Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Confidence of the Dumb

Recently I was reading a lively piece by Tom Nichols in a blog called The Federalist. Nichols was lamenting "The Death of Expertise." The piece is a worthy read that, unfortunately, won't be read by most of the people who need to read it. Feel free to pause your attention and go read it now (as long as you come back here for the rest).

I won't rehash what Nichols has so eloquently said. But I was struck by one section he calls, "The Confidence of the Dumb." Along with his observation that too many people believe their uninformed opinion is just as valid as his highly informed expertise, this section captures the essence of the biggest communication problem facing scientists right now. He says:

"There’s also that immutable problem known as “human nature.” It has a name now: it’s called the Dunning-Kruger effect, which says, in sum, that the dumber you are, the more confident you are that you’re not actually dumb. And when you get invested in being aggressively dumb…well, the last thing you want to encounter are experts who disagree with you, and so you dismiss them in order to maintain your unreasonably high opinion of yourself."

I think there is more to it than just the need to avoid admitting dumbness. Looked at in a slightly different way, the confidence of the dumb can be described as the arrogance of ignorance. People don't like to appear ignorant, even when it is clear that they are. So they create a world around them in which their "lack of knowledge" is simply redefined as "superior knowledge." Voila! Problem solved. No longer to do they need to learn anything. Fact is whatever they decide is fact, even when it is counter to fact. Perhaps especially when it is counter to fact.

Once people decide that whatever they claim is "real enough," they gain utter confidence in their ability to state this new reality. It is why people on the internet can state emphatically and with great confidence that man-made climate change is a hoax, or that "chemtrails" are a secret plot to spray chemicals on an unsuspecting populace, or that any number of other conspiracy theories with no merit are somehow "real" and that they, the uninformed, know this and all the experts who say otherwise are part of whatever plot necessary to fulfill the conspiracy. Constructing this alternate reality relieves them of the danger that learning actual facts may demonstrate they are wrong.

This is where the arrogance of the ignorant takes over. Having completely invested their self-worth in a fantasy world, there is no going back. To do so would be to admit their heightened self-worth was misplaced. The only option is to put on the bravado of confidence. A swagger to hide the insecurity.

Which presents a problem for scientists. In our training we are taught to identify and define any uncertainty. We not only document it, we quantify it. Uncertainty is how we see where the gaps are that need further study. In contrast, climate deniers (and chemtrail conspiracists, etc.) state with absolute certainty things that in actuality have very little certainty. In most cases, they state with certainty things that have already unequivocally been demonstrated as false. Then they repeat. And repeat again. Repeat it enough and it becomes truth. Or so it seems.

We'll discuss more on how to deal with the confidence of the dumb, and more specifically the arrogance of the ignorant. To give you a sense of how difficult that is, try arguing with someone who insists that Elvis is alive.

[Photo Credit - Daniel Stockman]