The Dunning-Kruger effect: This is why voting is broken in America

Marc Hoag
Marc Hoag
Nov 2, 2020 · 15 min read
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SOURCE: Marc Hoag. All Rights Reserved.

Every time I vote, I try to wrap my head around how We the People are expected to make informed, educated voting decisions not just regarding the presidency, but on state and local issues too.

I try to educate myself as well as possible from the most legitimate, unbiased, academically-verified sources as possible. It’s a lot of work, but I think it’s my duty as an American, an attorney, a business owner, a husband, and the son of an 83 year-old U.S. Marine father with a PhD who taught me that education is the most patriotic thing we can do for our country.

I don’t really care what political party somebody subscribes too as long as their choice was a properly informed one; what alarms me is when people cast their votes based on personal feelings or factually false information, often, ironically, to their detriment. I leverage this concern against both Republicans and Democrats alike; my disdain for uninformed voting does not take sides.

With ballot initiatives that require deep academic understanding of economic, historic, legal, and social issues, never mind the impossibly tall order to make informed decisions on complex science and tax issues, how are we expected to make wise choices on these profoundly deep and far-reaching topics?

Most people’s education on these issues is limited to little more than tweets, memes, and click bait news headlines, which means that most people vote on gut instinct and feeling at best, and misinformed data at worst. And even those people who may be educated on the primary, or root layer, of a given issue, are nevertheless utterly without knowledge on the deeper secondary or tertiary impacts.

But this shouldn’t come as a surprise: to deeply understand anything takes years and years of study, if not formally, then at least informally. And the difficulty with self-taught, informal study, especially in the social sciences, is ensuring that you learn from the correct source material.

Unlike the physical sciences, the social sciences can be easily skewed or interpreted in myriad ways; just consider the impact of today’s social media and the ease with which philosophies and ideologies can spread like California wildfires, some for good, and some for evil.

Learning how to avoid cherry-picking material that bolsters our own presuppositions, feelings, opinions, and beliefs — nevermind outright bad facts — is an extremely difficult thing to master, not just intellectually, but emotionally, too.

Indeed, one of the most important philosophical lessons I learned in the last decade or so was that it’s possible to agree with a thing without necessarily liking a thing; i.e., it’s important to recognize an objective truth even if it contradicts your subjective feelings.

For example, I’m a Tesla owner but would still very much love to get the new mid-engine Corvette, say, or a Porsche GT3 one day. So I may not like higher gas prices or an outright ban on new combustion engine cars, but I will absolutely vote for such things when the time comes simply because it’s the right thing to do. So what if it makes my enjoyment of those spectacular fossil fuel-powered machines more expensive, or indeed, even unattainable.

Hence scientists who are religious, who make room both for the theory of evolution as well as divine creation, to allow both for evidence-based truth as well as faith-based feelings. Though the two are mutually exclusive to explain the real world, there is nothing that prevents them from peaceful coexistence in our minds. Science shouldn’t be used to explain religion, and religion shouldn’t be used as a substitute for science.

I also still struggle with this separation of truths versus feelings or assumptions; in fact, some research I conducted for a later section in this essay on the US education system completely contradicted numerous assumptions I held, and so I had to find an alternative explanation.

But as with all things in life, the more you learn, the more you realize just how little you actually know.

Before modern science, humans assumed they knew everything about how the world works; in fact, as Yuval Noah Harari explains in Sapiens, societies remained more or less stagnant because people were discouraged from questioning the status quo.

Once modern science began to flourish, everybody started to question everything, and suddenly the assumption flipped from knowing all to knowing nothing.

I recently learned that this phenomenon has a name: the Dunning-Kruger effect. Simply put, the less somebody knows about a thing, the more confident they are in their knowledge; the more they learn, the more humble they become as they realize just how little they actually know; and it’s only once they’ve mastered true competence in a subject that they regain legitimate, rightly earned confidence in that subject area, while leaving their minds open to new evidence and new knowledge. Ironically, then, with greater absolute knowledge and confidence comes a greater willingness to be proven wrong.

