Idiot vs. Moron: What's the Difference?

The Dilemma: You want to assail someone's intelligence, but you don't know quite what word to use, which calls into question your own intellect.

Materials Needed: An IQ test would be helpful, but you can get by on just your wits—provided you have enough of them.

People You Can Impress: Well, idiots and morons both, for starters. But also psychologists. And you really, really need to impress psychologists, because—as you'll see—you really don't want them to think you're an idiot.

Quick Trick: These days, the words are completely synonymous. But back in the dark days of psychology (which is to say until about 30 years ago), there was a difference, and here's the quick trick psychologists used: Ask a question. If your subject answers, they're a moron at worst. If they don't answer, you might have an idiot on your hands.

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The Reason: Anyone who says that political correctness never accomplished anything worthwhile should take a long, hard look at the lot of the idiot. In 1911, French psychologists Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon created the first modern intelligence test, which calculated IQ based on whether children could accomplish tasks like pointing to their nose (honestly) and counting pennies. The concept of "IQ" followed soon after, and psychologists fell so deeply in love with the scientific nature of the tests that they created classification systems. Any child with an IQ of above 70 was considered "normal," while kids above 130 were considered "gifted." To deal with kids below 70, psychologists invented a nomenclature of retardation. Those with IQs between 51 and 70 were called morons. Morons had adequate learning skills to complete menial tasks and communicate. Imbeciles, with IQs between 26 and 50, never progressed past a mental age of about six. And the lowest of all were the idiots, with IQs between 0 and 24, who were characterized by poor motor skill, extremely limited communication, and little response to stimulus.

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The moron/imbecile/idiot classification remained popular, amazingly, until the early 1970s, when people started to note that the developmentally disabled have enough difficulties without being saddled with condescending labels. The 70s saw the move away from institutionalizing the developmentally disabled, and it has since been shown that the majority of people with IQs below 70 can lead productive and independent lives. Not to sound like Tom Cruise or anything, but the real morons in this story were the psychologists. Today, the classification system is one category broader—moron, imbecile, and idiot have been replaced with mild, moderate, severe, and profound retardation—and diagnostic factors other than IQ are considered in making a diagnosis.

Also Good to Know: The doubly offensive term "Mongolian Idiot," which in the 19th and early 20th centuries was an actual, literal diagnosis, derives from people's belief that individuals with Down Syndrome—with their wide-set eyes and round faces—resembled Mongolians. In fact, before the British physician JHL Down (1829-1896) lent his name to the chromosomal syndrome, Down Syndrome was known merely as "Mongolism."

And there you have it. Now you know whether you're working with idiots or morons. Need more clarification in your life? Check out What's the Difference, a mental_floss book written by John Green, Chris Connolly, Christopher Smith, and (yours truly) Maggie Koerth-Baker.

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E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain
The 19th Century Poet Who Predicted a 1970s Utopia
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
An electric airship departing Paris in 1883.
E. A. Tilly, Library of Congress // Public Domain

In 1870, John Collins dreamed of a future without cigarettes, crime, or currency inflation. The Quaker poet, teacher, and lithographer authored "1970: A Vision for the Coming Age," a 28-page-long poem that imagines what the world would be like a century later—or, as Collins poetically puts it, in "nineteen hundred and threescore and ten.”

The poem, recently spotlighted by The Public Domain Review, is a fanciful epic that follows a narrator as he travels in an airship from Collins’s native New Jersey to Europe, witnessing the wonders of a futuristic society.

In Collins’s imagination, the world of the future seamlessly adheres to his own Quaker leanings. He writes: “Suffice it to say, every thing that I saw / Was strictly conformed to one excellent law / That forbade all mankind to make or to use / Any goods that a Christian would ever refuse.” For him, that means no booze or bars, no advertising, no “vile trashy novels,” not even “ribbons hung flying around.” Needless to say, he wouldn’t have been prepared for Woodstock. In his version of 1970, everyone holds themselves to a high moral standard, no rules required. Children happily greet strangers on their way to school (“twas the custom of all, not enforced by a rule”) before hurrying on to ensure that they don’t waste any of their “precious, short study hours.”

It’s a society whose members are never sick or in pain, where doors don’t need locks and prisons don’t exist, where no one feels tempted to cheat, lie, or steal, and no one goes bankrupt. There is no homelessness. The only money is in the form of gold and silver, and inflation isn't an issue. Storms, fires, and floods are no longer, and air pollution has been eradicated.

While Collins’s sunny outlook might have been a little off-base, he did hint at some innovations that we’d recognize today. He describes international shipping, and comes decently close to predicting drone delivery—in his imagination, a woman in Boston asks a Cuban friend to send her some fruit that “in half an hour came, propelled through the air.” He kind of predicts CouchSurfing (or an extremely altruistic version of Airbnb), imagining that in the future, hotels wouldn't exist and kind strangers would just put you up in their homes for free. He dreams up undersea cables that could broadcast a kind of live video feed of musicians from around the world, playing in their homes, to a New York audience—basically a YouTube concert. He describes electric submarines (“iron vessels with fins—a submarine line, / propels by galvanic action alone / and made to explore ocean’s chambers unknown") and trains that run silently. He even describes climate change, albeit a much more appealing view of it than we’re experiencing now. In his world, “one perpetual spring had encircled the earth.”

Collins might be a little disappointed if he could have actually witnessed the world of 1970, which was far from the Christian utopia he hoped for. But he would have at least, presumably, really enjoyed plane rides.

You can read the whole thing here.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]

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Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image
AI Is Decoding the Vatican Secret Archives, One Pen Stroke at a Time
Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image
Tiziana Fabi, AFP/Getty Image

The Vatican Secret Archives comprise 600 collections of texts spanning 12 centuries, most of which are nearly impossible to access. The Atlantic reports that a team of scientists is hoping to change that with help from some high school students and artificial intelligence software.

In Codice Ratio is a new research project dedicated to analyzing the vast majority of Vatican manuscripts that have never been digitized. When other libraries wish to make a digital archive of their inventory, they often use optical-character-recognition (OCR) software. Such programs can be trained to recognize the letters in a certain alphabet, pick them out of hard-copy manuscripts, and convert them to searchable text. This technology posed a challenge for the Vatican, however: The many older texts in its collections are written by hand in a cursive-like script. With no spaces between the characters, it's impossible for OCR to determine what's a letter and what isn't.

To get around this, the research team at In Codice Radio tweaked OCR software so that it could recognize pen strokes instead of letters. The OCR can identify the pen strokes that make up letters in an alphabet by looking for spots in the text where the ink narrows rather than presents full gaps between characters. The strokes aren't very useful on their own, but the software can combine the pieces to form possible letters.

To help the software perform even better, researchers recruited students from 24 Italian high schools to check its work. As the researchers explain in their paper, the students were shown a list of acceptable versions of a real letter, such as the letter A, and were then given a list of characters the software had guessed might be the real letter. By selecting the characters that matched the acceptable versions, they were able to slowly teach the software the medieval Latin alphabet.

All this information, plus a database of 1.5 million Latin words that had already been digitized, eventually brought the OCR to a place where it could use artificial intelligence to identify real letters on its own. The final results aren't perfect—a good portion of the words transcribed so far contain typos—but Vatican archivists are a lot better off than they were before: The software can identify individual handwritten letters with 96 percent accuracy, and misspelled words can still provide important context to readers. The goal is to eventually use the software to digitize every document in the Vatican Secret Archives.

[h/t The Atlantic]

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