Scientifically speaking, stupid people harm themselves while also harming others. In addition, stupid people are irrational and erratic, and are very dangerous to others. After discussing the destructive role of the stupid in any society whatsoever, I will focus on the delicate interplay of actions of intelligent and helpless people, who in balance make or break a functioning democracy. Unless things change fast in the US, we can kiss our democracy goodbye for decades. If you want to see how a virulent ascent of the stupid looks up close, and what implications it has for our fight against social injustice and climate change, please watch the brilliant "Don't Look Up" movie.
|Unvaccinated people demonstrating in Los Angeles. There are tens of millions of the raving mad and/or angry, stupid people in the US and other developed countries. Source: New York Times, 12/25/2021.|
I overlapped at UC Berkeley with Professor Carlo M. Cipolla for a decade, until his death in the year 2000. I wish I got to know him better. In 1988, Carlo published in Italian a magnificent essay on human stupidity he framed axiomatically as five Basic Laws:
- Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid people 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 infallibly turns out to be a costly mistake.
- A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person.
His essay was translated into English in 2011. The current book edition was published in 2019. Figure 1 is my interpretation of Carlo's graphs.
Since stupid people are unpredictable, a rational person always underestimates their destructive power. This underestimation may have deadly consequences for millions of people trapped in the currently imploding global economy that was created and run by rational bandits, who harm others for personal gain. This economy is now subject to ecological overshoot, exhaustion of most resources and a runaway climate change. The criminal global inaction in face of these existential crises is aided and abetted by the stupid and bandit politicians elected with miniscule marginal votes of stupid people.
|Figure 1. My poetic interpretation of the graphs in the splendid short book by Professor Carlo M. Cipolla, "The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity." There are four quadrants of any human society regardless of epoch and geography. Clockwise, from the upper left, there are helpless people, intelligent people, bandits and the stupid. The fraction of irrational, stupid people in any society whatsoever is constant and is independent of partitions of the other three populations of rational people, who fall into each of the remaining three quadrants of society.|
Here are but a few examples of stupid people. Marcus Lamb, a Christian broadcaster and vaccine skeptic, died of COVID. Phil Valentine, a radio host who scoffed at COVID, then urged his followers to get vaccinated and died.
A mechanical engineer, let's call him B., an inspired designer of complex lab equipment for possibly the best manufacturer of such equipment in the world, suffocated slowly of COVID at home. B. didn't vaccinate and refused to go to hospital, claiming that vaccines are poison and don't work, and in the hospital they might harm him.
A contractor to my neighbor was late for an appointment, and stated matter-of-factly that he was at the funeral of a relative who died of COVID. He added that eleven other people in his family and circle of friends also died of COVID. He then observed that those people were killed by the hospitals, because their bodies could not withstand intubation.
An accomplished senior professor at UT Austin, let's call him L., refuses to vaccinate himself, does not mask, and encourages students not to vaccinate.
You are beginning to grasp that being stupid has no correlation with the level of professional education, race, ethnicity, sex, religiosity or any other characteristic of a stupid person.
For every two COVID-related deaths in a blue state, we have registered in the US three COVID deaths in a red state. In other words, if you are a Republican, you have a 50% higher chance of dying of COVID. I do not imply here that there is not an unexpectedly large share of the really stupid, unvaccinated Democrats. That's why the death differential is only 50%, not 1300%, as it should be - all things being equal - if no Republicans ever vaccinated against COVID, unlike Trump and his family, all the Faux News propagandists, and plenty of other lying, cynical bandits, who send you - the stupid or helpless people - to death at the current rate of 440,000 souls per year.
With historical, genetic and statistical justification, Carlo noted that the fraction of stupid people in any society is a constant σ independent, for example, of the level of education or social position. Thus, there exists the same σ fraction of stupid professors, academic administrators, and scientists, including Nobel Prize laureates (many more in economics). Given the constant σ in any society, how do we distinguish between successful and failing societies? The differences are subtle and fragile, as shown in Figures 2 and 3.
