(ThyBlackMan.com) “If ignorance is bliss,
Then wise men are fools.”
It is in vogue today to disparage expertise. The word “elite” has become an epithet to be hurled at anyone who displays any degree of knowledge about a subject. Take climate change, for instance. While most scientists back the notion that the earth is warming and one of the main causes is human activity, people with no background in climatology scoff at these “so-called experts.” One congressman went so far as to bring a snowball to the floor of the House of Representatives as his “proof” that the earth was not warming. What a nincompoop.
Turns out there is a name for the phenomena that a recent Washington Post article called “the confidence of the incompetent”: or the Dunning-Kruger effect. In a research paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1999 – Unskilled and Unaware: How Difficulty in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Leads to Inflated Self Assessments – David Dunning and Justin Kruger provided data that showed “incompetent people think they know more than they really do, and they tend to be more boastful about it.” These are people who were “least likely to know what they were talking about and believed they knew as much as the experts.” Interestingly, Google searches for “dunning kruger” peaked in 2017 and Dunning observed it obviously had to do with you know who.
Dunning went on to say, “the effect is particularly dangerous when someone with influence or the means to do harm doesn’t have anyone who can speak honestly about their mistakes.” He noted, for example, “several plane crashes could have been avoided if crew had spoken up to an overconfident pilot.” In his follow up research, he found that the “poorest performers are also the least likely to accept criticism or show interest in self- improvement.” Sounds exactly like the occupant of the Oval Office and the precarious position the country finds itself in today.
In the 21st century world where so much misinformation is propagated via the internet and social media, I suppose it is easy to fall victim to the Dunning-Kruger effect. One does not have to look hard to find something that “confirms” whatever bias they came to the subject with. Or they can blithely speak out on things that they have no knowledge or expertise in; like an NBA player saying “the earth is flat.” But we have to be better than this.
We have to ensure that our young people are educated not only “what to think”, but also “how to think.” How to do their own research in subjects that interest them and not be victims of “confirmation bias” where just because some celebrity or politician says something that fits with what they want to believe it becomes “true.”
We also have to reject the falsehood that elite status is a pejorative. When you are rolled into an operating room or step onboard an airplane would you prefer a doctor or pilot who is just ok, or one who is at the top of their field? If we praise elite athletes, why not hold anyone who is the best in their chosen field in the same esteem? Dr. King famously said, “If I am called to sweep streets, let me sweep streets like Beethoven composed music…” That’s the attitude we want to instill in our young people and what we want to practice ourselves.
Growing up, the folk wisdom was that “we had to be twice as good…” That pushed us to attempt to excel whether it was in school, on the court, or at work. Right now, our country needs people who know what the hell they are talking about and who seek to be the best at what they do, whatever that is. Contrary to what is often said, “ignorance is not bliss” and to be sure “wise men are certainly not fools.” Life is not a “Bird Box” challenge where only the blind will survive. Let your light so shine…
Staff Writer; Harry Sewell