Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Dunning-Kruger Effect: The Same as False Knowledge Syndrome?

In an earlier (Aug. 19) blog post, in which I examined the disparate workings of left and right wing brains, I noted that "values voters" occupy a rung, first observed by Thomas Frank. They define pre-existing "values" on how the world ought to work and then let these trump any contradicting facts - whether scientific, historical or political.  Thus, in their fanciful worlds, human-generated CO2 cannot possibly overturn an entire planet's climate - so they disbelieve any facts trotted out that CO2 concentration is increasing and fueling the greenhouse effect. (This partly explains why James Inhofe- the incoming head of the Senate Environmental Committee, thinks global warming is a hoax - apart from the fossil fuel industry filling his campaign coffers)

In their world they also reject that humans could evolve from a common ape-human ancestor, so reject Darwinian evolution. Oh, and they are convinced that liberals have been the ones shafting this country from the year dot. They believe this without a whit of evidence, and only because some schmoe like Limbaugh or Larry Schweikart tells them so.
 But they often go much farther in asserting their lack of knowledge and information based on their values means ALL liberal values are wrong. The next cognitive step is to tie liberal values to knowledge they implicitly disdain, such as about global warming and evolution. Hence, it's easy to believe bollocks such as "liberal lies about history" or that global warming "is a hoax."  But they don't see these as emblems of ignorance but rather badges of honor.
The question arises as to whether this false knowledge syndrome is the same as the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  For reference and clarification, the Dunning-Kruger effect is defined by Wikpedepia  as “a cognitive bias whereby unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than is accurate.” Wikipedia adds that “This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their ineptitude.” Or, as psychologist David Dunning (the discoverer) once explained to Errol Morris, writing in an essay series, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is,” for the New York Times:
 “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.”  
A recent article by Dunning, “We Are All Confident Idiots,” provides both humorous and serious examples showing just how pervasive the problem is and it certainly transcends all age groups as well as disciplines (i.e. I recall once being a doctoral Physics TA and an incident in which the prof tried to explain a kinematics lab procedure, but got it all wrong. When I tried to enlighten the dolt, he reacted badly and irrationally accused me of being the incompetent! In other words, this twit lacked the skills to recognize the correct process for the experiment and because he couldn't - he didn't accept mine.)
But it goes beyond even that and would also serve to explain the history trotted out by a Larry Schweikart, for example.  Because this fool doesn't know the correct history of our country, he is unable to recognize it for any event and so believes his incorrect, revisionist version is the truth. 
Thus, in at least one aspect the false knowledge syndrome dovetails with Dunning -Kruger which can be seen if one goes through the New York Times series, wherein one can make some observations based on it and conclusions.However, the paradox is the Dunning -Kruger subject will apply none of the criteria to himself, i.e. in highlighting his shortcomings. As far as he is concerned, he has none. By the same token, the false knowledge adherent can't conceive that the knowledge which he possesses is actually inferior to the knowledge of most well educated people.
Related to the preceding is what George Lakoff cites as the concept of hypocognition— i.e. that “we don’t have all the ideas we need.” One example he cited was the concept of reflexivity, “the fact that thought is part of the world. That when you’re thinking, it’s not separate from reality, it’s part of reality. And if your understanding of the world is reflected in what you do, then that thought comes into the world through your actions.”.  This is also, interestingly, not far from the Bohm- Stapp concept of quantum mechanics wherein thoughts are actually things describable, for example, by the quantum wave function. Hence, it is wrong to regard thought as some psychic epiphenomenon with no physical basis, or to commit Rene Descartes' error of dividing reality into res cogitans and res extensa.
The existence of conspiracy is a perfect example and  Lakoff’s discussion of hypocognition naturally comes to mind.  What could be a worse idea to miss than the very idea of missing ideas?  If you don’t think they’re out there, you’ll never go looking for them—never believe anyone who claims to have found one of them, either. If you honestly don't  believe there can be such things as conspiracies- then you will never ever believe anyone who claims to have uncovered one, and you yourself will never go in search of them because you don't believe they can exist in the first place.(Something akin to Leprechauns, except alas, conspiracies - as in the case of Iran-Contra and Watergate- are all too real!) 
Of course, this 'out of perception' thought dynamic will suit the conspirators' aims and objectives to a tee! It's no wonder then that the mainstream media loves the conspiracy skeptic  - because both operate in the realm of hypo-cognition when it comes to conspiracies. (Or, more technically, each conflates real conspiracies - i.e. JFK assassination - with ludicrous ones, like faked Moon landings - to justify the need to have to look for the real McCoy. And the corollary to that is a thought reaction Charles Pierce once noted: IF you do believe an actual conspiracy exists or has existed, you will be compelled to do something about it.)

