Sunday, 12 May 2013

Dunning-Kruger Creationists

Science doesn't invent things, that's the job of technology. Science merely discovers things.

Sometimes though, science doesn't so much discover new things as put what is already known into scientific language together with the evidence and data underpinning it. Take, for example the understandable annoyance by Patrick Matthew that credit for describing evolution by natural selection had gone to Darwin and Wallace when he had mentioned it in an obscure book on forestry, assuming that it was such obvious idea that he couldn't have been the first to think of it, so never made much of it until Darwin and Wallace, who were completely unaware of Matthew or his book, were receiving all the credit - and praise for their genius.

Darwin, of course, graciously acknowledged Matthew's prior claim, pointing only to the obscurity of his choice of publication as the excuse for his (and the entire scientific establishment's) ignorance of it.

The Dunning-Kruger effect occurs when incompetent people not only fail to realise their incompetence, but consider themselves much more competent than everyone else. Basically, they're too stupid to know that they're stupid.

RationalWiki - Dunning-Kruger effect
Just so with the Dunning-Kruger effect. One of my old mother's sayings - and she had many - was, "They're too daft to know they're silly!" She used it particularly for religious fundamentalists and fanatics but also for the idiot sons of the aristocracy and nouveaux riches who assumed they had the right to govern us and who populated the Tory benches at Westminster and kindly ran the local councils for us. It wasn't her own saying; she had learned it from her parents who were the product of countless generations of the English agricultural working class.

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

Bertrand Russell, The triumph of Stupidity
But Dunning and Kruger, in Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments showed the underpinning data, put it into the language of science and published it - and so claimed the title for its discovery. Which is fair enough really because the experiments they conducted were designed to sort the wheat of wisdom from the chaff of prejudice and ignorance, which are also to be found in those pearls of ancient wisdom. Science is a methodology for ensuring we are right by more than simple chance.

Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.

Kruger J, Dunning D.;
J Pers Soc Psychol. 1999 Dec;77(6):1121-34.
Which is a slightly convoluted lead in to a short blog on the Dunning-Kruger effect which I was prompted to look into in an attempt to understand the antics of a particularly obnoxious individual who seems to think that the best way to convince the world of his genius is to put on a daily display of ignorance and stupidity and that the best way to promote his religion is to be as obnoxious and abusive as possible in its name. Maybe it's just hate and frustration at his own social ineptitude and consequent social isolation which motivates him - certainly he shows the social skills of the sociopath - but equally possibly he could be a classic Dunning-Kruger simpleton, too daft to know he's silly.

Basically, Dunning and Kruger found that clever people tend to underestimate their own potential, usually assuming that, if they find a task easy, so will others. Asked to rank their expected performance in a test, clever people will tend to underestimate their relative performance. Stupid people, on the other hand, often over-estimate their own abilities assuming themselves to be experts on very little actual knowledge, assuming that this little knowledge is all that is required to be an expert. They tend to rank themselves higher than they actually perform.

Sound familiar? If not, spend a while on Twitter, especially following the hastags such as #Evolution, #TeamJesus, #Atheism or #Science to see a daily parade of people who know little or nothing of the subjects of either theology or science but who are eager to tell the world that science or biology has got it all wrong, or that there is definitely proof of whatever god they believe in because it says so in a holy book that they know for a fact is never wrong about anything. Few if any of them will have studied science or theology.

To be a dedicated Dunning-Kruger performer one has also to have the ability to wave away anything in the way of logic or facts which contradicts one's absolute certainty that one knows everything there is to know about a given subject. Either the information is obviously wrong - otherwise I'd know about it! - or the opponent is clearly mad, stupid, ignorant or evil. It is simply impossible that the information or logical reasoning could be correct, and who could possibly know or understand the subject better than one of the world's leading experts who knows everything about the subject, having once read a blog or watched a TV program, or read a few pages in a book, or simply thought about it once and decided it was all wrong?

Obviously, if you can't say when a monkey last gave birth to a human or a crocodile turned into a duck, like 'Darwin claimed', or you can't produce all the transitional fossils on which the Theory of Evolution (which is no more than a guess anyway) depends, Evolution is a lie and a religion, and science requires more faith that believing Jesus rose from the dead, that snakes can talk, or that Mohammed flew about on a winged horse.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man
So the Dunning-Kruger Creationists imagine they've won the argument and proved their god must have done it all by magic, impressing the world with their brilliance and settling the argument once and for all. Can't think what all those scientists are wasting all their time and money on when it's all so obvious! And what's the point of learning any more when you know it's all wrong anyway? Why is everyone else so stupid!?

