Over the holidays, I picked up a book titled The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, recommended by Nassim Taleb as a "masterly" work. The introduction to this extremely concise book is as follows:
The following pages are in fact the result of a constructive effort to detect, know, and thus possibly neutralise one of the most powerful, dark forces which hinder the growth of human welfare and happiness.
You have my attention.
I have a running joke with my friends that there is a secret society called The Brotherhood of Morons, a group of malicious individuals committed to the steady erosion of all intelligent decision-making. There has been occasional reference to it in my writing. From a list of my favourite reading:
From some reflections after receiving my first truly large batch of reader email:
The first type, my favourite commenters, whose grim-faced no-nonsense corporate visages grace standups across the world. Thanks to their fearless leadership and keen business sense, I have it on good authority that all projects are scheduled to move from red status to green status despite all those risks unfortunately materializing, which is no one's fault in particular. Despite the various challenges we have faced over the years and lack of forward progress, I think this retro is the one where things are going to change.
This frequently felt like it was the most parsimonious explanation for what I was observing in my day-to-day life. Some people don't indicate when they drive, mumble about management methodologies all day, engage in all manner of short-sighted behaviour, and are otherwise obnoxious and dimwitted. The remarkable thing is how similar they seem to be in their failure. It feels like all these drivers have agreed to be fools in exactly the same way, and Agile consultants speak as if they're 10th generation degraded clones of the same buffoon.
Imagine my astonishment when I read the following excerpt from Cipolla, the book's author, on the very first page, with reference to the stupid:
After Darwin we know that we share our origin with the lower members of the animal kingdom, and worms as well as elephants bear their daily share of trials, predicaments, and ordeals. Human beings, however, are privileged in so far as they have to bear an extra load - an extra dose of tribulations originated daily by a group of people within the human race itself. This group is much more powerful than the Mafia, or the Military Industrial Complex, or International Communism - it is an unorganized uncharted group which has no chief, no president, no by-laws, and yet manages to operate in perfect unison, as if guided by an invisible hand, in such a way that the activity of each member powerfully contributes to strengthen and amplify the effectiveness of the activity of all other members.
Jesus, the Brotherhood is real and they're coming for us.
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.
Before getting started, I want to say that there are three kinds of people.
The first kind reads about "stupid people" and laughs. Every waking moment of life does not actually consist of blasting swarms of dimwitted suggestions out of the sky like the world's saddest flak battery, but there's something funny about seeing the blueprint for stupid interactions acknowledged. It's the one where you say "We've got too many meetings" and someone says "We should have a meeting to discuss that", or you need resources for an engineering project and someone suggests allocating all the budget to hiring KPMG. Such events can spring with dreary regularity when you're trying to convince a government that you can, in fact, speak English when you're immigrating, or fall like dumb lightning when you're at a party and someone sincerely says "I think I drive better when I'm drunk".
There's a moment of genuine, stunned confusion every single time it happens, followed by (after enough experience) a gruesome struggle to keep the shit-eating grin off your face.
The second kind of person reads the quote above and seethes at all those blasted idiots that don't understand their brilliance, either because they're having a bad day and actually are surrounded by idiots, or because they're the ones that are difficult to get along with. I've definitely been both at the same time at various times in my life. And to be fair, don't drive when you're drunk, moron.
Then there is the third kind of person who, upon reading anything like the quote above, immediately insists that the complainant must secretly be the insufferable one, because actually smart people don't experience frustration for reasons unknown. The implication is that they're the smart ones because they live in a world where the ultimate marker of intelligence is not the ability to discern sound action from unsound, but instead a grotesque meta-intelligence which manifests as the inexplicable belief that no action is ever deserving of contempt, and any deviation from this belief is a humility problem. Their judgement usually comes with a vomitous attempt at a cutting remark which, coming from individuals best described as a sentient LinkedIn posts, invariably morphs into the flaccid "you aren't as smart as you think you are" or "you sound insufferable".
I just wanted to take a moment to tell the third group to go fuck themselves.
Stupidity is surprisingly difficult to define. Any attempt to do so typically means asserting that the inverse of that definition is intelligence, an academic debate that will rage on long after the sun has gone cold. Or consider anyone who blunders repeatedly but nonetheless gets promoted - are they stupid because they weren't able to avoid blundering, or intelligent because it seems that they still got what they were after? Does it being part of a deliberate strategy matter? There is some serious overloading of the words intelligence and stupidity going on here, and it is unclear what definition of stupidity best equips a person to navigate their actual life.
Most people with a bit of lived experience seem to settle on the conclusion that, barring things such as examining cognitive decline in the course of neurodegenerative disorders, the version of intelligence measured by constructs such as IQ aren't very interesting. In practice, it is not hard to find all sorts of variants of an "intelligent" person in this sense of the word who are nonetheless committing repeated blunders, and they come in all sorts of flavours. Consider:
- The PhD student volunteering to perform complex technical work at below minimum wage, let me check my Bloomberg terminal, lock themselves into that system?
