Call me dumb but I’ve never understood the tagline that recurs throughout the movie Forrest Gump. “Are you stupid?” more than one character asks Forrest, who does indeed show signs that he is not the sharpest hacksaw in the woodshop. Forrest responds the same way every time: “Stupid is as stupid does.”

In the movie, Forrest picks up this phrase—I hesitate to call it an idea—from his mother, and the interlocutors to whom he utters it nod sagely, impressed. But what does it mean? Why is stupid, an adjective, put to work as a noun and then forced into a role as the subject of the sentence? Stupid is … what? What is stupid? I’ve heard various translations of the phrase, which aren’t much help: An intelligent person can be considered stupid if he does stupid things. Or: Just because you look stupid doesn’t mean you are stupid; or, again, being stupid and acting stupid are essentially the same activity. Another possibility: De facto stupidity is definitive in ways that stupidity in se is not. I can’t hear Forrest Gump putting it like that, however.

I suppose my puzzlement might be traced to my uncertainty over what stupidity itself—or stupid itself, as Forrest and his mother might say—really is. It’s a slippery, ill-defined word, steeped in relativism and subjectivity. Perhaps for that reason the subject has drawn the attention of modern intellectuals, from Robert Musil in the 1930s to Eric Voegelin in the 1960s, and on up to an eruption of publications during the George W. Bush years, books with titles like Just How Stupid Are We? and The Assault on Reason, along with blockbuster magazine articles such as the Atlantic’s 2008 cover story “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” After a dormant period, the field of what we might call Stupidity Studies is being enlarged, with the appearance of two more scholarly cracks of the whip. Together the new books give us insight into how some of our brightest minds understand the workings of minds that shine rather more dimly than theirs.

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THE FIRST, The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity, was written in the 1970s by Carlo Cipolla, an Italian-born economist teaching at the University of California at Berkeley. Cipolla, who died in 2000, wrote the book in English and had it privately printed for the amusement of friends and colleagues. Only a decade later did he agree to an Italian publisher’s request to print the book commercially—in Italian. It became a bestseller in Italy and then throughout Europe, in different translations. Only now has it been released in its country of origin in its language of origin.

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity is a little slip of a book amounting to a few thousand words, which the publisher has managed to puff out with large type, generous margins, and lots of blank pages. One of the paradoxes of Stupidity Studies is that the more you confront actual stupidity in everyday life, the more infuriating it is, whereas the more you contemplate it in the abstract, the more amusing it becomes. Cipolla finds the perfect tone to handle this paradox. On the page, he is arch and slightly annoyed, with a good deal of mock scholarly gravity thrown in, complete with egghead accessories like algorithms and charts. The result is an essay that moves on two tracks, as an inquiry into human behavior and as a deadpan parody of the obscurantism that long ago became an essential element of academic social science.

According to Cipolla, there are many more stupid people doing stupid things than we might expect in any given situation, and along with our surprise at their number, we always underestimate the damage they will do. These twin misapprehensions of ours often make stupid people, even those without ill intent, more dangerous than a non-stupid person who actively seeks to do harm. Moreover, the ratio of stupid to non-stupid people in a given population—regardless of class, income, race, education, professional standing—remains constant, in the same mysterious way that nature ensures the ratio of male babies to female babies will remain constant across large human populations. You will find the same percentage of stupid people among Nobel laureates as among stevedores.

Cipolla removes the adjective “stupid” from the realm of the merely subjective and pejorative and tries to put it on solider footing: “A stupid person,” he explains, “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.” In this way, a dope puts the rest of us at a disadvantage, because “reasonable people find it difficult to imagine and understand unreasonable behavior.” Even without realizing it, stupid people can exploit this weakness to nobody’s advantage; stupid is, so to speak, as stupid does, for no intelligible reason. “When confronted with a stupid individual you are completely at his mercy,” Cipolla points out. “A stupid creature will harass you for no reason … without any plan or scheme and at the most improbable times and places.”

Cipolla is very droll, and his theories—however deeply he has implanted his tongue in his cheek—have a helpful, clarifying quality. But all talk of stupidity should make us uneasy, shouldn’t it? Mothers down the ages have enjoined their children from using the word haphazardly as a free-floating epithet for anyone who’s annoying, unpopular, unconventional, or … yes, stupid. But an accusation of stupidity is more than impolite. When the net is widely cast, as it is here, it is a charge with deep political ramifications. For believers in democracy, it cuts against a foundation of our faith, the assumption that the mass of people can be entrusted with their own affairs. In The Basic Laws, Cipolla confesses to his anti-egalitarianism right out of the gate: “It is my firm conviction, supported by years of observation and experimentation, that men are not equal, that some are stupid and others are not, and that the difference is determined by nature and not by cultural forces or factors.”

