Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The stupid: it burns!

This example lifted from many versions
that may be found all over the internet.
There seems to be a lot of it about.
It was at the dive club one evening when I was expounding on my theory that Diving (or, come to that, Motorcycling or Hang Gliding, or Bungee Jumping) Is Safe Because It’s Dangerous.

The argument, fundamentally, is that because there are clear and obvious hazards where underwater swimming is involved, the first of which is that you can’t breathe the stuff. Thus you only do it after undertaking training that includes dealing with equipment malfunctions and operator error. After being scared shitless in the classroom, the novice discovers that most dives are incident free and this scuba thing’s quite easy really isn’t it? Yes it is, right up to the moment when something goes wrong. I sketched up a rough graph of how I saw Risk versus Experience.

I was therefore astonished later to discover that a very similar theory had been expounded in 1999 by Davin Dunning and Justin Kruger of the Department of Psychology at Cornell University. They won an Ig Nobel Prize in 2000 for this work.

Quoting Errol Morris in the New York Times: “The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate.”

1. Incompetent people overestimate their own ability.
2. Incompetent people fail to recognise competence in others.
3. Incompetent people can’t see that they’re incompetent.
4. Minimal training doesn’t improve ability, but does improve ability to recognise the lack of it.
5. True experts underestimate their own ability.

In scuba diving, or indeed any other field where skills have to be learned, an individual with zero knowledge performs badly (A). A little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing, as some training initially produces confidence well in excess of actual ability (B). Then comes the fall: some incident or scare that shatters the individual’s self-perception and self-confidence (C). I read an article that described the plunge as into the ‘Jon Snow trough.’(D) Only with further training and experience does true ability increase (E).

In another example, think on how cocky a young driver is after getting past the gosh-aren’t-hill-starts-difficult stage and getting his full licence. And then how this illusion of ability comes crashing down after the first time he has a near miss, he crashes, or he gets nicked. Perceived ability subsequently increases with experience, but typically never gets as high as true ability because the individual is now wise enough to understand that, however good he is, he isn’t the best there is.

At a professional level, I have developed an interest in highway pavement design and actually considered myself something of an expert until recently. Then, over a series of workshops with actual card-carrying pavement engineers, I realised quite how Jon Snow I was on the subject. I discussed this with a friend; the Gnomad who had introduced me to the concept of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and I argued that I had been exhibiting precisely those symptoms.

“Not at all,” he reassured me, “Because you recognise the greater ability in others.”

But of course, it can happen to everyone. My perception of my ability to play a musical instrument is up at (B) right up until I show up with real musicians, at which point I get the Jon Snow moment.

Although Messrs Dunning and Kruger got the name of the effect, it isn't a new phenomenon.

Confucius: "Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance."
Socrates: "I know that I know nothing."
Shakespeare: "The Foole doth thinke he is wiſe, but the wiſeman knowes himſelfe to be a Foole."
Stephen Hawking: "The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge."

Leaving the reader to think up numerous other examples of Dunning-Kruger in real life, I offer another one:  Those who think they can drive while using a mobile phone.

There remains an important difference between incompetent and just plain stupid. Incompetent means exactly that. Not competent, owing to lack of training and experience. This is rather different to the one that really irks me, which is those who ought to know better, yet continue to make the most ludicrous decisions because they think they know better than the experts whom they employ.

John Cleese expounded on the phenomenon here:

The skills you need to be good at something are precisely the same skills that enable you to see that you're not any good at it!

And this blog post is brought to you by an over-irked Goat, who’s been confronted almost continuously by the Dunning-Kruger effect for twenty years.



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Many thanks,


Martín said...

My grandpa had two quotes that he applied to his life:

To get wiser seems to consist not in knowing what to say, but what to keep for your self.

It's better to keep quiet and let others think that you're stupid, than to talk and clear any doubt.


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