Tuesday, March 27, 2012

We Don't Even Know What We Don't Even Know

I came across a very interesting story a few weeks back entitled People Aren’t Smart Enough For Democracy to Flourish which reported evidence from scientific studies that made the case that for most people most issues are far too complex for them to have well thought out opinions on the complex issues of today.

Here’s an excerpt from the story:
The research, led by David Dunning, a psychologist at Cornell University, shows that incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people's ideas. For example, if people lack expertise on tax reform, it is very difficult for them to identify the candidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.
As a result, no amount of information or facts about political candidates can override the inherent inability of many voters to accurately evaluate them. On top of that, "very smart ideas are going to be hard for people to adopt, because most people don’t have the sophistication to recognize how good an idea is," Dunning told Life's Little Mysteries.
He and colleague Justin Kruger, formerly of Cornell and now of New York University, have demonstrated again and again that people are self-delusional when it comes to their own intellectual skills. Whether the researchers are testing people's ability to rate the funniness of jokes, the correctness of grammar, or even their own performance in a game of chess, the duo has found that people always assess their own performance as "above average" — even people who, when tested, actually perform at the very bottom of the pile. [Incompetent People Too Ignorant to Know It]
We're just as undiscerning about the skills of others as about ourselves. "To the extent that you are incompetent, you are a worse judge of incompetence in other people," Dunning said. In one study, the researchers asked students to grade quizzes that tested for grammar skill. "We found that students who had done worse on the test itself gave more inaccurate grades to other students." Essentially, they didn't recognize the correct answer even when they saw it.
The reason for this disconnect is simple: "If you have gaps in your knowledge in a given area, then you’re not in a position to assess your own gaps or the gaps of others," Dunning said. Strangely though, in these experiments, people tend to readily and accurately agree on who the worst performers are, while failing to recognize the best performers.

When I look at the increasingly complex problems in our world from economics to the environment I realize that there are a host of issues of which I am really incompetent. While I am grateful that I get to vote sometimes I wonder if I am really qualified to vote on some issues. I have to admit that on more than one occasion I have gone into the voting booth to vote for a candidate in a national or state election only to realize at that moment that there were several state constitutional amendments to vote on as well. In those moments I tried really hard to read through the legal jargon of the amendments and then to form enough of an opinion to vote yes or no. Many times I just didn’t vote at all. Now some would say that I should have done my homework prior to getting in the voting booth and I would agree… but still on many of these issues homework does someone like me little good because I just don't understand these issues as well as people who have spent many years focussing on them.

For instance, let’s say there was an issue up for a vote concerning issues of when Louisiana should allow the Mississippi river to be diverted into the Achafalaya Basin or Lake Pontchartrain to help alleviate flooding up north. I could spend a week studying about the benefits and downsides of diverting the river, but the truth is no matter how much homework I do in a week I won’t really know enough about the issues of destabilizing of ecosystems, swamps and lakes, or of what a river can introduce into these environments to make more than a guess at what the right course of action might be. In the end I would probably take the approach of sparing humans from flooding. And yet this short term solution may very well have long term effects on the environment and eventually humans as well.

I use this as one example that illustrates from my own life some of the findings from the above article. If you want to talk church, music, or theology, I am reasonably qualified (at least from experience with these issues) to contribute to the conversation (though certainly not an expert).

The truth is we don’t even know what we don’t even know and many times what we think we know is just a mix of our own culture, background, sprinkled with sound-bytes from news outlets and the internet.

Speaking of not knowing stuff… I read a great blog by Frank Viola entitled I Don’t Know. Please go read it. It’s full of advice I wish I would have come across many years ago.

1 comment:

greenturtle said...

I myself have a history of thinking in absolutes, without realizing that if such sweeping drastic measures were to be taken, there would be consequences that on the surface are not realized.

One example of people who have no clue what they don't know about and how it affects them: The oil business, in the wake of the BP explosion.

There were massive outcries from people who wanted to completely shut oil down.

They praised Obama's decision to shut down drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, preaching that "those people" DESERVED to lose their livelihoods because "their industry" was destroying the planet.

All the while not even realizing, that they were consuming oil in the process of running their mouths. What were they using to post their opinions on the internet? A computer. What do computers use?

Did you eat today? Did you grow that food in your own backyard? NO? Then it was delivered by truck. What do trucks use?

Just stop and think about all of the ways your life would be affected, if the oil business were to shut down today.

What else they failed to realize is, "those oil workers" actually did NOT lose their livelihood at all!

We all packed up and left the Gulf coast. We all moved to West Texas, Oklahoma, North Dakota, etc. where the jobs were.

The retail shops, the schools, the small businesses... THEY were the ones who lost, because their customer base moved away.

"But, but, why not just retrain in something else, like classroom teaching?"

Um, school districts in South Louisiana were laying off teachers when we moved. Why? Because everyone was moving away and pulling their kids out of school.

Anyway, yeah. I used to think in absolutes, and sometimes I still do, but lately I at least try to get all the facts before I form a solid opinion.