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You Won’t Believe the Dumb Things These Really Smart People Did

Think you're the only one screwing up? Not a chance. Here's a tribute to the allegedly brainy folks who have blown it.

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Zohar Lazar for Reader's Digest

Politicians and Bureaucrats

Government has never been accused of being a well-oiled machine, as this headline from the Independent suggests: “U.S. government memo on the danger of leaking to media has been leaked.” Here are examples of the bureaucracy running mighty creakily.

  1. File these recent National Institutes of Health (NIH) expenditures under “Did we really need to study these?”
  • $230,000: The money an NIH-supported group spent to find out that the color red made female monkeys amorous.
  • $5,000,000: Amount granted to Brown University researchers for a study that reported, in part, on whether fraternity and sorority members like to drink more than the average under­graduate. (Answer: They do!)
  • $150,000: Sum that went to the National Science Foundation to investigate why we’re so stressed out by politics, when most every American would have gladly supplied the answer for free.
    Sources: 2017 Wastebook by Arizona senator Jeff Flake; National Review

2. Not to be outdone by the NIH, the Department of Defense bought camouflage uniforms for members of the Afghan army to help them blend in with dense forests. One problem: Only 2 percent of Afghanistan is covered in trees. Second problem: The uniforms were up to $28 million more expensive than the desert camouflage best suited for Afghanistan’s arid terrain.

3. The United States has some very good laws; the ones that look askance at murder leap to mind. But national politicians have pushed through others that seem … how shall we put this … less essential.

  • If you sell liquor, it is illegal to ­advertise wine in a manner that ­suggests it has intoxicating qualities. (It’ll be our secret.)
    If you’ve followed the above law, don’t mess up by selling wine with a brand name that includes the word zombie. That’s forbidden too.
  • You know what goes well with non-zombie-branded wine? Onion rings. But the government says they’d better not have been made from diced onions without saying so.
  • After eating all those fried onions, you may want an anti-flatulent. You’ll know what that is because by law the bottle must note that flatulence is “referred to as gas.”

4. Washington, DC, may be the bonehead capital of America, but it hasn’t cornered the market on dimness. In Placerville, California, the pothole situation got so bad that residents took to spray-painting rants and even explicit pictures near the worst cases to get the city’s attention. It worked; the city sent out work teams. They removed the graffiti—but left the potholes.


5. It’s not just American politicians who mess up. A foreign leader had his private e-mail hacked because he used 12345 as his computer password. One would think that dictator Bashar al-Assad of Syria would have known better.


Read about more politicians being dumb. Who knew that there were so many?

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Zohar Lazar for Reader's Digest


Every so often, the wordsmiths who suss out the news are subject to a very public form of execution: the corrections page. Here are some of the better goof-ups.

  • This post originally quoted photographer Tom Sanders as saying it takes him five years to get on the dance floor. It takes him five beers. –
  • Norma Adams-Wade’s June 15 column incorrectly called Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk a socialist. She is a socialite. –Dallas Morning News
  • Correction to the article “These Are the 100 Most-Read Female Writers in College Classes.” The original version of this included Evelyn Waugh, who was a man. -Time
  • [We] wish to apologize for our apology to Mark Steyn. In correcting the incorrect statements, we incorrectly published the incorrect correction. -Ottawa Citizen

These are the dumbest laws in every state. In Connecticut, a pickle can’t be sold unless it bounces.

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Zohar Lazar for Reader's Digest

Game Show Contestants

Jeopardy! is the game show for the brainy set. As you’ll recall, the show supplies the answer, and the contestants respond in question form. In these cases from the past several years, they responded in questionable form.

Answer: By the fourth century AD, Rome had 28 public ones stacked with rolls of papyrus.
Contestant’s response: What are public toilets?
Correct response: What are libraries?

Answer: A Christian hymn and a Jewish holiday hymn are both titled this, also the name of a 2009 Tony-nominated musical.
Contestant’s response: What is Kinky Boots?
Correct response: What is Rock of Ages?

