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The inexorable rise of the 21st century stupid

Basic-laws-stupidityCHRIS OVERLAND

ADELAIDE - In 1976, Professor Carlo M Cipolla wrote a 60-page paper in which he outlined the fundamental Laws of Stupidity.

Various synopses of Professor Cipolla’s paper can be readily accessed online and I strongly recommend that people read either the paper itself or at least an abbreviated version.


His work was and remains a very important contribution towards understanding why the human world works in the way that it does.

The basic laws of stupidity are:

Everyone always underestimates the number of stupid people in circulation.

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

A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or group of people when he or she does not benefit and may even suffer losses.

Non stupid people always underestimate the destructive power of stupid individuals.

A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.

Whilst there is a tendency to regard Cipolla’s paper as being a ‘tongue in cheek’ or even satirical piece of work, I submit that it is, in fact, not only serious but alarmingly accurate.

There is ample evidence on display that demonstrates the veracity of Cipolla’s thesis in today’s world.

For example, there is no doubt whatsoever that the UK’s decision to exit the European Union was one of the most stupid national decisions in living memory. It is truly a colossal example of self-harm on a national scale.

Of course, Brexit is dwarfed, in terms of both the harm done and the sheer scale of the ensuing disaster, by the ongoing Russo-Ukraine War.

Seldom in recent history has a nation embarked upon a more catastrophic exercise in self harm and harming others than Vladimir Putin’s irrational and hopelessly misguided decision to stage what he thought would be a quick and mostly bloodless takeover of Ukraine.

Another outstanding example is China’s decision to embark upon the One Child Policy - the world’s largest experiment in population control and social engineering.

Despite warnings from demographers that this policy must inevitably result in a precipitous and probably irreversible decline in China’s population, the Chinese Communist Party thought otherwise.

We now know that China’s population has already peaked and is in irreversible decline. It has succeeded in becoming old before it has become rich.

A stupid decision taken 30 years ago has now had exactly the effect predicted by others but not by the Chinese leadership.

Much closer to home, the recently departed and unlamented Coalition government led by Scott Morrison took policy stupidity to an entirely new level.

Its hysterical rhetoric in relation to China was counter-productive in the extreme, while its illegal and immoral Robodebt scheme not only cost many innocent people their lives but ultimately required payment of a colossal sum of public money to compensate the many victims, all for absolutely no discernible benefit to anyone.

No doubt readers will be able to think of other egregious acts of stupidity ranging from minor idiocies to inexplicable acts of self-harm.

If we turn our minds to social media, there are thousands of examples of stupidity put on display on a daily basis.

These range from the merely pathetic to the deeply subversive and dangerous.

For example, the truly insane idea that Covid 19 vaccination campaigns were a conspiracy to poison us.

This wrong and shameful notion was propagated globally through multiple social media outlets.

It is no exaggeration to say that this led directly to thousands of unnecessary deaths due to vaccine hesitancy yet the adherents to this obviously stupid idea remain resolute in their beliefs.

Somewhat similarly, the obviously and demonstrably false assertion by Donald Trump that he won the last US presidential election continues to be believed by a startingly large percentage of the US population.

The impact of this mass stupidity on the American polity has been seriously damaging.

It is my contention that the apparent rise in the range and scale of obvious stupidity across the world is clearly related to the rise in the use and pervasiveness of social media.

The ignorant and the credulous can now rapidly spread ideas that, while having no actual basis in fact or reality, are put forward to ‘explain’ actions and events in the world.

This phenomenon is now so persistent that it is destabilising political decision making systems and creating considerable harm for large numbers of people.

This behaviour and the seemingly unstoppable rise of the stupid seems incomprehensible until you familiarise yourself with the Laws of Stupidity and understand their implications.

Suddenly, it becomes horribly clear why our world appears to be inexorably heading towards some sort of global catastrophe.

This may be due to the impacts of climate change, the development of a new and lethal pandemic or the outbreak of a global war. Or, as seems more probable, some combination or all of these causes.

I have an awful sense of inevitability about one or more of these things occurring.

The root cause appears to be the large scale rejection of logic, rationality and science, values that emerged in Europe as the Age of Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries.


Instead, far too many people are embracing anti-scientific illogic, irrationality and ignorance.

