Ignorance is Bliss… When Assessing Yourself

not factose

If you tuned in to Comedy Central’s Roast of Donald Trump, you got to watch about 5 minutes of the most painful humor ever attempted. I speak of course of “The Situation.” Mike Sorrentino (I had to Google it, don’t go thinking I have any idea about his name) got up there and showed his incompetence in humor, and almost got booed off the stage. One might wonder, how do you fail so badly? How could he write those jokes ahead of time, look at his sheet of paper, and determine “Yes, these jokes are funny, I should go on television in front of potentially millions and say them?” With his fame (why he has fame is a subject for another day) he surely had the ability to check with someone who was aware of what is funny. If you actually saw it, you know that any dumbass could have told him that, but he has the resources to hire someone who has legitimate expertise. He obviously was confident in his ability to craft jokes, and as Darwin said “ignorance most frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” The Dunning-Kruger Effect explains what is happening.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect was theorized in 1999, by Justin Kruger and David Dunning in their article in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflate Self-Assessment reaches the conclusion that those without metacognitive skills grossly overestimate their abilities, and believe themselves to be far superior than in actuality. This is because although they reach an erroneous conclusion, their incompetence that led them to that conclusion destroys any chance of realizing an erroneous conclusion was reached. Oddly the first study conducted for the paper dealt directly with comedy and a group’s ability to judge whether something was funny/not funny. The more interesting studies concerned a group’s ability in logic and language, in which the skills to reach a logical conclusion, or write a grammatically correct sentence, are also skills needed to determine if a mistake has been made. I mean if a person couldn’t write good stuff good, then he wouldn’t know he wroted something bad (What the heck is this green underline thing?). People in the bottom quartile of the studies tended to overestimate their abilities by more than 50%, while the top quartile tended to underestimate their abilities, due to the false-consensus effect. This is the effect that people generally believe that they are “normal” and most people are like them. This is like the kid in class who gets angry when you ask a question, because it seems so simple to him/her and they can only wonder why don’t you get it? These top-quartile test people were also able to re-evaluate their predictions of scores after seeing the average scores, and their secondary analysis was much more calibrated once realizing that their peers were not as intelligent as they assumed. The paradox that the incompetent can gain knowledge that helps them recognize their failures, in turn making them more competent is an interesting realization. This was illustrated in a logic test where after the test had been taken and they had predicted their results, they were then given a ten minute lesson on logic and then asked to re-evaluate their predictions. After realizing their methods were stupid flawed, they were able to much more accurately assess their performance. As William Ian Miller was quoted in the paper “It is one of the essential features of such incompetence that the person so afflicted is incapable of knowing that he is incompetent. To have such knowledge would already be to remedy a good portion of the offense.” Stay with me, not much more about the article specifically. The last thing I found interesting is that people were much more capable of estimating the number of correct questions on a test, than estimating how their performance compared to the performance of their peers. The incompetent didn’t believe they were getting all of their answers right, but they assumed that others would be just as incompetent as themselves (they weren’t). I recommend reading the journal article, but I had to do a quick brush up on statistics for it, and I know how much people hate math.

Most people know someone who is incompetent in something, and so unaware of it that they might even think they are good at it (see 95% of white dancers). A funny little tidbit, a Google search’s auto-fill is Dunning Kruger… and Palin, with many articles citing the Dunning-Kruger Effect as the reason for her inability to recognize her lack of competence (along with the whole of the GOP). She doesn’t know what to call this new thing in Libya… “a war, an intervention, a squirmish1?” It makes sense though, because anyone can see that Sarah Palin really believes in what she says, no matter how irrational it is (I again cite Darwin’s quote). At some point in her academic career, someone must have given her negative feedback, but even if she received negative feedback, she must come to an accurate assessment of why that failure occurred in the first place. Most people would rather blame academic failure on bad luck or bad teachers, than attribute their failure to a lack of ability or effort. The ignorance of people is analogous to Anosognosia (Alliteration! Alliteration! …infinite loop crashes evil robot overlord!).

