We find panels full of experts on all issues like politics, economics, defence, and health on every news channel these days. They are loud, and not ready to listen to arguments, they don’t believe in facts and they quote myth. They lack basic general knowledge most of the time but pretend to know everything. We are often bewildered that when we saw this person earlier, she/he was a defence analyst not a psephologist like today.
Unfortunately, those with the loudest voices often have the most confidence but little competence. What are the odds that they are experts in all of these, let alone one of them? How on earth can they quote fake WhatsApp forwards or dubious portals? Where do they get such confidence from? They suffer from the Dunning-Kruger effect.
The Dunning Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which individuals are prone to misjudge their abilities. They assess their cognitive ability greater than it is truly. To simply put it, individuals who are the least competent at a task often incorrectly rate themselves as high-performing even when they lack particular knowledge or expertise in that field. This was coined in 1999 by then-Cornell psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger.
The researchers found that incompetent people are not only poor performers, but are also unable to accurately assess and recognize the quality of their work. This is the reason why students who earn low scores on exams sometimes feel that they deserved a much higher score. They overestimate their knowledge and ability and are incapable of seeing the poorness of their performance as they are high on ‘Mount Stupid’. As Charles Darwin wrote in his book The Descent of Man, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”
The Dunning-Kruger effect is not synonymous with low IQ. The reality is that everyone is susceptible to this phenomenon, and in fact, most of us probably experience it. People who are genuine experts in one area may mistakenly believe that their intelligence and knowledge carries over into other areas in which they are less familiar. For example, take this interesting recent case that shows how the same people tend to be “all-round experts” in India.
Kasturirangan is the former head of ISRO. Yet, he was head of an environmental panel on the Western Ghats that came out with a disastrous report under UPA. Recently, he headed the panel which came out with this equally disastrous New Education Policy. UPA was unhappy with the Gadgil Committee report on the Western Ghats because it absolutely forbids mining there.
UPA’s Financiers were totally against this. So UPA decided not to release the Gadgil report and instead appointed the Kasturirangan committee on the Western Ghats. To please congress and its allies, Kasturirangan limited protected areas of the Western Ghats to a mere 37% of the original Western Ghat area. Congress and the mining lobby were happy but the Western Ghats and India were subsequently destroyed.
On the other hand, Dunning and Kruger found that those at the high end of the competence spectrum did hold more realistic views of their knowledge and capabilities. However, these experts tended to underestimate their abilities relative to how others did. The problem, in this case, is not that experts are prone to self-doubt, it’s that they tend to believe that everyone else is knowledgeable as well. These people are lost in the Valley of despair in the context of their abilities, knowledge, and skills so they do not feel like refuting any bogus claims or facts.
Dunning and Kruger suggest that as experience on a topic increases, confidence typically declines to more realistic levels. This is their journey from the Slope of Enlightenment to the Plateau of Sustainability. As people learn more about the topic of interest, they begin to recognize their lack of knowledge and ability. Then as people gain more information and become experts on a topic, their confidence levels begin to improve once again.
We are well aware that we have very few experts and geniuses who are on the plateau of sustainability and they cannot deal with all the fraud experts who are ubiquitous on every social media platform. Thus, in the interest of democracy and to safeguard our advancement, we have to reverse the Dunning-Kruger effect. This means we elevate those in the Valley of Despair to the same level as those at ‘Mount Stupid’. If this happens, maybe people would gain a better understanding of all basic issues and science and technology and they can elect a better representative for them.