Stupidity Defense– Incompetence, Misunderstanding, Trickery– Malice: Ascribe to Hanlon’s Razor, Occam’s Razor, Grey’s Law


Hanlon’s Razor: Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I’m not sure about the universe. ~Albert Einstein. — Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence. ~Napoleon Bonaparte. hanlon 514_400x400_NoPeel

Hanlon’s Razor is an eponymous adage and it reads; never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don’t rule out malice… and this particular form is attributed to Robert J. Hanlon. Other maxims that convey the same basic idea are; misunderstandings and neglect create more confusion in the world than trickery and malice. The Razor part of Hanlon’s Razor is derived from Occam’s Razor, which is the– principle of reducing assumptions to their absolute minimum (as Albert Einstein once said: Things should be a simple as possible, but no simpler). Also, a less-known corollary of Hanlon’s Razor is Grey’s Law that imitates Clarke’s Law, which says; any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice. This quote appears to be particular favorite of hackers, often showing up in signature blocks, fortune cookie files, bookmarking website, login banners of BBS systems and commercial networks… spread through email, and it appears to be of recent origin. This probably reflects hacker’s daily experience of environments created by well-intentioned but short-sighted people. As mentioned, Hanlon’s Razor is essentially a special case of Occam’s Razor, which says; if you have two equally likely solutions to a problem, then choose the simplest; or, the explanation requiring fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct. Also, the word ‘Razor’, in philosophy, is a conceptual device allowing one to shave away unlikely reasons for a phenomenon; for example, refuting a conspiracy theory when the conspiracy is not supported with specific evidence… then, the issue is more likely to be ineptitude or apathy rather than malice… Now, all this information sounds great, but I don’t get it… Why is this relevant? One reason is that there is a fair amount of over-drama in our lives and we tend to attribute the actions of many people to malice instead of stupidity…and not because of being ‘mean‘ but because, well; we’re stupid that way. But, more important, business at its heart is about people. No matter what your role, better you are at understanding people the more effective a business person you will be. Here are a few rules:

  • Never assume malice when stupidity will suffice.
  • Never assume stupidity when ignorance will suffice.
  • Never assume ignorance when forgivable error will suffice
  • Never assume error when lack of information will suffice.

In the article Shaving Rancor with Hanlon’s Razor by Wee Mama writes: Most of us know Murphy’s Law, and perhaps in this form; anything that can go wrong, will. We’ve had more than enough moments that this seemed true. Still, few people know a related rule, i.e., Hanlon’s Razor. Hanlon’s Razor is a relational tool of immense but rarely appreciated power both for the relief it offers to the user and for the possible strategies it suggests for change. Perhaps a concrete example will clarify: Suppose you are on a crowded subway which suddenly jerks, impelling you backwards. You take an abrupt step to keep balance and accidentally stomp on the foot of the person behind you. The stomped person is likely to say one of two things: (A) Ouch! That hurt! (pure description) or (B) You oaf! You don’t own the whole car! In this example: (A) In addition to being descriptive, implicitly applies Hanlon’s Razor; you were incompetent (unable) to keep balance, hence there were undesirable consequences. (B) Implies you acted intentionally even though there was no evidence of intention. However, if you applied Hanlon’s Razor: Then, how are you likely to react? To (A) you will likely say: ‘I’m so sorry! This train is really riding roughly today’ (confirming your absence of malice). To (B) you might make any of several responses; e.g., stew in silence or angrily rebut or even perhaps stomp down a second time just to assert your freedom… Using Hanlon’s Razor, in most situations, means that a much smaller portion of the world is out to get you (i.e., conspiracy theory), than a simple ‘harm=malice filter’ suggests. Dealing with ignorance or incompetence, while still a struggle, feels like less of an assault than believing that most of the world is malicious. Also, Hanlon’s Razor suggests strategies for change: Ignorance is overcome with facts, if they are presented– clearly, repeatedly, within different contexts… also, incompetence can be overcome with guidance and experience for most folks… Then, applying Hanlon’s Razor for ignorance and incompetence means; rebutting errors, not maligning characters. However, applying Hanlon’s Razor in context of the larger world means– committing to mutual education, sharing skills, showing by example that we want to work together, and a more grounded realistic grasp of the issues... It may be worth trying…

