We haven’t done a straight social science post in a while, so here goes. The Pacific Standard published a goldmine of fallibility and low anthropology last week in David Dunning’s not-so-subtly titled “We Are All Confident Idiots,” ht TB. Dunning, a professor at Cornell, takes as his jumping off point the brilliant “Lie Witness News” segments that Jimmy Kimmel does on his late-night show, where street respondents fake knowledge about a fictitious subject rather than admit they don’t know, or aren’t aware of something. It’s hilarious… until you realize that you do the exact same thing, all the time. Just yesterday I found myself sounding off on the jury duty system to someone, even though I know next to nothing about it.

For the most part, Dunning avoids flattering those that might be reading The Pacific Standard, poking holes in smugness of all varieties and instead giving us a survey of how ignorance functions, universally, especially in relation to righteousness/identity (think logs in eyes, etc). It can be a vicious cycle, to say the least, even (particularly?) among the intelligentsia. Not exactly earth-shattering news, I know, but a helpful reminder in an election week.

Yet the title doesn’t capture how wide-ranging the piece is. Sure, there’s a lot of wheelhouse stuff about self-justification, motivated reasoning. and the narratives we construct for ourselves, both ideological and personal, and how those narratives come to serve as unswerving laws (paging Dr. Haidt!). But there’s also quite a bit about the nature of (mis)belief, period, how knowledge puffs up and blinds (1 Cor 8:1-2), very much in tune with what Ethan posted yesterday from Anne Lamott about the opposite of faith not being doubt but certainty. (Hard not to be reminded of that old Francis Bacon quote about how “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion”.) There’s even an unintentionally funny diss of “purpose-driven” mentalities and inflated understandings of agency. Of course, drawing out elements of the article to support a pre-existing framework is exactly what Dunning is warning against, so I better shut my mouth:

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack…

It’s so easy to judge the idiocy of others, it may be sorely tempting to think this doesn’t apply to you. But the problem of unrecognized ignorance is one that visits us all. And over the years, I’ve become convinced of one key, overarching fact about the ignorant mind. One should not think of it as uninformed. Rather, one should think of it as misinformed.

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge. This clutter is an unfortunate by-product of one of our greatest strengths as a species. We are unbridled pattern recognizers and profligate theorizers. Often, our theories are good enough to get us through the day, or at least to an age when we can procreate. But our genius for creative storytelling, combined with our inability to detect our own ignorance, can sometimes lead to situations that are embarrassing, unfortunate, or downright dangerous—especially in a technologically advanced, complex democratic society that occasionally invests mistaken popular beliefs with immense destructive power… As the humorist Josh Billings once put it, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” (Ironically, one thing many people “know” about this quote is that it was first uttered by Mark Twain or Will Rogers—which just ain’t so.)…

Some of our most stubborn misbeliefs arise not from primitive childlike intuitions or careless category errors, but from the very values and philosophies that define who we are as individuals. Each of us possesses certain foundational beliefs—narratives about the self, ideas about the social order—that essentially cannot be violated: To contradict them would call into question our very self-worth. As such, these views demand fealty from other opinions. And any information that we glean from the world is amended, distorted, diminished, or forgotten in order to make sure that these sacrosanct beliefs remain whole and unharmed.

One very commonly held sacrosanct belief, for example, goes something like this: I am a capable, good, and caring person. Any information that contradicts this premise is liable to meet serious mental resistance.

It is perhaps not so surprising to hear that facts, logic, and knowledge can be bent to accord with a person’s subjective worldview; after all, we accuse our political opponents of this kind of “motivated reasoning” all the time. But the extent of this bending can be remarkable. In ongoing work with the political scientist Peter Enns, my lab has found that a person’s politics can warp other sets of logical or factual beliefs so much that they come into direct contradiction with one another. In a survey of roughly 500 Americans conducted in late 2010, we found that over a quarter of liberals (but only six percent of conservatives) endorsed both the statement “President Obama’s policies have already created a strong revival in the economy” and “Statutes and regulations enacted by the previous Republican presidential administration have made a strong economic recovery impossible.” Both statements are pleasing to the liberal eye and honor a liberal ideology, but how can Obama have already created a strong recovery that Republican policies have rendered impossible? Among conservatives, 27 percent (relative to just 10 percent of liberals) agreed both that “President Obama’s rhetorical skills are elegant but are insufficient to influence major international issues” and that “President Obama has not done enough to use his rhetorical skills to effect regime change in Iraq.” But if Obama’s skills are insufficient, why should he be criticized for not using them to influence the Iraqi government?…

The built-in features of our brains, and the life experiences we accumulate, do in fact fill our heads with immense knowledge; what they do not confer is insight into the dimensions of our ignorance. As such, wisdom may not involve facts and formulas so much as the ability to recognize when a limit has been reached. Stumbling through all our cognitive clutter just to recognize a true “I don’t know” may not constitute failure as much as it does an enviable success, a crucial signpost that shows us we are traveling in the right direction toward the truth.