Certainty Makes You Stupid Print E-mail
San Diego Reader

20210630(San Diego Reader June 30, 2021)

Sign of the Times: The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity by Carlo M. Cipolla, written and published privately in 1976 and reissued in April, is a sudden bestseller. Hardly unexpected, given the reign of idiocy these days. If you’ve read this tiny masterpiece, you have a framework for labeling stupidity a syndrome, one with symptoms that are clearly expressed in both individuals and groups. Indeed, the condition may be worth an entry in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, psychiatry’s etiological bible. As one reviewer has written, “Idiots suffer from a disease that has no cure.” But a cure aside, classifying a disease should lead to treatment. Some researchers see parallels between medicalizing things like racism and mass shootings as public health crises and — wish upon a star — the remediable disorder of stupidity.

Cipolla’s “book” is shorter than the article you’re about to read, a large-print sleight-of-hand at $12 a pop. For me, the most socially responsible of its five laws is The Third (and Golden) Basic Law: “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.” Cipolla explains: a bandit is a person who works for a reasonable or proportional gain. Let’s say a man is starving and steals $100 from you and gets away; the bandit is $100 ahead and, temporarily, well-fed. If he’s caught, the sum may be returned, but he serves 30 days and, again, he gets to eat. In the second case, there’s justice for the victim, and the punishment is proportional. But let’s say the bandit uses a gun during the $100 theft and, in a struggle, kills you. He’s behind bars for 20 years. (Yet again, he’s fed, but by now, that’s irrelevant.) The bandit is now a murderer. He’s also a moron. No gain exists for the dead man or the killer. Indeed, the latter’s loss is light years from his primary motivation — to fill his stomach.

Now imagine if a person engages in behaviors that are, as Cipolla says, “unwaveringly” idiotic — we don’t need a murder to nail down this person’s stupidity. He’s showing us, over and over, that he’s a serial dolt. But more importantly, he has no idea of his disorder. Stupid people can’t be less stupid, because they already don’t know much of anything. Cipolla calls such knuckleheads who continually cause losses for everyone “super-stupid.”

Perhaps San Diego’s favorite conceited twit is former Chargers’ quarterback Ryan Leaf. Leaf’s criminal offenses — burglary, theft, drug possession — came after his football woes. A standout college QB, he was drafted second behind Peyton Manning with great hoopla and a $31.25 million contract. The signing bonus was $11.25 million. Trouble erupted at once.

Pouty-faced and arrogant, he began skipping practice and required meetings in order to play golf; he screamed at Chargers’ managers and at reporters in locker rooms; he had to be tackled by teammates to be kept from attacking trolling fans in the stands; he was benched after ten games in his rookie season and, injury-plagued, missed all of his second season. Along the way, he earned suspensions and fines. His two years with the team (1998 and 2000) were pathetic: 18 starts, four wins, 13 touchdowns, and 33 interceptions. The Chargers’ record in 2000 was 1-15.

Ousted from football, Leaf “retired” at 26, and went on to fail as a husband, a financial consultant, and college coach in Texas. He became an opioid addict and earned convictions for burglary and drugs. In 2020, he was arrested for domestic battery. In Texas and Montana, he went to rehab more often than prison, doing scant time. Final insult: Leaf started a “foundation” for young men who couldn’t afford mental health treatment. Which, apparently, with his millions, he could. But the stupid persisted.

There’s a weird link between football and forgiveness. Call it the O.J. Simpson effect. Leaf has been awarded, post-breakdown, with radio, TV, and writing (?) opportunities. Successful or not, such do-overs suggest fans of pro football often presume their heroes have some gumption in reserve; their sacrifice for the team, whether that means in brain injuries or just shattered knees, must mean there is a good man underneath.

Remember that prior to Leaf’s screwups, the Spanos family stuffed cash into his wallet, raising fans’ hopes that such a cushy payday would mean winning seasons. The penthouse value of NFL teams ($16 billion in 2019) typically protects them from bad decisions involving immature young men. But not always. Conniving with dunderheads, Cipolla’s Fourth Basic Law, “infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.” I call this “playing the stupid card” in hopes of commercial gain. I don’t know for sure, but it seems doing business in the NFL means investing in players who exhibit maximal ability and marginal character and who may empower the franchise.

