Historically, there have been severalcases where stupid ideas were deemedintelligent and vice versa, even bypeople considered intellectually gifted.For example, Aristotle, in The History ofAnimals (350 B.C.), assumes that “maleshave more teeth than females in thecase of men, sheep, goats, and swine.”Lord Kelvin, the great mathematicianand physicist, in 1895 predicted that“heavier-than-air flying machines areimpossible.” A.G. Bell spent about 30years of his life and tens of thousands ofdollars to (unsuccessfully) breed multi-nippled sheep, on the assumption thatthey would be more fertile—he evenpublished a related paper in Science.When Guglielmo Marconi, the inventorof radio and Nobel Prize in Physicswinner in 1909, wrote to the Italianministry of Post and Telegraphs aboutthe possibility of wireless transmissionof sound, the minister noted in his letterthat he should be committed to Rome’smental asylum. On the other hand,in 1949 the neurologist António EgasMoniz, who developed lobotomy (i.e.,the surgical severance of the frontal lobeof the brain) as an all-in-one “cure” forconditions ranging from schizophreniato depression, anxiety, and chronicheadaches, shared the Nobel Prize forPhysiology or Medicine.
Many dictionaries define stupidityas the lack of intelligence. In essence,the main relevance between the two isthat they are both ill-defined conceptsthat do not hold a universal value orstatus. They are subjective in natureand constantly change through timeand space, habitually formed by sometype of majority—something is oftenconsidered to be stupid if it contradictscommon practice, knowledge, or sense.“If stupidity were not confusinglysimilar to progress, ability, hope, andimprovement, then no one wouldwant to be stupid,” notes the Austriannovelist Robert Musil in his famouslecture “On Stupidity.” Hence, theoverall problem is that there is noreliable way to differentiate between anidea that seems to be stupid because it isgroundbreaking or far ahead of its time,and an idea that sounds stupid simplybecause it truly is.
From a designer’s point of view,
it is better not to instantly disregard
seemingly stupid ideas or the persons
who suggested them. Instead, they
should be encouraged and kept in the
design loop for future reference, so that
they can be used if and when their time
arrives, or in case everything else fails.
Furthermore, as the world changes,there is a possibility that a formerlystupid idea becomes—without anymodification—a good one. A suggestedrelated creativity tool is a “stupidityrefrigerator,” where all “stupid” ideascan be collected, kept fresh, andprevented from “contaminating” eachother. Every now and then, or as needed,one can open the refrigerator door andhave a quick check to see if the time hascome to defrost some of its contents, orsimply to be inspired.
Design suggestion #3. Never totallydismiss an idea on the assumption thatit is stupid. Keep it in your stupidityrefrigerator for future reference, as itmay become of value as your designprogresses or as technology, science, andsociety change.
Stupidity, ignorance, and nonsense are
massive human powers. Unfortunately,
throughout human history they have
been primarily used with catastrophic
effects: wars, mass destruction, S
environmental detriment. Still,
mankind has managed to master and
harness other great powers such as
the wind, the sun, and even the atom.
So maybe if these powers are properlystudied and used with care andrespect, one day we will be able to takeadvantage of them while limiting theirdamaging effects.
To this end, what this article aims to
communicate can be summarized in five
brief statements regarding stupidity,
ignorance, and nonsense (the Axioms of
• There is no box—just thinking!
• If you already know where you aregoing, you are not going someplace new.
• Stulta ratio, sed ratio [ 5] (or, in otherwords, Don’t worry, be stupid ).
• At least one of the axioms of SIN isprobably false (including this one).
But most important,
This article is an edited version of:Grammenos, D. Abba-dabba-ooga-booga-hoojee-goojee-yabba-dabba-doo:Stupidity, ignorance & nonsense astools for nurturing creative thinking.
CHI ’ 14 Extended Abstracts on HumanFactors in Computing Systems (CHI EA‘ 14). ACM, New York, 2014, 695–706;
The paper’s presentation is available(including a voice-over and Englishsubtitles) on You Tube: http://youtu.be/at A0pu IrRqA
1. Koffka, K. Principles of Gestalt Psychology.
Lund Humphries, London, 1935.
2. Luchins, A. S. Mechanization in problemsolving—The effect of Einstellung.
Psychological Monographs 54, 6 (1942), 95.
3. Duncker, K. On problem solving.
Psychological Monographs 58, 270 (1945).
4. Goldstein, D.G. and Gigerenzer, G. Therecognition heuristic: How ignorancemakes us smart. Simple Heuristics ThatMake Us Smart. Oxford University Press,1999, 36–58.
5. It is a stupid idea, but it is an idea.
Dimitris Grammenos is a principalresearcher at the Institute of Computer Science(ICS) of the Foundation for Research and