Saturday, December 6, 2014

What is a Confident Idiot?

Well, according to this article by David Dunning from a few weeks ago, it is you, me and everyone else Smile

Credit to Weighty Matters, the blog of Joni Freedhoff for pointing me to that article. If you are not the perfect weight or if you succumb to fad diets a lot, you should be reading Yoni.

The article is interesting in so many ways. A few quotes to tempt you to go read it:

The trouble with ignorance is that it feels so much like expertise.

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.

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.

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.

He talks a lot about the “confidently misinformed”, a particular state in which someone has acquired a great deal of knowledge, but – and I am paraphrasing so you should go read the article – has passed this knowledge through a set of internal filters that have twisted it into something other than cold hard fact. For example, a lot of people have to ascribe intent to evolution to feel they understand it.

An example used is that Cheetahs run fast because they, as a group, realized that they would be able to catch more prey so they taught themselves how to run faster (again, paraphrasing.) Of course, what evolution really means is that faster Cheetahs are sometimes born by a fluke (think of how many world-class sprinters exist) and these faster cheetahs catch more food, live longer, and make more babies. Ergo, the slower cheetahs die out over the long run.

Everyone wants to apply patterns of behavior they have seen in one situation to other situations. The article goes into some depth about how we thought the planets stayed in orbit back in the 1500s and how even the greatest minds at the time would answer a question incorrectly on how a ball would travel once it left the confines of a curved pipe, for example. The article discusses the author’s study in some depth and this topic is great reading. I am deliberately being vague to encourage you to go read it. The link, again:

The author explores another brilliant example – the “at-will” clause that so many American employers cherish as the key to complete freedom to fire people for any reason at all. I will leave you to explore the article itself to find out what the scoop is on that, but trust me that the traditional defense of “people agreed to the clause” is completely misleading and is just another way in which rampant capitalism has eroded the work force.

(See what I did there? I applied one concept inappropriately to another area. No one is entirely immune Smile.)

Another excellent quote that explains a lot of what we see on the news and on open forums everywhere:

Every day, however, people rely on the cognitive clutter in their minds—whether it’s an ideological reflex, a misapplied theory, or a cradle-born intuition—to answer technical, political, and social questions they have little or no direct expertise in.

The article later goes into detail on why “wild-west” environments like the Internet have such rampant misinformation. Paraphrasing a bit, it is pretty obvious that people hear what they want to hear. Which means that a sentence that contains the work “not” can easily be interpreted to the opposite meaning by those that already believe the opposite. Sad, but that’s how our brains seem to work. Arguing with accurate information often leads to hardening positions of the misinformed.

I see that latter issue all the time. I was that guy when I first joined DPReview. But now I’m that guy who gets impatient with the truly obtuse who bravely soldier on with their utter nonsense because they have intuited a completely false bit of knowledge. Rampant BS is ambrosia for the misinformed. I just coined that, by the way … so remember where you got it. :-)

Generally, you should not put simple facts on the Internet unless you make perfectly clear what you are saying. They use a great example that again I will let you find for yourself.

There’s a lot more in there that you should find out for yourself. It is a great read. I will leave you with one final truism from the article:

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.

Like everyone else, I struggle every day to understand how much I don’t know. If you don’t struggle with this, then either you are truly enlightened and have a deep understanding of yourself, or you are just another confident idiot. I will leave it for you to read the article and then decide ….