Are the Ignorant too Ignorant to know they’re Ignorant?

By January 29, 2017 Uncategorized 2 Comments

So as not to inadvertently offend anyone, I will start this post with the following disclaimer:

“Some names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, president or non-president, or actual events is purely coincidental.”

What I am about to write is just a random musing on the topic of stupidity. Again, my comments have NOTHING to do with the decisions and events of the first ten days of the new guy’s presidency, which have gone really, really, totally swell. It’s been terrific. Promise. (You can never be sure who’s watching these days.)

I hope I’ve made it crystal clear that when I talk about ignorance here in a minute, I am in no way referring to our current commander-in-chief, a man who said in a series of interviews that he does not need to read extensively because he reaches the right decisions “with very little knowledge other than the knowledge I [already] had, plus the words ‘common sense,’ because I have a lot of common sense and I have a lot of business ability.”

So, there’s that – again, completely unrelated to the topic I am about to share.

I want you to ponder this question: Has it ever seemed to you that less competent people rate their competence higher than it actually is, while more competent people humbly rate theirs lower?

Believe it or not, this is really a thing. This is a genuine cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger effect, named after David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University, occurs where people fail to adequately assess their level of competence — or specifically, their incompetence — at a task and thus consider themselves much more competent than everyone else.

In short, according to this theory, incompetence shields our self-knowledge of incompetence. Or more bluntly, the stupidest person in the room doesn’t feel that stupid, because their ignorance also dampens their awareness.

The American author and aphorist William Feather once wrote that being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.”

As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve. Although what we know is often perceptible to us, even the broad outlines of what we don’t know are all too often completely invisible. To a great degree, we fail to recognize the frequency and scope of our ignorance.

The principle is illustrated indirectly by the common saying that “I’ve learned enough about ________ to know what I don’t know.” The implication is that someone who hasn’t learned much about the subject would have no appreciation for how much there is to learn about it, and so might grossly overestimate their level of understanding.

Again, I am not at all referring to any of the “brilliant” thoughts or statements shared by our president … or even his nominee for the secretary of education cabinet position, Betsy DeVos, whose one compelling argument for allowing guns in schools is because schools in Wyoming might need them to protect children from “potential grizzlies.”

The parallel is purely coincidental.

But, there is this concern – 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.

If you are interested in reading more about this topic, I encourage you to read the following article from one of the authors of the theory, Dr. David Dunning.

In this piece for Pacific Standard Magazine, Dunning explains how his research verifies the reality that we are all “confident idiots.” It’s really quite good. In fact, I learned how ignorant I had been previously on this topic, hence this blog post.

Here is an excerpt:

Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For 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.

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

One more time, the last sentence of that quote reminds me of absolutely no one who resides on Pennsylvania Avenue.

However, I will say this. Because it’s so easy to judge the idiocy of others, it may be sorely tempting to think this doesn’t apply to us. But the problem of unrecognized ignorance is one that visits us all.

If we are honest with ourselves, we can all be confidently ignorant about a wide range of topics. Yet, it is often difficult to fathom just how close and how pervasive these unknowns are, precisely because they are invisible to us.

As Dunning writes:”People are destined not to know where the solid land of their knowledge ends and the slippery shores of their ignorance begins.”

In the context of schools, we need to more aware of this phenomena and how it appears in our schools. We have all observed students afraid to answer a question for fear of appearing stupid. At the same time, we have too many students more than willing to offer ignorant comments on a wide range of topics.

There is also the false perception that the teacher is supposed to know everything about his subject and the principal should be an expert on everything related to managing her school. That is an ideal worth pursuing, but it requires awareness, humility, and the ability to say three simple words: “I’m not sure.”

Telling someone “you don’t know” is not an admission of ignorance, rather, in many cases, it is evidence of an educated person. It is reflective of an open mind – someone who is willing to admit ignorance and then seek knowledge by reading, studying, asking questions, abandoning previous misconceptions, and developing new ideas.

It’s called learning.

As Dunning says, “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.”

In conclusion, since our president brought it up, I would like to add one final related thought about the value of books to this conversation. It is from an article written by Chad Felix that I linked to earlier.

Now, call me naïve, call me a dreamer, call me a believer, but books—reading them slowly, thoughtfully, perhaps even without a specific purpose in mind—could help (or could have helped) with all of this, as books have an amazing ability to provide those who read them with information that is digestible, usable, sometimes even entertaining. Furthermore, books are really good at taking us beyond the confines of our own heads, where things may look a bit different, an experience that increases empathy and makes one less of an insular jerk.

Again, if the term “insular jerk” causes you to think about someone in particular, that’s totally on you. I’m just saying.

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