I am a strong believer in the effect of language on thought, that actively sculpting our vocabularies can lead to greater insight and clarity going forward. I've done this successfully a number of times over the years, going back to my teens, and now I'm ready to do it again. This time, the word I want to focus on is stupid.

I see the word stupid used overwhelmingly to refer to things we simply don't like, or worse, to imply that we're so much more intelligent. But to say X is stupid goes beyond a mere declaration of opinion, to make a factual claim about the object in question. That, on its own, is sloppy.

My real motivation, however, with tinkering with my notion of stupid, is to change what it means in my mind. That which is stupid, colloquially, is an object of contempt and ridicule, but I agree with Carlo Cipolla's assessment that stupidity is dangerous, if not the most dangerous attribute for something to be. It's like a huge, poisonous jellyfish, floating along in the ocean, utterly brainless, trailing its deadly tentacles several metres behind, and killing everything in its path. If you encounter one of these creatures, you don't stop to point and laugh at it: you get the hell away from it before you incur searing pain, paralyze, and drown.

While stupid is not a word I use often to begin with, I've been thinking about this correction for some time—mostly because of how Cipolla delineates stupid from related concepts:

Harm to Self Gain to Self
Gain to Others Helpless Intelligent
Harm to Others Stupid Evil (Bandit)

Cipolla's model of designations based on outcomes of interactions with other people. His original term for the lower right quadrant was Bandit, but I prefer the term Evil.

I'm trying to sharpen my ability do distinguish that which is genuinely stupid, from the helpless and the evil. The helpless are largely harmless, but they can absorb enormous amounts of energy if we endeavour to rehabilitate them, so it's useful to spot them for that purpose. The evil are unambiguously out to get you, so it pays to recognize them whether you want to avoid them or beat them at their own game. The stupid, however, are harmful whether they're trying to be or not, with either misguided, or no regard at all to their own gain, which is why they deserve their very own early warning system.

If you try to help the helpless and they turn out to be stupid, you get stung. If you try to fight the evil and they turn out to be stupid, you get stung. But helping the helpless and fighting the evil are noble pursuits. How do we carry them out safely? Moreover, how do we prevent ourselves from becoming helpless, evil, and most importantly, stupid?

We can hypothesize that the agents on the left half of the table have either missing or bad information about the real state of the world which is relevant to a certain context, whereas the agents on the right have good information, and the important factor is their intent. It would be useful, therefore, to assume that most of the useful information we could have about the state of the world is missing, and a solid chunk of the information we do have is bad. Cipolla humourously addresses this notion by stating that the fraction of stupid people in the population is the unknowable number σ, and that number does not correlate with any other demographic measure. In other words, we all have the potential to be stupid.

If we think about stupidity as less of a permanent attribute and more of an itinerant state, we're hopefully getting at a model which is closer to the way things actually are. The question then becomes about how persistently that state remains, and therefore what kinds of policies we can derive for dealing with others. If we say most people—including ourselves—are ignorant about most things, and misinformed about most others, then the helpless and the evil are potentially the stupid in disguise. Furthermore, we have a candidate for a litmus test: we can deduce from this analysis that the act of crowing about how stupid something is, is itself stupid. From now on, if you hear me call something stupid, that's your cue to run.