Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Dunning-Kruger Syndrome

I have written about Dunning-Kruger syndrome a couple of times earlier. I think I am a fairly well read person but I hesitate to make definitive comments about most issues because I feel that I am woefully uninformed about many things. I was relieved to find that I was not alone in getting this feeling. In The Denial of Death, Andreas Becker writes:
I remember one of my college professors - a man very much admired as a teacher of medieval history - confessing that the more he learned about the period the less he was prepared to say: the epoch was so complex, so diversified that no general statement could safely be made about it.
I used to literally fall off my wheelchair  when I used to hear people who I thought were not well acquainted with a subject making supremely confident statements about it. I have received many of the most sweeping and confident prognoses of my condition from people who have no connection with the medical profession.

My problem is compounded by the fact that I have to give binary yes/no answers and most questions cannot be answered this way. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, scientist and philosopher,  said that the most dangerous of all falsehoods is a slightly distorted truth. My mode of communication ensures generation of distorted truths.

In the first couple of years after my stroke, when I was more naive, I used to make various 'gotcha' statements thinking that I will show everyone how smart I am.But of course I had zero impact. In Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, while trying to convince Florence Craye about something, Bertie Wooster muses:
Once more I had that sense of not making progress. Her face, I observed, was cold and hard, like my kipper, which of course during these exchanges I had been neglecting, and I began to understand how these birds in Holy Writ must have felt after their session with the deaf adder.  I can't recall all the details, though at my private school I once won a prize for Scripture Knowledge, but I remember that they had the dickens of an uphill job trying to charm it, and after they had sweated themselves to a frazzle no business resulted. It is often this way, I believe, with deaf adders.
If you have an argument with these people you get the distinct impression that you are in conversation with the afore-mentioned deaf adder. (I could do with an 'anger room' but how do I use it?) I gradually realised that my best option was to adopt a sphinx-like demeanour with a broad smile (at least I hoped it was a smile).  It is said that speech is silvern but silence is golden. They get plenty of that golden stuff from me. This saved me lot of time and effort.

(According to this TED talk, Jeeves' mantra of studying the psychology of the individual often pays dividends. I heard another story about Kemal Ataturk, the strongman of Turkey. He wanted to discourage the wearing of veils but he adopted a different strategy to that of Nicholas Sarkozy - he made it compulsory for all prostitutes to wear veils.)

But this tactic of keeping mum does put me on a sticky wicket. If I  keep a glum face, it might be perceived as rude. But since I find it difficult to smile, I will try to induce laughter but I must be careful not to overdo it otherwise people will think that I am wildly enthusiastic about their ideas. (I only need to worry about the first and last sentences of this cartoon.)

t think I did not notice this syndrome before my stroke because the educational institutions that I had been to meant that I was generally in the company of people whose average IQ would be higher than that of the population as a whole. You can't get big-headed when you are surrounded by people with brains the size of planets, people who  were likely to discuss Black-Sholes equation over breakfast.I had unconsciously and erroneously imbibed the idea that the wider population will be similar. In other words I was in an ivory tower getting psyched by integral calculus and maximizing objective functions.

With so much brain power around me, it was perhaps not surprising that I had occasional bouts of the Impostor Syndrome.I didn't know till a couple of years ago that there was a name for this type of fear and that it is more widespread than I had imagined.

Ever since I came to know about this phenomenon, I started seeing it everywhere. An internationally well-known case is that of Joe the plumber. I think it is a key problem with denialists of all hues. I don't read much about the science of climate change because the subject is huge  and I don't have the  time for it. Sometimes I see  a denialist article and start reading it to see what the controversy  was all about. Very often I realise that the writer doesn't know the difference between weather and climate so I see no point in proceeding further. It is improbable that lots of very smart people who have spent decades studying an issue will make the simple errors that denialists point out. (Te best cartoon about climate change that I saw was in this TED talk.)

We should all be careful of this arrogance of ignorance.We are most confident about areas that are not our specialized fields because we are not aware of the complexities that might arise in them and we might end up describing a spherical cow. Creationists seem to have PhDs in every field except evolutionary biology. (It is stunning that Dawkins is asked to waste his time on debates like this. )

Contrary to what I was told earlier, I am now more wary of taking seriously people who appear too confident about complex issues. Politicians and religious  leaders immediately spring to mind.

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