We Asked Smart People to Rate Dumb Things

Jia Tolentino tells us about her best and worst weed experiences, John Urschel grades sports balls, and more.

This article appears in VICE Magazine's Stupid Issue, which is dedicated to the entertaining, goofy, and just plain dumb. It features stories celebrating ridiculous ideas, trends, and products; pieces arguing that unabashed stupidity can be a great part of life; and articles calling out the bad side of stupidity. Click HERE to subscribe to the print edition.

Intelligence is difficult to measure, but stupidity is not. Take me, for example. For this issue, my editor reached out with a simple idea she thought I would “dig”: Get a bunch of smart people to rate or rank dumb things that don’t have an objective measurement. “Let me know if you’re interested!” her email concluded cheerily. Confused, I wrote back, “Wait, so the assignment is for me to just reach out to a bunch of smart people… or are you saying I should be ranking things (i.e., I’m the smart person)?” It turns out it was the former—something I would have known, of course, if it were the latter.


Armed with the liberating knowledge that I was not a smart person, I dropped any pretense of objectivity or subjectivity and began asking truly smart people to rate dumb things. Many of the people I reached out to were “too busy” with important projects or “not interested” in talking to me, which is fair. After I asked David Attenborough to rank his fellow knights of the British Empire, a representative replied via email: “Thanks for the interest but this is not an opportunity Sir David wishes to pursue.” Smart!

But the most intelligent of all stepped up. So what are the best and worst dumb things, as measured by smart people on completely arbitrary and unrelated scales? Read on to find out.


New Yorker staff writer and author of Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion

VICE: So tell me about you, Jia, being high.
Jia Tolentino: Just in general?

Well, we can start with the worst times.
Basically the only time I don’t want to be high is talking to my boss or actively reporting. I would say a 0 out of 10 weed experience, which has happened to me countless times, somehow, is being high where I’m experiencing any sort of logistical conflict in an underground parking garage. Being high in a parking garage and not being able to find your car, or not being able to get out of the parking garage, or getting locked out of your car, that’s my least favorite.


How often does this happen?
It’s happened to me a lot, man. Has that never happened to you?

Hmmm. It’s happened to me in the Houston downtown parking garage a lot. There’s a movie theater there. It happened to me in France trying to get out of a museum this past summer. For me specifically, it’s that scenario—being underground. You just feel like you’re in hell. You’ve been locked into this sort of droning, incomprehensible hell and you’ll never get out.

Do you always get out?
I’ve always gotten out… So far.

Are you in a parking garage right now?
[Laughs] It’s kind of nice it doesn’t happen in New York. It basically can’t. That’s sick.

What’s a 2 out of 10 weed experience?
I would say for me it’s having just gotten super, super high and then unexpectedly getting an email you have to reply to right away that is really important. It’s not a 0 out of 10, because it’s anxiety inducing but a little fun. But still really bad. The time this happened to me, I was in the last few days of selling my book and I had finally accepted an offer and it had been a stressful week, so then I was like, All right, it’s Friday afternoon, I’m going to take a huge bong rip. Then I got an email from my agent being like, “So 100,000 words, does that sound right?” It was horrible.

You have a bong?
I haven’t used it in a long time. It mostly comes out when it’s like 5 a.m. and I need everyone to get so sleepy that they leave my apartment.


So you just took a nice midafternoon Friday bong rip.
Yeah, dawg. Time to relax after a stressful week of business decisions.

So what’s next?
A 3.5 for me is maybe being in a really intense conversation with someone and then completely forgetting mid-sentence what you’re talking about. You know?

Oh I know.
It’s not that bad, because you’re in a conversation, it’s chill, you’re with your friend. But then you’re a fucking idiot. You have to be like, “Wait, what?” I don’t even mean losing your train of thought, I mean just literally blacking out in the middle of a sentence, when you don’t know what the last word you said was.

So what’s a 5 out of 10?
Five… like a totally average time. Honestly, for me, that's being high and working. Because on the one hand, you’re high. But on the other hand, you’re working. It’s fine.

