Laws of human stupidity and the coronavirus

·6-min read

by Nupur Pavan Bang

Carlo M Cipolla’s 1988 classic in Italian, translated and published in English in 2011, ‘The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity’, is one of the best books that I have read in 2020 so far.

The late author, an Italian economic historian, Fulbright fellow and professor at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote that the book is for ‘those who on occasion have to deal with such (stupid) people’.

The author further writes, “our daily life is mostly made of cases in which we lose money and/or time and/or energy and/or appetite, cheerfulness and good health because of the improbable action of some preposterous creature who has nothing to gain and indeed gains nothing from causing us embarrassment, difficulties or harm. Nobody knows, understands or can possibly explain why that preposterous creature does what he does.”

The five basic laws of human stupidity enumerated in the book are bang on!

In the times of Coronavirus, when the world is clearly divided into those who are extra cautious and those who believe in que sera sera, it is very easy for one group to feel that the other group is being unreasonable.

Those who are cautious argue in favour of extended lockdowns, complete isolation and total shut down of all movement and economic activity. They argue that it is required to break the chain and prevent its further spread.

The flip side to this argument is that there are many daily wage workers who will die of hunger, especially in countries that have large unorganised, migrant workforce. There will be many job losses even in the organised sector.

The extra cautious people argue that economy can be revived if we are alive.

However, even if we don’t talk of the economy, and just about saving lives, people prefer to die of a disease rather than hunger, as CNN mentioned in a report.

The ‘que sera sera group’ argues that life must come back to some semblance of normality. We cannot be in a state of perpetual lockdown. We need to make sanitisers, masks and social distancing a part of our lives and start living again. They argue that the risk of the spread may be more, but ultimately most people will get COVID-19 and by being in extended lockdown we are only postponing it.

The idea is to flatten the curve to prevent overburdening our healthcare system but beyond that it is not possible to be in lockdown till the virus is eradicated completely or till a vaccine comes to the market.

The other side of this argument is that there are chances of exponential growth again if the lockdown is eased. Not everyone may have access to preventive measures and the healthcare system may be better prepared, but will not be absolutely prepared.

Based on these arguments, each side feels that the other side is being ‘stupid’, making both the groups stupid in the process.

This validates the first law of stupidity that says: “Always and inevitably everyone underestimates the number of stupid individuals in circulation.”

What has happened is that two otherwise educated, qualified and well-read groups of people, who are perfectly capable of making intelligent decisions, are also found to be at the opposite ends of the spectrum when discussing the ways to deal with this virus.

Consequently, one intelligent person seems stupid to the other intelligent person, justifying the second law of stupidity: “The probability that a certain person be stupid is independent of any other characteristic of that person.”

Now the 3rd basic law of human stupidity, “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.”

Let us look at an example: A person hell bent on not maintaining social distance and ‘forgetting’ to not touch or pat or hug can give anxiety to the other person while herself being in danger of contracting the virus or spreading it if she is an asymptomatic carrier.

But this person is carefree and will never realise the gravity of the situation. There are volunteers working across the world to keep people safe, providing food and essentials and educating people. Some people abuse them rather than appreciating them. As a result, they lose well-wishers, lose supplies and may contract the virus, too.

In return, they also succeed in lowering the morale of those who were working relentlessly for their safety and well-being. Everyone loses in this scenario.

Law 4 states that “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”.

It is in fact being experienced by many of the well-wishers, administrators and leaders. Under pressure from the abusive, damaging and demoralising comments from stupid people, the non-stupid people are taking a back seat, leaving things to fate or giving in to the demands that are compromising on safety.

However, in times of COVID-19, giving in may result in dire consequences that the stupid people never imagine or are unwilling to accept, and the non-stupid people underestimate.

When the non-stupid people give in to the demands of the stupid people, they should remember the fifth law of stupidity: “A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person. A stupid person is more dangerous than a bandit”.

Before acquiescing to the stupid people, the non-stupid people must think of the consequences of pleasing stupid people. Stupidity, or should we say ‘covidiocy’, will spell doom for everyone. Non-stupid people must beware and take charge.

The need of the hour is balance. Being a part of extra precautious group may work for some time but these people risk running out of patience when it might be needed the most, when then governments eventually lift all restrictions on movement.

The ‘que sera sera group’ puts itself and all others to risk by not taking adequate precautions.

Adopting a balanced approach by taking adequate precautions is required. As the number of COVID-19 cases in India skytockets, remember that ‘covidiocy’ cannot be controlled. We cannot control what others do and neither should we try to.

We can only control our own actions. So, take adequate precautions. Be safe yet balanced to maintain your own sanity.

Nupur Pavan Bang is more productive working from home, striving to maintain balance amidst uncertainty and cycles to maintain her sanity as well as distance from others.