Saturday, 25 April 2015

Ignorance without insight - the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? - Jer 17:9 
The first principle is that you must not fool yourself--and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that. - Richard Feynman. Caltech Commencement Address 1974 
In 1995, McArthur Wheeler walked into two Pittsburgh banks and robbed them in broad daylight, with no visible attempt at disguise. He was arrested later that night, less than an hour after videotapes of him taken .from surveillance cameras were broadcast on the 11 o'clock news. When police later showed him the surveillance tapes, Mr. Wheeler stared in incredulity. "But I wore the juice," he mumbled. Apparently, Mr. Wheeler was under the impression that rubbing one's face with lemon juice rendered it invisible to videotape cameras.  Kruger, Justin; Dunning, David (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 (1999) 77:1121–34
Our community often quotes Jeremiah 17:9 as a proof text for the view that human nature is ineradicably evil. It is puzzling then that those who quote it fail to consider the implication that that human reasoning likewise will lead us astray unless people take the time to cultivate critical thinking skills, and recognise the fact that the human mind is adept at self-deception in all areas, not just moral. The example of the stupid criminal who seriously thought that a layer of lemon juice would prevent surveillance cameras from recording his image may seem an extreme example, but is is hardly any worse in type than that of a layperson who pronounces himself competent not only to comment on highly technical disciplines well outside of his narrow area of professional expertise, but to declare that the consensus view in that area is utterly wrong. Admittedly, the former person will end up in prison for his lack of insight into his incompetence while the latter at worst will merely embarrass himself in the eyes of those who actually understand the subject, but in both cases, we have people who not only are utterly incompetent, but are completely without insight into this fact.

The relevance of this for our community is fairly clear. As we are a lay-based community that lacks both clergy and formal training colleges, we have relied on a noble tradition both of self-education, and a respect for genuine scholarship. The former is contingent on the latter as a respect for scholarship and critical thinking is needed in order to properly guide and direct self-education. Unfortunately, the last half-century has seen both fundamentalism and an undisguised contempt and hatred for scholarship infect our community. The rise in pseudoscientific nonsense such as YEC, not to mention fringe archaeology as evidenced by the popularity of charlatans such as Ron Wyatt and Immanuel Velikovsky readily reflects this 'scandal of the Christadelphian mind.'

It is bad enough that our community produces hopelessly uninformed laypeople who seriously think that they are in a position to dismiss contemporary scholarship, much less understand it to the degree required to provide informed, relevant commentary on it. What makes it worse is that invariably such people are completely without insight into their considerable ignorance on the subject. As Dunning and Kruger note:
We argue that when people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it. Instead, like Mr. Wheeler, they are left with the mistaken impression that they are doing just fine. As Mille perceptively observed in the quote that opens this article, and as Charles Darwin sagely noted over a century ago, "ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge".  
In essence, 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, metamemory, metacomprehension, or self-monitoring skills. 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. (Emphasis mine)
This crippling phenomenon of ignorance without insight needless to say is readily available whenever one glances at any forum in which laypeople gather to attack mainstream science. For religious or highly ideologically-based forums, given that such forums tend to function as support groups, the problem is even worse as there are usually no dissenting voices, meaning that the forums become echo chambers of the uninformed, minimising the chance of a corrective voice being heard. And finally, when such uninformed views are linked with theological or ideological orthodoxy, any dissenting voice that does exist often is dismissed as ideologically unsound or heretical.

Put this way, the chances of people escaping the curse of Dunning-Kruger would appear to be minimal at best, but as with any problem, recognition is the first step. With recognition both of the problem, and one's lack of insight comes the means to correct that ignorance - seek out sources of competency. New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado in his excellent blog post Expertise and How to Detect It provides an excellent summary of how to find wisdom:

So, how does some innocent peruser of the Web who isn’t an expert in a given field judge a claim about something in that field? Well, is it being made by someone who appears to have the requisite training for that subject? Is it from someone with an established reputation in that subject? (And the Web now makes it fairly simple to check up on people.) Or, if it’s from an emergent scholar, is the claim published in a peer-reviewed journal or from a respected publisher (who uses peer-review)? If not, then I’d advise you not to bet more than a tuppence on it.
Go, and do thou likewise.