Because the universe is beautiful enough without having to lie about it

Unconscious incompetence

October 26th, 2008 Posted in Psychology

There is a wonderful and highly informative scientific research paper in the field of psychology which was mentioned to me twice in the space of two days, so I thought I absolutely had to comment on it. If I believed in omens, that would probably be one. The paper is called “Incompetent and Unaware of it”, by Justin Kruger and David Dunning of Cornell University.  It was written in 1999, and has become something of a legend in the area of pseudoscience. Or, more precisely, of opposing it.

For those of you interested in more than a mere summary, the entire paper is freely available here (PDF). The paper puts forward a simple hypothesis, which is proceeds to rigorously prove in four separate trials. That hypothesis: That people who are not knowledgeable in a certain area not only perform poorly in tests of that particular sphere of knowledge (obviously) but also, interestingly, massively overestimate their own skill relative to that of those around them. People who are highly above average in that area tend to underestimate their performance.  This is basically what Socrates was saying over two thousand years ago when he famously reasoned “The only true wisdom is in knowing that I know nothing”. Or words to that effect.  Essentially, it takes a certain amount of knowledge to understand how much knowledge there actually is to be obtained.

I guess this is like the story a friend of mine told me. When he was eight years old in primary school and he’d just learned long division, he asked his teacher if he’d learned all of maths yet. He just figured that, as people got older and learned more maths, they just had to do sums with longer numbers. For what it’s worth, that same friend went on to get a PhD in computational physical chemistry from Cambridge, so I think he did find out some more stuff eventually.

This is relevant for several reasons. Firstly, after reading Ben Goldacre’s excellent book “Bad Science” (please buy it!), it is clear that this has some relevance for why so many newspaper journalists insist on writing stories about science that they don’t understand. But it’s also important because it explains why so many pseudoscientists don’t understand that they’re wrong. After all, if you have no idea of the scope of a subject as enormous as, say… ooohhh.. genetics, then it’s perfectly plausible that you’ll believe creationism. Or if you don’t understand any physics then it’s perfectly possible that you’ll believe in homeopathy or crystal healing. I guess it’s like the seven year old who totally ignores all complex mathematical analysis because his horizons don’t stretch any further than the 12 times table.

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