Tag Archives: Dunning Kruger

The Real Hoax

As the threat of a pandemic increases, so does Trump’s idiocy.

Not only has he told his followers not to worry, because the virus is really just a “Democrat hoax,” he has defended his indefensible cuts to the CDC by reinforcing one of the most persistent actual hoaxes in American politics: the belief that anyone who has succeeded in business has the skills needed to succeed in government.

And yes, I realize that Trump didn’t succeed in business, unless being a pre-eminent con man is a measure of success.

But the fact that this particular Emperor is stark naked doesn’t negate the fact that the belief held by so many Americans– that the skills that enable someone to make a profit in the marketplace are transferable to public service– is unfounded, even pernicious. There certainly may be individuals who have both skill sets, but business and government serve very different functions and require very different approaches and abilities.

Which brings me to the most recent evidence that Donald Trump is–in Rex Tillerson’s memorable phrase– a moron. According to Business Insider,

President Donald Trump defended his huge budget cuts to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention during a Wednesday press conference on the federal government’s response to the coronavirus.

He said it was easy to bolster the public-health agency and cited his business approach toward running the federal government.

“I’m a businessperson. I don’t like having thousands of people around when you don’t need them,” Trump said. “When we need them, we can get them back very quickly.”

I’m not sure whether this displays greater ignorance of the way science works or the way government operates. It’s pretty embarrassing–and revealing– on both counts.

Evidently, Trump thinks that all medical professionals are on call and fungible–that government can just run an ad for doctors. “Wanted: physicians with broad expertise in pandemic contagions and public health protocols. Must be able to start work immediately. Must relocate to areas where CDC facilities are located.”

The president said some of the experts targeted by the cuts “hadn’t been used for many years” and that additional federal money and new medical staffers could be obtained swiftly since “we know all the good people.”

Um…hate to break it to you, Don, but so far your definition of “good people” has excluded anyone who actually knows anything about the position or agency to which they’ve been assigned. And if you know “all the good people,” why are there literally hundreds of high-level vacancies remaining unfilled three years into your disastrous Presidency?

And about those experts who “hadn’t been used”…see, Don, there’s this thing called scientific research. It’s time-consuming. It can take years to develop vaccines, to test medicines to ensure that they are effective and don’t have dangerous side-effects. It’s called the scientific method; it requires the application of knowledge, the careful testing of hypotheses, the willingness to recognize when you’ve taken a wrong turn…all behaviors with which you are unfamiliar.

You see, those experts weren’t “unused,” Don. They were developing expertise and identifying the interventions that we desperately need right now. Your administration has spent the last two years gutting critically important positions and programs–despite the fact that health experts warned that those cuts would dramatically weaken government’s ability to manage a health crisis.

And by the way, Mr. “Businessman”– maybe there are some non-technical enterprises in which you can “ramp up” employment when more workers are needed, but that is most definitely not the way scientific research or government operates.

Other experts elaborated on the cumbersome process to shore up a government agency that’s been battered by rounds of budget cuts.

Don Moynihan, a public management professor at Georgetown University, said in a tweet that “once you have gutted institutional capacity you cannot, in fact, quickly restore it.”

Appropriating federal money to the CDC would require a bill from Congress that passes both chambers and gets Trump’s signature, said Bobby Kogan, the chief mathematician for the Senate Budget Committee.

“In addition to requiring a new law to be passed to hire people, you have to actually, you know, spend the time to hire people,” Kogan said in a tweet.

Citizens who know anything at all about science or government or public policy have long since concluded that Trump is monumentally ignorant–a walking example of the Dunning-Kruger effect–but the adoring know-nothings who crowd his rallies probably believe him when he insists that there is no danger.

I wonder how many of them will cram those arenas and catch the “hoax.”

Yeats Was So Right….

One of my favorite quotes is from a poem by William Butler Yeats, who wrote that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Science has confirmed the observation, at least with respect to the “worst,” and to the extent that “best” and “worst” refer to intellectual acuity.

In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the department of psychology at Cornell University conducted a fascinating study after reading about a man named McArthur Wheeler. Wheeler  robbed two banks after covering his face with lemon juice in the mistaken belief that, because lemon juice is usable as invisible ink, it would prevent his face from being recorded on surveillance cameras.

Earlier studies had suggested that what might delicately be termed “ignorance of performance standards” accounts for a substantial amount of incorrect self-assessment of competence. In other words–as the Facebook meme has it–stupid people are too stupid to recognize their stupidity.

Dunning and Kruger found that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

  • fail to recognize their own lack of skill
  • fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
  • fail to recognize genuine skill in others
  • will only recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill after they are exposed to training for that skill

According to Dunning, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.… [T]he skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

According to Wikipedia (yes, I know–I don’t let my students cite to Wikipedia, but it’s convenient and generally, albeit not always, accurate):

Dunning and Kruger set out to test these hypotheses on Cornell undergraduates in psychology courses. In a series of studies, they examined subject self-assessment of logical reasoning skills, grammatical skills, and humor. After being shown their test scores, the subjects were asked to estimate their own rank. The competent group estimated their rank accurately, while the incompetent group overestimated theirs.

Across four studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.

(This definitely explains most of  the students who come in to complain about their grades….but I digress.)

How did Yeats put it? Those who know the least are those with the most “passionate intensity.”

The evidence is everywhere. Just look at Congress, or the Indiana General Assembly.

Or the “Y’all Qaeda” standoff in Oregon…