The Story of Stupidity
[ Issue 19 ]

'The Story of Stupidity' keeps Emily Bronto occupied for hours

Bikwil is pleased to present 'The Story of Stupidity'

The Story of Stupidity

Tony Rogers enjoys reading books about or by eccentrics.  No wonder he wants to tell us about The Story of Stupidity.

Regular Bikwil readers will have already gathered that I just love crank books

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Foolishness Unbridled — Tony Rogers

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The Story of Stupidity, by James F. Welles, Ph.D. — A History of Western Idiocy from the Days of Greece to the Moment You Saw this Book (self-published, 1988).

What are we to make of a book with a title like that? Well, I for one ploughed through it and lived to tell the tale. I choose the word “ploughed” advisedly, because it is a densely and intensely written monograph of 270 pages, difficult at times, which occasionally caused me to mutter in language that you can readily imagine if you're agriculturally minded.

As to whether The Story of Stupidity is really b. s., you’ll have to decide for yourself. No doubt it can be accused of following the Whig historian’s approach. That is, instead of taking past people and events in their own social and cultural terms, it smugly evaluates them as Just-So stories against a modern set of ideas and values.

Even so, let’s get one thing straight. Regular Bikwil readers will have already gathered that I just love crank books. Even if they are wildly wrong scientifically or full of distortions, as long as they are a good plausible read, I can sit back and enjoy them immensely. Not, perhaps, as their authors intended, but that’s their problem.

Welles’ subject is what he sees as our flawed intellectual tradition. Greek Stupidity, Roman Stupidity, Medieval Stupidity, Stupidity Reborn, Stupidity Reformed, Reasonable Stupidity, Enlightened Stupidity, Industrial Stupidity, The Age of Arrogance — these are the chapter headings. Drawing heavily on Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy and H.G. Wells’ The Outline of History, plus data derived from over a hundred other cited sources, James Welles ponders the many “mistakes” made in philosophy, religion, science and politics over a period of approximately three thousand years, which errors according to him were all caused by maladaptive thinking.

So what is maladaptive thinking? In ordinary speech we use words like “preconception” and “prejudice” for it, or metaphors like “tunnel vision” and “blind spot”. In psychology there are several specialised words and phrases used for this, but to save bogging down in a welter of terminology, let us concentrate on the fundamental word “schema”. This is the word Welles uses.

Schemas are what psychology calls the abstractions our minds derive from prior experience, related events and expectations. Such abstractions are essential for human survival – we couldn’t function without them. Even when they are mental maps of the physical world, schemas always carry emotional overtones. A trivial example is the concept of “armchair”: hear the word, and you conjure up mind pictures not only of an item of furniture for sitting in, but also of comfort, reading, music, television, conversation, knitting.

Indeed, the more something conforms to an established schema, the more sense we will make of it. By the same token, if an idea does not belong to our mental image of the world, we may not even notice it, or worse we may reject it as invalid. Hence Welles’ thesis:

Schemas are good, if they are appropriate and adequate, or bad, if they are inappropriate or inadequate for the situations and problems at hand. Stupidity is a matter of unnecessarily modifying a good schema to its detriment or unnecessarily adhering to a bad one to one’s own detriment. We commonly do both, since we are all emotionally involved with our schemas to the extent that we identify with them.

For me, the most appealing feature of The Story of Stupidity is its mordant writing style, which Welles uses to great effect when venturing from his besieged 20th century garrison on his sneaky sorties against the enemies out there. So, depending on your own schemas, you may find that some of the following snide quotations assail your own treasured biases, while others triumphantly confirm them. Be warned.

Let’s start with Welles on Plato, who preferred theorising to empirical testing:

. . . he allowed his schema to be shaped by his subconscious desire for an orderly [nation] state into an array of absurd fantasies . . . he became an ideal airhead in that most of his ideas had little to do with reality.

Next, medieval knights, who (contrary to legend) were as much caught up in the semi-barbarism of the Middle Ages as anyone:

. . . the greatest tribute to both medieval piety and stupidity was that regardless of what clergymen did and said, their unworthiness and corruptibility never compromised the sanctity of the Church. . . People in the Middle Ages . . . were happily adapted to the “Sin now, repent later” policy . . .

On a good day for a knight, he might hear Mass in the morning and rob a church in the afternoon. In the evening, he would beat the wife he had sworn to cherish and then drink himself into debauchery. Subsequent ages would somehow idealize such behavior and chivalry into romantic myths, but knights of old were about as noble as members of our modern motorcycle gangs.

