On HBO’s Real Time this week, Bill Maher mentioned a little brouhaha he created on CNN by declaring that America is a stupid country, a sentiment Bill O’Reilly takes great offense at on his show (which may be an effort in proving Maher’s point).

I’m not too concerned with the question of where the United States ranks on stupidity tables. If it’s stupidity that created New York City, Silicon Valley, the Hoover Dam and the quality of life enjoyed widely across this country, then I’m glad for it. Maher quotes from some poll numbers based on questions like “Who is your representative in Congress?” with many participants unable to give the correct answer. I’m fairly sure these poll exercises could be replicated in other countries with similar results. And that wouldn’t be so surprising, since Americans were the emigrants from all of those other countries in the first place!

(I suppose it could be argued, however, that since Americans are the descendants of those who made the decision to leave the safety of their countries on a boat to seek out an adventurous new life in the New World, they may thus be more daring than they are intelligent. Maybe the smart people stayed home? Too intelligent to risk their lives on such frivolous behavior?)

Anyway, the results of IQ tests put America well above average intelligence in world terms, ranking 17 out of 80, sharing an average IQ of 98 with Australia, only two points behind the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

I’ve always noticed two distinct ‘kinds’ of intelligence: the academic and the practical. I know some savvy businesspeople who are extremely smart in a practical way: they’ll always make the right decisions, they’ll make money, they’ll manage their lives and their businesses and be very successful at all of it. But ask them a question about philosophy, science or literature and they can’t approach it. Conversely there are many intelligent academics who can’t change the oil in their car or make money by themselves. I guess this is the difference between being ‘book smart’ and ‘street smart’ (or in Venice, ‘canal smart’ – tip of the hat to Mitch Hedberg for that joke which sounds lame when I do it).

In America, I think there are more people who are practically smart than academically smart. That would explain the high GDP (which, by the way, correlates with the IQ of a nation, according to IQ and the Wealth of Nations by my fellow countryman Richard Lynn). Americans are great engineers, great inventors, great businesspeople, great gamblers, though they may know less about the kinds of questions being asked in these polls. They learn by doing, not by reading.

Is this generalizing? Yes, but so was Maher when he said this is a stupid country.

Maher says the automatically-flushing toilet was invented because people weren’t flushing in public restrooms. They’re too stupid even to flush, he says, let alone understand the workings of the federal government or the IRS tax code. (Don’t get me started on that one.) What he’s really done is to create a false dichotomy. Who knows why they don’t flush, but people can still be smart without knowing the answers to trivia questions.

Of course, he also cites Sarah Palin.

I’ll give him that one.