When one compares Figures 2 and 3, one sees that what differentiates a successful society from a failing one is whimsical. An ailing successful society can reverse course quickly and with deadly consequences that are difficult or impossible to undo. I remind you that the σ of stupid people is the same in both types of societies and continues to do its oft-invisible harm like termites, cancer or the COVID virus. Thus my recurring appeal to most Americans: stay politically active and vote.
|Figure 3. In a failing society, the otherwise intelligent people become discouraged, lose energy and drive, and become apathetic and helpless. Also, the reasons to be the smart bandits disappear, and with them the limits on inflicting harm on others. For different reasons, these negative changes affect many countries around the world, but in particular the United States of America. Today, Poland is a locked-in failure of a democratic society. My prediction is that by 2024, USA will too be a democracy in name only, and there will be the massive economic-, environment-, and climate-related damage inflicted on the US citizens and the world at large. Unless of course we mobilize against the stupid and act. In Poland this mobilization failed, I am warning you.|
So what is the key reason of changing a society's success to failure? In my mind, it is a fine-tuned polarization and irreversible bifurcation of this society, and a slew of parallel economic failures and social injustices. Polarization by Facebook, Faux News, political parties, and churches et al. starts from preying on the genetically wired feature of all humans: wanting to belong to something, anything for that matter.
In "Is Life Better When We're Together?" the New York Times describes the psychological experiments conducted many years ago by a Polish Jew, Dr. Tejfel and his followers, who split subjects into two groups based on the flimsiest of criteria. One group might be called "Leopards" and another "Tigers". Or a Group A and B with no other associations whatsoever.
"In fact, Dr. Tajfel’s meaningless, minimal groups were even more meaningless than they appeared. He and his collaborators had actually ignored the kids’ responses to the dots and paintings. Instead, as the social psychologists Dominic J. Packer and Jay J. Van Bavel note, describing these experiments in their new book, “The Power of Us,” “in each case, the researchers had essentially flipped a coin and assigned people to groups based on chance.” Still, biases locked in right away. Overwhelmingly, people in Dr. Tajfel’s experiment gave more of the money he put at their disposal to members of their own group than the other. Moreover, they were bent on creating as large a disparity as possible, even when offered the option of maximizing the amount of money for everyone, at no cost. Their behavior seemed vindictive, “a clear case of gratuitous discrimination,” Dr. Tajfel wrote.
Since then, other researchers have run their own minimal group experiments, pushing those findings further. Dr. Packer and Dr. Van Bavel have split people into leopards and tigers, for example. Others have gone maximally minimal and divided people into group A and group B. Still, the pride — the readiness to connect — is always there. When you tell people they’re in group A, Dr. Packer says, those people are reliably psyched to be in group A. Stick leopard people in a brain imaging machine and show them a picture of a stranger, and their brain activity changes if they know that the stranger is a leopard person, too. Their positivity toward other leopard people increases and even supersedes racial biases that cut the other way."
And this, my friends, is what the Democrats have been missing all along, and the Republicans are preying on. People desperately want to belong to a community of anything, antivaxxers and antimaskers are but the last incarnations of this need:
“The line is being drawn, folks,” said a man in jeans and a red T-shirt. He said the people in the audience “had been shouted down for the last 20 years, and they’re finally here to draw a line, and I think they’re saying, ‘We’ve had enough.’”
"Social scientists who study conflict say the only way to understand it — and to begin to get out of it — is to look at the powerful currents of human emotions that are the real drivers. They include the fear of not belonging, the sting of humiliation, a sense of threat — real or perceived — and the strong pull of group behavior."
The older foci of belonging were political parties, KKK, Free Masons, Black Panthers, local churches, schools, rotary clubs, sororities, and professional societies for the likes of me. The Republicans have recognized these venues clearly and took charge of most of them, including local school boards, judgeships, sheriff offices, county governments, state governments, and governorships. Now they are reaching to take over Washington DC. The rather clueless Democrats only now are attempting meekly to reverse this incredible on-the-ground advantage of the Republicans.
