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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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:
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
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
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
made a career of attacking clerical ignorance and for some reason was
never very popular among the clergy.
16th century Protestant reformers attempting to replace the authority of
the Catholic Church with the authority of the Bible:
as recorded in the Bible, the voice of God often rambles incoherently like
that of a slightly schizoid manic-depressive with delusions of grandeur.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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:
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.
ignored today is the maladaptive way Newton treated other scientists while
he was president of the Royal Society:
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.
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.
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
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.