You Can Lead a Horse to Water but You Can’t Make Him Think

You Can Lead a Horse to Water but You Can’t Make Him Think: Training is Not the Cure for Stupidity

Another stupid exclusive by Phil LaDuke


imageI have, figuratively speaking, painted myself into a corner when it comes to stupidity.  Several weeks back I took on a comment made by an oil company executive as inappropriate. Jim Raney, director of engineering and technology at Anadarko was addressing the Ocean Energy Safety Institute at the University of Houston when he said, “You can’t fix stupid…what’s the answer? A culture of safety. It has to be through leadership and supported through procedures — a safety management system.” I wrote an article critical of the statement, because I believe that worker “stupidity” is not the cause of injuries, and that while there are stupid people, none of them should have to be sacrificed in the workplace because they lack the intellect to successfully perform their tasks.

The post created a tidal wave of political correctness that surprised even me.  Email after email, thread post after thread post, I was barraged by mouth breathers who admonished me for calling anyone stupid.  People, they said, weren’t stupid they just needed more training.  I was even censored by one group for a comment (that never saw the light of day) that said, in effect that there are plenty of stupid people, and in fact, 25% of the population are considered below average in intelligence (which one swift thinker promptly seized on to point out my own stupidity because, after all, if it’s an average than 50% of the people would be below it.  (What this dim-bulb failed to realize is that according to the source listed—and this smacks of political correctness—the population is 25% below average (IQs below 80) and 25% are above average (IQs above 110) and 50% are average (IQs between 80 and 110)  average is further divided into low average and high average).  After two weeks of listening to the digital drool that people take the time to hammer out on a keyboard I am here to tell you.  There are plenty of stupid people, and it appears a good many of them are safety practitioners.

Then I had the distinct pleasure of having people continue to link to the Darwin Awards and smugly imply, or out and out say, some people are so stupid that they don’t deserve to live, (A sentiment that, forward thinker, impeccably polite, and social visionary, Heinrich Himmler embraced.  And he didn’t just post it on social networks, he did something about it. It scares me how many people don’t mind being compared to Himmler or don’t get my sarcasm in my description of this alleged human being, but I shouldn’t be surprised, a good number of safety professionals believe that Heinrich Himmler created Heinrich’s Pyramid, but then I digress.)  I detest the Darwin Awards because in many cases these people weren’t necessarily stupid, but were killed after a momentary lapse in judgment.  We don’t always see the hazards until they kill us.

But beyond all this, what irritated me the most, was the idea that we can train people not to be stupid.  Now listen up (and feel free to reread this sentence as much as you need to): you can’t train stupid people not to be stupid (and to all you Himmler devotees you can’t kill them either).  Can fix the ignorance with training? Yes, because the ignorant are simply lacking the knowledge they need.  Can we reduce errors through training? Yes, because we can hone people’s skills through training. Can we help people to make better decisions and exercise better judgment through training? Yes because we can people decision making tools.  Can we train people not to be stupid? No, because we can’t.

Stupidity isn’t the absence of skills, knowledge, or even judgment; rather it is the lack of mental capacity.  The unintelligent—whether through nature, nurture, or injury—don’t have the intellectual ability of their (shudder) “alternately gifted” (another shudder, I feel dirty using this term, one less shudder and a wave of nausea) counter parts. Training someone to not be stupid is like training someone to not have cancer; it can’t be done.  Pretending that someone who legitimately struggles with a low intelligence has all the opportunities and advantages of someone who is brilliant is condescending and insulting; the unintelligent scrape and struggle to accomplish things that people of average intelligence take for granted.  I really believe that it is more of an insult to pretend that unintelligent people are of average intelligence than it is to call them stupid. (It’s kind of like calling me short and fat, all I can say in return is you have a keen eye for the obvious).

And let us not confuse stupidity with doing stupid things.  From marrying my ex-wife to trying to lift the patio stone in my yard this weekend (and hurting my finger) my life is a rich tapestry of stupid things done and attempted.  Let he among you who is without a proven track record of having done stupid things cast the first stone.  We all do stupid things from time to time and no amount of training will stop us from our next great blunder.  Let us pray that it not be that one fatal blunder that gets us our Darwin Award

Training will not make you smarter.  It can only help you to acquire knowledge or hone skills.  My dog is pretty smart, but my attempts to train her to read have only yielded limited results (she still moves her lips when she reads), similarly, I can’t train her to cook lasagna, or run the vacuum, or sort my mail, or answer my emails from my many detractors.  Is it because I haven’t invested enough time in the training? Is it because I my training wasn’t interactive enough? Or is it because I failed to employ the latest training contrivance? No.  It’s because she’s a dog.

Whether we like it or not, some people are dumb, stupid, dim-witted, slow, or…fill in the blank.  I’ve been told this last week that it’s not nice to call people dumb or stupid.  Is it kinder to lie? Is it more of a benefit to encourage a D minus student to pursue a career in astrophysics?

Maybe I need sensitivity training.

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Phil LaDuke

Phil LaDuke

Principle and Partner at ERM
Phil LaDuke
Phil La Duke is a principle and partner in Environmental Resources Management (ERM) a leading global provider of environmental, health, safety, risk, and social consulting services. With over 140 offices in 40 countries and nearly 6,000 top professionals, ERM can help you wherever you find yourself doing business. At ERM we are committed to providing a service that is consistent, professional, and of the highest quality to create value for our clients. Over the past five years we have worked for more than 50% of the Global Fortune 500 delivering innovative solutions for business and selected government clients helping them understand and manage the sustainability challenges that the world is increasingly facing. Phil works primarily in the Performance and Assurance practice at ERM; a speaker, author, consultant, trainer, provocateur…Phil La Duke wears many hats. As an expert in safety, training, organizational development, and culture change, Phil and ERM can help you motivate your workforce, conduct safety performance assessments, help you to build robust training infrastructures, craft interventions to improve how your work place values safety, provide insights to your executive staff, and craft and execute business solutions. If you’re interested in what Phil La Duke and ERM can do for you, or if you would like to inquire about employment opportunites at ERM, contact Phil at

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