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Knowing Nothing: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

For those of you that don't know, the emergence of the Delta-strain of Covid-19 in New Zealand has plunged our country into a government-ordered complete lockdown for several weeks due to a slow and staggered vaccine rollout.

Complete lockdown in New Zealand has a slightly different definition to the rest of the developed world. The only location you can leave your humble abode for is your local supermarket, and if you're anything like me, you can't help but feel like Will Smith in I Am Legend every time you do.

These types of lockdowns have a way of reducing days into a steady stream of light fluctuations, like a child messing with the Sun's dimmer switch. Night becomes day, day becomes night, but that goddamn stomach podge never shrinks, regardless of the lighting.

Over this period, I must say, we certainly have become aces at scrolling mindlessly through social media posts in pursuit of a fleeting, elusive reward for the ten minutes of diligent work we just put in.

I've participated in a bit of this myself. And while scrolling such posts, I couldn't help but notice the incredible array of friends and acquaintances of high distinction I have. People who, prior to this pandemic, never once mentioned their expertise in fields such as political science, epidemiology, microbiology, and international human rights.

At first, I was impressed––mostly with myself for being the type of character to surround myself with such a high caliber of social network. But when I dove a little deeper into the credentials of my intellectual comrades, I was shocked to discover that not a single one actually held any relevant qualifications to commentate with merit on the complex array of shitstorms currently encircling the planet, despite their unreserved and constant need to do so.

Qualifications aside, everyone's got an opinion on… well… everything; whether it's global lockdowns, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, mask mandates, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, climate change, or [dare I say it] vaccinations and vaccination passports.

You've seen it too––the 'influencers,' friends, and family members who seem to have unlimited time to preach ambiguous 'Truths' to anyone who will listen, or those slimy community groups, which have devolved into virtual coliseums of ignorance.

I've never been so self-assured of anything in my life the way these people seem to be on issues they learned about twenty seconds ago. They've read the headline, they've formed an opinion, and goddamn it, you're going to hear about it.

So, what transforms everyday schmucks into relentless experts on the smorgasbord of social, political, medicinal, and environmental issues facing the planet? This question led me on a deep dive into the psychological phenomenon known as Dunning-Kruger Effect.

In 1999, social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger decided to study humans' failure to recognize their own incompetence after learning of the bizarre criminal case of McArthur Wheeler.

In this case, (I shit you not), Wheeler robbed two banks with his face covered in nothing but lemon juice, genuinely believing that the chemical properties of lemon juice doubled up as invisibility ink.

In Wheeler's self-assured mind, security footage and witness testimonies would tell a story of a headless assailant running off into the sunset with bags full of money––a literal case of the Emperor Has No Clothes based on Wheeler's delusional intellectual superiority over his peers.

Needless to say, Wheeler was arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. And, for the record––before covering yourself in lemon juice in a wily attempt to escape Auckland lockdown––lemon juice never has and never will moonlight as invisibility ink.

But Wheeler's misguided notion served as inspiration for a series of four studies conducted by Dunning and Kruger, named: Unskilled and Unaware of it. These studies found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on humor, grammar, and logic, grossly overestimated their performance and ability, but more interestingly, their incompetence robbed them of the ability to actually realize this.

Paradoxically, when participants were encouraged to improve their skills in these areas, their competence increased, but so did their ability to recognize their limitations. Consequently, education resulted in the realization that participants did not have as much knowledge as they thought they had, and their confidence was crushed accordingly, leaving them less likely to speak out.

In a nutshell, people who have not properly educated themselves on a particular subject do not possess the self-awareness to recognize their own incompetence but have a surplus of delusional self-confidence to express their opinions freely. On the other hand, those that have committed themselves to deep learning on a particular subject tend to realize how complicated the subject is, and are therefore more likely to shut up about it.

So, this leaves us in society's current predicament, in which those that know, stay silent and those that don't, scream their ad hoc opinions from social media mountaintops.

Enter me; a know-nothing with an inflated sense of know-all, spraying unearned streams of self-confidence from the driver's seat of my very own Dunning-Kruger train. Choo-choo, motherfuckers––the irony's not lost on me here.

Let's cut to the chase––I'm sure you've guessed why we're here––time to ruffle some feathers and talk Delta, lockdowns, and [dare I say it] vaccinations and vaccine passports.

In one corner of social media, we have the Freedom Fighters––everyday men and women who have a coveted ability to see through the Mainstream Media's lies, committing themselves to fighting the good fight against tyrannical governments in an attempt to 'wake-up' the misinformed, 'sheep' and break them free of their 'home detentions' and 'mass mental illness.'

In the other corner, we have the Herd-Immunity Fighters––everyday men and women who can read the conclusion line from any Google Scholar article and have committed themselves to fighting the good fight against disinformation in an attempt to save the lives of the misinformed, 'tin-foil-hat-wearing', conspiracy theorists by breaking them free of their super-spreader protests and mass delusions.