The "doing" is what distinguishes right and left wing brains,  but let's also bear in mind that believing one's level of competence is higher than manifest is not necessarily the same as believing one's knowledge is much greater than it is. Is Sen. Jim Inhofe competent to judge or separate actual scientific research on global warming from the bogus version? Doubtful, because he's never taken any advanced climate change courses or even thermal physics college courses. Hence, he is lacking the skill level to distinguish the bogus from the real. Hence, by assuming the position of head of the Senate environmental committee he is actually rising to his level of incompetence. (A re-take on the well known "Peter Principle")

(Side note: Is Inhofe capable of doing a basic thermal physics experiment? Say measuring the conductivity of a material? I doubt it.)

At the same time it is clear Inhofe, from his past remarks on global warming, actually believes he knows more than he really does. Else, how could he make the determination it's a "hoax"  when 97% of climate scientists by a recent Eos (American Geophysical Union) survey concur it is real and human-caused? This is based on thousands of peer-reviewed papers in climate journals written by actual climate scientists  - not climate proxy scientists (e.g. chemists, astronauts, etc.

While Sen. Inhofe (so far as we know) exhibits this Dunning-Kruger Effect and hypocognition only in one domain, it is clear others can exhibit it in their own chosen areas of  mental overstretch.

Clearly, quantum physicist Scott Aaronson - in trying to invalidate a conspiracy in the JFK assassination,  was guilty not only of hypocognition (believing there can be no such things as conspiracies) but also over-estimating his competence to assess the validity of a conspiracy (the JFK case, specifically).  Hence, no surprise he committed more than 35 major errors in making his twenty claims to have shown conspiracy in the Kennedy case can't be valid. 

As I showed in several  October blog posts rebutting his nonsense, these ranged from the basic, i.e. not applying Newtonian dynamics to the wounds described by the Warren Commission or the motions visible in the Zapruder film, i.e. Jackie's motion over the rear of the trunk, to more subtle ones based on ignoring the autopsy photos (actual ones) and the statements of actual witnesses (i.e. to the Walker shooting).  In addition, Aaronson showed no knowledge at all concerning the Oswald CIA files - thereby interjecting false knowledge syndrome as well. Can we say "JFK conspiracy clusterfuck"? Yes, we can.

But Aaronson, like Dr. Steve Mason (a qualified psychologist) before him, was quite correct to criticize zany conspiracies such as the claim of a faked Apollo Moon landing, aliens hidden away at Area 51, or an imminent UN takeover via black helicopters. The problems only arose when they over-extended their areas of competence to contexts for which they weren't qualified. Hence, they went into these difficult areas (like the JFK conspiracy) with what were really limited  conspiracy judgment skills  - that only worked on fictitious "conspiracies'.  

But this is a natural human failing, and it can occur with any of us, at different times and in different contexts.   In my own case, it was exhibited when I criticized the work of Syun Ichi Akasofu before I'd taken my first advanced plasma physics course. Akasofu and Joseph Kan had attempted to use a "dynamo flare" model based on field –aligned potential drops and enhancing parallel current densities (e.g. Birkeland currents) to account for solar flares. 

After taking Ph.D. level plasma physics courses I arrived at a level of skill that enabled me to more deeply parse the model and offer valid criticisms. As I subsequently noted, we do not observe “neutral winds” with velocities (± V_n) at solar loop footpoints, but rather we observe the footpoints executing distinct independent displacements that enhance the loops' magnetic helicity (a phenomenon not on Akasofu or Kan's mental radar, hence another  case of hypocognition).

In addition to this,I pointed out it isn’t clear at all that a “loss cone effect" for solar coronal arches or arcades is significant enough to drive the currents needed to trigger flares. In the auroral context, of course, the loss cone concept has validity in connection with field –aligned potential drops and enhancing parallel current densities (e.g. Birkeland currents). To be specific, in the magnetospheric context only electrons of small pitch angles contribute to J .
Bottom line: I argued that the "dynamo model" of Akasofu and Kan over-extended the auroral generation mechanisms to solar flares. That assessment was based after more than 300 hours of plasma physics study as well as developing computer simulations for plasma behavior in a solar magnetic arcade. I thereby compensated for my earlier hypo-cognition (not the same as false knowledge, but rather not enough specific knowledge) .
These examples hold lessons for us all: we need to be more attuned when we're writing or criticizing anything  - especially areas of history we may not have studied as well as we'd believed, or areas of scientific research where we think we know vastly more than we do.
As far as those like Jim Inhofe, or any others who criticize global warming as human-caused or real, a good litmus test is whether or not they've even been exposed to a basic physics course. If not, it's not too likely they're competent or knowledgeable enough to comment.  In the case of Kennedy conspiracy critics like Scott Aaronson, or Marilyn Elias, the key barometer is whether they've actually accessed and read Oswald's CIA files. A further test is whether they are aware of CIA document 1035-960, and its mandate.
If any of the answers is 'No' then they simply aren't sufficiently competent or knowledgeable to be writing anything about the event or inferring there was no conspiracy. Because if they do, the conclusions emerge as gut responses not based on actual examination of evidence (or files). They are victims of the Dunning -Kruger Effect,  acting the part of unskilled individuals who suffer from an imagined superiority in perception,  thereby mistakenly rating their ability to infer a real conspiracy much higher than is accurate.
Live and learn!

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