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I’ve done my “research!” | The Dunning-Kruger effect

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I’ve done my “research!” | The Dunning-Kruger effect

There are numerous reasons to love the internet. Having the entire volume of human knowledge available in your pocket 24 hours a day is something we take for granted. This capability truly is a double-edged sword though, as there are just as many great resources available as there are ones that are completely bullshit (I’m looking at you, Mike Adams, David WolfeFood Babe, et al.).

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David Dunning, along with Justin Kruger, published a paper called Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments. The paper describes what is now known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, eloquently stated by Dunning himself:

In many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

So what is happening with the Dunning-Kruger effect, and how do we combat it?

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Matthew Fisher conducted a study where participants were allowed to search online to answer questions such as “How does a zipper work?” or “Why is ancient Kushite history more peaceful than Greek history?” (I mean, come on, doesn’t everybody know that?).  Even when participants were unable to find the answers using an Internet search, they still had an increased sense of knowledge and thought that their brains were more active than the control group. Frank Kiel, a co-author of the study, suggested that being in “search mode” on the Internet helps people feel smarter, despite their searches resulting in nothing due to filters blocking relevant results.

Fisher said:

We are not forced to face our own ignorance and ask for help; we can just look up the answer immediately. We think these features make it more likely for people to consider knowledge stored online as their own.

Fisher points out that a false sense of knowledge can be dangerous on a political level as well. An example of this is a question from a recent poll where respondents were asked if they supported bombing the city of Agrabah. For those that aren’t Disney enthusiasts, Agrabah is the imaginary city from the movie Aladdin. Approximately a quarter of the respondents (both Republican and Democrat combined) were in support of bombing the fictitious location, about half were uncertain, and the final quarter were opposed. Common sense would dictate that endorsement of such action means that you are not only certain that Agrabah exists, but also there is sufficient reason to bomb it. The poll participants who responded in the affirmative believed, despite their ignorance, that they knew enough about politics and geography to make that call. Perhaps they were able to recognize ‘Agrabah’ as a place of Middle East orient (however fictitious), and this, together with their knowledge of current relations between the US and the Middle East (and perhaps [however disheartening] a bit of prejudice against the Middle East), bolstered their confidence in their answers. 

While some may think that education alone is a remedy, that is not necessarily the case. Dunning himself cites an example where driver education classes aimed at teaching students how to handle emergency situations tend to lead to an increase in accident rates rather than a decline. People trained in the proper ways to handle the situations believe they are expertly equipped to handle the situations should they ever encounter them. This false sense of confidence inhibits real knowledge from ever being ingrained.

How do we fix it?

First, we need to admit to ourselves that it’s a problem in the first place. If you’re not a scientist, reading a scientific paper can seem a bit daunting, but learning how to read a scientific paper can help. Part of being a good skeptic is being able to examine primary sources for inconsistencies or other flaws. Many anti-science sites will use data from initial or exploratory research that suits their need, then misrepresent the results. They will then purport in silico research as being true, when (at most) in silico means more research is needed. Having the ability to read and interpret a scientific paper can inoculate against the bullshit.

Everyone is susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect. Sociologist Robert Merton stated that all ideas must be tested and are subject to rigorous, structured community scrutiny.

Internet searches are quick and easily manipulated using poor search terms. Contrary to reading books, taking classes, or discussing research with others, the Internet offers us expedient answers to questions that are often complicated. Instead of believing everything you read on the Internet, don’t immediately buy into the sexy headline. Find out who the experts are on the subject, read what they’ve published, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are, and listen to what they have to say.



Written by Dan Broadbent

Science Enthusiast. Atheist. Lover of cats.




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