Let’s jump to 10. What’s the best?
It’s gotta be an outside experience on a sunny day and you’re basking. A basking-centric experience is my number-one high activity. You can be solo, you can be with people. You feel like a sea lion or a lizard; that’s when I feel really good.

Another very high one for me, maybe a 9.8, is being at any sort of children-centric learning activity. The zoo, the planetarium, and the Natural History Museum are three of my favorite places. The thing that I think is really tight at a kids’ activity is that you get to be really glad you’re not a kid anymore, because when you’re a kid you don’t get to decide what you want to do. I always look at these kids and am like, Damn, you idiots. If only you knew how much better life is going to get for you. They’re hot and being dragged around and have to beg their mom to buy them a lemonade. And you’re like, Hell yeah, I’m really high, I can buy my own lemonade, I can do whatever I want.


How would you rate weed overall out of 100?
It’s definitely up there. Rating things from 0 to 100 is hard.

That’s why we picked some of the smartest people out there to do it.
For me personally, it’s a 100. If I were rating it holistically, I’d probably rate it at 87 or something.

Like a B+.
That seems unfair to weed. Maybe an A-.


Comedian and television writer

VICE: Tell me about dog treats.
Jo Firestone: I wrote down a list.

Oh, great. Tell me about this list.
I’m supposed to rank the top five dog treats?

There’s no supposed to, but that’s what it seems like you wanted to do, so I’m glad you did it.
Well, here is what I have concluded, based on my own dog Loaf’s experience, whom I’ve only had for three months. I’d say the number-one dog treat is apple chunk, because of the sound the dog makes when he chomps it.

Just a normal apple chunk?
Yeah, lowercase apple, lowercase chunk. It sounds like the best possible apple. Like, you know when you go to Outback Steakhouse and you’re like, Oh, this is the ultimate steak flavor. The sound the dog makes chewing the apple is the ultimate apple sound. It’s sweet music.

OK, keep going.
The next one is rare, but the noise is just incredible: single potato chip. That is, again, ultimate sound coming out of there.

You mean just a normal potato chip.
Yeah, and it’s like you almost never knew what a potato chip was capable of until it was in a dog’s mouth.


What’s next?
The third one is throwing a bunch of shredded mozzarella on the floor. He goes nuts and it takes about 15 to 20 minutes for him to find it all. It’s a good time for everybody. It’s a low-fat cheese, it’s not so bad for him—just a little handful.

Got it. What about your fourth favorite?
Next are these little brown peanut butter treats called Zuke’s Mini Naturals, and I find that those are pretty good to throw on the ground when he’s acting up and you say, “Hey, look at this” and he stops acting up for a couple minutes.

And the last?
The fifth one is peanut butter, because if you stop thinking that you’re giving him peanut butter he just looks like he’s talking without any sound com- ing out. That’s a classic Mr. Ed situation. It’s kind of fun to just let your mind wander and be like, What’s he talking about with so much ferocity?

It seems like a lot of the dog treats you’ve chosen are just human foods you’re giving to your dog.
So, yes, I hear you. The thing is, I have a really bad dog, and so we run out of treats almost instantly… So I have to resort to using my own resources to appease him.

Is this also the same ranking you would have for foods for yourself?
You think I’m throwing a bunch of mozzarella on the floor for myself?

First of all, it’s so rude you asked that. Secondly, sure, I mean, sometimes we’ll share an apple. Usually the potato chips are coming from my bag. I’m not saying that it’s good, I’m saying this is how we bond, kind of eating the same food, kind of squeezing the same balls, that kind of thing.


You’ve told me before that “all dogs go to heaven but this dog came from hell.” Do you still believe that and do the treats help?
The treats are a temporary relief. Today he threw a bone at my leg. I can’t tell if he loves me or hates me. He’s a little prince that now I live with and we’re kind of just figuring it out. I’m trying to tell him, “Look, I’m the one with potato chips. We’re going to be OK,” and he’s learning to trust me. I don’t think people should have dogs.


