Friday, August 8, 2008

The Double-Bind of the Incompetent

As Bertrand Russell once put it, the trouble is that "the stupid are cocksure."

We've all encountered them: people who think a talk argument they just made up, be it regarding quantum mechanics, the origin of life, climatology, or (to pull an example from my e-mail box), numerological connections in cosmology, trumps the intellectual "heavy lifting" and rigor of scientists building on the work of previous scientists.

It strikes us as hubris, or even dishonesty. As scientists we see this behavior not merely as being incorrect but as a manifestation of a moral failing. Perhaps that is so and perhaps it is not; regardless, a study by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows this lack of insight to be universal among the incompetent.

Kruger and Dunning had student volunteers (given extra credit) take the logic portion of the LSAT, a grammar exam, and a "test" in which their rating of the quality of jokes was compared to that given by professionals, and also rate their performance on each. On all three, the low performers assessed their own performance as being above average. Top quartile performers underestimated their own ability, but they revised their assessment after grading five others' grammar exams. The bottom performers gained no insight from grading their peers' exams; they were unable to recognize better work when they saw it!

It may be "old news"--the paper dates to 1999--but it is particularly rich, with more insights than I've summarized here. Among other things, it provides some insight into the obstinacy of the armchair global warming denialist, HIV/AIDS denialist, or quantum-mechanics contrarian. Not only are they ill informed, but they are unable to recognize expertise. Read the full article (which may be behind a pay wall) for more.