Combating Stupidities

by Bernard Brandt


Having suffered from a certain amount of stupidity in my life, both that of my own doing, as well as that which I have suffered at the hands of other people, I have decided that it is time to try something new: to study the basic laws of stupidity, and to arrange my life so as to minimize my own stupidity, and the effects of others’ stupidity upon me.

To that end, I have looked into a little essay by the late Professor and Doctor Carlo M. Cipollo, entitled ‘The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity‘.

I fear that his findings are quite sound. While the essay itself is quite short and succinct, I will further summarize it below.

The First Law is that ‘Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.

I’m afraid that this law bears itself out so often through observation as to constitute an axiom.

The Second Law is that ‘The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.’ I believe that it was the eminent Nassim Nicholas Taleb who has put the finger on this aspect of stupidity, when he speaks of the Intellectual Yet Idiot.  This essay, too, is well worth reading, if only to show that the ranks of the stupid include our very leaders. I believe that two of our presidential candidates, both the alleged winner and loser, fall into that category.

But I am most indebted to Dr. Cipolla for his Third Law, which defines just what stupidity is, thus preventing his essay from becoming a mere name-calling source of abuse:

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.

I am also indebted to Dr. Cipolla for the following additional definitions, which create an x/y coordinate field of the illustration which begins this tedious little essay: an Intelligent person is one who benefits both him (or her)self and others; a Helpless person is one who benefits others, but usually at the expense of the Helpless one; and a Bandit is one who benefits at the expense of others.

As a brief excursus in his essay, Dr. Cipolla notes that an Intelligent person can occasionally act in a Helpless manner, or a Helpless person can as well sometimes act as a Bandit. Further, most Bandits often act in a Stupid manner: such Bandits will often Stupidly cause harm to others without benefiting from their actions themselves. Nonetheless, most peoples’ behavior tends to center on one of these four types, and the Stupid most often carry on in a characteristically Stupid manner.

The main problem with the Stupid is that they seldom, if ever, intend any of their Stupid actions. In consequence, even the Intelligent can underestimate the damage which Stupid people can cause. This leads to Cipolla’s Fourth Law of Human Stupidity:

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.

And because of this chronic failure to recognize the damaging effects of stupidity, together with the damage that stupid people can cause, particularly if they are serial offenders, Cipolla comes to the following conclusion, which is stated in his Fifth Law of Stupidity:

A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

I have had the unfortunate opportunity of experiencing stupidity recently, from people whom one would normally expect to be otherwise intelligent. To put it briefly, about a month ago, I experienced a severe abdominal bleed from an ulcerated rectal polyp, which required that I go to an ER. Twenty minutes after I had entered the ER, they were confronted with incontrovertible evidence of that bleed, in the form of a toilet bowl filled with bright red blood.  I had also told them that I was experiencing little to no abdominal pain.

Basically, a rectal bleed of that sort could have been from several causes: a polyp, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, etc. The absence of abdominal pain in a patient would rule out most causes except for rectal polyps. Within an hour of being in the ER, I was told by a nurse that I would be scheduled for a colonoscopy the next day.

But for the four hours I was in the ER, and the first six hours on being transferred to the hospital, they made no effort to stop the abdominal bleeding, to track the amount of bleeding that was going on, or even to begin administering the Golytely solution which is a prerequisite for a colonoscopy. I arrived at the ER at two in the afternoon, but it was not until near midnight that I received my first glass of Golytely. The bleeding stopped about an hour after the Golytely began.

I believe that an Intelligent ER or hospital staff would have diagnosed the symptoms immediately, suspected that the bleed was exacerbated and irritated by the blood and faeces in the bowel, and would have begun cleaning the bowel much earlier. As it was, I was Helpless in the face of their Stupidity, and in addition to the six or so liters of really icky fluids that I lost in those ten hours, I also lost about a liter and a half of blood.

As a result of the blood loss, I am exhausted for hours afterwards when I walk for more than five blocks at a time. I used to walk six miles a day without difficult. As a further result, I am unable to engage in any serious study for more than an hour without also being exhausted for hours afterwards. I used to be able to do four stints of three hours of study per day.

Oh, and the staff included no suggested medications, no suggested care for replacement of blood loss, or even any indication of how long I would be in this damnable condition. I had to look all that up on my own. The nearest that I can get to any prognosis of how long I will be in this state, is the standard knowledge that it takes an average person six to eight weeks to recover from the loss of one unit of blood. As I estimate that I lost nearly four times that amount, I have no idea how long it will be before I recover, save that it will be at least one more month before I do so.

In consequence, in addition to seeing what I can do to recover now, I have developed something of a personal interest in recognizing and avoiding human stupidity. I don’t think I can survive another such direct contact.