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Friday, February 22, 2019

Confidence and Incompetence

So this is a pretty fun topic.

A little while ago my mom was telling me this story about an neuro-surgeon named Christopher Duntsch who killed a plethora of people in bizarre ways, but no one knew whether to charge him for murder or manslaughter because they were all medical accidents, yet the cuts were so conspicuously wrong that it was as if he went out of his way to kill the patients he was operating on. But when he came to court, he explained his logic and how he knew everything that he was doing, but was dismayed when another surgeon came in and showed how the patients had died, and the look on his face said it all. It turns out that he wasn't a murderer, but a bad surgeon who was utterly convinced that he did everything correctly. This story was how I learned about the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is a study in social science which reveals that the more ignorant someone is on a topic, the more confident they become in their capabilities. Why? Because they know so little that they don't even know how much they don't know.

Likewise, this has the exact inverse effect, because once someone starts to develop an understanding of a subject, they realize just how complicated it is and lose confidence in their abilities.
Oh thank goodness, I'm in the green.

Vsauce had a pretty good metaphor for this; he said that the more you know, the less you know. If you were dropped off in some mystery location, and opened your eyes to a dark room with no light, you would have no idea how big or small that room was unless you were able to find a wall. If the light is everything you know and the darkness is everything you don't, and you had no light bulb, you might incorrectly assume the room wasn't too big. But then if you turned on a light bulb in the middle of the room, and it illuminated a circle around you, you could clearly see that the room is big enough to require more light. You'd see that the room was vast and that most of it was still dark, however big it was.

If your light grew even bigger, you might be surprised to see that the room was yet still larger and emptier than you thought, and in this way, the bigger your light grew the more darkness you'd be able to see.

This is the problem the Dunning-Kruger effect addresses. The 19th century philosopher Bertrand Russel mentioned this: "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt."

How right he was. The thing is that with access to the largest databases in the world at our fingertips, we've actually become- not only dumber- but less knowledgeable in the first place. The problem with the internet is that it doesn't filter out information, and it shouldn't. For the purposes of freedom, there shouldn't be laws dictating who can say what on the Internet, besides maybe terrorist and bomb threats or anything equivalent to that. That means that all information, correct and wrong, can come your way. This makes it easier than ever to be bombarded with wrong information.

(I'm about to get political so skip the next two paragraphs if this doesn't interest you.)

One of the first people I think of as an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect is Alexandria Cortez, who is being attacked by both democrats and republicans for her lack of economic know-how. It's not just that she doesn't know what she's doing, it's that she has cocksure, unbridled confidence in her economic genius. Now, while she doesn't have economic understanding, she has millions of followers, making her a person of contention within the democratic party. The Washington Post- a far-left-leaning news outlet- recently came out with this headline, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is an economic illiterate — and that’s a danger to America. Other left-leaning outlets have written similar op-eds about the young socialist, and even Snopes and Politifact- which have both been frequently accused of being liberally-biased by republicans- have set their sights on her claims and debunked almost everything she's ever said, including her thought process about the Pentagon losing $21 trillion in accounting errors when it was actually money that had been through multiple transactions, i.e., one dollar entering and leaving circulation several times, not $21,000,000,000,000 actually just sitting around somewhere.

Her lack of understanding as well has her dangerous over-the-top confidence has cost New York $27 billion. The city offered Amazon $3 billion in tax deductions in exchange for their new headquarters in Long Island City, and she scolded them on twitter saying that the city didn't want to give Amazon $3 billion that could be better invested in schools, public transportation, etc. She didn't understand that exempting Amazon of $3 billion in taxes was not the same as handing them $3 billion. It was estimated by economists all across the democratic party that Amazon would have generated more than $27 billion in revenue over the next several years, not to mention it would have created 40,000 new jobs- and that's 40,000 employed people who would be paying taxes, which would have lined up New York with even more money. It was completely symbiotic; Amazon would get a massive new headquarters and distribution center where it could bring in tons of new business in the New York area, and New York would be provided with 40,000 new jobs as well as billions of dollars in taxes. Literally everyone involved benefits from this business proposal. And then Alexandria came along and was like "Capitalism is evil, begone greedy capitalists! Keep your hands off of our $3 billion! We don't want you!" and now Amazon has retreated, taking its $27 billion and 40,000 jobs with it. A hilarious user on twitter commented (paraphrased), "Imagine if we applied her logic to pizza. A customer walks in with a coupon for buy 10 pizzas get one free, and says, 'Hi, I would like to buy 10 pizzas at $10 each, and I'd also like to use this coupon,' and then the employee replied, 'No! Get out of here with that evil coupon!' then went and bragged to the manager, claiming that they should be thanked for just saving the store $10." That's essentially what just happened, and it's that kind of ignorance that is really, really dangerous, and it seems that democrats are sick of her making them look bad and want nothing to do with her anymore.

Alright, political rant over.

Richard Feynman had a brilliant take on this concept: he said,
"– and pompous fools drive me up the wall. Ordinary fools are alright; you can talk to them and try to help them out. But pompous fools – guys who are fools and covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus – THAT, I CANNOT STAND! An ordinary fool isn’t a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible!"

