July 22, 2007

monology: studying human stupidity

all started with something I read claiming the study of stupidity was named "monology", so I started looking for any information on the word "monology". I have to admit I didn't find a lot, & I realized that monology is not the study of stupidity, its meaning according to thefreedictionary.com is
n.1. The habit of soliloquizing, or of monopolizing conversation.
It was not by an insolent usurpation that Coleridge persisted in monology through his whole life.
- De Quincey.
nothing to do with studies or stupidity; some also call the study of stupidity "stupidology", this word is even harder to find in any dictionary than the word "monology". in fact there's no official term for "the study of stupidity", it's simply called ... "the study of stupidity".

giancarlo livraghi, fascinated with stupidity (his own then humans') made a lot of research in the domain of stupidity, & in his article the power of stupidity, says he was surprised by the little amount of study dedicated to the topic:
There are University departments for the mathematical complexities in the movements of Amazonian ants, or the medieval history of Perim island; but I have never heard of any Foundation or Board of Trustees supporting any studies of Stupidology.

there are few works though covering the subject decently ...

one of the oldest was from walter b. pitkin (1878 - 1953), a book published in 1934, called "a short introduction to the history of human stupidity" (*); "short introduction", because pitkin knew there was a lot to do to cover human stupidity, & that he wasn't able to accomplish that task in the 300 pages of the book, so in the end of the book he added:
Epilogue: now we are ready to start studying the History of Stupidity.
pitkin claims 4/5 people are stupid. (quite stupid allegation in livraghi's opinion) he observes that in spite of the difficulty to give a definition to stupidity (for instance, geniuses are often considered stupid by a stupid majority), stupidity definitely runs the world (which is proven by the way the world is run) :
Stupidity can easily be proved the supreme Social Evil. Three factors combine to establish it as such. First and foremost, the number of stupid people is legion. Secondly, most of the power in business, finance, diplomacy and politics is in the hands of more or less stupid individuals. Finally, high abilities are often linked with serious stupidity, and in such a manner that the abilities shine before all the world while the stupid trait lurks in deep shadow and is discerned only by intimates or by prying newspaper reporters.

later on, from 1988, carlo maria cipolla (1922-2000) decided to explore the subject & elaborated his "stupidity theory". in his italian written book "allegro ma non troppo" ("happy but not by too much"), he describes stupid people as a group, more powerful by far than major organizations such as the mafia, which without regulations, leaders or manifesto nonetheless manages to operate to great effect and with incredible coordination.

he observes that the number of stupid people is broadly underestimated. that is something we notice every day. aware as we may be of the power of stupidity, we are often surprised by it where we least expect it. we often underestimate the awful effects of stupidity and, because it is so unpredictable, stupid behavior is more dangerous than intentional mischief; this could be summarized using "hanlon’s razor": «never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.» or simpler by robert heinlein's statement: «never underestimate the power of human stupidity.» (see children version of this last one in: give half a proverb to a child, watch the result ...).

concretely, cipolla's theory of stupidity is composed of five fundamental laws:
  1. always and inevitably each of us underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  2. the probability that a given person is stupid is independent of any other characteristic possessed by that person.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. a stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.

here are some quotes of other works & thoughts on the topic:

". . . on any matter not self-evident there are ninety-nine persons totally incapable of judging of it for one who is capable; and the capacity of the hundredth person is only comparative . . ." John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859; rpt. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974), p. 79.

". . . independent thought, to a good many men, is quite impossible, and to the overwhelming majority of men, extremely painful." H. L. Mencken, "The Genealogy of Etiquette," Smart Set 47, No. 1 (September 1915): 309.

". . . nine-tenths of the beliefs of nine-tenths of mankind are totally irrational." Bertrand Russell, "Is There a God?" (1952), in The Collected Papers of Bertrand Russell, ed. John G. Slater and Peter K├Âllner (London: Routledge, 1997), Vol. 11, p. 548.

"People are not intelligent. It is very unreasonable to expect them to be so, and that is a fate my philosophy reconciled me to long ago. How else could I have lived for forty years in America?" George Santayana, letter to Bertrand Russell (c. December 1917), The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell (Boston: Little, Brown, 1968), Vol. 1, p. 57.

you may also want to take a look at james welles's "understanding stupidity".

* more extracts from the book on deuceofclubs.com


Anonymous said...

hello, thank you
this was helpful