Incompetence: The Deadliest Sin

The world will be destroyed by people who thought they knew how to save it.

Incompetence is humanity’s favorite way of causing trouble for itself. More than twice as many Americans die as a result of preventable accidents than by murder or suicide; despite all the time and effort we put into deliberately killing each other, it’s when we’re trying not to that people are most successful at wreaking havoc. In the US, bad decision-making even tops most natural causes as invitations to the Grim Reaper:

Top Five Killers of Americans

1)      Heart attack

2)      Cancer

3)      Stroke

4)      Lung Disease

5)      Somebody screwing up

Note that the top four causes of death themselves owe a lot to poor lifestyle choices. Bad decisions are a plague, a scourge. Innocent, well-meaning people doing the wrong things (or doing the right things wrong) cause hundreds of times more deaths in the US every year than terrorists, serial killers, and the swine flu put together.

So why aren’t we doing something about this? For all the attention we pay to bad decisions themselves, and the horrors that result from them, a remarkably small amount of effort goes into figuring out why these blunders happen in the first place. Why do smart people do stupid things? Why do sane people act crazy? We must examine the underlying mechanics that produce deadly and destructive decisions – that way, maybe, we can figure out how to avoid them.

What is a Toxicon?

Simply put, a toxicon is someone whose extreme lack of understanding of a given subject has resulted in their adoption of the false belief that, in fact, they understand it very well.  This toxic confidence leads them to act in a way that is as destructive as it is misguided. For example:

  • In 1693, William Stoughton (the Chief Magistrate who presided over the Salem witch trials) understood so little about science that he embraced an idea he could understand: that the seizures afflicting three young girls in Salem village were caused by witchcraft. Twenty innocent people were executed.
  • In 2003, George W. Bush (the President of the United States) understood so little about sociopolitical dynamics that he embraced an idea he could understand: that invading American forces would be greeted as liberators by the Iraqi people. To date, roughly four thousand Americans have been killed by Iraqi insurgents.
  • In 2009, I knew so little about orthopedic medicine that I embraced an idea I could understand: that a slight pain in my lumbar region was caused by a pulled muscle, and that I should stretch and lift weights to strengthen my lower back. This made my herniated disc – the actual cause of my discomfort – very, very unhappy. I spent a month in bed, and am still in considerable pain.

To fully understand the technical definition of what a toxicon is – a Class IV lackey nocker – read on for an analysis of, classification system for, and mathematical model illustrating the mechanics of human incompetence and how they cause horrible, preventable problems.

NB: The term ‘toxicon’ as it is used in the context of competence and decision-making has no connection to the Official Journal of The International Society on Toxinology. Nor is it a poison convention, although that could be interesting too. For the sake of thoroughness, it should also be noted that this blog’s title, ‘DeToxicon’, has nothing to do with a similarly-named drug that appears to have been marketed in Italy at some point in the past. Google is an amazing thing.

The Language of Competence



If you want to understand the odd terms I use, and don’t care about the painstaking labor that went into creating a system for modeling the mechanics of incompetence, here’s a quick guide to some of the jargon.

LACkey, LACkish – From ‘Low Actual Competence’; possessing negligible knowledge or ability with regard to a given matter within a given scope

HACkey, HACkish – From ‘High Actual Competence; possessing substantial knowledge or ability with regard to a given matter within a given scope

NOCker – From ‘Negative Operational Competence’; one whose competence with regard to a given matter within a given scope is so low that any contribution will inevitably have a negative impact on the outcome

Introduction to the Science of Competence

The way we talk about things influences the way we think about them, and when we don’t have an established vocabulary to describe the components of a complex process it is difficult address problems when they arise. This is especially true – and especially important – in the case of human competence.

