Saturday, 27 September 2014

Morton's Demon and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

Given the sheer weight of evidence which confirms both the fact of evolution and an ancient Earth, it may seem bizarre that people who possess some post-secondary academic qualifications nonetheless reject these facts in favour of a view which has not been taken seriously by any credible life scientist for over a century. Sometimes however, it requires above-average intelligence to maintain the elaborate web of self-deception which allows a person to maintain a dogmatic position held on emotional, rather than rational reasons. In that case, no amount of reason or logic will disabuse this person of their irrational position, until at such times the cognitive stress of denying reality becomes too much.

Former YEC and geophysicist Glenn Morton has proposed an elegant model to explain how YECs maintain their dogma in the face of hard evidence:
When I was a YEC, I had a demon that did similar things for me that Maxwell's demon did for thermodynamics. Morton's demon was a demon who sat at the gate of my sensory input apparatus and if and when he saw supportive evidence coming in, he opened the gate. But if he saw contradictory data coming in, he closed the gate. In this way, the demon allowed me to believe that I was right and to avoid any nasty contradictory data. Fortunately, I eventually realized that the demon was there and began to open the gate when he wasn't looking.
However, my conversations have made me aware that each YEC is a victim of my demon. Morton's demon makes it possible for a person to have his own set of private facts which others are not privy to, allowing the YEC to construct a theory which is perfectly supported by the facts which the demon lets through the gate. And since these are the only facts known to the victim, he feels in his heart that he has explained everything. Indeed, the demon makes people feel morally superior and more knowledgeable than others. 
The demon makes its victim feel very comfortable as there is no contradictory data in view. The demon is better than a set of rose colored glasses. The demon's victim does not understand why everyone else doesn't fall down and accept the victim's views. After all, the world is thought to be as the victim sees it and the demon doesn't let through the gate the knowledge that others don't see the same thing. Because of this, the victim assumes that everyone else is biased, or holding those views so that they can keep their job, or, in an even more devious attack by my demon, they think that their opponents are actually demon possessed themselves or sons of Satan. This is a devious demon! 
He can make people think that the geologic column doesn't exist even if one posts examples on the internet. He can make people believe that radioactive dating doesn't work even if you show them comparisons of tree rings compared to radiocarbon dating. He can make people ignore layer after layer of footprints and burrows in the geologic column...and believe that burrowing can occur and animals can walk around unimpeded during a global flood. He can make people think that the sun is shrinking, that the stars are all within 6000 light years of the earth, or that God made pictures in that light of events which never happened. He can make people believe that fossils aren't the remains of animals and are 'petrifactions' placed there by the devil. He can make people ignore modern measurements of continental motion, stellar formation, or biological speciation. He can make people believe that 75,000 feet of sediment over an area 200 by 100 miles can be deposited in a few hundred years, and he can make people believe that Noah trained animals to poop into buckets on command. He can make people deny transitional forms which have traits clearly halfway between two groups. This is a dangerous demon.
Paired with Morton's demon is the phenomenon known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named after the psychiatrists whose 1999 paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology outlined the details of this cognitive bias which prevents the unskilled and incompetent from recognising how little they know about a subject.  As the authors note:
we argue that the skills that engender competence in a particular domain are often the very same skills necessary to evaluate competence in that domain—one's own or anyone else's. Because of this, incompetent individuals lack what cognitive psychologists variously term metacognition (Everson & Tobias, 1998), metamemory (Klin, Guizman, & Levine, 1997), metacomprehension (Maki, Jonas, & Kallod, 1994), or self-monitoring skills (Chi, Glaser, & Rees, 1982). These terms refer to the ability to know how well one is performing, when one is likely to be accurate in judgment, and when one is likely to be in error.
As Charles Darwin, whom the authors cited in their paper stated in his 1871 book The Descent of Man:
Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
One sees this constantly among YECs who despite the fact they have no professional training or experience in geology, palaeontology, evolutionary biology, molecular biology, genomics, or paleoanthropology will nonetheless assert that the entire scholarly consensus is wrong.  Dunning and Kruger do point out that improving the skills of people can allow them to recognise their limitations, and help prevent them from making such errors. Whether those so cursed are able to do this is another question altogether.


1. Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David  "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (1999) 77: 1121–34.