Ryan Leaf’s assholery proves financial losses and abused trust victimize others far more than they damage the perpetrator. Consider a few local chumps, guys like Roger Hedgecock and Rabbi Goldstein, whose corrupt acts led to sweetheart plea deals and career advancement.

A spectacular case in point is one of the smuttiest local detectives ever, Carl Hershman. In 2009, Hershman, part of the San Diego Police Department’s Sex Crimes Unit, was sued, along with three other male detectives, by the City Attorney’s office for sexual harassment and creating an abusive work environment. The plaintiffs were two long-time female detectives who were also part of the unit. The behaviors included more than inappropriate jokes and anti-female slurs. The suit charged that Hershman displayed posters in his work cubicle which were “insulting and demeaning to women: they condoned child molestation, they made light of drugging women so they [could] be raped, they encouraged victim blaming by referring to women as ‘trailer trash,’ or mocked females subjected to horrible sex crimes.” The worst was a comment about women’s dress and solicitous flirtation that accompanied the posters: “Your stupidity is our livelihood...SDPD Sex Crimes Unit.”

The city settled the two female detectives’ lawsuit for $75,000 — a pittance after lawyer fees. The three detectives and Hershman, who accused the department of doing nothing to defend him, were transferred to other units. Then in 2011, Hershman countersued, alleging that the posters were a “teaching tool” and that the images had been in his cubicle “for years” and no one ever complained. Apparently, his suit went nowhere. After a 32-year police career, he retired in 2017, only to get active in the business of sex-crime consulting. Among his positions: instructor at the Institute of Criminal Investigations; member of the End Violence Against Women International Cadre of Experts; and lifetime membership in the California Sexual Assault Investigative Association. As a consultant, he continues to train and advise law enforcement on sex crimes investigations and the victimology of the survivor.

Monetizing a career around rape and violence — who knows, maybe he’s a fine investigator — points up a cruel irony: certain professions are largely immune from public outrage and financial loss, despite the proven idiocy of its practitioners. (You might argue Leaf and Hershman capitalized on their immaturity, which, if true, should be another law of the stupid set.)

The Cleverly Not Stupid

Brian Spitzberg, Distinguished Professor Emeritus at San Diego State, tells me that these days he’s writing about fake news, misinformation, and disinformation, especially surrounding the pandemic. For Spitzberg, stupidity is a more complex and layered concept than isolated individual cases. He says the pandemic is clarifying a cause-consequence pattern: those who shape the “stupid message” are quite different from those who act on it. The shapers — conspiracy theorists, gun nuts, anti-vaxxers, police defunders, woke whites — promulgate talking points that are, Spitzberg says, “intentionally false, but, thereby, cleverly not stupid.” The “other side of stupid” is how “people buy into those messages.”

A useful definition for the term “covidiot” is one who disregards public health regulations about the disease’s transmissibility to shape a “stupid message” for collusive purposes. California has had its share of covidiots in state government. Poster boys are not limited to Governor Gavin Newsom, guilty of one kingly mistake — maskless dining at the French Laundry. But Santee’s state senator Brian Jones wins the big award for using his own health to intentionally and cleverly foil Newsom’s lockdown.

Last August, Republican Jones, a virulent opponent of CDC disease guidelines, contracted the virus. He may have gotten infected purposefully at a spreader soiree at Spring Valley church’s “Feast of Freedom” service. Jones freely attended and refused to mask or to social distance. One capitol reporter wrote that “a review of Jones’s social media feeds reveals that he did everything to contract the virus — and to possibly infect others.” Caucusing with his party, he likely exposed other Republicans, including assemblyman Randy Voepel, 71, also from Santee. In Sacramento, Jones’s exposure forced the senate to shut down. He argued that legislators who quarantined could not be allowed on the floor to debate and vote. Jones then asked the office of legislative counsel for its opinion. They agreed: voting was not legal since members couldn’t convene. So much for a backlog of 280 bills.

Several California news organizations argued that the shutdown occurred because Jones and other Republicans risked dispersing the disease to weaken the state’s attempt to stop an unchecked virus. Which — if you think about it — sounds bonkers. The editorial board of the Sacramento Bee underscored the empty-headedness of the scheme: “Though we do not lack for examples of Jones’s peculiar blend of hypocrisy and stupidity, we should note that he serves on the state senate’s Special Committee on the Pandemic’s Emergency Response.”

