Idiots, Imbeciles, Morons – and Brain Farts

Paul Fritjers is lamenting the loss of intellectual freedom and freedom of expression produced by an odd rule of social interaction: the person in pain gets to own the truth and those without pain adjust. So for example, people with undesired traits such as low intelligence or high BMI (in plain English, stupid people and obese people) the wording of debates on stupidity and obesity is dictated by the emotional needs of the stupid and obese and beyond that – or rather within this circumscription of acceptable language – a questionable socially accepted truth is determinedi.

Long gone, for example, are the days when psychologists could use the words ‘idiot’, ‘imbecile’ and ‘moron’ with technical precision: the word ‘idiot’ signified someone with an IQ between 0 and 25, an imbecile was someone with an IQ between 25 and 50 and a moron was someone with an IQ between 51 and 70. Thanks to the operation of a ‘euphemism treadmill’ these technically useful terms have been progressively replaced by circumlocutions that sacrifice linguistic precision in the name of sparing idiots, imbeciles and morons the emotional hurt of perceived insult.


There are several quite pithy – and very accurate – colloquial expressions I can think of to describe Frijter’s thesis but, discretion being the better part of controversy, I’ll content myself with a bowdlerised paraphrasing of a remark of George Orwell: there are some ideas that only a monomath would believe.

Since Don Arthur has already produced a strong philosophical rebuttal of Frijter’s later arguments I’ll restrict myself to an examination of that tri-partite classification of people with low IQs. It was devised by psychologist and eugenicist Henry H Goddard[link] and adopted by the American Association for the study of the feeble-minded in May 1910. The only newly coined term in Goddard’s classification system is the word moron, which Goddard derived from the Ancient Greek word ‘moros’ (dull).

The other class names – ‘idiotii‘ and ‘imbecile’ were already established in English usage with meanings which differed little from their modern meanings. There’s no evidence that Goddard’s scheme was intended as a neutral technical language; it’s reasonable to suspect that his class names – including the newly coined ‘moron’ –  were chosen as much for their rhetorical impact as their supposed technical usefulness.

Eugenics, as is well known, is a pseudo-scientific political ideology which has its roots in the philosophy of Herbert Spencer. The eugenicists’ goal was to shorten the way to the Spencerian utopia of a genetically perfected humanity free of all the inherited defects of character and wit which are the root of so much suffering, particularly the inevitable and irremediable suffering of the weak-willed and feeble-minded.

Crudely, eugenics proposed the selective breeding of humanity and active social and political measures to ensure that the right sort of people bred and the wrong sort of people didn’t. Measures proposed included confining inferior specimens of humanity – like the feeble-minded – to colonies where they could be prevented from mixing their inferior genes with those of superior types, and compulsory sterilisation.

Goddard, though a strong advocate of eugenics held back from advocating compulsory sterilisation because he believed the idea would be rejected by the American public. On that point he misoverestimated the American public – starting with Indiana in 1907, 33 US States enacted laws allowing the compulsory sterilisation of inmates in State institutions for the mentally ill and the mentally retarded. The practice was endorsed by the US Supreme Court in a famous judgement in the case of Buck vs Bell in 1927. Writing on behalf of the majority of the Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes declared:

The judgment finds the facts that have been recited, and that Carrie Buck

“is the probable potential parent of socially inadequate offspring, likewise afflicted, that she may be sexually sterilized without detriment to her general health, and that her welfare and that of society will be promoted by her sterilization,”

and thereupon makes the order. In view of the general declarations of the legislature and the specific findings of the Court, obviously we cannot say as matter of law that the grounds do not exist, and, if they exist, they justify the result. We have seen more than once that the public welfare may call upon the best citizens for their lives. It would be strange if it could not call upon those who already sap the strength of the State for these lesser sacrifices, often not felt to be such by those concerned, in order to prevent our being swamped with incompetence. It is better for all the world if, instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting the Fallopian tubes. Jacobson v. Massachusetts, 197 U. S. 11. Three generations of imbeciles are enough.

