Stupid and Ignorant

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Being stupid and being ignorant are often taken as synonyms in our evaluation of an action taken by a person. But these two characteristics do lead to very different outcomes. To see this, start with dictionary definitions. Being stupid indicates having or showing a great lack of intelligence or common sense. Being ignorant displays a lack of knowledge or information. Both of these definitions imply a lack of knowledge but a closer look at the concepts is required.

First, stupidity. Carlo M. Cipolla classifies human actions according to whether they result in a gain or a loss. He then defines four types of actions. The first is intelligent – a gain for self and a gain for others. The second is helpless – a loss for self but a gain for others. The third is bandit – a gain for self but a loss for others. The fourth is stupid – a loss for both self and others. Cipolla then considers the fourth outcome (stupid) to be the worst
possible; even with bandit, there is some gain. This leads to his most fundamental law of human action: A stupid person is the most dangerous type of person. And this is especially so when one realizes that there is no effective counter to stupidity. Lacking any intelligence or common sense a stupid person fails to recognize their stupidity.

Next, ignorance. The eighteenth-century poet, Thomas Gray, is credited with the first use of the phrase “Ignorance is bliss”. However, many have disagreed with this sentiment. They claim that ignorance (especially willful ignorance) results in racism, poor judgment, injustice, and a host of other evils. But Stuart Firestein, a contemporary American scientist, puts a different interpretation on ignorance. He sees ignorance as the engine that drives science. Ignorance identifies the work to be done, the questions that could be answered, the connections that can be made with what is known. For Firestein, ignorance should be acknowledged and used as a force to seek knowledge. This is not “willful ignorance” nor “blissful ignorance”, but a limitation in our knowledge that can be addressed.

Stupidity is dangerous, but ignorance, properly used, is a correction to this danger. The only requirements are recognition of the limitations of our knowledge and resolve to seek understanding. This approach to
stupidity and ignorance can be applied to all aspects of our life, political, social, environmental, and living the good life. Just be honest in assessing what is known, what is not known and what can be known.