- What Taleb calls the Intellectual Yet Idiot (IYI) - someone who has the mannerisms and interests of a superficially intelligent person but who nonetheless is unable to self-reflect or deal with nuance, such as the Harvard-educated Ben Shapiro. They typically are doing at least decently for themselves while making others pay the price for their brand of foolishness.
- Just your generic self-destructive people, such as the kids in my high school that picked up smoking at 14. They're all still intact, but on the whole things aren't going great for them.
They're all foolish in different ways, aren't they? The first group has a lot of intellectual horsepower and respectable moral intentions, but mostly sign up to be exploited. The second group has no intellectual horsepower by virtue of their horses having been turned to glue long ago, but they're the ones doing the exploiting. And the third group is just making themselves and everyone around them miserable.
The central premise of The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity is that you can create useful categories of actors by examining the actions they tend to take, and the rule used to classify them is based on whether the action benefits/harms themselves, and whether it benefits/harm others. This neatly splits actions into four categories:
- An action that benefits everyone involved, termed intelligence
- An action that harms oneself and benefits others, termed helplessness (PhDs)
- An action that benefits oneself and harms others, termed banditry (grifters)
- Actions that harm everyone, termed stupidity (literally anyone)
This definition of stupidity as "an action that harms everyone" has some useful properties - namely, that it actually describes what I mean when I say "that person is so fucking stupid that they can't be trusted to do anything". For example, I wish Ben Shapiro would shut the fuck up, but I know that he would go to bat for me as long as he thought he could sell testosterone supplements as a side-effect. And I feel bad for most PhD candidates, but I'm not personally harmed being near them. That last category though...
A stupid person is a person who causes losses to another person or to a group of persons, while himself deriving no gain and possibly even incurring losses.
I was at a dinner with a few doctors over the Christmas break, and they were regaling each other with stories of two surgeons in the past week who had their careers spontaneously combust because they, during routine procedures with female patients, said something to the effect of "I didn't even have to buy you dinner first" when their patients disrobed.
Those surgeons became surgeons so they were obviously intelligent for some definition of intelligence, and that definition isn't useful. Those guys are idiots. Get them the fuck away from patients, away from hospitals, away from society, and most importantly, away from me. There is no circumstance under which I could ever trust them to do anything, and there's no way to mitigate being that stupid because it isn't even incentive-driven. They're unfit to clean my boots. They just do things and bring pain into the world, like hurricanes and scrum masters.
A stupid creature will harass you for no reason, for no advantage, without any plan or scheme and at the most improbable times and places. You have no rational way of telling if and when and how and why the stupid creature attacks. When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy.
Because the stupid person’s actions do not conform to the rules of rationality, it follows that:
a) one is generally caught by surprise by the attack;
b) even when one becomes aware of the attack, one cannot organise a rational defence, because the attack itself lacks any rational structure.
This is what the book is about - those people who, regardless of any other characteristic, just take self-destructive and other-destructive actions repeatedly.
Most people do not act consistently. Under certain circumstances a given person acts intelligently and under different circumstances the same person will act helplessly. The only important exception to the rule is represented by the stupid people who normally show a strong proclivity toward perfect consistency in all fields of human endeavours.
I have, at various points in my life, occupied many of the roles listed above.
I've been "helpless". Towards the end of my undergraduate qualification in psychology, I signed up for the Australian Honours year, which is basically a slave labour program for universities. I worked tons of night shifts keeping experiments going so that other people could get published. All for no pay.
I try to spend as much time as possible being "intelligent", i.e, helping people. I try to be there for my friends, and I think (generally) that the people who've reached out to me over the years have benefited from the relationship.
I have, I am ashamed to admit, been a "bandit". For a simple example, prior to The Snowflake Incident, I very knowingly signed up to work at this organization knowing that they'd basically pay me to do nothing other than attend stand-ups and recover from burnout. That's selfishness, through and through.
The only important exception to the rule is represented by the stupid people who normally show a strong proclivity toward perfect consistency in all fields of human endeavours.
But I and the people that I voluntarily associate with almost never behave in a completely self-destructive fashion. And the worst offenders just hammer their faces into the "ruin everything for everyone" button as rapidly as their battered skulls can sustain the beating. I won't waste your time going into great depth with examples, as it would probably be too painfully identifiable if certain people I know ever find my writing, and you've all got examples from your personal lives anyway.
Instead, I'll draw the obvious conclusion. When someone behaves stupidly, and you have no evidence beyond their presentation skills that this is a true anomaly, get far away from them. It doesn't matter how exploitable they seem to be, or how it might benefit you in the short-term, they will eventually self-immolate in a way that will set fire to something you care about. And again, this is very important, presentation skills don't count, even if they say things that frequently indicate a great awareness of what would constitute intelligent action. The two worst managers I've ever met spoke as if they knew exactly how to run a team, but then did none of the things they said they would do, regardless of how easy it would have been.
