On stupidity

Stupidity is a lack of intelligence, understanding, reason, wit, or sense.”

~ Wikipedia

I’ve been meeting and seeing (especially on TV and the interwebz) a lot of stupid people lately. Or maybe always, but one doesn’t notice the number of stupid people one has to tolerate day in and day out over the course of one’s life. They’re like pigeons: they are everywhere, they make a whole lot of noise, they have no idea what it is that they’re doing or supposed to be doing, and you have to spend half your time cleaning up their shit. Also, they reproduce.

And, like pigeons, you ignore them. After all, how much damage are they going to cause? Right?

Wrong.

They’re dangerous. Very dangerous.

Pigeon
Evil incarnate

How dangerous they are exactly was described by Carlo M Cipolla, an economic historian who, while at Berkeley, wrote an essay titled The Fundamental Laws of Human Stupidity. Yes, he actually laid out laws of stupidity. According to the Wikipedia article on Cipolla and his essay, “Stupid people are seen as a group… which without regulations, leaders or manifesto nonetheless manages to operate to great effect and with incredible coordination”.

You can read the entire essay here.

The basic laws of stupidity, according to Cipolla, are:

  1. Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
    While “in circulation” is a curious phrase to use for people, the implications of this law are profound: what it implies is that over time, people we thought to be rational/intelligent turn out to be stupid, and moreover, we keep encountering newer and stupider people everyday, thus making the total number of stupid people much higher than our darkest estimates.
  2. The probability that a certain person will be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
    This law explains Cipolla’s findings that the proportion of stupid people is constant in any group of people, be it blue collar workers, Nobel Laureates or any random bunch of people. In short there is no truth to the claims that men are stupider than women, or that fat people are stupider than thin people. In Cipolla’s words, “the Law implies that whether you move in distinguished circles or you take refuge among the head-hunters of Polynesia, whether you lock yourself into a monastery or decide to spend the rest of your life in the company of beautiful and lascivious women, you always have to face the same percentage of stupid people – which percentage (in accordance with the First Law) will always surpass your expectations“.
  3. A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
    What a ridiculous statement, you say. That’s because you’re not stupid (or maybe not stupid right now). How can a person cause losses to other people AND to himself? Pause a moment and recall. Yes, it has happened before. Countless times. Now you recall. Now you agree.
  4. Non-stupid people always underestimate the damaging power of stupid individuals. In particular non-stupid people constantly forget that at all times and places and under any circumstances to deal and/or associate with stupid people always turns out to be a costly mistake.
    Cipolla’s basic argument here is that since stupid people don’t work on any rational thought or premise, it is impossible to counter them using rational methods, and there are no other methods.
  5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
    There. You heard him.

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the former.”

~ Albert Einstein

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3 thoughts on “On stupidity”

  1. I think I’ve instinctually known all that for a long time. So nice to see it codified. Makes me wish it had been me that thought to do it. I’d add another law that in addition to stupid people being the most dangerous people, in a democracy they are the most insidious. Thanks for this, I think I have a lot of friends to show this to.

    1. True. What makes the “stupid lobby”, if we may call it that, even more dangerous is the fact that rational, sensible people can never get down to agree on more than a few things at a time, which can be fatal in a democracy.

      1. Exactly! Rational, sensible people are hard to sway, but stupid people can be swayed en masse with simple appeals to emotion. It can make things volatile, to put it kindly. And sure, we can call it the stupid lobby, I like that.

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