On the 13th century monk, philosopher and scientist Roger Bacon, imprisoned for denouncing those schemas of the Church which prevented it from recognising the value of mathematical proof and experimental methods, we read:

He made a career of attacking clerical ignorance and for some reason was never very popular among the clergy.

On 16th century Protestant reformers attempting to replace the authority of the Catholic Church with the authority of the Bible:

Unfortunately, as recorded in the Bible, the voice of God often rambles incoherently like that of a slightly schizoid manic-depressive with delusions of grandeur.

Here’s a good peach, ripe for Welles’ plucking. Witchhunts.

. . . the more witches were hunted, the more there apparently were. Actually, the efforts to root out this crime seemed to increase it because, although the officials could not see it at the time, the methods of investigation were designed to produce confessions, if not witches . . . When the ashes finally settled, it became clear that not only witches but facts had been tortured so that people could create and support a belief they wished to hold. The more people thought about witchcraft, the more they believed in it, and as the resultant positive feedback system went to excess, the mania went to madness. In the American colonies, the insanity reached the point that a dog was tried and executed.

Notice the important phrase “positive feedback”. Welles here gives an apt and precise metaphorical use of a term originally used in electronics. For example in analog music synthesizers, voltage-controlled filters regularly have what is known as a resonance control, which uses positive feedback and which when increased to its maximum level causes the filter to go into oscillation. The human analogy is of the witchhunt mania going into paroxysms of insanity.

Later in the book, Welles will again raise the dangers of positive feedback, when denouncing modern America’s dysfunctional response to Vietnam, where

. . . America was fighting Communism, while the Vietnamese were fighting colonialism.

Science has had many heroic figures over the past four centuries, but Welles does not spare even our most revered investigators, as the following piece of criticism shows:

Although Galileo is well remembered for his battles against the stupidity of those who believed in the Aristotelian/Ptolemaic universe, he was not immune to the malady . . . For Galileo, natural “Inertial” motion was movement that neither rose nor fell: it was always equidistant from the centre of the earth and therefore circular. As incredible as it seems, even though he had Kepler’s work on elliptical orbits at hand and admired it, he paid no attention to it. Had he dwelt on [ellipses], he might have overcome his love affair with the circle and realized that without gravity, rectilinear motion would carry objects off the face of the earth in straight lines to infinity.

The failure is all the more surprising because he well knew that forces act independently upon a body — i.e. that horizontal and vertical forces, for example, can be treated as vector quantities which do not modify each other. Despite this knowledge, which implied an object moving along the earth’s surface would take off on a tangent into space, Galileo rejected straight lines because they would disrupt the beautiful order of things, which to him meant circles. Perhaps he took gravity for granted, but because he ignored Kepler’s work, he left the unification of the universe to Newton.

Nor can even the illustrious Isaac Newton escape scrutiny. For example, a fact conveniently forgotten these days is that Newton wrote extensively on matters religious as well as subjects scientific:

Newton’s writings in theology exceed his scientific works in bulk but not in brilliance, as he misapplied mathematics to theology. Certainly reason can be applied in theological and philosophical arguments, but neither theology nor metaphysics can be quantified and analyzed mathematically. Nevertheless, as an orthodox, fundamentalist mystic, Newton attempted to prove the date of the Second Coming mathematically and tried to determine the ratio between the highest attainable earthly happiness and a believer’s reward of bliss in Paradise.

Equally ignored today is the maladaptive way Newton treated other scientists while he was president of the Royal Society:

As leader of the first scientific “Establishment”, he set the regrettable precedent of blocking the development of any advances in math or science which might have undermined his position of authority or diminished his prestige. For example, he maliciously deprived astronomer John Flamsteed of the satisfaction of having his works published in his lifetime. Sadder still was the monumental pettiness he exhibited in his dispute with Leibnitz over credit for inventing the calculus: in a shocking display of academic overkill, he continued his unprincipled campaign in a one-sided battle well after the death of his opponent.

And on through history Welles scoots, in his own one-sided skirmishes with Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Hegel, Darwin, Marx, the English in India, Bismarck, groupthink in WWI, the Depression, Hitler, the Cold War, Watergate, Challenger and Chernobyl.

Finally, here is what he has to say on the eternal dilemma of democracy, whose intelligent adherents, despite their suspicions, don’t dare show a trace of elitism:

The modern liberal . . . trusts the judgment of the man in the street although knowing that most people have mean tastes, are superstitious and are incapable of any kind of complex thinking.

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