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SOURCE: Wikipedia

Incidentally, if that chart looks familiar, it’s because it’s basically the same as this one:

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(Interestingly, a similar graph reflects the competence of movie special effects and the so-called “uncanny valley.” This phenomenon describes the shattered suspension of disbelief when effects reach a point of extreme competence that nevertheless cannot quite attain true-to-life photo-realism. We can accept a cute cartoon, or even a robot, but we cannot accept a not-quite-right computer generated human, its soulless eyes glaring at us with so many pixels. The point of this bizarre aside is that this sinusoidal path to competence is apparently not an unusual thing.)

It’s like thinking you now have a deep and multifaceted understanding of theoretical astrophysics; the history of Ancient Greece — or even our own country for that matter! — or the intricate layers of Hamlet just because you read the chapter headlines or summaries of those respective subjects.

One of my favorite novels, Bulgakov’s classic “Master & Margarita” is probably the (linguistically) easiest Russian novel I’ve ever read; but without a deep knowledge of Russian history, I now know I’ve sadly lost 60–80% of the novel’s meaning. But if I hadn’t read the novel in the first place, I would have never realize my knowledge deficit. In this regard, then, I suppose ignorance really is bliss.

I think the Dunning-Kruger effect can best be explained with a pie. Suppose there’s a pie of unknown size and flavor. If you refused even a single bite of the pie, then you would obviously know nothing about it. But if you took one bite of the pie, you could be forgiven for assuming that the the entire pie is apple, fairly sweet, with a crumbly crust. In fact, you would likely insist on such a belief based on this first succulent bite.

But suppose the second bite were blueberry. Now you realize your assumptions were wrong; the pie apparently has more than one flavor. But how many more? The third bite reveals a strawberry flavor. At this point, all bets are off, and you realize you have much to learn about the pie. And so you keep eating until the pie is finished, you’ve finally discovered all of its flavors, and of course you promptly get sick. But at least you’ve finally learned everything there was to know about the pie.

Moving away from pies and returning finally to the rather more pressing matter of this year’s election, even as an attorney, I realized I had no idea what to think about California’s Propositions 17 and 20, for instance, because I’ve never practiced criminal law; so I consulted a good friend of mine, a criminal prosecutor, with hopes she could educate me more on these topics. And it turns out even she was undecided because, what a surprise, these are hugely, profoundly complex issues. Her final suggestion: that I study how other countries in the world tackle these issues to help make a more informed decision.

Another example which really startled me: In contrast to my self-aware inadequacy of education on the aforementioned issues surrounding Props 17 and 20, since my undergrad years at UCLA were primarily science-based, including a healthy dose of pre-med studies, I thought for sure my grasp of Prop 14 would be a foregone conclusion.

But the more I read about it, the more I realized I still didn’t have enough knowledge, and ultimately felt that I was voting more based on gut feeling and personal opinion, and less on facts. While I’m fairly certain I voted correctly on this issue, I’m troubled that I may have been wrong. I honestly don’t know.

And this is my point: I’ve noticed that many (most?) people tend to make their “informed” decisions based on confirmation bias-loaded media headlines, memes, tweets, and contextless yard sign quotes. I’ve seen “VOTE NO ON PROP 16 — EQUALITY FOR ALL!” signs, which, just to pick on this sole example, demonstrates a complete and utter lack of basic, yet decidedly complex, Constitutional law. (Don’t even get me started on our country’s unique infatuation with political yard signs; my wife, friends, family, and work colleagues from or living in Europe cannot understand this.)

Take climate change for instance. Despite my rigorous and broad-sweeping science-heavy undergrad education, I’m not really able to explain very well, right now, without further study, precisely how and why a one degree Celsius average temperature increase — never mind that dreaded three degree threshold — is such a catastrophic thing. And while I’m fairly confident that with enough time and study I could wrap my head around it, I’m content to trust (the aggregated consensus of) the experts for the moment.

This is probably a good time to mention one of the most bizarre critiques I’ve heard from people who never studied science: that science cannot be trusted reliably because it is always changing.

Three quick rebuttals to this: (1) That science is dynamic and changes with the discovery of new evidence is precisely what distinguishes it from religious beliefs which are static. (2) Science changes based only on the consensus of independent researchers around the world, and not several outlier experiments. (3) Clearly science is doing pretty well or we would have never landed a probe on an asteroid (physics and the theory of gravity and rocket science); vanquished once-lethal diseases (modern medicine); or been on the brink of true driverless cars (computer science including artificial intelligence and machine learning), an innovation that I describe as the greatest step-change in humanity since the Industrial Revolution.