The most interesting part of the whole study is that the most intelligent of people underestimate their abilities, which is partly due to the aforementioned false-consensus effect. Truly though, it is because those people who really strive for more knowledge realize that no matter how much they know, there is much more they do not. Thomas Jefferson once said “He who knows best, knows how little he knows,” and my good friend DonnyBagg has also commented that “There is seemingly an inversely proportional relationship between how much you know and how much you think you know.” Isn’t that the truth (and great minds think alike!)? To those of you who have ever really started to explore something, you all know that the more you know about a subject, the more you realize that there is much more to learn to gain a full understanding. Everything you learn is but a foundation upon which to learn more, and the desire to learn more is infectious. Physicists start out learning about physics in general, but then start learning about every sub-science involved in physics, and every sub-science associated with those, and so on. Being intelligent is a constant quest for knowledge, and only those that have started on the journey understand this. Like Benjamin Franklin put it “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” Intelligent people are great debaters due to their ability to form logical arguments, and see the other person’s perspective2, but anyone knows that it’s risky debating with someone who is incompetent. Even Mark Twain, who was unquestionably a genius, said “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience (See Sean Hannity on The Sean Hannity Show).” This post is getting a little quote-heavy (it’s not over yet), but so many intelligent people spoke precisely about the subject. Unfortunately the ignorance of the masses is going to get worse before it gets better. Prior to the 24 hour news cycle, people read the news, analyzed what they read, and reached a logical conclusion about their feelings on the subject. Today pundits read the news, draw illogical conclusions in line with their stations views, and shout that conclusion into viewer’s ears (See Tracy Jordan on Sports Shouting).

Even they don’t believe the garbage they spew, Bill Sammons said “I have to admit, that I went on TV on Fox News and publicly engaged in what I guess was some rather mischievous speculation about whether Barack Obama really advocated socialism, a premise that privately I found rather far-fetched.” The death of the written word/objective news is killing people’s ability to analyze what is happening and draw logical conclusions, and creating masses of ignorant people (but they are not lacking in confidence3). To be clear, I don’t think there weren’t ignorant people around (history, et al.) before the 24 hour news cycle, but they certainly aren’t helping. Back to Mr. Twain! He was obviously not a fan of the ignorant since he returned to the subject and said, “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups.” Samuel Clemens saw the Tea Party coming 98 years (minimum) before they showed up… move over Nostradamus.

Speaking of the Germans (Nostradamus was German4 right?)… Fremdschämen is a German word (Four years of German and this is the first time I’ve ever used anything I learned in it… Huzzah!) that we don’t really have in the English language5. Its basic definition is external shame, but it’s the word for the horror you feel when someone is oblivious to how embarrassing/ignorant they are being. That feeling of embarrassment you get in their place, even though their actions have no reflection on yourself, that’s Fremdschämen. The oblivious characters in The Ricky Gervais Show or The Office are so funny because of this feeling of external shame. It’s really just the body’s natural response when you shake it6 when you witness the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

I leave you the same way the authors of the article left their readers (summarized a little, but you get the point). Although I feel that I have done a competent job in my analysis of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, I’m left with a haunting worry that I may have used faulty logic, or poor communication. I assure you that to the extent that this post is imperfect, it is not a sin I have committed knowingly.

[1] I’d go with squirmish Mama Grizzly.
[2] Skill not possessed by the incompetent/ignorant.
[3] Out of 30 developed countries the US ranks 25th in Math and 21st in Science—but #1 in student confidence .
[4] He wasn’t.
[5] It’s laundry, but like a child’s laundry… If you get the reference I applaud you.
[6] I salute you Uncle Jack… with my one remaining hand.


About acedizzle

talking to myself.
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One Response to Ignorance is Bliss… When Assessing Yourself

  1. DonnyBagg says:

    “I found myself embarrassed with so many doubts and errors that it seemed to me that the effort to educate myself had no effect other than the increasing discovery of my own ignorance.” – Descartes

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