There are, of course, those who profit from all this.

The stupid are easily misled and there are any number of hucksters, shysters and con artists who will exploit the gullibility of these stupid people to their own advantage.

Donald Trump remains an exemplar of this phenomenon although many other politicians also exploit the irrational beliefs of their supporters to garner electoral support.

Unless there is some way in which we can collectively stop, or preferably reverse, the rise of the stupid then we are all likely to suffer quite horribly’

It is for this reasons that I am trying to draw to people’s attention to the fact that there are identifiable laws of stupidity that are valid and real.

Unless this is understood, the sheer idiocy that we see around us may be dismissed as an ephemeral obsession rather than the deeply dangerous mania that it is.

We need to start calling out obvious stupidity everywhere and every time that we see it.

Failure to do so will simply allow deeply dangerous ideas to flourish uncontested and, as history has repeatedly demonstrated, this has real and sometimes hideous consequences.


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Michael Lorenz

Adam Smith, author of 'The Wealth of Nations' and one of the great champions of the division of labour concept as a productivity measure, observed that, if extrapolated too far, the practice makes people "as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become" and that it can lead to "the almost entire corruption and degeneracy of the great body of the people..."

Reminds one of the joke about an expert being one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows everything about nothing.

Lindsay F Bond

Risk, prediction of risk, appraisal of risk, resolution of risk and smoother traveling beyond. Yeah, societal systems can contribute to simplicity and, conversely, add complexity.

The sealane entryway to Maclaren Harbour at Tufi was earlier adorned with two structures to aid ship navigation.

While these may no longer be in place, the website 'Maplandia' still today has in view the 'upper' structure at Sefoa.

Smarter money is now invested in GPS technology, and it is enough work for most folk to keep up with the authoritative changes in the calibration of that system. Better a system than none. Improvement ought be welcomed.

Consider hospitality, and the humanity in a "moral institution which grew out of the harsh desert and nomadic existence".

Also the "ultimate goal of Arab hospitality is to honour a guest and break the ice, thus ridding people of the 'awkwardness' and fear that comes with meeting a stranger".

Far from PNG, that system of humanity hospitality evolved and had constitution in respected societal beliefs.

Will AI (artificial intelligence) yield a commonality to the suggested 'perceive or deceive' in logic?

Initially at least, AI may bridge the barrier of languages.

Lindsay F Bond

So what’s eating will and willingness?

Or if you read Paul Davies (What’s eating the Universe?) then the sheer scale of unknown appears in all its immensity.

Like the lyrics to 'I get a little help from my friends', there is sustenance in support, even among those agnostic to such relegation.

Bravo Michael, and that is from first paragraphs, and more to read when this my travel is landed.

Michael Dom

PS, Hi Bernard, we do have the freedom to choose evil every day, don't we? And we do.

So it may be a religious notion that choosing evil is always a bad idea, whereas any benefit of having good imposed on you may only be discernible over time.

And we don't always like what's good for us, do we?

Michael Dom

About all of this, I am stupid.

Nevertheless, I shall endeavor to apply my brain with a will to learn.

(Where does will come from anyway? Does it come from inside the brain too? Do I think it up? And does stupid reside outside the brain, separated from my will? Is will short for willingness or is the latter built of it? How can I have a will to learn despite my stupid? How does stupid survive even after learning? So, many questions, not enough knowledge of my brain. How is it even possible for me to understand my ignorance while questioning my knowledge? Ahh!).

What was it that struck me in what you said?

"I don't see that you necessarily need religions to decide on what is right and what is wrong. All you need is a functioning brain."

No, Phil, I think your statement is very likely not true.

I do not think that religion should be considered as being concerned with what is Right and what is Wrong, but rather with what is Good and what is Not Good.

That being said, I don't know much about the ethics of religion and often find those of the religious to be questionable.

It's probably because the truth of it is outcome dependent.

Even so, in response to the side remark, the Ten Commandments are about seriously not good stuff which, if we get involved in, puts us at odds with each other and the law, i.e., not Right with God.

And you understand yourself, despite your leftist bent, that "Thou Shalt Not Kill" is an exceptionally good idea, which even if someone has had to kill to survive or save life, it is still not Right to have done so.

