I've recently seen a quote saying

"Any sufficiently advanced stupid is indistinguishable from genuine malice."

I'd love to understand what does it mean.

  • 11
    where did you see this? I want to quote it. It is excellent! Sep 28, 2016 at 1:37

4 Answers 4


The sentence you provide, Hasin, is not the same as "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity," which as Gnawme points out, is an adage known as Hanlon's Razor.

Hanlon's Razor includes the moral premise that you should "assume good faith" is at work, even though damage has occurred, whenever possible. Alexandre Dumas is reputed to have once said, "I prefer rogues to imbeciles, because rogues sometimes rest." He was implying that idiots actually do more damage than miscreants, because they are incapable of doing anything constructive. Therefore, he seems to be implying, when witnessing destruction, one should first assume that incompetence is to blame, and then investigate malice.

This boils down neatly to the BritE expression "Cock-up before conspiracy", describing where to start in trying to determine the reason for some mishap. The expression is attributed to Bernard Ingham, press secretary to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher from 1979 until her resignation in 1990.

The rule that you quoted actually reads, "Any sufficiently advanced incompetence is indistinguishable from malice", and is known as Grey's Law, though it seems recent in origin and there seems to be no record of a person named Grey saying it, nor any verifiable reference linking it to a person named Grey.

You will note that there is no moral guidance in this Law. What it actually suggests is that when severe incompetence is at work, it will probably spark accusations of malice, in part because few are willing to accept that such extensive damage could result from mere stupidity. It also warns that the two causes are superficially indistinguishable, and that such accusations may be unwarranted, no matter what the scale of damage.

Presumably, before the incompetence is sufficiently advanced, it is easily distinguishable from malice. What about after incompetence reaches the point of being indistinguishable from malice? Does the rule imply that when incompetence is further advanced, malice becomes the prime suspect? That's my interpretation, but while it's the result of logical induction, it's arguably subjective.

  • How does the saying suggest it will spark accusations of malice? Perhaps accusations of malice will arise because, as you suggest, few accept that extensive damage can result from "mere stupidity". I don't know how you can demonstrate that, though. I also don't see how it warns that accusations of malice are unwarranted based on indistinguishable causes. What's indistinguishable is not the mental causes of others (which we have no access to), but rather the ultimate effects.
    – deadrat
    Sep 28, 2016 at 1:52
  • 17
    Although Clark and Clarke aren't related, Clark's law is clearly influenced by Clarke's (third) law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
    – Chris H
    Sep 28, 2016 at 7:49
  • Do you have a source for the name Clark's law? The only place google finds it is a wiki page with no citations
    – blgt
    Sep 28, 2016 at 8:41
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    I once encountered a variant: "Any sufficiently advanced bureaucracy is indistinguishable from malice". A hybrid of Clark's law and Clarke's law?
    – nigel222
    Sep 28, 2016 at 8:45
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    @blgt: Apparently the original was this Usenet post by J. Porter Clark from back in 1994. Not sure when it started to become known as "Clark's Law".
    – psmears
    Sep 28, 2016 at 13:09

It's the original Hanlon's Razor

Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

cast in the form of Clarke's Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Loosely translated, it means that someone might have done something because they were just stupid, and not because they wanted to do you harm.

For example, someone who almost ran you down in a crosswalk with their car was probably just careless and inattentive, and not actually trying to kill you.

  • Thanks, but can you please shed some light on what is meant by that quote in my post? How does a stupid relates to a malice? Sep 27, 2016 at 21:42
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    @HasinHayder Consider Donald Trump as an example: there doesn't seem to be any reason for him to be malignant as such, but the sheer advancedness of his stupidity makes him look like what he does it out of malice most of the time. Once you get to that level of stupid, if it has any harmful consequences, you can no longer tell if it's just stupidity, or if it's actually deliberate, intended malice. Sep 27, 2016 at 22:01
  • 1
    @JanusBahsJacquet That would be a charitable interpretation. Mr Drumpf's lively legal harrassment of detractors, efforts to obscure evidence of wrongdoing, and threats of lawsuits to prevent fair consideration from being paid upon completion of contracts he let out all suggest that stupidity has nothing to do with his behavior.
    – jaxter
    Sep 29, 2016 at 1:50