The menace here is self-inflicted inanity — Jones could have died, as well as others. But there is a twisted logic in play. Spitzberg chalks it up to “motivated reasoning,” a kind of judgment whose conclusion is achieved by “cherry-picking reasons and evidence to reach that conclusion.” The end for Jones was to oppose the Democrats’ response to Covid by any means necessary, because he was faithful to his party’s claim that the disease’s spread had been overblown and the response was anti-business. While it’s hard to measure, it seems that Jones had far more to gain — from the party and the Republican voters in his district — than to lose. That is, if he did not get sick and die.

I don’t find this reassuring, and I think I know why. We want to think there is a clear line between the stupid and the non-stupid. Ryan Leaf suggests there is. Indeed, rational people figure stupidity can’t be as common and as potentially destructive as it is. As Cipolla writes, the rational “react with feelings of skepticism and incredulousness. The fact is that reasonable people have difficulty conceiving and understanding unreasonable behavior.” But in seeking a Covid infection, was Jones martyring himself to earn votes? To redden his MAGA bona fides? Is this the goal of political division: to deepen the swamp of — how shall I put it — fabricated stupidity, whose entanglements deceive a larger class of people in order to benefit a smaller class of exploiters? While some of us are trying to grok those who shape the “stupid message,” the stupid messaging machine runs on.

A Colossal San Diego Dimwit

After considering Brian Jones, a reliable definition of stupidity gets a lot dicier. We’ve entered the realm of devious idiocy. One of the most sinister manipulations of dumbness occurs when Washington lobbyists and defense contractors profit from those in powerful political positions — the more seniority, the better. I’m speaking of Randall “Duke” Cunningham, among the grandest monuments in the graveyard of San Diego dimwits. In 2009, U.S. congressmen Cunningham was convicted of tax evasion, bribery, and mail fraud, while in 2020 Duncan Hunter was convicted of one count of misusing campaign funds. Both resigned. Cunningham did 100 months in prison; Hunter, sentenced to 11 months, did zero. Cunningham received a partial pardon (he still owes $3.6 million — good luck), while Hunter received a full pardon from President Trump. Criminals are stupid not just because they get caught; they are idiots because they believe their transgressions are not crimes. On occasion, they dupe the voting public into reelecting them more easily than they dupe U.S. attorneys of their innocence.

Notice I say “criminal.” This is key. A person who commits a crime, is convicted, serves time, and pays a fine is a small “c” offender. The repeat offender is the “stupider” one, a charter member of Club Dumbbell. Setting aside Hunter and the airline seats he bought for his pet rabbit and the number of women he bedded while in office (unwaveringly idiotic), Cunningham’s fraud takes the cake: years of yes votes bought by defense industry tricksters who bribed Duke with some $2.4 million, regularly delivered in bags of cash. Hunter lost money, marriage, and career, but paid no “criminal” penalty. We don’t know if he’s suffering; perhaps, he’ll reemerge as a radio personality. Cunningham, during and after his political life, lost his soul and his reason, claiming the “bribes” he took from lobbyists were reimbursements for the expense of wining and dining them on his yacht, the Duke-Stir — which he didn’t own. Cunningham’s gullibility is chum in the water for the bad actors who populate K street. This doesn’t mean he’s not to blame. It means Duke’s crimes are part of a protected system of fraud: the Gordian Knot of money and politics.

Four of Cunningham’s military-industrial grifters were convicted of bribery; two got light sentences in exchange for testimony against Duke and other congressmen. Two others got off. To “drain the swamp,” a congressman is purged every few years by the IRS or investigative reporters. Duke’s extravagances — and the media worship of him as a Vietnam fighter pilot — made him the highest profile, most purchasable candidate. His argument, which possesses a pound of plausibility, is that it was all a setup.

