Stupidity Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything


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We live in a universe where stupidity is either infinite (per Einstein1) or the most abundant substance (per Zappa2).

Everyone has been affected by stupidity, and everyone has committed some sort of stupid act. It is quite simple to spot stupidity in everyday situations. In a general sense, a stupid act works to the detriment of all parties involved. The important distinction is that stupidity must manifest itself in an action or decision.

Stupidity is commonly thought to be situational. Academics, especially those lacking the more esoteric social skills, can be considered stupid by socialites. In turn, those socialites who lack the intellectual acumen, and have sense enough to avoid highly cerebral company, can be called stupid. This is not quite correct, though, as a person who displays ignorance is not necessarily stupid; stupidity is the act by an ignorant or over-bold person which engenders damaging consequences. As Forrest Gump famously reminds us, 'Stupid is as stupid does.'

People can properly be branded 'Stupid'3 when they commit a stupid act, and can thus be expected to act stupidly in similar situations. Sometimes stupid people can learn from their own mistakes, and thus become less stupid, but there are no reliable statistics for this matter.

Transactional Analysis of Stupidity

In his essay The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, Carlo M. Cipolla, Professor Emeritus of Economic History at Berkeley, applies transactional analysis to posit a set of laws, quoted here:

1. Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

2. The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.

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 losses4.

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.

5. A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

Professor Cipolla uses a standard Cartesian graph, with the axes representing 'gain/loss', for x=self and y=others. In the 'gain/gain' quadrant the Intelligent people (I) are found. The 'gain to others/loss to self' area is the home of the Hapless (H). Bandits (B) dwell in the 'gain to self/loss to others' zone, and the Stupid (S) occupy the 'loss/loss' quarter.

Applying y=(-x+c) to the graph5, we subdivide the Hapless (H) and Bandit (B) groups, and provide a realistic boundary between stupid and non-stupid. The intelligent bandits (IB) are less of a threat than the stupid bandits (SB), due to the fact that the general loss is smaller in proportion to their personal gain. The (SB) group are prone to make mistakes which add their own loss to the general loss, sometimes even establishing their eligibility for a Darwin Award. The intelligent-but-hapless (IH) produce a greater general gain than their individual loss, while the stupid hapless (SH) lose a great deal to produce only a marginal, if any, benefit.

Using this scheme, events, actions and decisions can be measured in terms of their consequences. Since people engage in a variety of activities, with the usual variety of consequences, this graph could provide a framework for personal tendencies.

Noble and Generous Acts of Stupidity

How can a stupid act be noble? By cleansing the gene pool of another tiny vector of stupidity, that's how6. There have been plenty of stupid methods, some quite dramatic, through which stupid people have managed to kill themselves. True stories in this vein (as well as the inevitable myths, urban or otherwise) are compiled by the Darwin Awards researchers. Contenders for the Awards are usually said to have come from the 'shallow end of the gene pool'.

Extreme performers of any sort, the legendary motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel for example, provide profoundly entertaining, and ostensibly stupid, spectacles for the slack-jawed public. Mr Knievel forfeited much of his mobility and neural function (loss to self), but has nevertheless managed to survive an illustrious career. He will be well cared for, and admired, until his end (gain to self). As for the general gain, let us consider the significance of the wannabe Evel Knievels who posthumously place themselves in contention for the year's Darwin Awards, as well as those borderline folks who could learn from the experiences of others and be nudged in a non-stupid direction by the images of a living body being smeared across the daredevil's stage.

Should Stupid People Be Allowed To Breed?

In a civilization where breeding is an inalienable biological right, and indeed the only significant act for some, this question is inherently stupid. Besides, those who think they could possibly get away with wiping out every stupid person alive are themselves rather stupid.

Only those of the utopian-idealist fringe are capable of entertaining this question seriously. But, then again, in Utopia the question would be superfluous, because there would be no stupid people to begin with.

1Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe. - Albert Einstein.2The two most abundant things in the universe are Hydrogen and stupidity. - Frank Zappa.3This doesn't necessarily make it the tactful thing to do though, especially if they are bigger than you.4This third law is the linchpin of Professor Cipolla's thesis.5This simply adds a diagonal line from top left to bottom right.6Scenes where stupid people rescue others by mistake are found only in fiction.

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