MIT mathematics grad student and former NFL player

VICE: I have pretty limited sports and math knowledge, so I think this should be fun. In my best effort to combine the two, I’m going to name a few sports balls and ask you to grade them as if they were your students’ tests, and have you tell me why they deserve this grade. Does that make sense?
John Urschel: Yep.

OK, I’m going to start with an easy one for you: football.
I’m going to give it a serious A-. Here’s the thing: It obviously seems like I would be biased, but I wouldn’t be that biased, because, let’s be real, I was an offensive lineman and I didn’t get to touch the football that much. But you gotta really give props for creativity. Think about it—it’s easy to make something that’s just perfectly spherical. It takes some real creativity to get something that’s not quite circular. And it throws well. I would love to see someone take a soccer ball and try to throw that 80 yards down the field.


Let’s say the soccer ball then, since you mentioned it.
Soccer ball… Ooh, that’s tough. [Long pause]

I’m pleased by the seriousness with which you’re taking this exercise.
I really want to think about this. I have to give soccer balls at least a B. Because the soccer ball shape—all those little polygons put together—when you make a soccer ball it’s actually something called a truncated icosahedron. It’s a very beautiful shape in geometry. It’s pleasing to the eye. The football got points for creativity, the soccer ball gets points because it’s very symmetrical. Who doesn’t look at a truncated icosahedron and say, “Man, this is what I want to be looking at.” They have those 12 little pentagons on there, the 20 hexagons, and they all fit in very nicely.

Wow, you know a lot about soccer balls.
I know nothing about soccer balls. I know a lot about truncated icosahedrons.

What about the tennis ball?
I’m the softest pushover professor ever; I’m giving out so many good grades. This is not like MIT at all. I have to give this one a B+. There’s a complicated reason: First of all, a tennis ball has some really good functions. You know what? It just went from B+ to an A-. If you’ve ever been in a classroom and you have those chairs that make an awful sound on the ground—how do you fix that? You take four tennis balls and put them on the bottom. Let’s say something is bothering you on your body, you want to roll out a little bit, you can roll out on a tennis ball. Also my wife is really obsessed with tennis. She’s mainly a tennis writer when she writes about sports and there’s tennis on a lot in our house. Sometimes you gotta give something a good grade just because, you know, happy wife, happy life.


Bowling ball.
It’s low on my list. I’m gonna give that a C-. There’s not really a whole lot of function there. What are you using a bowling ball for other than bowling? It’s just a big ball with three holes in it. You have a whole hand, a hand has five fingers, but the bowling ball only has three holes. That definitely drops it down.

That one definitely deserves an A. Just because of how complicated the concept of the baseball is, in the sense that small nuances and how you change a baseball has huge effects on the game, huge effects on a pitcher’s ability to throw different pitches, and significant effects on home-run rates and a bunch of other things.

Let’s go even smaller. What about a golf ball?
I’m just not a big fan of golf. I have to admit, one time one of my teammates in college was really struggling with math class so I tutored him, and in exchange he decided he was going to give me free golf lessons. I didn’t want the lessons, but, you know, you do something for someone and they feel like they have to do something for you, and you have to let them do something. I had to let this guy teach me golf, this guy Anthony Zettel. I think he’s still in the league. My very first golf swing ever on the driving range, the head of the golf club just pops off. The ball didn’t get very far, but the club made it a solid 120 yards. The head of the club gets at least a D+. The ball itself… Let’s not even go there.


OK, last one: volleyball.
I’m going to give that one an A+. Yes, you can play volleyball with it, but you can also take that volleyball and make it your lifelong companion. What does a man need other than some food, water, shelter, and a volleyball to keep him company?


Scripps National Spelling Bee winner

VICE: What’s your all-time favorite cafeteria lunch food?
Shruthika Padhy: My all-time has got to be chicken nuggets. For sure. Those are amazing.

What do you like about them?
They’re really crispy and the meat is pretty good. The meat’s good, cooked pretty nicely. Yeah.

How often do they serve them?
It’s only special occasions. I don’t know, maybe once a month.

