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The Basic Laws of Human Stupidityby Carlo M. Cipolla, Professor of Economics, UC Berkeley |
in Whole Earth Review, Spring 1987
THE FIRST BASIC LAWThe First Basic Law of Human Stupidity asserts without ambiguity that
Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
At first, the statement sounds trivial, vague and horribly ungenerous. Closer scrutiny will however reveal its realistic veracity. No matter how high are one's estimates of human stupidity, one is repeatedly and recurrently startled by the fact that:
The First Basic Law prevents me from attributing a specific numerical value to the fraction of stupid people within the total population: any numerical estimate would turn out to be an underestimate. Thus in the following pages I will denote the fraction of stupid people within a population by the symbol s.
- people whom one had once judged rational and intelligent turn out to be unashamedly stupid.
- 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 improbable moments.
THE SECOND BASIC LAWCultural trends now fashionable in the West favor an egalitarian approach to life. People like to think of human beings as the out put of a perfectly engineered mass production machine. Geneticists and sociologists especially go out of their way to prove, with an impressive apparatus of scientific data and formulations that all men are naturally equal and if some are more equal that others, this is attributable to nurture and not to nature.
I take an exception to this general view. 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. One is stupid in the same way one is red-haired; one belongs to the stupid set as one belongs to a blood group. A stupid man is born a stupid man by an act of Providence.
Although convinced that fraction s of human beings are stupid and that they are so because of genetic traits, I am not a reactionary trying to reintroduce surreptitiously class or race discrimination, I firmly believe stupidity is an indiscriminate privilege of all human groups and is uniformly distributed according to a constant proportion. This fact is scientifically expressed by the Second Basic Law with states that
The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
In this regard, Nature seems indeed to have outdone herself. It is well known that Nature manages, rather mysteriously, to keep constant the relative frequency of certain natural phenomena. For instance, whether men proliferate at the Northern Pole or at the Equator, whether the matching couples are developed or underdeveloped, whether they are black, red, white or yellow the female to male ratio among the newly born is a constant, with a very slight prevalence of males. We do not know how Nature achieves this remarkable result but we know that in order to achieve it Nature must operate with large numbers. The most remarkable fact about the frequency of stupidity is that Nature succeeds in making this frequency equal to the probability s quite independently from the size of the group.
Thus one finds the same percentage of stupid people whether one is considering very large groups or one is dealing with very small ones. No other set of observable phenomena offers such striking proof of the powers of Nature.
The evidence that education has nothing to do with the probability s was provided by experiments carried on in a large number of universities in five major groups, namely the blue-collar workers, the white collar employees, the students, the administrators and the professors.
Whenever I analyzed the blue-collar workers I found that the fraction s of them were stupid. As s's value was higher that I expected (First Law), paying my tribute to fashion I thought at first that segregation, poverty, lack of education were to be blamed. But moving up the social ladder I found that the same ratio was prevalent among the white collar employees and among the students. More impressive still were the results among the professors. Whether I considered a large university or a small college, a famous institution or an obscure one, I found that the same fraction s of the professors are stupid. So bewildered was I by the results, that I made a special point to extend my research to a specially selected group, to a real elite, the Nobel laureates. The result confirmed Nature's supreme powers: s fraction of the Nobel Laureates are stupid.
This idea was hard to accept and digest but too many experimental results proved its fundamental veracity. The Second Basic Law is an iron law, and it does not admit exceptions. The Women's Liberation Movement will support the Second Basic Law as it shows that stupid individuals are proportionately as numerous among men as women. The underdeveloped of the Third World will probably take solace at the Second Basic Law as they can find in it the proof that after the developed are not so developed. Whether the Second Basic Law is liked or not, however its implications are frightening: the Law implies that whether you move in distinguished circles or you take refuge among the head hunters of Polynesia, whether you lock yourself into 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 (in accordance with the First Law) will always surpass your expectations.
THE THIRD (AND GOLDEN) BASIC LAWThe Third Basic Law assumes, although it does not state it explicitly, that human beings fall into four basic categories correspond to the four areas I, H, S, B, of the basic graph (See figure 1).If Tom takes an action and suffers a loss while producing a gain to Dick, Tom's mark will fall in field H: Tom acted helplessly. If Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain while yielding a gain also to Dick, Tom's mark will fall in area I: Tom acted intelligently. If Tom takes an action by which he makes a gain causing Dick a loss, Tom's mark will fall in area B: Tom acted as a bandit. Stupidity is related to area S and to all positions on axis Y below point 0. As the Third Basic Law explicitly clarifies:
A stupid person is a person who caused losses to another person or to a group of persons while himself deriving no gain and even possibly incurring losses.
When confronted for the first time with the Third Basic Law, rational people instinctively react with feelings of skepticism and incredulity. The fact is that reasonable people have difficulty in conceiving and understanding unreasonable behavior. But let us abandon the lofty plane of theory and let us look pragmatically at our daily life. We all recollect occasions in which a fellow took an action which resulted in his gain and our loss: we had to deal with a helpless person. We can recollect cases in which a fellow took an action by which both parties gained: he was intelligent. Such cases do indeed occur. But upon thoughtful reflection you must admit that these are not the events which punctuate most frequently our daily life. Our daily life is mostly made 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 what he does. In fact there is no explanation- or better, there is only one explanation: the person in question is stupid.