The irony being, neither side seem to realize they are doing the exact same thing; barking unsolicited opinions across self-imposed divides in the social media abyss. I often wonder how many pro-life, evangelical conservatives are now using the 'my body, my choice' argument to explain their refusal of the Covid-19 vaccine. I also wonder how many empathetic advocates of the greater good have used the vaccine as an attempt to pitch themselves as a 'selfless' white knight.

The world of Dunning-Kruger is full of hypocrisy.

For the most part, there's nothing new here––western society has always loved itself a bit of tribalism. The chances of every single one of us following the same, government-ordered protocols under the western, individualistic, democratic framework was always going to be a stretch. Hell, in America, a healthy dose of skepticism against the government is handwritten into the constitution.

Covid-19 has blasted a spotlight on the cracks in our system and tipped democratic societies on their head. It has forced us to operate as a collective rather than as individuals. This novelty has scared the shit out of many westerners who believed in the conditioned ideals of individualism and libertarianism.

Conspiracy theories are thriving, not because a select group of people can see something the rest of us can't, but because people are scared, and conspiracy theories serve as a coping mechanism in order to feel some form of control in times of uncertainty.

I'm no communist, but you must admit, there's an argument for mindless obedience during a pandemic. Collectivism is another day at the office for communist societies—they've always operated this way. Consequently, they have tackled this pandemic with the ease of flipping a pancake while the west has spilled the milk and eggs all over the kitchen floor.

Our leaders in the west have quite the conundrum on their hands––in order to reinstate the western, capitalist model (consequently, ensuring politicians get paid), they must convince their citizens that the capitalist machine is perfectly safe. But, without a full vaccination rollout (à la-New Zealand), the safety of this machine inevitably relies on a temporary halt of capitalism at the expense of individual companies and employees while enforcing temporary laws around collectivism, usually seen in communist countries.

The remedy, of course, being a nationwide vaccine rollout in the hopes that an entire society will diligently toddle along to their nearest vaccination center after having the benefits of free thought and capitalist individualism drilled into their heads for generations.

That's a damn tough sell for anyone, especially while trying to keep voters in your corner, and I envy our politicians about as much as I believe in their competence.

So, here we are—becoming increasingly frustrated at the ear-splitting squawk of the Dunning-Kruger brigade while knowing damn well that we live in a society that protects their right to squawk.

Let's be honest—we want it this way. Every democratic society has always protected the village idiot's right to scream conspiratorial 'truths' from the village square. The only difference now is the village square is your local community Facebook page, and the village idiot follows you in your pocket.

So, to those fighting for your right to "think for yourself" and "do your own research," may I be so bold as to suggest a few ways in which you might do so without falling into the Dunning-Kruger trap, consequently becoming said village idiot?

No? Well, democratic society protects my right to deliver unsolicited advice, too, so tough shit.

How to avoid becoming a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect:

1. Trust the experts

You know those cats who dedicated their lives to the study and practice of complex subjects, so the rest of us don't have to? It's probably in our best interest to trust them on those subjects right now.

I get it; complex information in the hands of a few has the potential for corruption. Hell, I'm even skeptical of my mechanic every time he tells me something's wrong with my car. But, guess what? I take his word for it because I, sure as hell, don't know any better.

Science is not some secretive cabal, meeting in darkened Mason churches to collude against society. Science is a method of observing reality; nothing more, nothing less. It consists of identifying a problem, forming a hypothesis, and testing that hypothesis through a series of tried and true methods.

The people conducting such research are hard-working, decent human beings, like you and me. Very few are corrupt, and they didn't go into this line of work for the paycheque. For the most part, they are horrendously overworked and underpaid, especially in times of crisis, like we find ourselves in now.

If you're still concerned that scientists are conspiring against you, take yourself off to your nearest scientific convention and watch the participants tear chunks out of each other. No one holds scientists to the flame more than other scientists. This is called peer-review and is one of the cornerstones of research.

Scientists don't agree with each other by design. Every bit of observation is scrutinized ruthlessly, and we want this to happen as a safeguard against corruption and, well… because reality is slippery enough as it is.

2. Stop reading research based only on your own confirmation bias.

I get it; you live in a virtual echo chamber based on an algorithm designed to keep you glued to the screen in order to bombard you with advertising for the air fryer you thought about twenty minutes ago.

But, dammit, if you have enough time to listen to hours of podcasts on anecdotal tales of vaccine side-effects and one-in-a-million vaccine deaths, you sure as shit have time to read reputable, peer-reviewed articles on the trials and tribulations of the same vaccine which allowed it to become available to you in the first place.

No, it won't be as dramatic, and yes, it probably will be far more boring. But honestly, if you want to hold your head high as the intellectual, woke overlord you are, you should at least be ready for a half-decent and unbiased debate.

3. Use Ockham's Razor at every opportunity.

I fucking love Ockham's Razor and probably use it on a daily basis. I encourage you to do the same.

What is Ockham's Razor?

What that word soup loosely translates to is that the simplest explanation for any given situation is usually the best, and you should never make more assumptions than you absolutely need.

