Dunning-Kruger and the cult of expertise
Why am I afraid of giving my opinion? Why do I feel the need to justify myself?
Last week I wrote a story about my favorite inexpensive scotch whiskey selections and felt the need to proclaim “I’m not an aficionado, but…” I have no special scotch expertise, but I know what I like.
In another article, I made even more justification as to why my opinion matters:
Full disclaimer, I am not a statistician. However, earning a PhD, even in Public Administration, I had to do high level statistics. Also, probability distributions underlay a lot of what quality engineers do.
Perhaps it’s the memes running around the interwebs. “If you have to start your statement with I’m not an epidemiologist, then shut up.”
American discourse has devolved to a point where we attack the character and qualifications of the opinion-holder rather than discuss the logic of their argument. We dismiss ideas by disqualifying the bearer rather than on their merits.
Non-experts are allowed well considered opinions. Disagreements should focus on the facts of a specific argument.
“Damn, that car nearly ran me over.”
“Are you a traffic engineer? Then STFU!”
Dunning-Kruger in a nutshell
Popularly described, the Dunning-Kruger effect is the tendency of incompetent people to overestimate their competence. When introduced to a new situation, people tend to overestimate their competence. As they gain skill, and become competent, they start more accurately estimating their ability.
Dozens of peer-reviewed studies in academic journals support or utilize the Dunning-Kruger effect. Some small number of studies poke holes in the methodology and conclusions. Another subset refutes the refutations. This is how science works.
I won’t argue with the general outline of Kruger & Dunning’s work. Clearly, there are people who are too arrogant to recognize their own inadequacy. One can quibble about noise ratios, small/convenience sampling, or just what “metacognitive skills” actually means, but that doesn’t change the conclusion.
How many times do workers experience an arrogant manager take over a department and wreak havoc? The new boss assumes personal competence on day one and fails because he or she failed to recognize or understand nuances of the job. It happens from new first line supervisors all the way to experienced CEOs that think they can come in and turn a business around. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t.
Beyond the arcane world of scholarly debate, the paradigm’s visceral, intuitive simplicity and power have driven the idea into popular consciousness. Incompetent to recognize irony, armchair psychologists light their torches, sharpen their pitchforks, and swarm those they disagree with yelling “Dunning-Kruger! Dunning-Kruger!”
I use Wikipedia; the article on Dunning-Kruger gives a good overview. But how many pundits continue on? How many suffer the time and inconvenience to actually read Kruger & Dunning’s original work, or take a look at the critiques and counter critiques? Why should they?
Politically, the left deploys Dunning-Kruger to criticize President Trump as being too stupid to know he’s stupid. Politico unleashed it against the 46% of voters that voted for Trump in 2016 because these voters are also too stupid to know that they are stupid. The 48% that voted for Clinton are apparently better informed.
On the other end of the spectrum, anti-vaxxers tend to be associated with the political left; Newsweek reports that Dunning-Kruger explains their behavior. People who reject vaccination tend to believe that they know as much about vaccination and autism as medical professionals, while those who support vaccination are unlikely to think they know as much as doctors.
A number of problems arise when deploying the paradigm as a weapon.
- People can work from the same information and reach different conclusions. These differences arise from bias and tribalism. They can also result from different applications of dispassionate logic or sincere disagreement on interpretation. Roughly the same COVID-19 information is available to the entire world. Sweden has responded differently than other countries; is it a Dunning-Kruger country? No. Reaching different conclusions is not the same as being unable to assess one’s own incompetence.
- People can accept different information in good faith, and there may not be an objective standard of truth. Once, in a college class studying religions, a Muslim student reluctantly admitted that yes, all the Christians in the room were going to hell. It’s only fair because much of Christianity maintains similar views. I’m not qualified to judge which 1/3 of the planet is correct.
- Experts may not really be experts. Last night, I cooked chicken on the grill. “I’m not a pro chef, but I’ve cooked chicken dozen of times without poisoning anyone, and this is just my opinion about what I’ve observed...” Bleh. It turns out, according to CNN, that ‘experts’ can’t even definitively say when chicken is cooked, and apparently the chicken is different between Europe and North America. If I have to chose which expert to listen to, what’s the point?
I am willing to accept that half of Americans are not as smart as we think we are, but using Dunning-Kruger to dismiss a political movement or even a vaccine conspiracy theory just dresses up an ad hominem fallacy.
Non-experts can reason too
Kruger & Dunning’s research shows that novices, when exposed to new tasks, generally rate themselves as above average; half are wrong, half are right. The worst can’t even tell how bad they are.
On average, study participants estimated their percentile rank in a new discipline as 66%, when mathematically half each must perform above and below the mean. The lowest quartile overestimates itself quite a bit and the third quartile participants overestimate themselves as well.
Salient to the amateur, though, is those in the second quartile estimate their ability roughly accurately, and those most competent in a new arena underestimate their relative performance. A really talented amateur in a given arena probably underestimates their ability to make a contribution.
The first powered, manned flight was in an aircraft built by a couple of brothers that owned a bicycle shop. Bill Gates quit college and started Microsoft.
[Caution: even for the half who are above average, it’s a scale from worst to better than worst; even the best performers may or may not truly be competent. For this reason, I suggest that even talented amateurs avoid neurosurgery, even with a You-Tube video to go by. If you want to fly an airplane, take lessons until your metacognitive skills calibrate your estimation of your own ability.]
Beyond that, though, there is a place for non-experts to study, learn, and be familiar enough with a field to the point where they can make contributions. Consider the bloggers who exposed Dan Rather’s fraudulent memos about George W. Bush, when the ‘real journalists’ ran with the story.
Making a contribution
On reflection, here are a few ideas for the amateur or part-time whatever.
Humility. Humility armors the non-expert. Approach new areas with caution rather than arrogance. I think I am smart guy. I’m probably smart enough to change a toilet. But rather than jumping in I called my brother, who’s changed a dozen and learned basic plumbing in the Navy. I could also have consulted a couple of how-to books or watched You-Tube.
Data. Start with facts and check your facts. Just because it’s a popular meme doesn’t make it so. Review fact-checking websites. These can have a political lean and shoddy interpretation but often link to primary sources. Don’t rely on reporting about what someone said, read the transcript or watch the full clip for accuracy.
Angry about campaign finance and don’t believe that corporations are people? Take the time to read the Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission. Then we can have a discussion.
Transparency. Show your work. How did you make the calculations? Why did you choose certain assumptions over others? Where possible, cite or link to sources that support your claim.
Don’t be afraid to make your voice heard. Make points so fair and obvious that your detractors have to engage with your facts, not who you are.
Kruger, J., & Dunning, D. (1999). Unskilled and unaware of tt: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. Journal of Personality & Social Psychology, 77(6), 1121–1134.
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Brian E. Wish works as a quality engineer in the aerospace industry. He has spent 29 years active and reserve in the US Air Force, where he holds the rank of Colonel. He has a bachelor’s from the US Air Force Academy, a master’s from Bowie State, and a Ph.D. in Public and Urban Administration from UT Arlington. The opinions expressed here are his own.