It may be suggested that the fact that religion exists beyond the boundary of the rational that might make it akin to stupid.

However, it's my suspicion that stupid is not (always) irrational, although this may not always be obvious, as in the case of Roe v Wade.

That suit was an argument about the first commandment too but whether it is good or not has less to do with the verdict because we want to know that we're right, and maybe That We Shall.

If a good decision evolved irrationally but is determined to be wrong then it may be possible that a bad decision evolved rationally and is determined to be right.

And both these cases have likely happened.

It may be considered unfortunate to some that religion, or rather the tendency of religious systemics, undergirds our rational thought so much so that we build superstructures of intellectual, artistic and imagined concepts on top of it without even knowing that it is still there.

But that doesn't mean we're stupid does it?

Stupid may by a temporary dysfunction experienced by the brain and it's only noted when it is expressed in some public manner, much like the clinical expression of prevalent diseases in animals.

The emergence of stupid (in the brain) may in fact be a natural, necessary and unavoidable occurrence where, much like the development of cancer cells, something minor went wrong temporarily in the internal workings and, without natural control or correction, this error may have been further aggravated by the surrounding environment.

Even if I will myself not to be stupid, that is not going to happen.

My brain cannot create the will to end stupid in me, but it should be able to accommodate the misery of enduring occasional 'flare-ups'.

As one wiseacre suggested "The mind is the key to changing the nature of your experience".

So, it seems to me that coping with the occasional expression of stupid in our collective reality may have been what our brains were trained on because that's where we come across it more often - in other people.

(What an experience).

Regarding the ethics undergirding our interactions, those that also prevent us annihilating some stupid, it may be that we are reaching a new nexus in our evolution.

Individual humans may be incapable of using their brains to figure out a code of ethics.

Those were figured out collectively, probably by observing group-stupid, nowadays known as group-think.

But ethics are probably best recognized when expressed in the reality of human interaction where we have to play the games in order to make up and agree on the rules along the way.

Ethics is what we think about how we should behave and that's based on either value judgements or rationalizations of Good and Right.

It's my proclivity to trust that there's still fundamental utility in using our religious systemics about human agenda because the alternative is using our intelligence.

And I reckon that intelligence is amoral.

But we soon shall find the truth of it with AI.

Bernard Corden

“Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?” - Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange)

Bernard Corden

Alasdair MacIntyre's work on virtue ethics identifies the central question of morality as having to do with the habits and knowledge concerning how to live a good life.

His approach seeks to demonstrate that good judgment emanates from good character. Being a good person is not about seeking to follow formal rules.

In elaborating this approach, MacIntyre understands himself to be reworking the Aristotelian idea of an ethical teleology.


Paul Oates

Therein lies the real dilemma, Phil. Whose code do you follow and how can you not have chaos when there are no agreed rules?

Was the Code of Bushido acceptable to anyone but those who promoted it as a way to run a nation and, in the end, a war?

Are the current military aggressors in any one of a number of countries, right in their belief that 'might is right' since the victors get to write history.

The current play out in the present United Nations is a classic example.

Two of the permanent Security Council members with voting rights are favouring a war against a previously free and non belligerent nation who doesn't have voting rights on the Security Council.

That effectively destroys and negates any credibility of peace occurring notwithstanding the vast majority of ordinary members who voted against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

No mate, unless and until you have an agreed ethical code to follow, and the means to enforce them, it's 'Rafferty's Rules' and the devil take those who are too slow to catch on or who don't understand.

The interesting aspect could well be how those who claim 'war crimes' and crimes against humanity' have occurred in Ukraine think they will ever be able to prosecute these claims?

That is, unless they are able to make the previously codified rules to operate against those so charged given they must have total control the theatre of operations, for example, as in the end of World War II, Uganda or Kosovo, and acceptance (or non challenge) by all nations concerned.

The classic example is the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner over Ukraine. The court in the Hague is now stymied because the Kremlin naturally won't be party to the case.

Philip Fitzpatrick

"If you do not have an agreed code of ethics, how can you determine right from wrong or intelligence from stupidity?"

A lot of these things - stupidity, common sense, right from wrong - are in the eye of the beholder I think Paul.