In the article Hanlon Razor-Assumption of Stupidity by Bernard Schiffer writes: Whenever I’m having a hard time dealing with the resistance of change– struggling with emotions and unreasonable colleagues, or facing the stubbornness of a friend, or whenever it seems like I’m dealing with some kind of malice, I find a lot of comfort in Hanlon’s Razor… However, the assumption of malice is a good way to kill any communication– it puts all kind of ugly pictures in your head– it’s an effect known as; fear, uncertainty, doubts (FUD), and it’s used against opponents in sales, marketing, public relations… with the goal to spread disinformation. But, by applying Hanlon’s Razor, it often turns-out that there’s a misunderstanding somewhere. But, it’s a huge step– from assuming malice to identifying a misunderstanding– and it’s often the assumption of malice preventing identification of misunderstandings. By assuming malice you often turn away from the real issues; because it’s unpleasant to deal with malice and that’s when someone seems to be working against you. However, by identifying a misunderstanding, then suddenly no one’s left to blame… Hanlon’s Razor can help a lot in various situations by giving you the opportunity to put myself in someone’s position, and turns-out that often you are lacking information that effects your judgment… Although Hanlon’s Razor is helpful in most contexts, Grey’s Law might be helpful in other situations, it states; any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice. In other words: If you find someone acting so stupid that you can’t believe their doing it without the slightest chance of knowing that it’s stupid, then they might be acting out of malice… When I tell people about Hanlon’s Razor, they tell me that they don’t like it because it’s disrespectful to call others stupid; I agree. However, Hanlon’s Razor is not about calling someone stupid, it’s about putting you in a position to interpret the message that’s transmitted to you by changing your assumption (i.e., if it’s not malice it may be stupidity)… Hanlon’s Razor can be one of the best tools in life– It can help you to stay cool in difficult situations, because it’s a source of comfort to know that someone may be acting out of stupidity rather than out of malice…

In the article Stupidity is no Excuse by John Scotus writes: When we speak of stupidity, we are not speaking of mental deficiency. As the word ‘stupidity’ is most often used it refers to people who– putting it bluntly– go around with their head-up their butts… According to Hanlon’s Razor; such people should be judged by a lesser standard than others who are motivated by malice. Some people suggest that there is very little difference between someone who acts in malice and someone who constantly behaves like an idiot– the result is more often than not identical, and what’s often passed-off as stupidity is really just a lack of concern for others. For example, using the phrase; I should not blame him, since he was merely incompetent– is the ‘stupidity defense’. I have often noticed that people who claim the ‘stupidity defense’ have little or no problem handling their own affairs. However, often what is called stupidity is really just manifestation of behavior, such as; laziness, selfishness, greed, general lack of concern for others and, yes, malice… Stupidity is often just a cover for selfishness and narcissism…

A practical observation on stupidity was made by General Kurt von Hammerstein-Euord in Truppenfuhrung in 1933, he said: I will divide my officers into four classes; clever, lazy, industrious, and stupid. Each officer possesses at least two of these qualities: Those who are ‘clever-industrious’ are fitted for the highest staff appointments. Use can be made of those who are ‘stupid-lazy’. The man, who is ‘clever-lazy’ however is for the very highest command; he has the temperament and nerves to deal with all situations. But whoever is ‘stupid-industrious’ is a menace and must be removed. According to triumfant: So how do you stop stupid? What is needed is something that is doggedly persistent-tireless in its defense against stupidity… something that never throws up its hands in face of relentlessly repetitive stupidity… According to ‘mlmskeptic’; an expanded version of Hanlon’s Razor is made by M.L. Plano, he says; never attribute to malice what can be explained by stupidity… Don’t assign to stupidity what might be due to ignorance. And, try not to assume the opponent is the ignorant one — until you can show it isn’t you.



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