Changing demographics in the US seems to favor Democrats, but the Republicans are valiantly changing election laws and gerrymandering election districts to prevent people of color from voting. Republicans have been playing the long game, while Democrats are stumbling into some still undefined game. They better hurry, or the stupid and happily belonging - now under total control of the Trumpistas - will eat their lunch.
Here is another observation: success or failure of a country depends on the mixture of stupid, intelligent, helpless and bandit persons running different branches of government. Long term adjustments in proportions among these four groups may save or doom a country. Given what I just said, chances are that quality of most levels of government in the US has decreased.
In my mind, the US is on a pathway to doom, with the Republicans marching in goose lockstep, and the Democrats squabbling. But as a scientist, how do I quantify what I think? This PNAS paper gives some answers:
"Our study was motivated by a highly disturbing puzzle. Confronted with a deadly global pandemic that threatened not only massive loss of life but also the collapse of our medical system and economy, why were we unable to put partisan divisions aside and unite in a common cause, similar to the national mobilization in the Great Depression and the Second World War? We used a computational model to search for an answer in the phase transitions of political polarization. The model reveals asymmetric hysteresis trajectories with tipping points that are hard to predict and that make polarization extremely difficult to reverse once the level exceeds a critical value."
Simply put, there are thresholds of polarization beyond which a society can no longer come together an bifurcates irreversibly. This is exactly what is happening in the US. We have bifurcated and US democracy is in mortal danger, see Figure 4. This figure demonstrates, I hope, the dire need of house-to-house political campaigning by volunteers to sway the helpless and mobilize the intelligent (and occasionally a smart bandit). The stupid are like rock fragments. Nothing will ever sway them, so don't try.
|Figure 4. Tipping points in the level of party identity. Polarization is measured as partisan difference (A and C) and extremism (B and D). A and B show a higher critical value in the polarizing trajectory than in the recovery trajectory. This means that there would be little effect on partisan divisions (A) or extremism (B) should the strength of party identity drop below CP, the critical value at which rising polarization suddenly explodes. CP drops sharply when the level of intolerance increases from α= 0.1 to α = 0.3 (C and D); i.e., party identity does not need to be strong in order to trigger a phase transition to high polarization. Moreover, the hysteresis trajectory becomes asymmetric, indicating bifurcation and the irreversibility of polarization, even if the strength of party identity were to drop to zero. Source: PNAS.|
Now on to the outsized roles of helpless, indecisive people in a polarized democracy, like the US, UK, France, Holland, Poland, Brazil, etc. In a fascinating Physical Review E paper by German physicists, "Repulsion in controversial debate drives public opinion into fifty-fifty stalemate" the authors show that
"...in controversial debates with large consequences, the public opinion is often trapped in a fifty-fifty stalemate, jeopardizing broadly accepted political decisions. Emergent effects from millions of private discussions make it hard to understand or influence this kind of opinion dynamics. Here we demonstrate that repulsion from opinions favors fifty-fifty stalemates. We study a voter model where agents [people, TWP] can have two opinions [stupid and intelligent people, and a few bandits; TWP] or an undecided state in between, and where we allow for repulsion of opinions and for doubt: in pairwise discussions, undecided agents can be not only convinced, but also repelled from the opinion expressed by another agent, and decided agents [only some intelligent people and some bandits, TWP] may return to the undecided state. As a result, we observe that, if an agent is repelled instead of being convinced in at least one out of four interactions, as in controversial debates, the frequencies of both opinions equalize. This voter model attractor reproduces the phenomenology of repeated Brexit poll data well and provides a mechanism solely based on local interactions between agents that may explain stalemate polarization in controversial opinion formation."
