Wednesday, August 12, 2009

From BMD: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

As previously mentioned, my political thoughts are now going onto a separate blog, Blue Moose Democrat. However, to ease in that transition, I will post some of the more substantive posts on both blogs for the first week or two.

Now here's an interesting theory that may help explain not just the town hall disruptions but the birther movement and the anti-science crowd too.

At least three more disturbing town hall meetings yesterday. Arlen Specter's has gotten a lot of play, so I won't bother embedding the link here. There were threats of violence outside Obama's New Hampshire meeting, as well, although fortunately everything inside went smoothly. The one meeting that hasn't gotten quite so much attention is that of Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who I thought did a pretty good job of handling things - if not for the crowd there, at least for the posterity of the record. Take a look.

There's another video of how McCaskill handled things after the police had to escort a protestor out of the room, but I think the money quote is from the video embedded above: "I don't understand this rudeness... Do you all think that you're persuading people when you shout out like that?" That's a good question, and one I asked a few weeks ago about abortion protestors. How can anyone possibly think that shouting is more intellectual or effective than reasoning? "I'm sorry, you almost won the vote, but you were two decibels shy!" A relative of mine showed me a science blog that suggests the answer is the Dunning-Kruger effect, defined by Wikipedia as

an example of cognitive bias in which "...people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it". They therefore suffer an illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average. This leads to a perverse result where people with less competence will rate their ability more highly than people with relatively more competence. It also explains why competence may weaken the projection of confidence because competent individuals falsely assume others are of equivalent understanding. "Thus, the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others." [Emphasis added.]

In other words, people who can't get it think they actually get it better than everone else and people who do get it think everyone else can too. It is the affliction of those whose arguments have been completely destroyed and are left with no evidence, and yet think they won the debate anyway - like the birthers. If this theory sounds overly simplistic or arrogant, it's worth pointing out that it's based on a study by two Cornell professors called "Unskilled and Unaware of it." This theory certainly explains a lot about our national discourse!

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