I know for a fact that I have definitely voted incorrectly on issues in the past — and, as mentioned above, possibly as recently as several weeks ago for this year’s elections! — simply because I was inadequately educated on the issues; never mind those few times in the past that I embarrassingly voted solely on gut feeling and instinct, something I deeply regret.

And that’s precisely why I was compelled to write this. This is scary stuff.

Meanwhile, during the presidential debates, I felt like I got less educated, less informed, every debate I watched. While the final debate was vastly better to the first, it’s like saying that amputating a limb is better than getting a lobotomy. And let’s not forget: the only reason for the marginal improvement in this final debate was the threat of muted mics.

A debate between intelligent individuals should leave you walking away in awe, feeling like you’ve gained knowledge; depth; perspective. Think of how you felt walking out of, say, a fascinating lecture at university for instance, or, you know, actually listening to two genuinely brilliant people discussing opposing views.

Instead, these debates sound like some trashy newsstand tabloid, two ridiculous old guys just regurgitating pop news headlines, finger pointing, question dodging, and leveraging ad hominem accusations like two nasty kids on a playground, seemingly catering to the lowest common denominator, the least informed and poorly read strata of our society.

I know that we Americans are raised to value our “freedoms” and “right to vote,” if only because they’re baked into our Constitution which I respect greatly; Con Law was one of my favorite topics in law school. I was literally moved to tears the first time I visited the US Capitol and the Lincoln Memorial during my final semester of law school. David McCulloughs’s spectacular book 1776 and the HBO mini series based on its companion book John Adams gave me a tangible clarity of understanding our country’s history, and therefore its present, in a way I’d never felt before.

I’ve also learned not to take for granted, or blindly at face value, everything we’re taught to believe, never mind that such unquestioning loyalty to flag or country would be tantamount to brainwashing, and utterly antithetical with everything our Founding Fathers stood and fought for.

So as a threshold question then, if only as a thought exercise, what are all these unique “freedoms” that we’re talking about here? What do we Americans have in the name of “freedom” that’s so truly, objectively unique to other rich, Western countries?

Europeans, for instance, have exactly the same rights and freedoms that we do, if not more so. In fact, just to pick on an admittedly silly and decidedly unimportant issue, apart from most Islamic countries in the world, only businesses on American soil need to post those pesky “NO ALCOHOL BEYOND THIS LINE” signs, and erect a fence around outdoor dining areas to corral patrons in a protective cage like so many wild beasts, as if we’re somehow incapable of being civil and mature with a glass of wine. (Actually, Dubai felt even less restrictive in this regard than America when I visited several years ago.)

Europeans’ politics and culture generally aren’t tied to religion anywhere near as tightly as here in America, never mind our long-promised vow of separation of church and state. Compared to France, for instance, the epitome of secularism, America is decidedly religious.

On a rather more serious issue than alcohol consumption, people don’t die in most rich countries because they can’t afford their medical bills, nor do they lose their homes. Sure, public health options are often inefficient or suboptimal, but at least they’re better than dying because you have inadequate or no insurance at all. I don’t think that public health care is necessarily better than private health care, I just think we should have both.

Unfortunately, many of my fellow Americans hear such preposterous ideas as European/Canadian/everywhere-else-but here public healthcare and label them as “socialist” or “communist,” while hypocritically expecting the government to provide tax-funded services like fire and police protection; the military; and (inequitably funded) public schools.

But somehow, god forbid, if you need an ambulance or medical care, and if you expect taxpayer money to fund these things, then suddenly you’re a communist. It’s almost as if those same Americans didn’t actually study what communism or real socialism actually is.

A few years ago, I fell magnificently, wretchedly ill while on a trip with my wife in Edinburgh, Scotland; a bout of food poisoning severe to the point of being scary. First, our hotel advised us to call a national health hotline. I was never asked for my insurance information, and the entire call was provided for free. I was then advised to summon a taxi to be taken to the nearest national health clinic, unless I wanted an ambulance (I did not). Upon arriving, nobody asked me for proof of insurance; I was cautioned, however, that as I was an American, I may be required to pay for medication that could amount to $20 or so. I also had to wait about an hour before seeing a charming doctor, after which we were sent back to our hotel with a prescription that had indeed cost me about $20.

If that’s public healthcare, then sign me up.

