From The Jolly Contrarian
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Stupidity mapped, yesterday.
In which the curmudgeonly old sod puts the world to rights.
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“Do not attribute to malice things that can just as well be explained by stupidity.”

Hanlon’s razor

I don’t think it’s just a plain stupidity. There are dignified stupidities, and there are heroic stupidities and there’s such a thing as stupid stupidities — and that would be a stupid stupidity.

—Werner Herzog, The White Diamond, 2004

“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.”

— Carlo Cipolla’s Third (and Golden) Basic Law of Stupidity (1976)

Italian economic historian and raconteur Carlo Cipolla pinned down stupidity in his 1976 essay Le leggi fondamentali della stupidità umana — “the basic laws of human stupidity”. A worthy endeavour, but one from which we have learned little in half a century. This probably tells you what you need to know.

Cipolla’s laws

Anyway, Cipolla’s laws of human stupidity boil down to the following:

  • To be stupid is to harm someone else without personally benefitting. Stupidity results inevitably in net loss. Everyone loses, at a minimum the time taken to listen to the idiot. Bandits, defectors, double-crossers and pillagers may be nasty, but because they benefit, they aren’t stupid.
  • Stupid people are worse that bandits. At least someone derives a benefit from banditry: the bandit.
  • An individual’s stupidity is independent of her other qualities. Tenured brainboxes, that is to say, are no less immune to stupidity as the rest of us.
  • We systematically underestimate how many stupid people there are.
  • We systematically underestimate how much damage stupid people can do.

Stupidity begets misattributed malice: if we take it as a given that there are a lot more stupid people than there are malicious people, and that it is stupid to treat as malicious what is as well explained by benign stupidity, then a surfeit of stupidity will naturally give rise to a misapprehension of widespread malice. Which rather well sums up the rancorous world in which we find ourselves.

Cipolla went on to create one of those simplistic four-box quadrants beloved of the management layer which, of course, cannot possibly hope to describe the world, but are still an amusing and memorable heuristic, apt for making the world more legible. The two axes are “benefits to self” and “benefits to world”. The four quadrants are populated by the intelligent, who help others and help themselves; the bandits, who help themselves by harming others, the helpless, who help others without personally benefiting, and the stupid who basically just get in the way, not doing themselves or anyone else any good.

The JC doesn’t benefit from this whole rigmarole, which puts him somewhere between helpless and stupid. Being a glass half-full sort of fellow, I like to think of myself as merely helpless. It certainly feels that way.

See also