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The World of Stupidity

I've spent half a century writing for radio and print (mostly print). I hope to still be tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote that “Earth has its boundaries, but human stupidity is limitless.”

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote that “Earth has its boundaries, but human stupidity is limitless.”

Parade of Nitwits

Astrophysicists maintain that hydrogen is the most common element in the Universe but a strong case can be made that it’s really stupidity that rules. Even Albert Einstein agrees: “Two things are infinite: the Universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the Universe.”

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote that “Earth has its boundaries, but human stupidity is limitless.” He even tried to write an Encyclopedia of Stupidity but died before it was completed.

It’s not that stupidity is the exclusive preserve of dimwits; people with high IQs often do really brainless things. The main factor involved is impulsivity; it’s a simple case of action/think, instead of think/action.

Don’t Kiss a Lion and other Useful Advice

Lauren Fagen is a smart young lady, bound for a place at McGill, a top university in Canada. In July 2013, the 18-year-old was working as a volunteer at an animal reserve in South Africa. She was cleaning a cage when she leaned through the bars of the next enclosure to kiss a male lion called Duma.

Then, as The Globe and Mail reported, Duma “reached through the bars and dragged her legs into his cage. The lion’s female mate also joined the attack, biting her feet.” Lauren Fagen was lucky to escape with deep scratches and puncture wounds from a momentary eruption of foolishness.

Pucker up baby.

Pucker up baby.

A psychiatrist of the writer’s acquaintance was mowing his lawn one evening when the damp grass clogged the machine. He reached in to clear it. Well, he didn’t really need the tip of that finger in his practice.

Muhammad Niaz lived in a village in Pakistan where the local holy man claimed special expertise in performing miracles.

Muhammad Niaz volunteered to test the imam’s assertion that he could bring the dead back to life. The Express Tribune reports that in September 2014 “Niaz was placed on a table in a square and his hands and legs were bound.” The holy man “then sliced his throat as people looked on.”

Mr. Niaz was 40 years old and he left a wife and six children.

Run with the Bulls . . .

. . . Sit in emergency if you haven’t been rear-ended.

Temporary insanity can’t be said of the men—and it’s mostly men—who travel to Pamplona, Spain, to run with the bulls. On the first day of the 2015 event, three men were gored, and ten others were sent to hospital. And the casualties continued to pile up over the course of the nine-day festival; dozens trampled and a score going to have bull-inflicted gashes sewn up.

By mid-August 2015, the body count for similar events across Spain was ten people gored to death.

The 2019 Pamplona extravaganza delivered the usual casualty count. Eight people were gored while many others were injured. But, the lunacy award goes to the man who was looking at his smartphone when 500 kilos of angry beef caught him from behind and tossed him in the air.

Many people go to the trouble and expense of booking airline tickets and hotel rooms in order to potentially end up on the horns of a bull. They probably have several weeks to contemplate the folly of running with the bulls and still think the opportunity to get gored or even killed is a sound project.

The most sensible thing many of these revellers do is to observe the tradition of spending the night before the running in bars; a body rendered limp by alcohol will suffer less severe injuries than one turned rigid by understandable fear. And, don't forget to take your smartphone along with you.

The Laws of Stupidity

Italian economist Professor Carlo M. Cipolla explained stupidity in a 1976 essay entitled The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity:

  • “Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.
  • “The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.
  • “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.
  • “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.
  • “A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person there is.”

“Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.”

— George Carlin

The Value of Stupidity as Entertainment

There’s a voyeuristic appeal to goofy behaviour.

The great showman P.T. Barnum knew there was money to be found in stupidity when he famously said, or didn’t say (the jury is still out), “No one ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.” That piece of wisdom applies just as well beyond the borders of the United States and lives long after Barnum died.

The Three Stooges.

The Three Stooges.

There’s a huge audience of people who want to watch others behaving like numbskulls. The Jerry Springer Show, famous for people humiliating themselves by telling lurid stories about their sex lives or memberships in hate groups, has drawn audiences close to seven million.

Jerry is not alone in tapping into the public taste for stupidity. Maury Povich (his specialty is outing cheaters and paternity deniers with DNA tests) reached the number one ratings spot on U.S. daytime television in 2011.

Montel Williams, Rikki Lake, and many others show there is an almost insatiable demand for doltish behaviour.