He's also been credited with, "I'm only smart enough to know that I'm dumb," and, "I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong."

I can always appreciate how humble and great Richard Feynman's attitude is.

If you look closely you'll see me trying to claw up the Valley of Despair.
To say that this affects academia, art and the sciences would be a colossal understatement. With art it's self-destructive and with science and academia it's a tumor. At least with art, only the confident fool is harmed, but with other areas of study it impacts everyone it comes in contact with.

We see the Dunning-Kruger effect interject itself into the arts in an often hilarious and entertaining way. Bad fan-fiction, terrible self-published works and modern art.

Don't peg me down for a jerk just yet, I'm not making fun of people who are new or inexperienced or anything like that. I'm making fun of people who don't know what they're doing but think they're the best thing since sliced bread.

From what I've witnessed, people have gradually become less competent and more confident the more I've observed, which is just a recipe for disaster right there. Obviously my take on it is purely anecdotal, but there is some substantial evidence that the Dunning-Kruger effect is permeating every field of knowledge more than ever.

And is art exempt from this? Of course not. If anything, the wider availability of new writers and artists has only made things much worse. As awesome as CreateSpace and IngramSpark are, it inevitably means that lots of people will pump out heaps of bad content thinking they're amazing and they're all going to be wildly famous. And like I briefly mentioned in my previous post, you can't couple unrealistic expectations of fame with unrealistic expectations of ease.

Me planting my flag on Mt. Stupid (2017, colorized)
I don't always agree with Prager-U but their video on modern art was pretty spot on.

To some extent this can be blamed on society's decline in standards, and things like participation trophies and telling everyone that their work is of equal quality no matter what, and while I won't deny that those things could have contributed, I don't think we actually have anyone to blame but ourselves. We aren't responsible for what others do, but we are responsible for how we conduct ourselves and react to others, and when we tell people that their writing is great even when it's horribly unedited and poorly thought out, we're only doing them a major disservice by setting them up for disaster later on down the road.

I'm currently on a mission to recruit as many beta-readers as possible, and one thing I like to do is show them my worst writing, usually bits that I wrote in a hurry and haven't ever gotten around to editing yet, and then ask for their take on it. If they praise me and tell me how awesome it is, then I know right away that they're just going to tell me what I want to hear and have no intention of actually pointing out critical flaws in the writing. But if they rip it apart, telling me how confusing and poorly-written the whole read was, then I know they're trustworthy.

Don't get me wrong, there's a big difference between ripping apart a writing passage critically and being mean. You can be honest yet kind with your critiques, and it's possible to be a jerk and offer nothing of value.

If someone says, "The part about the body coming to life was really well-written but there was never any explanation as to how Anne got her powers, and the next few scenes were really confusing since that was never explained and we still don't know what the body reanimating has to do with it," then they're probably just being honest. However if they say, "Your writing sucks and you'll never go anywhere in life," then they're not on your side. A good beta won't insult you personally but will point out objective flaws in your work that need to be addressed. And if you think that your writing is so good that it doesn't need to be beta-read or edited professionally, then I have bad news for you.
Don't be the reason for this post!
I'm not saying that no one can be proud of their work or optimistic and confident in their abilities. I'm only implying that we overestimate ourselves and underestimate others, and this can lead to massive disappointment down the road.

There is something called the "artist swing," which is a condition in which most creators either think that:

A) They're the greatest writer / artist / musician in the world,


B) They're the worst writer /artist /musician in the world and they should just crawl into a hole and die.

I'm not special, I get that swing all the time. I either feel like an amazing writer or a piece of poop. There is no in between.

And this brings me to my next point, which is something my English teacher told me my junior year of high school:

"You are never as good or as bad as you think you are."

Depending on which side of the swing you're on right now, you're either relieved to hear this or disappointed.

If this is true (and I promise it is), then that means that whenever we feel like total garbage, we should rejoice because we aren't nearly as bad as our insecurity tells us we are.

But on the other hand, when we think our work is so fantastic that nothing else can hold a candle to it, we're completely wrong and it isn't nearly as good as we think it is.

Talk about bittersweet, huh?

But I've found this advice to be extremely accurate. The more I write, the more I realize that I am neither the best nor worst writer, but somewhere in between. And this can be applied to just about anyone.

I know this type of stuff doesn't sound super motivating or inspiring, but sometimes you gotta hear the ugly truth.

Me forcing you to look at it.
But fear not, dear reader, for after tumbling down Mt. Stupid and landing in the Valley of Despair, you can begin your ascent up the Slope of Enlightenment towards the Plateau of Sustainability, and there you shall find peace (once you're done tormenting yourself).

As always,

may all your cups of tea be your cup of tea,

and I'll see you in the next post.


  1. Would you rather have legs as long as your fingers, or fingers as long as your legs? Discuss.

  2. "The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt." Yep, this is why our nation is currently going down the crapper.

    Another great post Dylan! I read paragraphs of this out-loud to Clint over breakfast because it was so damn interesting.