So while it’s true that for a while the words moron, imbecile and idiot were employed as technical terms in psychology it is not true that the usage was ever purely technical. Nor is it true that they have fallen into disuse thanks to creeping political correctness prompted by an outcry from a bunch of morons and imbeciles who had the problems of their scientifically demonstrable mental inferiority compounded by the development of a victim mentality – that Goddard’s classification has been ‘outlawed’. There is nothing in history to support such a view. There was never any such thing as an American Morons’ Anti-Defamation League.

What the facts of history present us with is the compulsory sterilisation of over 65,000 people in state care because they were deemed unfit to have children; they were deemed to be less than fully human and dealt with accordingly. During the Cold War another generation of people who merely sapped the strength of the State were called upon to make further sacrifices, this time in the name of advancing science. Without their consent they were used as experimental subjects in an extensive program of experiments on the effects of radioactive materials on human beings sponsored by the US Atomic Energy Agency

Of course Frijters isn’t proposing anything so radical as the compulsory sterilisation of the obese and other mentally ill people, or that they be used an unknowing involuntary subjects in scientific research; the mild forms of discrimination he does propose, such as higher health insurance premiums for the fat are intended as much for the benefit of the fat as the benefit of the economy. All he wants is that we join him in recognising their deficiencies frankly and honestly and stop going to water every time the hurt card is played in public debate on issues such as obesity and (other) mental illnesses. His case might have more appeal if he hadn’t chosen such a woefully bad example to open his argument.

Postscript: for a more extended account of the career of Henry H Goddard and other seminal figures in the study of IQ see The mismeasurement of Man by Stephen J Gould.

i The interpolation on the circumscription of language is me writing directly to you, the reader, not an exposition of Frijters position. The following clause, with its Derridean sous-rature is willfully ambiguous: two senses of the word ‘determined’ are in play.

ii For an earlier usage of ‘idiot’ in its modern sense, see Macbeth Act V, Scene 5.


About Paul Bamford (aka Gummo T)

Gummo Trotsky is the on-line persona of Paul Bamford. Paul recently placed his intellect at risk of finally becoming productive by enrolling in a Lemonade, Lime & Bitters degree via distance education. He also plays the piano but Keith Jarrett he ain't.
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12 Responses to Idiots, Imbeciles, Morons – and Brain Farts

  1. john r walker says:

    The obesity conditions you are talking about do, to a degree, intrinsicaly restrict reproductive success. And one of the mysteries about IQ is : if it really is such a advantage – why are there some many stupid people, they should have all been eaten by lions a long long time ago ago.

  2. Greg Jericho says:

    Excellent response. It’s nice for some to believe that “politically correct” terms are about us assigning new meaning to phrases – such that we took a term that was neutral and somehow decided it was offensive. In reality what occurred is we stopped pretending that the terms were neutral.

  3. conrad says:

    “And one of the mysteries about IQ is : if it really is such a advantage – why are there some many stupid people, they should have all been eaten by lions a long long time ago ago.”

    Because for most of human history, other things like being able to punch the lion in the face very hard were presumably more useful, and, for most of human history (probably all), most people didn’t and still don’t get to use all of their intelligence for one reason or another (it’s why people should care about educational inequality and things like that). There’s also probably been just a lot of variability in what people have needed to do, as you would learn if you read the text by Stephen J Gould, and since intelligence is basically a grab-bag of a whole pile of skills, none of them are under especially strong evolutionary pressure. For example, that I can remember 9 digits in my head and you can remember 7 probably doesn’t correlate too well to picking up girls and having children. But it would get me a few browny points on an IQ scale. Alternatively, you may be 9.5/10 on the good looks scale and I may be only 6, and this is going to help you evolutionary a lot more than me.

    • john r walker says:

      Sadly my good looks were wasted on my youth. As for number memory, bet you , you can’t taste color. :-)

      Where you thinking of a particular Stephan J Gould text – he did write a few things on this sort of stuff.