Consider all the stupid things I’ve done in the last year:

–          Dropped my laptop on the sidewalk

–          Tried to dunk in traffic

–          Mixed wine and beer

–          Mixed wine and painkillers

–          Forgot the name of a girl I was dating

–          Undercharged a client by so much it makes me want to cry

–          Threw the wrong bag – the one containing my clothes and camera – down the garbage chute

These things are all stupid. But am I stupid? Sometimes I’m careless, sometimes I’m ignorant, sometimes I’m simply less capable than I think I am – but a true understanding of my competence or lack thereof requires a system that puts these instances of idiocy in a broader context. Such a system might not just help me to understand the reasons underlying my failures, it might help me to avoid them in the future.

This system comprises two elements: a model for quantifying competence, and a taxonomy for classifying ignorance. It’s simpler and more fun than it sounds.

Classes of Ignorance

Ignorance takes four basic forms, which can be noted on both the individual and cultural scale:

  Type Individual Example Cultural Example
Class I Ignorance of the problem The half-naked cheerleader who wanders out to see what that noise was. The Romans used lead to make water pipes. In hindsight, that might not have been the best idea.
Class II Inability to identify a solution “There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.” – Catch 22, Joseph Heller “We know lots of things we didn’t use to know but we don’t know any way to prevent ’em from happening” – Will Rogers
Class III Inability to implement the correct solution Joe’s car needs an oil change, but he knows he’d screw it up if he tried to do it himself. The United States knows that it needs to move away from an oil-based energy economy, but it’s not quite sure how.
Class IV Confidence in a false solution “What? Men dodging this way for single bullets? What will you do when they open fire along the whole line? I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” – Last words of General John Sedgwick “During many ages there were witches. The Bible said so. The Bible commanded that they should not be allowed to live. Therefore the Church, after eight hundred years, gathered up its halters, thumb-screws, and firebrands, and set about its holy work in earnest. She worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry.” – Mark Twain

Drawing a clear distinction between these different types of incompetence is essential to a meaningful conversation about the ways in which humanity struggles on its journey to making the world a better and brighter. To facilitate this conversation, it is important that the relevant technical language be versatile and easily applicable – hence, any given Class of ignorance can be used as both a noun and 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.

It should be noted that Class IV is often both the most dangerous and the most devious type of ignorance. Toxicons are Class IV. You might be Class IV – you wouldn’t know. See how devious it is?

Glossary of Variables


Basic Concepts

Matter – The specific subject of a given person’s competence

Scope – The relevant context of a given matter


Individual Competence

OPCOM – Operational Competence – A person’s functional ability to achieve success within a given scope of a given matter (a function of AC and PEC)

  • AC – Actual Competence – A person’s theoretical ability to achieve success within a given scope of a given matter – e.g., to correctly make a particular decision or accomplish a particular objective
  • PEC – PErceived Competence – How able a person believes themselves to be at achieving success within a given scope of a given matter – i.e., an individual’s estimate of their own AC

Individual Influence on a Group

SHIN – SHare of INfluence – The degree to which a given individual is capable of affecting the outcome of a process that involves multiple participants

rSHIN – raw SHare of INfluence – A value determined by an individual’s degree of personal authority and level of motivation

  • PA – Personal Authority – An individual’s theoretical level of control over the outcome of a given process
  • MOT – MOTivation – An individual’s dedication to affecting the outcome of a given process
    • CERT – CERTainty – The degree of an individual’s confidence that he or she is competent to make a given type of decision
    • DED – DEDication – The degree of an individual’s emotional, personal or ideological commitment to a particular outcome of a decision-making process
  • aSHIN – actual SHare of INfluence – An individual’s rSHIN normalized for comparison with the rSHINS of other participants in a given process

GROCOM – GROup COMpetence – A group’s functional ability to achieve success within a given scope of a given matter

NIMPA – Net IMPAct – The value of an individual’s contribution (positive or negative) to a matter involving multiple participants

Evaluation of Variables

Coming Soon – until which time, all of this is completely useless.


Variables mean nothing unless you know how they interrelate. This is how they interrelate.

OPCOM = AC – {[|(AC – PEC) * PEC]/100}


aSHIN = rSHIN / ∑(All rSHINs)




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