His conviction that stupidity is general across groups, that it resides equally in all classes and races and stations of life, declaws the more unpleasant implications of his anti-egalitarian views. Still, it’s easy to spy some unsettling consequences common to the discussion of stupidity. They become especially clear in another contribution to the stupidity literature. The Psychology of Stupidity, a collection of essays and interviews with prominent American and European intellectuals and social scientists, was put together by a French psychologist named Jean-François Marmion. It was a big hit in France, where readers pushed it to the top of the bestsellers list.

Reading this sprawling, haphazard, sometimes inscrutable bestseller, you’re reminded that the French also thought Jerry Lewis was a genius. The disease of the French intellectual—combining the lust for the abstract and an allergy to the concrete example—is particularly suited to the psychological study of stupidity.

You come upon passages like this one, about the “concept of the spectacle,” from the pen of an emeritus professor at the Sorbonne: “Experience is transformed into the visible; or, if you like, human life is reduced to appearances. This drives the situationist to this definition: ‘Spectacle is not an ensemble of images, but a social relationship among people, mediated by images’ (Thesis 4).” No word on what theses 1, 2, or 3 might be.

Marmion’s treatment is an improvement over Cipolla’s in one respect. Most of his contributors acknowledge the obvious fact that stupidity, rather than being a fixed characteristic of an irreducible segment of humanity, is instead a migrating condition that all of us blunder into once in a while; some farther and more frequently than others, it’s true, but still an inescapable shortcoming of the species. You can question how sincere these professional intellectuals are in admitting to their own occasional stupidity. They all seem suspiciously self-assured to me. Yet in identifying some of their fellow humans as stupid and turning them into objects of study, they manage to demonstrate that at least one way of explaining another person’s stupidity can itself be an illustration of the very condition they hope to explain.

Perhaps every age has a particular weakness that becomes its own brand of stupid. In our day, among the smart people of the techno-crazed and digitized developed world, stupidity is most readily seen in the conviction that the best way to understand human behavior is to entrap it in a parody of the scientific method. Examples can be found everywhere from baseball (in the statistical acrobatics of sabermetrics) to entire fields of social science (social psychology, behavioral economics). A book with the title The Psychology of Stupidity is bound to be rich in this regard, and Marmion doesn’t disappoint us.

It’s hard to choose a single instance, but my own favorite comes from the clinical psychiatrist Jean Cottraux, of Philadelphia’s Academy of Cognitive Therapy. In his contribution, he plumbs the social-scientific literature on workplace behavior. “It’s in the workplace,” he writes, “that stupidity reveals itself most profusely.” Research tells us that there are two types of “structural idiots.” Both are narcissists, but the second type, more sinister that the first, is rooted in what psychologists call the “Dark Triad” of personality disorders: narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. A “meta-analytic study” has been done, he tells us. Multivariate analysis of 245 studies on the Dark Triad was performed. A finding was established. In the words of the meta-analysis: “We found that reductions in the quality of job performance were consistently associated with increases in Machiavellianism and psychopathy.”

The less intelligent may here be permitted a stupid question: “How did people with so much education ever come to believe that the world needed a meta-analysis to discover that a Machiavellian narcissist—much less one who is also a psychopath—would be a terrible co-worker?” The answer is nestled in the question, in that word “education.” You need to log a lot of classroom hours in grad school to learn how to make the blindingly obvious so unnecessarily complicated.

And there’s more. Social science never rests. Additional research into stupid people—again understood as narcissists—has established that “exhibitionism” often leads to “self-promotional behavior.” “It is malignant narcissistic personalities who insult others the most on the Internet.” They’re also inordinately attached to the number of “likes” their selfies generate on social media but aren’t much interested in “liking” the selfies posted by others. The Psychology of Stupidity is littered with such findings, the fruit of much scientific research. Many people, science has discovered, overestimate their abilities: “People tend to exaggerate the number of people who share their faults.” Incompetent people overestimate their competence. Who knew? Such are the revelations certified by the psychological study of stupidity.

Would it be too much to say this quasi-scientific method for understanding stupidity is stupid? Certainly it is banal, a vast expenditure of spirit and intellect to isolate and formulate the commonsensical—a waste, if nothing else. And a waste that perpetuates the intellectual conceit of reductionism, a flattening of life, in which only science or its simulacrum can be the arbiter of what’s true. Suddenly, reading this analysis of the stupid, I hit upon a new rephrasing of Forrest’s axiom: Even if I can’t define stupidity, I know it when I see it.

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