Carlo M. Cipolla. The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity. Società editrice il Mulino Spa, 2011. (81 pages)
It ought to be agreeable to use offensive colloquialisms, for sometimes they are truly the only words that accurately describe our realities. In addition, providing definitions of these terms may help prod us into being more clear in the “why” behind the usage of such words.
Accordingly, I can affirm that there is such a thing as stupidity, and there are such people who can be labeled as stupid. And while the term still offends the sensibilities of “political correctness,” this cultural insensitivity combined with the denotative definition of “someone who causes losses to others while deriving no gains to one’s self,” validates the use of the term “stupid.” In some cases, it is the harshness of the word that is the very intended effect of its use, communicating the seriousness of the skill and necessity of identifying and avoiding stupid people, and the discipline to not become a stupid person.
In addition, the general idea(s) in this book is/are commensurate with other spiritual and psychological teachings such as Henry Cloud’s “The Evil, The Foolish, The Wise.” I do like it when ideas triangulate across disciplines and across time.
My only curiosity is this. Should someone desire to read a book on the laws of human stupidity, does this automatically make that person “non-stupid?”
The Mad Millers To The Reader
Erudition is the source of universal wisdom: but that does not prevent it from being an occasional cause of misunderstanding between friends. (viii)
As far back as we can see, human affairs have always been in a deplorable state. (3)
The following pages are in fact the result of a constructive effort to detect, know, and thus possibly neutralize one of the most powerful dark forces that hinder the growth of human welfare and happiness. (4)
I. The First Basic Law
ALWAYS AND INEVITABLY EVERYONE UNDERESTIMATES THE NUMBER OF STUPID INDIVIDUALS IN CIRCULATION
…one is repeatedly and recurrently startled by the fact that
a) people whom one had once judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid;
b) day after day, with unceasing monotony, one is harassed in one’s activities by stupid individuals who appear suddenly and unexpectedly in the most inconvenient places and at the most improbably moments. (10)
II. The Second Basic Law
THE PROBABILITY THAT A CERTAIN PERSON BE STUPID IS INDEPENDENT OF ANY OTHER CHARACTERISTIC OF THAT PERSON.
It is my firm conviction, supported by years of observation and experimentation, that men are not equal, that some are stupid and others are not and that the difference is determined by nature and not by cultural forces or factors. (15)
…whether you move in distinguished circles or you take refuge among the headhunters of Polynesia, whether you lock yourself in 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. (19)
III. A Technical Interlude
…each one of us has a current balance with everybody else. From each action or inaction we derive a gain or a loss and at the same time we cause a gain or a loss to someone else. (24)
The X-axis measures the gain that Tom derives from his actions. On the Y-axis the graph shows the gain that another person or group of persons derives (25) from Tom’s actions. Gains can be positive, nil, or negative—a negative gain being actually a loss. The X-axis measures Tom’s positive gains to the right of point 0 and Tom’s losses to the left of point 0. The Y-axis measures the gains and losses of the person or persons with whom Tom deals respectively above and below point 0. (26)
IV. The Third (and Golden) Basic Law
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.
The Third Basic Law assumes, although it does not state it explicitly, that human beings fall into four basic categories: the helpless, the intelligent, the bandit, and the stupid. (33)
Our daily life is mostly made up of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness, and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm. Nobody knows, understands, or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does. In fact there is no explanation—or better, there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid. (35)
V. Frequency Distribution
From all that proceeds, it does not follow that we can chart on the basic graph only stupid individuals. We can calculate for each person his weighted average position in the plane of figure 1 quite independently from his degree of inconsistency. A helpless person may occasionally behave intelligently and on occasion he may perform a bandit’s action. But since the person in question is fundamentally (39) helpless, most of his action will have the characteristics of helpless ness. Thus the overall weighted average position of all the actions of such a person will place him in the H quadrant of the basic graph. (40)
The frequency distribution of the stupid people is totally different from that of the bandit. While bandits are mostly scattered over an area, stupid people are heavily concentrated along one line, specifically on the Y-axis below point 0. The reason for this is that by far the majority of stupid people are basically and unwaveringly stupid—in other words they perseveringly insist on causing harm and losses to other (42) people without deriving any gain, whether positive or negative. (43)
VI. Stupidity and Power
The damaging potential of the stupid person depends on two major factors. First of all, it depends on the genetic factor. Some individuals inherit exceptional doses of the gene of stupidity and by virtue of inheritance they belong from birth to the elite of their group. The second factor that determines the potential of a stupid person is related to the position of power and consequence that he occupies in society. (47)
The question that reasonable people often raise is how and why stupid people can reach positions of power and consequence. (48)
VII. The Power of Stupidity
Essentially, stupid people are dangerous and damaging because reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand unreasonable behavior. (53)
When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy. (54)
| Because the stupid person’s actions do not conform to the rules of rationality, it follows that
a) one is generally caught by surprise by the attack;
b) even when one becomes aware of the attack, one cannot organize a rational defense, because the attack itself lacks any rational structure. (54)
…with stupidity and sound digestion man may front much. – Dickens
…against stupidity the very Gods fight in vain. – Schiller
VIII. The Fourth Basic Law
NON-STUPID PEOPLE ALWAYS UNDERESTIMATE THE DAMAGING POWER OF STUPID INDIVIDUALS. IN PARTICULAR NON-STUPID PEOPLE CONSTANTLY FORGET THAT ALL TIMES AND PLACES AND UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES TO DEAL AND/OR ASSOCIATE WITH STUPID PEOPLE INFALLIBLY TURNS OUT TO BE A COSTLY MISTAKE.
One is tempted to believe that a stupid man will do harm only to himself, but this is confusing stupidity with helplessness. (62)
IX. Macro Analysis and the Fifth Basic Law
A STUPID PERSON I THE MOST DANGEROUS TYPE OF PERSON. A STUPID PERSON IS MORE DANGEROUS THAN A BANDIT.
…the country moving uphill also has an unusually high fraction of intelligent people who manage to keep the σ fraction at bay and at the same time produce enough gains for themselves and the other members of the community to make progress a certainty. (74)
| In a country that is moving downhill, the fraction of stupid people is still equal to σ; however, in the remaining population one notices among those in power an alarming proliferation of the bandits with overtones of stupidity (subarea Bs of quadrant B in figure 3) and among those not in power an equally alarming growth in the number of helpless individuals (area H in the basic graph, figure 1). (74)