      • conrad says:

        I haven’t read it for 20 years, but I remember it being in the Mismeasurement of Man (which has been very controversial, with crazies from both sides of politics, sorry I meant science, offering their opinions).

        He has a very nice little (and entirely unrelated) chapter on the mean and the median too, which documents his experience of cancer statistics and the cancer he had at the time. Everyone should read that one (

        • john r walker says:

          Its a while since I read it but from memory The mis-measurement of man , had to do with people measuring scull cc capacity as a measure of brain size. Some scientists ,unconsciously (or consciously) tried harder- packed in more grains, pushed harder (and shook to remove air pockets) a bit harder – if they thought the scull was of a white person. The idea at the time was that brain size = intelligence . These results were then picked up by some very bad people.

          Funny thing is that it seems that S J Gould, possibly may have unconsciously pushed/distorted the evidence that Mis-measurement of Man is based on, himself.

        • john r walker says:

          blooody spill chick
          “skull” not scull .

        • conrad says:

          I think there were really two parts, one is that people basically falsified data etc. . This doesn’t mean there arn’t differences between groups — just that you couldn’t trust the data.

          The more important bit was the idea that cognitive capacities couldn’t have evolved fast enough to create any meaningful differences between groups since humans simply haven’t been around long to allow for it (you check my out-of-date memory on this one, but I think that was based on the assumption that human groups are at most 30K years different from each other).

          I’m not sure whether I’d believe that these days. One reason is there are now examples of some things evolving really quickly in humans. There are genes associated with processing oxygen well, for example, and they changed really quickly within populations. The Tibetans, for example, split off from the Han Chinese less than 3000 years ago, but 90% have some variants of these genes and only 10% of Han Chinese do. So a lot of people either died out or walked back down the mountain.

          Of course Gould would argue that this is a physical trait, not a cognitive one, so it isn’t relevant.

          The other reason which I think differences could happily exist is there could simply be genetic drift — I think everyone tries to ascribe reasons to everything, but it may simply be due to random fluctuations.

          That being said, the more I read about genetics studies of even not especially complex things (and I really do read about them sometimes!), the more hopeless I realize that understanding anything to do with complex behavior is. So whilst I’m happy believe there might be genetic differences, I think the evidence based on more recent genetic analysis of various things would be very slim if someone bothered to pick out the correlations and look across groups (and probably pretty meaningless too, given the strength of other factors).

  4. Paul Frijters says:


    I suggest you read the following review I gave of a book that indeed argued IQ was genetic. Your sensitivities blind you to the fact that we are on the same side, once again.

    I fail to see how the fact that words will inevitably be used by multiple audiences in various ways, something that will also happen to new words, in any way negates the point of my ‘hurt and truth’ post. There are thousands of words in English which mean many things at the same time and context is the way we ‘normally’ figure out what is meant. And indeed, with regards to the IQ example I explicitly said that I can see the point of the euphemism treadmill.

    If you must know though, you indeed did push my buttons when you demanded I change my opinion because you found it hurtful to think I would be right. You displayed that trait prominently here and here. I do recognise your pain, Gummo, and, as I said at the time, I was not looking to hit your sensitivities, but I resent you using your pain as a weapon to force others into silence on things they think and to tell them what is true or not on the basis of what your pain dictates. Can’t you just ignore my existence?

  5. Tim Macknay says:

    While we’re on the subject of IQ, the accuracy of memory, and other features of debatable importance, I believe Gould’s book was called “The Mismeasure of Man”, not the “mismeasurement”.

    /pedant. :)

  6. Tim Macknay says:

    I just screwed up the italics tags. Hmm.

  7. kevin1 says:

    I remember you Paul. You used to come along to meetings of the ACOA Reform Group and….knit!!! I don’t recall you ever making a comment.

    Are you a situationist “joke”, or is there something “there”? I don’t know, seems like vanity publishing to me.

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