Who was using whom? No bribery-tainted defense contracts were refunded. The Pentagon’s bloated budget is the greatest siphon of taxes in the history of humankind (well, maybe Pharoah’s was greater). It’s Cipolla’s First Basic Law: “Always and inevitably, everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.” Do I have to spell out that this includes not only politicians, but also the electorate who vote them into office for multiple terms? Call it vanity, entitlement, the love of bribery. Nowadays they spout the scoundrel’s sole defense: “Any investigation into my affairs is a politically motivated witch hunt.” Seems to work just fine.

I Am Woke, Man

Stupidity is also called bullshit. Advertisers, Twitter trolls, conspiracy twits, and political tribalists (partially) comprise the bullshitting class. And yet their senselessness gets maximal coverage, in part because it’s often egregiously senseless. Make no mistake, they lie. But their passion says they couldn’t be lying, because they’re — note the circular reasoning — so passionate. These blowhards spend their waking hours trading in nonsense, in alternative facts, and in “post-truth” — the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of the year in 2016. Another book trying to grok our collective idiocy is The Psychology of Stupidity, a collection of essays edited by the French critic Jean-Francois Marmion. In “Stupidity and Post-Truth,” Sebastian Dieguez describes the ambition of many Instagram accounts or Facebook pages: to platform their “bullshit.” The bullshitter’s authority is himself and those who “like” him. “I say what I think and I think what I say,” Dieguez writes, mockingly, in their voice, “for the sole reason that I say it and I think it. And if I don’t agree with something, that proves that it’s wrong, or that it has nothing to do with me.”

Instead of the purely solipsistic I think therefore I am, social-media agitators assert the following: Because what I think is based on what I glean from my sources, including facts I find online, I account for everything via a personal assessment. For example, because my religious belief is sincerely held, the claim alone exempts me from certain laws that most others must live by. I live knowing my reality is real, not an alternative to your reality or what you call the commonly agreed-to reality. I’m not right because anyone else’s argument has convinced me; I’m right because I’ve convinced myself.

Is there another way to explain the radicalization of San Diegan Ashli Babbitt, who died during the January 6 insurrection? That she was shot is tragic and random; her conditioning by radical online groups, however, was not. Ex-military and an indebted owner of a pool supply company, the Lakeside native was enamored of the Trumpian zeitgeist: QAnon conspiracy theories, Mexicans flooding the southern border with drugs, and her fanatical opposition to California politicians: Gavin Newsom as well as Duncan Hunter. A video tirade from 2018 surfaced after her death. In it, she rants about California’s leaders. “Our economy is going to do an absolute tank because you guys refuse to choose America over your stupid political party. I am so tired of it. You can consider yourself put on notice, [by] me and the American people. I am woke, man. This is absolutely unbelievable. Get your shit together.” On her way to Washington, she tweeted, “Nothing will stop us...They can try and try and try but the storm is here and it is descending upon DC in less than 24 hours...dark to light.”

Few Americans support the insurrection. But I think many see the mob assault on democracy as less stupid than seditious — pent-up anger, goaded by a delusional claim, which burst in public and confirmed what the 800 (400 arrested so far) who stormed the Capitol thought was their mandate. In defense of a mutinous idea, some support the cause, even justify it. Such enablers see the rioters acting rationally; they believe the election was stolen by extremely sophisticated electronic programs, run by Democrats or foreign socialists. Because there’s no proof of a conspiracy, that very hiddenness proves it’s true. In all this, I hear more than a few malcontents re-jiggering Barry Goldwater’s famous line, replacing extremism with stupidity: “Stupidity in defense of liberty is no vice.”

Self-righteousness may stir irrational and idiotic thinking, but that doesn’t mean the person who acts is congenitally stupid. It’s Cipolla’s Second Basic Law: “The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.” Babbitt’s breaching of a Capitol window may have been to demonstrate how self-convinced she was. If her violation of democracy’s sacred space is seen as stupid by many, for Babbitt and her followers, we may assume it was also bravery of the highest order.

Stupidity Is Arguably More Common

My initial attraction to the topic of stupidity stemmed from a conversation with David Krakauer, an evolutionary biologist and professor of complex systems at the Santa Fe Institute. In an interview, he said he’s currently grappling with “the evolution of intelligence and stupidity on earth. It’s quite common for people to talk about intelligence. It’s less common for people to talk about stupidity, though, arguably, it’s more common.” How does Krakauer contrast intelligence and stupidity? Intelligence is “the thing we do that ensures that the problem is efficiently solved in a way that makes it appear effortless. Stupidity is a set of rules that we use to ensure that the problem will be solved in longer [periods of time] than chance, or never, and is nevertheless pursued with alacrity and enthusiasm.”