Meanwhile, we’re living in a country where mask enforcement due to COVID — a patently medical issue which has nevertheless been perversely politicized — is considered by many to be an infringement on our Constitutional freedoms, even while we tolerate “SHOES AND SHIRT REQUIRED INSIDE” most public venues. But enjoying a rosé “beyond this point” is strictly verboten, a bizarre, hard limitation to our freedoms. As is quietly enjoying a public park after sunset. Seriously, how do we Americans tolerate “Big Government” telling us what beverage we can and can’t drink where, or that we can’t enjoy a beautiful evening in a city park after sunset? This is just plain weird.

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On the issue of voting specifically, most European countries have vastly higher voter turn out than we do, even though voting is not guaranteed in their countries’ constitutions. They also seem to value science more than we do: Germany’s chancellor, for instance, Angela Merkel, has a PhD in quantum chemistry; it’s no wonder why Germany was the only country in the EU not reporting a second spike of COVID; sadly though, as of this writing, things have finally turned for the worst in Germany, too. But this was the way of things a few weeks ago:

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You don’t need to sprechen zie Deutsch to understand this chart.

Indeed, most European countries seem to value human life in general more than we do (strange, considering our country’s massive pro-life movement); the US still ranks 18th for infant mortality when compared to European countries, and 30th in the world, largely because of our higher rate of pre-term deaths (SOURCE: ).

This means, to paraphrase the late, great Carl Sagan, that 17 other countries in Europe literally, actually value human life more than we do. They are willing to spend more money (or less money more wisely) than we are to save human babies.

The only conclusion we can reach is that, as a country, we just don’t care as much about our children as those 17 countries do. This is an unavoidable fact, but also, a very avoidable reality, if we simply placed more emphasis on education.

And to be clear, when I say “education,” it’s clearly not sufficient merely to have a high percentage of graduates at all levels of academia. For instance, in the inevitable rabbit hole of research I fell into while writing this piece (which decidedly blew a hole in my entire Friday last week (update: and last Sunday; and yesterday; and today)), I found that all my assumptions about America’s education system were just plain wrong; look at the chart below:

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While my assumption that we had the highest percentage of PhDs in the world was correct, I thought for sure we were lagging severely behind in lower degrees. I was wrong.

I am decidedly not a social scientist. So I’m not even sure how I would research this further at this point other than simply appealing to academics in this space. But clearly there must be some confounding factors to explain the unavoidable conclusion that we seem to have a vastly less informed voting public than people in other rich countries. Perhaps, indeed, academic credentials are neither necessary nor sufficient to result in a genuinely educated populace. I don’t know.

My easy attempted explanation is that obviously not all academic credentials are created equal: so what if a large percentage of a given population has a high school or college degree; if it’s a poor education, then that degree will be equally poor.

My concern is that this theory is not far-fetched: in America, the quality of public schools is directly correlated with property taxes; as a result, poor neighborhoods have less good schools. So even if, say, 30% of a community has a high school or college degree, if it’s a bad education, then those graduates will, on average, be objectively less educated and informed than their peers from better schools.

As Americans, we should be ashamed that our education system has somehow failed us, and produced a society riddled with holes of academic ineptitude that has resulted in this present state of political absurdity that has embraced our country.

My U.S. Marine father is extremely disappointed, and deeply concerned for his country. We all should be.

But instead, we soak it up as the miserable comedy that it is, fantasizing about some sort of legitimate victory for one side or another, when in reality, We the People, continue to lose.

is a California-licensed attorney and founding partner at , a global strategy consulting firm for the burgeoning autonomous vehicle and urban mobility sector. The views reflected in this article are his alone. You can follow him on all social media at AutonomousHoag.

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Marc Hoag

Written by

Marc Hoag

Founder @HoagAndCo #AutonomousVehicles & Urban #Mobility #Consulting🚗💡#1 #AutonomousCars #podcast🎤#UCLA🐻#Econ #Physics📓3x #startup #founder👨‍💻#Attorney

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

Marc Hoag

Written by

Marc Hoag

Founder @HoagAndCo #AutonomousVehicles & Urban #Mobility #Consulting🚗💡#1 #AutonomousCars #podcast🎤#UCLA🐻#Econ #Physics📓3x #startup #founder👨‍💻#Attorney

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn

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