Since there seems to be some fluidity to the Wikipedia information (viz, edited yesterday apparently to remove the reference to J. Porter Clark as the source of the aphorism, since it no longer appears there, but was present when I wrote my answer), here is Mr Clark's original Usenet post, in its entirety. This should resolve the matter. He does, in fact, use the term "cluelessness", rather than "incompetence", as it read on the version of the Wikipedia entry on Hanlon's Razor in the reference attributed to him:

From: J. Porter Clark (jpc-at-hammer.msfc.nasa.gov) Subject: Re: alt.ntia.* -- boy, the government still doesn't get it Newsgroups: alt.config, news.admin.misc Date: 1994-11-16 19:01:29 PST

texmex-at-Starbase.NeoSoft.COM (Steve Patlan) writes:

In article <3absu3$od5-at-hammer.msfc.nasa.gov>, J. Porter Clark wrote: >

I didn't even know that there was a govt.* (or gov.*) hierarchy. Is there? You tell *us, meester government man.

I was originally tempted to write, "There is no govt.* or gov.* hierarchy, and I know because I work for Uncle Sam," but, hey, maybe there is one out there. They don't tell me everything. I don't know where the UFO's are stored. 8-)

I cannot determine whether the NTIA was trying to deliberately run roughshod over the USENET community or whether they were merely ignorant of the way things are supposed to be done. They were apologetic and seemed sincere, but sufficiently advanced cluelessness is indistinguishable from malice. 8-)

No real opinions here, so I won't even charge two cents this time.

J. Porter Clark jpc-at-hammer.msfc.nasa.gov or porter.clark-at-msfc.nasa.gov NASA/MSFC Flight Data Systems Branch "Do not read this manual." - SunSoft WABI manual

  • Your quote is significantly different from the OP's. Clark's 3rd law was mangled seven ways from Sunday over the decades (As has been Hanlon's Razor), so it's hard to claim that the similarity of two (different) manglings is clear evidence of a common source.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 29, 2016 at 2:14
  • Actually, Wikipedia currently does have a citation for Clark's Law (cluelessness). What's missing is any sort of sourcing information for Grey's Law (incompetence). Regarding the latter, see this talk page for a now-deleted page on RationalWiki for some possibly-relevant information.
    – Marthaª
    Sep 29, 2016 at 2:38
  • I'm not sure what you're looking at. The Hanlon's Razor page was edited on the 27th to remove the Clark's Law entry that someone added a few days before that. (I just checked the history of the Clarke's Three Laws page, and it looks like Grey's Law used to be cited from Urban Dictionary, but that was removed on March 8th of this year as being an unreliable source. Not sure why that editor left the quote in, in that case.)
    – Marthaª
    Sep 29, 2016 at 3:11
  • @Marthaª In fact, Porter's UseNet post does use the term "cluelessness", not "incompetence", as the Wikipedia page said on the day I originally posted my answer. I failed to locate the original UseNet post on that day, but was successful today, so you're correct. I removed my comment adhering to the original term, and edited the 2nd answer. I have yet to edit the first (it's getting late at my end).
    – jaxter
    Sep 29, 2016 at 3:27

It's a mangling together of Hanlon's Razor:

Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

and (Arthur C.)Clark's Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

It's basically just a joke -- it doesn't really mean anything.

  • I'm puzzled why you think it doesn't mean anything: as a restatement of Hanlon's Razor, it means the same thing as Hanlon's Razor. Or are you saying that Hanlon's Razor is meaningless?
    – Marthaª
    Sep 29, 2016 at 2:36
  • @Marthaª - Perhaps I should have said it adds no additional meaning to the original.
    – Hot Licks
    Sep 29, 2016 at 3:03

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