprising too many feedback-loop–bred eejits are also readily apparent

    Which contemporary or historical society are you referring to? The argument of the cartoon is that such a society is (likely unrealistic) fiction, whereas eugenics has been a real and highly lamentable part of the 20th century – not least because someone has to decide who’s genes are worthy and who’s are not.

    Of course, it always happens that the ruling class unsurprisingly believe they are the model of the human ideal (much the argument Monroe uses in P4) and curtail people’s freedoms accordingly.

    It is highly doubtful that this would even have any effect. As the genetic contribution to intelligence is small and social mobility is not the zero required for a “Time Machine”- like speciation between the highs and the lows. On an evolutionary timescale I would be very surprised if intelligence wasn’t selected for.

    Regardless, I would much rather live in a free society heading to ‘Idiocracy’ than a society where the elite controlled or cojouled their people into their image.

  4. Simply dismissing a possibility as ‘highly doubtful’ and making some plausibility arguments does not a social policy make. Your arguments may be correct, they may not be, but neither us nor xkcd has the empirical evidence to make the call, and taking a strong position based on insults rather than facts is not useful.

    Regardless, I would much rather live in a free society heading to Idiocracy than a society where the elite controlled or cajoled their people into their image.

    That way madness lies. Is there any more, ethically, to a course of action than the amount of moral good resulting from it? There are plenty of decent arguments against eugenics, but making it a political expletive and ruling it out a priori because ‘freedom’ is brilliant? Silliness.

    What about current policies which brush up against eugenics? Evil eugenics is (tautologously) bad, and it is clearly open to abuse, but, say, encouraging family planning amongst the socially disadvantaged is hardly that controversial, is it? Also, people are currently advised not to have children if they have genetic disorders, or the mum is old and thus puts her child at risk of Down’s, etc. Where is the line?

    I’m not saying I know. I’m not saying eugenics is good. I’m just saying that we should do whatever’s best, and not attach emotive labels to some of our options.

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