On the big screen, the Jackass franchise has built fortunes for its creators by performing gormless stunts. How about jumping off a roof with a Mary Poppins-type umbrella (fail) or putting raw chicken parts in their underwear and unsuccessfully trying to walk on a tightrope over a pond full of alligators (almost fatal fail)?

Comedian John Cleese explained the appeal: “I think it’s something to do with people feeling better if they look at other people who are in a worse state than themselves”

Collective Stupidity

Karl Marx had a thing or two to say about stupidity. Avital Ronell is a professor at New York University and the author of Stupidity. In a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary she says, “according to Marx, stupidity was third in terms of world historical determining forces;” first was capital, second was violence, and third was stupidity.

And, here’s The New Scientist, weighing in with the opinion that business culture encourages stupidity and “may have contributed to the economic crisis. Indeed, the effects may have been so damaging precisely because banks assumed that intelligent people act logically while at the same time rewarding rash behaviour based on intuition rather than deliberation.”

The magazine quotes a researcher as saying, “The more intelligent someone is, the more disastrous the results of their stupidity.”

Sane, intelligent people can get caught up in the collective hysteria of throngs. These were chronicled by the Scottish journalist James Mackay in his 1841 book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. He exposed the folly of joining economic bubbles such as the Dutch tulip mania when a single bulb could change hands for the equivalent of a skilled craftsman’s income for ten years. He also wrote about witch hunts, crusades, fortune telling, and alchemy.

The human race seems to be caught up in another act of collective stupidity by ignoring the problem of global warming. Let’s let Canadian environmentalist Dr. David Suzuki have the last word: “We’re in a giant car heading at a brick wall at a hundred miles an hour and everybody’s arguing about where they want to sit.”

Oh please, don't do that. Too late.

Oh please, don't do that. Too late.

Bonus Factoids

Each year the Darwin Awards are handed out to people who do catastrophically stupid things. To qualify, the recipient must voluntarily improve the global gene pool by dying or being sterilized as a result of an act of stupidity.

Collected by Wendy Northcutt, the awards are a catalogue of what-were-they-thinking actions. Of course, the award winners weren’t thinking, and that’s why they removed themselves from the gene pool and got into Wendy’s hall of fame. Here are a few of the losers who were winners:

  • In Alabama, Joe Buddy Caine, 35, lost his life by playing rattlesnake catch with a friend—apparently, the rattler wasn’t having as much fun as Joe and his pal;
  • Kim and Paul left a pub in Sheffield, England, with their inhibitions suitably lubricated into silence and decided to take the old Beatles song “Why don’t we do it in the road?” as an instruction rather than a question. The bus driver didn’t see them in time and scored a two-for-one;
  • Eric A. Barcia of Reston, Virginia, bought a bunch of bungee cords, taped them together, and fixed one end to his ankle and the other end to a 70-foot high railway trestle. Eric’s calculations didn’t allow for the fact that 65 feet of bungee cord would stretch. Eric was 22;
  • Derren in Leicester, England, thought his jacket was stabproof. “Test the theory by draping it over a chair Derren. No Derren, don’t wear it. Never mind;” and,
  • The folks who thought the gun wasn’t loaded are too numerous to make the awards. So too are the people who check to see how much gasoline is still in the tank by using a lighter for illumination.


  • “Montreal Teen Mauled after Trying to Kiss Captive Lion in South Africa.” Geoffrey York, Globe and Mail, July 3, 2013.
  • “Too Trusting: Pir Kills Follower for Miracle of Life.” Express Tribune, September 18, 2014.
  • “Dozens Trampled at Spain’s Pamplona Bull Run.” Susana Vera and Clare Kane, Reuters, July 13, 2013.
  • “Pamplona Running of the Bulls 2015: Three Men Gored and 10 Hospitalised on First Day of Festival.” Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith, The Independent, July 7, 2015.
  • “Four more Gored to Death across Spain as Surge in Bull-run Casualties Continues.” Ashifa Kassam, The Guardian, August 17, 2015.
  • “Darwin Awards.” Wendy Northcutt, undated.
  • “Stupidity.” CBC and National Film Board, 2003.
  • “Improbable Research: the Laws of Human Stupidity.” Mark Abrahams, The Guardian, July 9, 2012.
  • “Time to Get Smarter about Stupidity.” New Scientist, April 2, 2013.
  • “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.” James Mackay, 1841.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Rupert Taylor


Glen Rix from UK on December 30, 2016:

I wish that I could think of an appropriate comment but I'm uncharacteristically lost for words.