How we talk about things influences the way we think about them. Just ask Winston Smith: if your vocabulary won’t allow you to articulate something (say, something double-plus ungood about Big Brother) you’ll barely be able to think it, let alone communicate it. It is shocking, therefore, that the English language obstructs the description of some of the most basic and most important manifestations of human incompetence.

One of these is that which the term ‘toxicon’ was coined to indicate: somebody who firmly believes in a nonsense-explanation of something about which he or she knows practically nothing. Toxicons are all around us – but the best we’ve been able to do at labeling them has, hitherto, been to say that they “don’t know what they’re talking about.” This is incomplete and insufficiently devastating, and that fact may be responsible for the news media’s fascination with investigating politicians’ motives without ever considering their basic competence. Everybody asks what partisan concerns might motivate a decision; nobody asks whether the decision-maker might just be flat-out ignorant of the facts upon which such a decision should rest.

Another problematic area is that of ‘stupidity’. ‘Stupid’ is a stupid word – it means everything and nothing. A dog that won’t learn to play dead, a kid who hasn’t learned how to spell, and a Nobel Prize-winning thinker with whom one disagrees are all ‘stupid’. Stupidity is a conceptual mélange with myriad components, but let’s focus on one in particular: ignorance.

The notion of ‘ignorance’ is itself a compound concept, but one which is more easily wrangled. Humans are guilty of four basic types of ignorance:

Class I Ignorance of the problem
Class II Inability to identify a solution
Class III Inability to implement the correct solution
Class IV Confidence in a false solution


To facilitate this conversation, it is important that the relevant technical language be versatile and easily applicable – hence, in discussing human folly, each of these categories of incompetence can be employed as both a descriptive noun and as an adjective. E.g.:

  • Tim doesn’t know how to change a flat tire. What a Class III!
  • Our friend Sally says that she and Susan went out a few times, they really enjoyed themselves … and now Susan won’t return Sally’s calls! We don’t know what went wrong, we’re all totally Class II.
  • Class IVs are responsible for some of history’s greatest atrocities. Witch hunts, anybody?

As for the categories themselves, Class I incompetence is usually short-lived (though the same is true, in many cases, for its practitioners). Contaminated wells and hidden sinkholes have a way of drawing attention to themselves sooner or later; in the words of Christopher George Latore Wallace, “if you don’t know, now you know.” Some time-bomb problems may hide behind their more well-known colleagues – the diseases we associate with advanced age, such as Alzheimer’s, went largely unremarked during the millennia when human life expectancy rarely exceeded fifty. No doubt we face many such death-sentences, which will jump out at us as science continues to prolong our lives. In a century or so, when we’ve conquered breast cancer, the pink ribbon will be superseded by an orange one to remind us of the tragedy of spontaneous-combustion that can afflict people as young as 130.

Class II incompetence, in contrast, can be illustrated by the famous The Broad Street cholera epidemic that was resolved when John Snow thought to remove the handle from the public pump that was distributing sewage-infected drinking water. Nobody had previously suspected the underlying causal relationship; everyone knew that the graveyards were overflowing as fast as the cesspits and simply failed to make the connection. That was an example of ingrained cultural Class II; from an individual perspective we have the ‘Doctor, doctor’ joke:

Patient: Doctor, doctor! My eye hurts whenever I drink tea!

Doctor: Next time, take the spoon out of the cup.

And, of course:

Patient: Doctor, doctor! My leg hurts whenever I eat ice cream while juggling puppies upside down on a roller coaster!

Doctor: Well … don’t do that, then.

This brings us to Class III incompetence. Class III is the most productive category of human folly, the necessity that gives birth to invention. Humankind, individually and as a whole, is at its best when a specific challenge beckons – if we’ve figured out what the problem is and what must be done to solve it, creating the means of doing so is a talent that defines us as a species. Whenever a Class III problem emerges, brilliant humans leap at the chance to work themselves to death trying to solve it. Class III incompetence is the stuff that great tales are made of: we know that we need to throw the One Ring into Mt. Doom and send a photon torpedo into the Death Star’s thermal exhaust port … if only we could figure out how to do that.

Class IV incompetence – what somebody once referred to as “what you know for sure that just ain’t so” – presents a unique challenge. It may not always represent the greatest immediate danger to life and limb – although thousands of flame-broiled witches might argue the contrary – but it is uniquely resistant to rectification. Whereas Class I tends to cure itself, and Classes II and III attract the attention of the greatest minds of any given generation, when Class IV takes root in a human brain it holds on with grim determination. Like the parasitic blood fluke, a flatworm which shields itself from the human immune system by coating itself with its host’s proteins, Class IV incompetence hides among a person’s actual competences like ET in a closet full of stuffed animals. Because of this, Class IV is the most difficult type of incompetence to overcome – and consequently the type most likely to accumulate within a society, doing its damage even as it hobbles efforts to displace it.