As an example, if you saw a ten-foot-tall, hairy beast walking through the forest while hiking, sure, you could jump to the conclusion that you saw Bigfoot, but by doing so, you have created an entirely fictional character and hypothetical situation unnecessarily to explain the observed phenomenon.

By utilizing the concept of Ockham's Razor, you would start your line of research by ruling out far simpler, more viable explanations, such as witnessing a bear walking on its hind legs, or a tall human in a strange hunting suit.

Maybe you did see Bigfoot. But, statistically speaking, you are far more likely to have witnessed one of the former, which hold current validity and do not require further assumptions or inventions.

4. Learn how to critique your research

Our schooling system failed us miserably on this one. I can only hope children today are taught to source, critique, and read research properly because I sure as shit wasn't.

It wasn't until university that I learned this skill, but the acquisition opened a whole new world of understanding to me. By grasping the importance of factors such as sample size, double-blinding, and peer-reviews, I became confident in the quality of evidence I was reading and consequently formed opinions based on gold-standard evidence rather than cherry-picked YouTube videos.

5. If you find yourself basing your opinion on a sensationalized headline, YouTube video, or Facebook post—stop.

Breathe, turn around and go back—you've officially gone down the wrong road. Regress to step number one and work through the following steps.

In the perfect world, by doing the above, you will become far more educated on the topic you are voicing an opinion on. Consequently, by the principles of Dunning-Kruger, you will probably second-guess the voicing of your opinion altogether.

I know, I said it myself, we live in a free society which, for the most part, protects your freedom of speech. So, Dunning-Kruger effect aside, why shouldn't you freely express your opinion with the unearned confidence of a toddler with a megaphone?

Firstly, if freedom of speech is the main argument you're falling back on, chances are, your argument was fairly shit, to begin with.

Secondly, if you happen to be screaming your right to sovereignty over your body into the ether, demanding that others cease their attempts to convince you what to do with it, surely you can see the hypocrisy of simultaneously attempting to convince others what they should or shouldn't do with their own bodies?

Lastly, remember those vulnerable humans we keep hearing about on the news? Those who live in our society, might be elderly or live with compromised immune systems or pre-existing health conditions?

Well, it turns out (for the most part) those people have eyes and ears, and they can actually read and hear everything you say about them. Many of these people are genuinely concerned for their lives and personal safety, and their fear and suffering have been exploited to prop up loose arguments around this pandemic for almost two years now.

If you have terminal cancer but die in a car accident, your death certificate will still state that you died in a car accident, despite your pre-existing conditions. The same goes for the immune-compromised and vulnerable who have passed from Covid-19. It is time to stop using them as crutches for half-baked arguments to inflate your sense of self-worth.

You know who else has ears and eyes? The family and friends of the 4.5 million people who have died worldwide from Covid-19. They can hear you when you say this virus is barely deadly. They are shattered when you ask, 'yeah, but do you actually know anyone who has died from the virus?' They fall to pieces when you go on to ask, 'yeah, but what pre-existing conditions did they have?'

I can't begin to explain the narcissism and sociopathy it must take to genuinely think these are empathetic and valid responses to a human being divulging their pain to you. Their heart breaks every time you exploit their suffering to justify a shallow opinion based on your own echo chamber.

Despite our individualistic conditioning, we could certainly adopt some of the ideals of collectivism at this time in our history. We are collectively sick and tired of this virus. We are collectively concerned about what the future holds. We collectively want to hug and laugh with our families again. We are collectively trying to do right by our own bodies. We are collectively going insane in our lockdown bubbles. And don't get me started on the lockdown dreams… oh, God… the dreams.

So why not use that collectivism for good? Collectively, we could momentarily take the scope off our own suffering in order to recognize the shared plights of our fellow man, and consequently, find a sense of global community in the process.

Sure, the concept of being kind has all the platitudinal shortfalls of a Hallmark card, but maybe we could use that logic to at least hit the pause button before wading into slimy comment sections with unnecessary cruelty for a fleeting moment of intellectual superiority.

In closing, while diving into this phenomenon, I couldn't help but wonder why the Dunning-Kruger effect has survived millions of years of human psychological evolution?

As it turns out, the answer's quite simple.

Our failure to recognize our own incompetence has led to literally every incredible feat in human achievement. Just take a walk around your local city on your allocated hour of lockdown exercise. At one time, every single building, work of art, road sign, streetlamp, and drain were nothing more than an idea in the mind of a cocky idealist.

In the right hands, the Dunning-Kruger effect can create magic. It can manifest our imagination into reality based on the overconfidence and sheer determination of one deluded man or woman.

Our inflated sense of unearned confidence gives us the emotional drive to push further into the realm of uncertainty and consequently shape the world around us.

So, don't ever give up your unearned confidence. Instead, consider using this superpower for the greater good rather than self-indulgence. Then, we can mold our world into one that is creative, empathetic, radically inclusive, and rational.

And, for God's sake, whatever you do, don't get any funny ideas about the chemical properties of citrus fruit to top up your bank account after your lockdown, online shopping splurge.


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