Article of the Week: We Are All Confident Idiots by David Dunning

The article I have selected for this week is by David Dunning, one of the pair after whom the Dunning-Kruger effect is named. For those who have not already searched wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein relatively unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their ability to be much higher than is accurate.

Basically when idiots think they are the bosses!

The article explores similar and related phenomena focusing on ignorance.

What is ignorance? We tend to think of it as unawareness about something (the dictionary also says something like this). But if we do so, we don’t truly comprehend the dangers and impact of ignorance.

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

This can explain what to me is one of the biggest disappointments of the 20th century. That education doesn’t really work in fighting ignorance. If ignorance were absence of knowledge, education could have imparted knowledge and made people wiser. But since it is not the absence of knowledge  but misguided knowledge, all too often education ends up producing illusory confidence without disabusing people of their wrong ideas. The information that comes through education is bent to fit in with the sacrosanct beliefs people already hold, instead of challenging and changing it.

The article mentions an example, where people uninformed about nanotechnology were “educated” about it through a brief write-up. Before reading, their opinions on the impact of technology were unsure and all over the map. However, armed with education, their beliefs became more confident and also polarized. The polarization was guided by what they already believed in (details in the article).

There is another interesting mention of an experiment, where teaching people about evolution not only increased the percentage of people believing the right things about evolution, it also increased the percentage of those believing the wrong thing. They were confident about their wrong beliefs too!

The American author and aphorist William Feather once wrote that being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve.

The article does end with some advice on how to manage ignorance-generated confidence. Those I think will only work, as in the case with most advice, if the idea has been internalized by you and you can clearly see the misguided confidence not just in others, but in yourself too. Knowing what is going on can definitely be a first step towards it.

By the way, if after reading it you find that you can see it happening only to others and not to you, you might be bending the information to fit the sacrosanct belief you hold about yourself – that you are smarter than everyone else!

Read the complete article on Pacific Standard.

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