Answer: Paul III roared at him, “I have waited 30 years for your services. Now I’m Pope, can’t I satisfy my desire?”
Contestant’s response: Who is Lady Godiva?
Correct response: Who is Michelangelo?

These incredible coincidences are hard to believe. 

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Zohar Lazar for Reader's Digest


As the business magazine Inc. discovered, all that the following company-wide e-mails from executives accomplished was ticking off their employees.

Subject: system failures

It has come to my attention that the e-mail system was down yesterday. From now on, I have requested that the system manager send a group message to everyone next time the system goes down.

Subject: Computer Course

After much consideration, we have decided to cancel the training for our new computer system on the grounds that once people learn the system, they usually leave.

Subject: Company Picnic

We will have our first company picnic next week, which we have dubbed “Morale Builder.” The picnic will feature carnival rides and all-you-can-eat hot dogs and beans. A menu of steak and lobster is available for executives.

Subject: Recognizing Employee Contributions

After several strong sales months, we have decided to print Employee Appreciation T-shirts! These shirts will go on sale next Monday.

Read these cringe-worthy stories about 25 of the worst bosses you’ll ever meet.

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Zohar Lazar for Reader's Digest

Rocket Scientists

While most dummies aren’t rocket scientists, these are!

  • David Atkinson devoted years of his life to designing an experiment to measure the winds on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon. In 1997, the probe was launched by the European Space Agency. Eight years later, on January 14, 2005, Atkinson and his team waited anxiously for the first data to arrive. And then waited and waited some more, to no avail. An investigation revealed that a receiver for the measuring equipment hadn’t been turned on before takeoff. The glitch delayed analysis of the data by a couple of days; much of it was later recovered by radio telescopes.
  • In 2004, a NASA probe was returning to Earth after collecting solar particles. As it reentered the upper atmosphere, rapid deceleration was supposed to trigger the deployment of two parachutes, allowing the probe to gently float back to terra firma. Instead, the capsule slammed into the Utah desert after the parachutes failed to open. It turned out the deceleration sensors had been installed upside down.
  • Astronomers using an Australian radio telescope believed they might have discovered evidence of alien life when they picked up a distinctive signal at the same time every day. Seventeen years later, in 2015, they learned its source: The signal was coming from a microwave oven used by staff members to heat up their lunches.

Excerpted from 1,000 Unforgettable Senior Moments: Of Which We Could Remember Only 254 by Tom Friedman (Workman Publishing), © 2017.

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Zohar Lazar for Reader's Digest

Nutty Professors

The Ig Nobel Prize is a tongue-in-cheek honor bestowed by the periodical Annals of Improbable Research—at an event at Harvard, no less!—for research that is incredibly trivial. Here is how they toasted the winners.

Psychology Prize

To researchers in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Canada, and the United States for asking a thousand liars how often they lie, and for deciding whether to believe those answers.

Literature Prize
To the etymologists in the Netherlands, the United States, Spain, Belgium, Australia, and Canada who discovered that the expression Huh? (or its equivalent) seems to exist in every language—and weren’t completely sure why.

Economics Prize
To the Bangkok Metropolitan Police for offering to pay police officers extra cash if they refused to take bribes.

Diagnostic Medicine Prize
To academics from 11 countries who determined that acute appendicitis can be accurately diagnosed by the amount of pain evident when a patient is driven over speed bumps.

Perception Prize
To two Japanese researchers who investigated whether things look different when you bend over and view them from between your legs.

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Zohar Lazar for Reader's Digest


Lawyers may have gone to graduate school, but their rigorous education hasn’t stopped them from asking these bizarre questions of witnesses in court.

  • How many times have you committed suicide?
  • Was it you or your brother who was killed?
  • Do you have any children or anything of that kind?
  • Without saying anything, tell the jury what you did next.
  • Was that the same nose you broke as a child?
  • Were you alone or by yourself?
  • Now, Doctor, isn’t it true that when a person dies in his sleep, he doesn’t know about it until the next morning?

Source: The Dumb Book (Reader’s Digest Books)

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest