The Dunning-Kruger effect

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is, somewhat aptly, one of the most underappreciated theories in the social sciences. Getting to know it goes some way to explaining why the ignorant sometimes shout the loudest and why the well-informed can find it difficult to settle on a position. It will also explain why starting this website wasn’t as easy for me as you might expect, for someone who has never struggled for self-confidence.

In a nutshell, the effect identified by Justin Kruger and David Dunning in 1999 is where those who are incompetent at a given task tend to overestimate their ability and those who are competent tend to underestimate it.

As an aside, what this doesn’t mean is that the incompetent rate their ability higher than the competent. It has become a slightly frustrating misunderstanding; clearly someone with no medical experience wouldn’t rate their ability to perform surgery more highly than a surgeon would. The discrepancy between the two is simply much smaller than is warranted.

With that in mind, I’ll add a little caveat here that I will drift a little beyond the scope of the effect in this article to make some wider points where necessary. I hope Drs Dunning and Kruger forgive me if I skirt close to the edge of misrepresenting their theory.

What it means for the world today

The internet is a wonderful thing, for countless reasons. Its effect on democracy has been profound. In the 20th century, everyone’s vote counted the same but the same certainly wasn’t true for everyone’s voice. In 2019, social media has had a huge levelling effect on that.

This means that anyone with a Facebook or Twitter profile (or any idiot with a WordPress site…) can publish whatever they think about a politician or policy, with no qualification necessary. This can be both a positive and a negative, but when you throw in a growing public mistrust in genuine experts – cue Michael Gove’s infamous line – the combination can be toxic.

Of course, this all simply brings to the fore an effect that will have always existed. Millions will have always backed a particular political party with utmost confidence despite completely misunderstanding the policies for which they stand. It’s just that now they have an audience.

The description of the Dunning-Kruger effect is heavily centred on what we might call ‘unknown unknowns’. That is, the things about which people are not aware that they are ignorant. On the flip-side, those who are well-informed may have a greater knowledge of elements that they are yet to master.

The general point here is not that we should remove the voice of the ill-informed. I’m certainly not advocating for the introduction of a certificate of fitness to tweet. It is that we should all be more aware of our own ignorance; there’s nothing wrong with not knowing something, but it’s very good to know that you don’t know it. Still following..?

Experts have a tricky role in this. With the aforementioned growing public mistrust, now is not the time for intellectuals to become overbearing and condescending. But, those in the know have a responsibility to maintain the courage of their convictions in order to keep helping others understand that they have larger knowledge gaps than they had thought. And, they must do this while battling the relative lack of confidence that can come with being an expert.

What it means for this website

I wouldn’t describe myself as an ‘expert’ on anything. I know rather a lot about sport. I know quite a lot about politics. I’m learning more all the time about economics. I’d confidently say I also have a comfortably above-average general knowledge across all bases too.

However, being not a million miles away from expertise on politics and sport can make starting a website like this a real challenge, in a funny sort of way. I’m acutely aware of what I don’t know, which means every article will be second-guessed along the way, to perhaps a greater extent than if I were less knowledgeable. I’m simultaneously conscious that my articles might be picked apart by those who know far more than me, as well as by those who know far less.

Still, I’m going to do my best to put the Dunning-Kruger effect – and to a lesser extent the ‘impostor syndrome’ – to one side for the sake of this website. I’ll back myself to understand familiar topics well enough, and when writing about something unfamiliar, I’ll do what I can to adequately plug the unknown unknowns.

My opinions may change over time – my political views have certainly changed as I’ve become better-informed. Given that I expect to learn much more about economics in the coming years, it’ll be interesting to see how my writing changes as my knowledge develops.

So, bear with me, correct me when I’m genuinely wrong, and let’s join hands together in the crusade against the evils of the unknown unknowns.

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