This is ponderable. Stupidity...a set of rules...pursued with enthusiasm...to ensure...the problem will be solved...in the time of chance...or never.

It’s fascinating that Krakauer sees stupidity as a means to an end, that is, to solve a problem, though such “solving” is enthusiastically misguided and baldly inefficient. His rules for stupidity may not align with Cipolla’s laws, but they lead to the same outcome: pointing out stupidity seems merely salacious, and does little to counter it. One sign that we are failing to remediate the condition is this very article — how much evidence-based rationality and cultural criticism will it take to realize that the human penchant for idiocy may be accelerating at a rate far worse than we, the non-stupid, fully comprehend? And not only accelerating, but also, to use Krakauer’s phrase, moving through us with alacrity and enthusiasm, the irresistible urge to solve problems with emotion instead of logic. Speed equals rightness; reasoning is overrated. One example is the yawning demand of “cancel culture,” the swift, juryless trials-by-internet of suspect individuals. This is mass stupidity par excellence. “Sentence first, verdict afterwards,” cries the Queen of Hearts to Alice.

Let’s quickly recall how Dr. Suess Enterprises — the licenser, not the publisher — recently “retired” six of the former La Jollan’s titles, those with what were deemed offensive racial stereotypes. The organization said these books portrayed “people in ways that are hurtful or wrong.” A study showed that of 2240 characters in the Suess oeuvre, 43 suffered from Orientalism, and two from Africanism, dehumanizing portraits. So, they said, those books need erasure. End of story.

Not quite. Lead-bleeding media of all stripes declared that PC fascism had come of age. Our beloved Horton and reviled Grinch? Secret white supremacists! When heads cooled, we were reminded that Dr. Suess Enterprises “retired” the books, not a Twitter lynch mob. Seuss was not canceled; his multimillion-dollar bestsellers were not deleted; his reputation survived; and — shut up everybody! — his sales went up. Though I doubt there will be any further “moral” reckoning for his work, it’s the quality of his quantity (rather like another American legend, Mark Twain, who often gets put through the censorship wringer) that has “redeemed” him.

Certainty Makes You Stupid

Is stupidity treatable? Would medicalizing the condition lead to drug or behavioral therapy? Is it a mental disorder, or merely a lack of intelligence that inflicts the immature, no matter the age? And how would we treat the unconscionable manipulators of the stupid? It’s like removing greed from gambling when greed is its primary motivation, the “game of chance,” secondary. If, as the French critic Jean-Francois Marmion says, “Uncertainty makes you crazy, certainty makes you stupid,” and some of us go mad in our uncertainty trying to counteract stupidity, who has the tougher time? Answer: those made crazy, not those made stupid. Still, whatever the “cure” for the disease is, it must be leavened with uncertainty. Perhaps not making people feel they’re individually stupid, as well as not believing we know how to fix the condition, are good starts. Part of an intelligent approach may be to learn how to help people check their dumbness at the door — by working on our own deceptions.

We’ve tried to do this with racism. You may not be racist, but the systems we are mired in via history and inequality are racist. But discussions of race against Blacks in America piss off most white people who suffer from so-called “fragility” because they feel accused and sentenced as bigots before the work of dismantling bigotry even begins. However wise the goal, the approach alienates those it intends to change.

In the San Diego Unified School District workshop on “white privilege,” which itself faced a fierce backlash last year among the “privileged” for whom it was designed, the following is asserted: White people “rarely have to think about their racial identity because they live within a culture where whiteness has been normalized.” Now substitute the word “stupid” for “white.” Stupid people “rarely have to think about their stupidity because they live within a culture where stupidity has been normalized.” Imagine a boss telling her employees they are stupid and expecting that her accusation will motivate them to change. Without incentives — read, monetary — I doubt that’s possible. Having lived for years now in a divided country, I can only assume that the certainty of more division, fiercer culture wars, and intensified conflict over intelligence will make us crazier and stupider.