Consider this assertion:
The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
And how it naturally pairs with this observation:
Like all human creatures, also stupid people vary enormously in their capacity to affect their fellow men. Some stupid people normally cause only limited losses while others egregiously succeed in causing ghastly and widespread damages not only to one or two individuals but to entire communities or societies. [...] The second factor which determines the potential of a stupid person is related to the position of power and consequence which he occupies in society.
When I mentioned this to Melbourne's top surgeons at the party mentioned earlier, explicitly asking whether they still encounter the same percentage of people who are invariably totally destructive amongst medical professionals, they agreed so emphatically that I asked the question three more times because I really thought doctors would have a lower dipshit-rate than the rest of us.
Once you accept (as a rough rule) that a person is equally likely to engage in totally destructive behaviour regardless of whether they are a prince or a pauper, it naturally follows that some idiots are very important. For many years, I have been astounded that society seems to reward fools more readily than they reward the truly intelligent, a belief which manifested in my demented writing.
But if I think more carefully, this isn't the case at all. Consider the current directors in my department, a large organization with national name recognition. Two of them are intelligent, and it is a privilege to work with them. A few are bandits, though not of the overtly malignant variety - they're just not savvy enough to realize that they're incompetent, so they are unknowing leeches. The remainder are simply stupid. This is approximately the composition of the organization writ large. The number of people at this organization who dislike their job, their stakeholders, and their salary but don't leave even though they no longer have the energy to work is astonishing, and that alone is enough to constitute stupidity as per Cipolla's definition.
The reason that the stupid leaders of society seem so egregious might not be because of their startling foolishness, but simply because they are stupid in exactly the same proportions as the stock from which they are elevated. Most of us are not so naive as to believe that elevation is meritocratic, but most of us expect that the filter has some effect on the distribution of individuals that are moved to power. It probably adds some bandits and removes some of the helpless, we like to think - but perhaps it leaves the stupid totally untouched. And once they're there, every mistake they make is so greatly amplified that it starts to feel like everyone in leadership is a moron. But the people around them are as at their mercy as the rest of us - there is no defense when the stupid attack. Does that sound implausible?
Thus in the following pages I will denote the fraction of stupid people within a population by the symbol σ. [...] One has to keep in mind that according to the Second Basic Law, the fraction σ of the voting population are stupid people and elections offer to all of them at once a magnificent opportunity to harm everybody else without gaining anything from their action. They do so by contributing to the maintenance of the σ level among those in power.
VI. Ludic's Law
One of my favourite little jokes in engineering culture are things like Hofstadter's Law:
Hofstadter's Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law.
Again, this can't be literally true, or things would never finish... which I suppose does describe a fair number of projects. In any case, I find them both delightful and useful.
In some ways, these adages describe a type of simple wisdom, which is that you can't understand some things, but an intelligent actor can reason at a higher level around their past failures. For example, I don't really know why a lot of my own projects run late, but you'll see a lot of smart people religiously adhere to a rule like "always triple time estimates", and it essentially never backfires. I don't really believe any of the reasons I have for why this works, I just noticed that I get burned whenever I don't do it.
This book comes replete with a couple of these too:
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 infallibly turns out to be a costly mistreake.
Non-stupid people always forget the damaging power of stupid individuals. Always. The author is fully aware that this applies to himself. And consider this rule:
Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
In fact, the author demonstrates that he's aware that this rule still applies to himself with the following sentence:
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.
This is why the author resorts to using σ as a stand-in for the actual percentage of idiots in a population.
So, in the same way that we triple our time estimates, I would propose that a wise person begins by doubling their assessment of how many people are stupid as per the above definition, then tripling their assessment of how much damage such people can do. If this number brings you above 100%, I suggest a moment of quiet reflection re: your life choices and the company they've led you to keep. And in the same way that you never compromise on time estimates unless you're dealing with an incredibly well-known quantity, you never budge on this.
Incidentally, this sort of meta-reasoning is why I do not speculate here on why some people are so destructive. I may not understand the causes but, in the same way that I don't really understand why tripling my estimates always seems to work, I just go ahead accept that they're going to ruin everything given the opportunity.
In conclusion, this book prompted me to carefully consider who I keep for company. While my direct social circle is full of brilliant, compassionate people, I must concede that I spend a fair amount of time dealing with The Brotherhood (mostly at work) without having really spent enough effort to say it was inevitable. I'll be making some moves to rectify this, even if it means having to spend more energy working elsewhere - the risk of a fool destroying our department's budget and putting me out of a job is too high. The easy work isn't worth it, plus I'm always worried that stupidity is contagious.
And for anyone reading this, I'd encourage them to do the same. And most importantly, if you have a friend that reads this who says that being able to form a social circle full of non-morons is a violation of the "no characteristic predicts stupidity" rule, then your friends are nerds.
Take it easy, and I hope you're all having an intelligent start to the year.