This phenomenon was investigated by Helmuth Nyborg of the University of Aarhus, Denmark:
The present study examined whether IQ relates systematically to denomination and income within the framework of the g nexus, using representative data from the National Longitudinal Study of Youth (NLSY97). Atheists score 1.95 IQ points higher than Agnostics, 3.82 points higher than Liberal persuasions, and 5.89 IQ points higher than Dogmatic persuasions. Denominations differ significantly in IQ and income. Religiosity declines between ages 12 to 17. It is suggested that IQ makes an individual likely to gravitate toward a denomination and level of achievement that best fit his or hers particular level of cognitive complexity. Ontogenetically speaking this means that contemporary denominations are rank ordered by largely hereditary variations in brain efficiency (i.e. IQ). In terms of evolution, modern Atheists are reacting rationally to cognitive and emotional challenges, whereas Liberals and, in particular Dogmatics, still rely on ancient, pre-rational, supernatural and wishful thinking. [My empasis]

As RationalWiki explains, the tendency of clever people to under-estimate their potential is a form of psychological projection: those who found the tasks easy (and thus scored highly) mistakenly thought that they would also be easy for others. This is similar to the "impostor syndrome" whereby high achievers fail to recognise their talents as they think that others must be equally good.

He [Paul Revere] who warned, uh, the British that they weren't gonna be takin' away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells, and um, makin' sure as he's riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed.

Sarah Palin, on Paul Revere's midnight ride,
June 3, 2011
It's a supreme irony that, whilst intelligent people can underestimate their ability because they have the intelligence to realise they could be wrong, unintelligent people can stupidly over-estimate their own ability because they lack the intellect to realise they could be wrong. People impressed by displays of self-confidence will often vote for stupid people whereas what we should be looking for in our politicians and leading industrialist, bankers, and generals is healthy self-doubt. Perhaps the single most important achievement of ultra-patriotic American Christian right is that people who are both educated and honest (i.e. the scientists and intellectuals) who should be amongst the best able and qualified to govern America, are effectively debarred from holding public office. Instead, America is governed by what often look like Dunning-Kruger syndrome sufferers.

The Internet at times seems to be crawling with religious loons, creationists and science deniers all confidently telling us, from a position of almost complete ignorance and with absolute certainty, that something is indisputably wrong or indisputably right, and who, when questioned, become abusive or simply dismiss you as a fool, and who never ever take the risk of accepting the answer to the questions they keep throwing out or reading anything which would disturb their cosy certainty and cause a little self doubt.
Refference: Kruger, Justin; David Dunning (1999). Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 77 (6): 1121–34.
doi: 10.1037/0022-3514.77.6.1121
. PMID 10626367

Wikipedia - Dunning-Kruger effect.

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  1. Good stuff. The Dunning-Kruger effect is the guiding principle of the aggressively stupid.

  2. I never knew it actually had a name. Really interesting and something I am sure everyone suffers from at times. I have found now days that this diminishes in science and nature debates among friend, as people just turn to their smartphones. I wish that this was the simple case for religion however.

  3. A very thought provoking piece. I hadn't heard of the Dunning-Kruger effect before but it does shed some light on some of the issues currently faced by British politics.

  4. Kind of a twisting of their research applied against creationists isn't it? Very one-sided. I find the cartoons to be funny, but also insulting to intelligent conservatives who are being "grouped" into a boxlike category, which also seems to be very narrow-minded. Also, any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic to the observer. The glory of God is intelligence. A fact that so many people miss. Also the KJV Bible has been chopped up and mistranslated so many times from original texts that trying to read it and apply it literally is a fools errand. One can only gather the basic gist of what was going on. Therefore the need for many differing viewpoints of the same events....kind of like the way Police investigators get everyone's testimony of what they saw and they all differ even though the event was the same. Hmm....interesting. Now why would someone command that their disciples do this? But they are all just hallucinating liars who made all this up anyway right? Jesus was just the greatest magician ever who fooled everyone. Sure, it could happen. But did it? I guess we'll all find out sooner or later.

    1. I liked the veiled threat and disguised use of Pascal's Wager as your departing passive aggression. Sorry you felt your argument needed to be backed up by it though.

      What made you think is was that weak?


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