Figures 5 and 6, reproduced from this paper, show a successful society in which intelligent people and some of the helpless provide a safe margin for governance (Angela Merkel's Germany), and a failing society in which the results of a major vote are subject to a stalemate and low participation of both intelligent and helpless people (Brexit in UK). Notice that an obnoxious loud and foul mouth, like Donald Trump in the US or Nigel Farage in the UK, can sway many of the helpless and discourage some of the intelligent people. Also notice that in my terminology, Trump is a border-line smart bandit and Farage is a vicious stupid person.
|Figure 5. Results of a repeated polls performed by “Infratest Dimap” about the satisfaction of Germans with chancellor Angela Merkel's management of the EU financial crisis. Here the government can govern.|
In summary, democracies fizzle out for subtle and whimsical reasons. The key two reasons are discouragement of the intelligent and apathy of the helpless. In a successful society people self-organize and strengthen the intelligent parts of population. In a failing society, the opposite is true. The intelligent people check out and helpless people become even more helpless, whine and do not vote. In the bifurcated US, it is probably time to create new political parties, let's call them the "Republicans with Brains and Hearts" and the "Democrats with Fewer Grandiose Policy Delusions". But this is a long term project. In the meantime, the strong intelligent people and smart bandits must unify their forces, and go after the helpless and the stupid bandits, convincing many of them to vote. For the last time, do not waste your energy and resources on the stupid. Recognize them and run, see Figure 7.
|Figure 7. Fifty seven percent of these 2,313 Americans are stupid. Fourteen percent are clueless. Source: Brian, a friend of mine.|
P.S. (12/28/2021) Brian has pointed out to us this review of reviews of the "Don't Look Up" movie. The title of this Forbes review is "Why Sneering Critics Dislike Netflix’s ‘Don’t Look Up,’ But Climate Scientists Love It." Since I have been on the receiving end of communicating unpleasant messages to the public and government officials for some 20 years, I can relate.
I remember clearly the embarrassed EU ministers of environment in 2007. How they tried to explain to me why they could not do anything about the monstrous fires in Indonesia and equatorial Africa that were devouring the virgin forests and peat swamps in the name of progress and oil palm plantations. The WTO rules, fair trade rules and other rules they said, while I was showing them the satellite images of the infernos on the ground and telling them how they could enforce an oil/oil products buying ban. Or the corn ethanol apologists, claiming in 2004-2012 what a superior technology this was. Or the switchgrass ethanol shills with professorial titles explaining in 2008 how next year for sure that promising technology would use the genetically modified switchgrass programmed to start rotting before harvest for easier digestion and to improve process economics. It's like I was speaking to patients in an asylum for the insane.
Or today, how people react to me saying that climate is warming in the Middle East at twice the global rate, and Mecca is a place where already the year-around average temperature is 29 degrees C. Or what to do about the grotesquely overpopulated Arabian Peninsula, where one needed yesterday a strong one-child economic policy. Or that plain old dust will deteriorate performance of solar cells in the sunny deserts by up to two thirds. And then there was another COP26, etc.
Thus I am driven nuts when a Luke Goodsell of ABC News Australia believes the [movie] director, Adam McKay, “just doesn't know how to let people enjoy things—even if it is their own destruction.”
Well, fuck all those apologists for the unmaintainable status-quo as we slip-slide into an Armageddon in which we are the new Chicxulub comet (in my environmental class I teach about mass extinctions). Climate change is back-loaded. The more GHGs we emitted in the past between 1798 and the moment I am writing these words, the more difficult it will be to recover for millenia to come. Given the status quo, in the very near future it will be impossible to recover, and we shall cook (and occasionally freeze) our children and grandchildren. I hope that by now you fully appreciate how lethal the viciously stupid people are, many of my fellow faculty included.
P.S.P.S. (Jan 2, 2022) From my friend, a prominent ag-journalist, Alan Guebert:
"Despite an honest-to-goodness flood of evidence to the contrary, more than 100 million American adults continue to deny the existence of climate change. That’s roughly one third of the country.
Congress is little better. Currently, 109 House members and 30 senators, or about 26 percent of all members, have cast “doubt on the clear, established scientific consensus that the world is warming,” according to the Center of American Progress, a policy research institution headquartered in Washington, DC.
The good news is that this astonishing total is down from 150 just three years ago; the bad news is that it’s still 139.
The really bad news, however, is that the majority of congressional climate deniers represent rural America, arguably the economic sector with the most to lose in today’s climate upheaval. Not even 22 “extreme weather events” in 2020, where damage “exceeded $1 billion each,” turned their heads."