Monday, August 16, 2010

The Dunning-Kruger effect

Bertrand Russell wrote The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt. Charles Darwin wrote Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge. Russell and Darwin had noticed what's now called the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias. It's why many incompetent people are very confident but their very incompetence denies them the capacity to realize their mistakes.

Dunning and Kruger put it this way: Overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it."

My interest in this phenomenon is due to comments to a recent article in the ADE concerning Bill McKibben's talk about climate change at Paul Smiths College.

The climate change "deniers" (skeptics?) seem to be 100% certain that humans are not responsible for recent warming trends. It's a conspiracy, it's the Sun, it's always happened, it's volcano's, man is too puny etc. etc. etc. Forget the scientific evidence, forget that most of their "explanations" have been investigated and found not to be contributing to the warming trend.

Am I 100% certain the climate is warming? Well, it's rare in science to be 100% certain about anything, so of course there are doubts. But all sorts of scientific evidence point to a warming trend due to increasing levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. Until there is good evidence that shows this is not the case, I guess I'll stick with the climate is changing crowd.

George Carlin, one of my favorites, once said something like: Imagine the average American...half of them are dumber than that. I'm afraid when it comes to certain scientific theories, it's a bit more than half.

You can read more about the Dunning-Kruger effect in this NY Times science article.

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