In that sense I don't think you actually need any codes to guide you. It's more of an innate or instinctive thing.

And that, of course, is determined by your upbringing and the society in which you live and is dependent upon whether you accept the rules.

Supernatural intervention aside (ten commandments etc.), you have to wonder how the founders of the many religions came up with their rules of behaviour.

Presumably in the same way that common law evolved. That is the imposition of individual credos on the rest of society through philosophers and leaders.

I don't see that you necessarily need religions to decide on what is right and what is wrong. All you need is a functioning brain.

Paul Oates

I've off the air for a few days and haven't therefore responded to Phil's logic about religion.

You are decidedly right Phil, about not requiring religion as a stimulus for labouring on behalf of others.

There is however some truth in the fact that there are some basic ethics in the Judaeo-Christian writings that give us the laws and ethics we mostly conform to today.

There is no doubt that some get carried away and head off the track with conspiracy theories etc. and claim they have some sort of right to do whatever they like.

I thought we in Oz had mostly missed that aberration until the shootout with police in Queensland a few weeks ago. The 'Waco disease' is apparently alive and well and is being locally absorbed by the simple minded as fact and not fiction.

What is the remedy to this disease, you may well ask? Therein lies the conundrum. If you do not have an agreed code of ethics, how can you determine right from wrong or intelligence from stupidity?

Is the Einstein methodology all we have?

Ross Wilkinson

And gives rise to the old saying that it is better that people think you are stupid than to open your mouth and prove it beyond doubt!

Chris Overland

Taking up Johnny Blades point....

It is a sign of intelligence to know your own limitations so people who suspect they might be stupid and so remain silent are actually wise.

As to Phil's point that the stupid always assume they are the smartest person in the room: whenever that idea enters your mind it is a warning that either you are genuinely surrounded by stupid people or, much more likely, that you are being stupid yourself.

I think that stupidity is indeed contextual.

After all, which of us has not done something stupid? However, there is a significant difference between occasional incidents of contextual stupidity, of which we are all guilty, and chronic or habitual stupidity.

It is the latter that is a real problem because a stupid person's entire world view can reflect profound stupidity. Racists, xenophobes and religious extremists all fall into this category.

Philip Fitzpatrick

I suspect that stupid depends very much on context and perspective.

Labelling someone or something stupid is, after all, a subjective judgement.

No doubt an extreme right wing redneck from the USA would consider a lot of the people who comment on PNG Attitude stupid, just as we consider them stupid.

And sometimes what we label as stupid turns out to be wise.

Johnny Blades

"A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person." Agree. Especially when that stupidity is mixed with arrogance or hubris.

But also I give a respectful shout out to the stupid people of the world who know and accept that they are stupid and don't try to do or say dangerous things.

Kindin Ongugo

I think stupidity is a medical condition.

WHO now must declare stupidity a global pandemic.

Only a vaccination against stupidity would help halt this worrying trend.

Philip Fitzpatrick

"Many people labour on behalf of others in the name of religion."

That's an interesting comment Paul.

One might ask why do they need religion to labour on behalf of others? Religion is irrational, after all. Lots of secular people labour on behalf of others.

Secular people are motivated by compassion but perhaps some of those religious people are after some sort of reward, eternal life perhaps. One would hope that's not the case.

Stephen Charteris

Yes, and on that note please add the overturning of Roe vs Wade.

Lindsay F Bond

First published in July 1985 is "Toward a Social Theory of Ignorance" by Michael Smithson, and, as I recall, was out of James Cook University in North Queensland.


Now available, via no less than the Australian National University, is an open online course on 'Ignorance', which Michael Smithson and Gabriele Bammer co-teach.


There are also examples of matters of not knowing, as from the realm of law, such as mistake or ignorance of statute law.

Paul Oates

To be fair Phil, the effects of religion are in the eye of the beholder. Many people labour on behalf of others in the name of religion.

Religion can offer comfort to those who do not have the ability to understand why humans do what they do and the results of what they do, not to mention the classic 'acts of god' that even the legal profession recognize.

Like everything humans do, it depends on the effects of the action and your cultural persuasion as to how you view the world.

Philip Fitzpatrick

You forgot to mention religion Chris.

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