Ignorance is arrogance

Science denial, like so much brash narcissism, may actually be a cry for help.

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We have one of those retractable garden hose reels. Or rather, we did. Now it’s neither retractable nor technically a reel. A reel would imply some level of organisation, whereas our hose—all 40 metres of it—now sprawls across the lawn like an anaconda, a trip hazard testament to vainglorious hubris.

I didn’t see this coming, but Darwin did.

“Ignorance,” he bemoaned, “more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” The hose reel company knows this well: ours bears an explicit injunction, in plain view: “Do not disassemble.”

I disassembled, empowered by an unflinching conviction that the warning applied not to me, but to stupid people.

Narcissists like me are everywhere, making other people’s lives a misery, and in 1999, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger pondered my illusory superiority. Their seminal paper—‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’—related the tragicomic case of bank robber McArthur Wheeler, who conducted his heists in broad daylight, wearing no mask. He figured he didn’t need one, because he’d daubed his face with lemon juice, which, everybody knows, makes stuff invisible.

Wheeler didn’t know what he didn’t know, and that’s the cognitive engine of what’s today rued and ridiculed as the Dunning-Kruger effect. It describes what Dunning later called “the anosognosia of everyday life”; a cognitive foible in which people lack the self-awareness—and yes, in some cases, the intelligence—to objectively estimate their own ability. Or, to paraphrase John Cleese: some people are too stupid to understand how stupid they are.

In studies of university students, Dunning and Kruger found a strong inverse relationship between actual and self-ascribed ability. Those who considered themselves competent consistently proved that they weren’t. In a test, many who ranked themselves near the 70th percentile actually scored in the 10th (intriguingly, the opposite effect expressed in smart students).

Now, commentators and researchers are invoking Dunning and Kruger again, as they try to make sense of a raft of recent studies that have found people of strong anti-science disposition almost always understand the least about that same science.

In a study published in January, psychologists at the University of Colorado pored over surveys that sought the views of 2500 Americans, French and Germans on genetically modified foods. Then the survey participants were asked to rank their understanding of them. Finally, they took a basic scientific literacy test.

“What we found,” reported team spokesperson Philip Fernbach, “is that as the extremity of opposition increased, objective knowledge went down, but self-assessed knowledge went up.”

Several surveys of anti-vaccine sentiment have found strikingly similar results: a study of 1300 Americans by the Pennsylvania, Utah Valley and Texas A&M universities found that 34 per cent claimed to know more than scientists about the causes of autism. Slightly more—36 per cent—believed they knew more about medicine than doctors.

“This is part and parcel of the psychology of extremism,” said Fernbach. “To maintain these strong counter-scientific consensus views, you kind of have to have a lack of knowledge.”

Dunning and Kruger’s findings have now been borne out in a plethora of disciplines, including wine tasting, chess, surgery (worryingly), firearm safety (ditto) and maths, which strikes a chord with me. If you think I’m bad with hose reels, I really suck at maths—always have.

“The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing,” said Socrates, in which case I was the wisest kid in class. I still recall the paralysing dissonance of staring at the logarithms on Mr Johnston’s blackboard, not so much with incomprehension as despair. As all the other kids nodded in cognisance and jotted their notes, I was swamped instead by waves of stinging humiliation and self-rebuke. For me, maths has always been a messenger, bearing bad news about my own intellect, that I just want to shoot.

Which makes me wonder: deep down, are these science deniers railing, perhaps, not at the immunologists, or the geneticists, but at their own bewilderment? Since 1995, the four-yearly Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) has tracked student achievement globally—a massive sample of more than half a million pupils. Unsurprisingly, Asian countries lead the West consistently by margins of up to 48 points. Science attainment in some Western countries is only now slowly climbing—not so New Zealand’s, which is flatlining or in gradual decline, depending on students’ ages. Go back to when today’s young parents were at school, and Western pass rates were generally abysmal.

Every week, science becomes more complex and rarified, and when it leaves much of a generation behind, a kind of trust is broken—Alvin Toffler called it ‘future shock’, a spiralling social disenfranchisement. Rather than admit my own befuddlement, I blamed Mr Johnston, and renounced the very institution of maths itself. Come School Certificate, I sat in that examination hall in abject desperation, trying to fill in the gaps with my own preposterous alternative mathematics, as if the immutable constitution of numbers were open to litigation. In other words, I tried to bullshit my way through it, like an anti-vaxxer on Facebook.

Like information avoidance, confirmation bias, conspiracy affinity and groupthink—the charges laid against science deniers in the wake of Fernbach’s study—the Dunning-Kruger effect tells us only how some people think, not why.

“Our research shows that you need to add something else to the equation,” Fernbach told the Guardian.

Maybe that could be empathy. Maybe we could try to understand the reasons people think the way they do. Maybe we could feel their pain.

But right now, I’ve got a hose reel to fix.

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