The Laws of Stupidity
August 8, 2014 § 5 Comments
My posts have taken on a somewhat sententious tone lately, so I am going to temper that for a while. But before I do, I want to address a subject that lawyers and judges deal with every day: stupidity.
One might expect that stupidity is a force that ricochets through human nature unconstrained by the basic principles of physics and rationality that underlie the affairs of humankind.
Not so, says Italian Economic Historian Carlo Maria Cipolla (1922 – 2000), who came up with the idea that there are actually laws that govern the operation of stupidity. By stupidity in this context, we are talking about conduct that involves unthinking and irrational behavior, willful ignorance, brutishness, obtuseness in the face of overwhelming evidence that such a course of action is self-destructive or destructive to others, and senseless activity.
Cipolla posited five fundamental Laws of Stupidity:
- Always and inevitably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
- The probability that a given person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic possessed by that person.
- A person is stupid if they cause damage to another person or group of people without experiencing personal gain, or even worse causing damage to themselves in the process.
- Non-stupid people always underestimate the harmful potential of stupid people; they constantly forget that at any time anywhere, and in any circumstance, dealing with or associating themselves with stupid individuals invariably constitutes a costly error.
- A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.
You can reflect on these and come up with your own thoughts. Mine:
- Law #1. As the old saying goes, “Never ascribe to malice what can be adequately explained as stupidity.” Most people who operate rationally assume that everyone else does also. That’s simply not so. Many people bumble along unthinkingly, leaving a wake of damage on themselves and others. The only way to protect yourself from stupid people is to recognize them and neutralize or protect yourself from their impact on your life as much as you can.
- Law #2. Just because a person is suave and urbane, or shares your religion or political party, or is extremely likeable or has a forceful, commanding personality, does not mean that that person is not stupid. Also, bear in mind that there are stupid people who do stupid things, and there are non-stupid people who do stupid things. The former are dangerous; the latter are unfortunate (and, alas, include most of us).
- Law #3. There are serious ramifications when we vest authority in stupid people. These are the people who clamor that the house needs to be burned down because it needs painting. In the name of principle or dogma or doctrine they ignore the possibility of unintended consequences and exhort their followers to embrace self-destructive ways. If reason conflicts with their convictions, reason be damned.
- Law #4. See Law #3. Too often, we realize only in hidsight that we have made the costly error of placing our welfare in the hands of stupid people, or have allowed them to lead us into a swamp that is hard to get out of.
- Law #5. Collateral damage from stupid people can be especially galling. Despite our best efforts to protect ourselves, the ripple effect of stupidity can blindside us, capsizing us into waters that can threaten to overwhelm us.
While we’re on the topic, it’s important to distinguish between ignorance and stupidity. Knowledge cures ignorance; knowledge is irrelevant to the stupid. Many of us make the mistake of wasting time and effort to address stupidity by elucidating facts and posing rational arguments. That approach will avail for the ignorant person, but it is absolutely ineffective on the stupid.
A grizzled, old lawyer told me in my youth that, “If they ever stop making stupid people, the legal profession will be doomed.” Cynical, yes. Inaccurate, no.