What’s the worst food at lunch?
This hasn’t been served at my high school yet, but I don’t like fish sticks.

Those are pretty close to chicken nuggets though.
Yeah. I don’t know, there’s something about fish sticks I just don’t like.

What comes after chicken nuggets?
Chicken cheddar wraps. Those are really good.

So are you a chicken fan?
Definitely. And tater tots are pretty good.

OK, we’re getting into the bad territory. What’s right above fish sticks?

Just tuna?
Tuna anything.

What kind of tuna stuff do they serve?
Tuna sandwich, really anything tuna.

Is there a popular meal that everyone at school likes?
The chicken cheddar wraps. They’re like a traditional wrap but the chicken is really, really tender and crispy. It’s so good. It’s kind of the specialty of my cafeteria. It’s just an all-time favorite, served to everybody at school.


Do they serve it a lot?
No, it’s kind of at the same level as chicken nuggets, where it’s not all the time. But when I first came to this school that’s the one thing that everybody would say like, “This is amazing. You’ve got to try it.”


MIT astrophysicist

VICE: What are your top-rated space movies?
Sara Seager: I love any movie having to do with extraterrestrials, like ET. The movie Gravity was amazing. There’s this movie called Arrival—I love Arrival because it’s not a little green humanoid appearing, right? It’s something so different that we could never even understand what it is or why it’s here. I love the movie Interstellar; it’s so moving, actually: Earth’s climate is being destroyed and a man has to leave his daughter and family to go out and find these other worlds to see if they’re suitable for us to move to.

So those are the good things. The bad thing is—and I understand why they do it—but they have to have a premise that is totally false.

Like what?
Well, almost all of them have something. Like in Interstellar: there’s a wormhole out where Jupiter is that connects us to a very distant part of our own galaxy. There is definitely not a wormhole in our solar system and, Clio, if you or anyone could go through a wormhole your body would be physically destroyed. You would be ripped to shreds, before you even entered that wormhole.

What movie would you rate best for its depiction of extraterrestrial life?
Arrival, definitely. When most people hear the word “alien” you think of ET or you think of just a little green humanoid, but we really have no idea. Exoplanets are so different from Earth—they’re a different mass, different sizes, different surface gravity, many of them will orbit a star that’s nothing like our sun. Some of the planets will have a permanent day side and a permanent night side; literally it will always be daytime or always night depending on which part of the planet you live on. Some of the planets will have thick heavy atmospheres, so heavy that it’s like moving around in water. So we know that all these other planets are so incredibly different that it makes sense that life on these planets could come in forms that are nothing like what we could ever imagine.

Is there a movie you think does a good job of being representative of actual space conditions?
Yes and no. Like, in Arrival, why would they come to Earth, you know? If they’re that sophisticated. Was it to preserve their language or something?

It was something like they needed Earth’s help in 3,000 years so they gave them the gift of language so they would survive for that long.
It got away from any physics catastrophe, but I’m not sure how realistic it was, because if they’re sophisticated enough to come to our planet and our atmosphere is so different from theirs, they’re probably sophisticated enough to have a more automatic way to preserve their language. Do you know what I mean?

They could send something on an orbit that would come back to their planet in 3,000 years so they could bury a time capsule that after 3,000 years would self-emerge.

That makes a lot of sense.
I love space movies, but I don’t like that each and every one of them has to have an element of complete unrealism.

Is it because you think there is so much to draw on in real life that would make a good movie?
I don’t know if that’s true. It seems that it may be exciting to be an exoplanet scientist; it’s true we find around 100 planet candidates every couple of weeks. I tell people we’re searching for life on exoplanets for real. We’re trying to find signs of life on worlds far away, but if you wanted to make a movie about that it would be the most boring imaginable. You’d just watch scientists toiling away with data from the Hubble Space Telescope and you’d see us at our desks arguing with each other, going to conferences, and nothing would ever happen. I understand why they have to do it. You don’t want that to overshadow the beauty of the actual movie. Gravity is about survival; Arrival wasn’t just about aliens, it was about being human.