Comic ReliefWant to know what’s really going on, and why? “Follow the money” advises the mysterious Watergate whistleblower Hal Holbrook in the 1972 film All the President’s Men, a technique that works pretty well. And sure, following the money might enable you to learn WHAT happened… but sometimes it only provides the motive. Because people are dumber than you think, sometimes so much so that it defies easy explanation. In such cases you can learn more NOT by “following the money,” but instead by FOLLOWING THE STUPIDITY.

Please note that in this context I define “stupidity” as being “a behavioral quality wherein the practicioner 1) suffers no justifiable impediment to his rational reasoning ability and 2) has enough correct information to choose a wise course of action yet inexplicably refuses to follow the (obviously) wise course of action and instead does something unnecessarily wasteful and/or incredibly harmful.” You know… stupid.

When money and fame are involved, apparently a certain amount of stupidity is to be tolerated. Most of us remember Alex Haley as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Roots, the best-selling novel and TV miniseries that inspired a generation. It’s less widely-known that a few short years later Haley paid a massive out-of-court settlement to fellow author Harold Courlander when it was proved Haley was a plagiarist who had faked his research and copied lengthy passages verbatim from Courlander’s novel The African when writing Roots. That little incident was swept under the rug at the time because it made for embarrassingly bad publicity, but the fact remains: Haley was a decent writer with a proven track record. Why would he copy page after page of material from another readily-available published work on the same subject rather than just producing and using his own material? Sure, it would require effort, but Haley was more than qualified to do it. And how on Earth could Haley ever believe he would get away with it? Wow. Stupid.

Here’s another example: from 1958 until 1991 the now-defunct Soviet Union constructed roughly 450 naval nuclear reactors for its ships and submarines. Most are still “hot” because after the USSR collapsed no one bothered to decommission them or take them offline. Hundreds of them have been technically abandoned and continue to sit aboard the rusting hulks of derelict warships and dry-docked subs, leaking radiation and contaminating everything around them. Yikes.

Hey— at least we know where most of those reactors ARE. Unlike the formerly top-secret Soviet Balaklava Submarine Base… when that facility was abandoned in 1995 a pair of SS-N-23 Skiff nuclear ballistic missiles got left behind, still armed and loaded aboard a rusting submarine that sat parked down there for years. Eventually (almost a decade later) the Russians noticed them and pulled them out as an afterthought; but, uh, damn. One probably shouldn’t leave armed nukes lying around where entrepreneurial beachcombers or potential Super Villains might find them (and let that put to rest any notion of supposed “Soviet super efficiency.” That whole line of crap was just a 1950’s Cold War fairy tale disseminated to spread fear and increase American arms contracts for NATO). I’m going to come right out and say it: anyone who squeezes his national economy and cripples the standard of living in his own country just to spend millions of rubles stockpiling horrendously poisonous machines and weapons— and then COMPLETELY FORGETS ABOUT THEMshould be a serious contender for the Dumbass of the Millenium Award. Oh, and in the spirit of Cold War Détente I freely acknowledge that the good ‘ol USA has a few lost nuclear stockpiles and rusty reactors of its own. So let’s play it safe and have two trophies ready, since I suspect it might actually be a tie.

As quoted by late SF writer Robert Heinlein: “Never underestimate the power of human stupidity.” It can move mountains… and has undeniably done so (via MTR mining) in West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee. And will probably continue to do so, at least until we collectively evolve (or are transubstantiated, or whatever… pick your flavor of metaphor) into wiser, more rational creatures than we are right now.