The Weekend Wonk: Dunning Kruger Effect

May 19, 2012

Ever been frustrated trying to make a reasoned, sensible, logical argument to a denier?

There’s a reason why it is so difficult. Let’s take a look at the Dunning/Kruger effect. Have you ever noticed that often times the most incompetent people have the highest opinions of themselves, especially when debating? This video explains why.

72 Responses to “The Weekend Wonk: Dunning Kruger Effect”

  1. Yes, the D-K effect is one of the best explanations for the climate denial movement – folks who don’t even understand basic climate science and yet who think they know more about the subject than climate scientists.

    • MorinMoss Says:

      To cut with the other edge of Hanlon’s razor, I posit that one should not ascribe to stupidity what may adequately described by malice.

  2. greenman3610 Says:

    Monty Python understood this phenomena as a bottomless well of inspiration.

  3. omnologos Says:

    Actually certainty mostly belongs to the alarmists. In fact there’s a whole cottage industry of people who sell books and travel the world to say “denialists” are “merchants of doubt” and the likes.

    D-K appears like the wrong wrong argument to make to counter skepticism.

    • otter17 Says:

      No, there is inherent uncertainty in all science, and the scientists and organizations that indicate climate change is a credible risk understand that.

      The book “Merchants of Doubt” has an incredible amount of research, citations, and evidence to back it up. Again, there is some uncertainty there, but the book was measured in tone throughout, stuck to citations, and did not make any outrageous claims. Have you read the book or looked into some of the key documents cited?

      D-K is not an argument to counter contrarians concerning their often incorrect stance on climate change, but as a potential explanation why they hold these views despite a large weight of evidence and rational risk mitigation principles against them.

      • jasonpettitt Says:

        I think MM was just being sporting by offering himself up as an example of said effect.

        You’re right about D-K not being an argument though. I tend to cringe when otherwise smart people use it as their weapon of choice in whack-a-mole debates. it’s probably true, but not always helpful.

        I prefer to explain why something is wrong first – and then proceed with the name calling and assertions of incompetence.

      • omnologos Says:

        Now, now…who is _certain_ enough of potential future climate disasters to call for mitigation?

        (hint: it isn’t me)

        It’s also the first time that “measured tone” and “Oreskes” get together into the same idea. Read Connolley for a different example (link broken to avoid getting into the spam folder):

        scienceblogsDOTcom /stoat/2008/11/nierneberg_concluded_oreskes_i.php

        Actually, read this by Brian Wynne in Nature:

        “[Oreskes and Conway] miss a crucial point: the ingrained assumption that scientific evidence is the only authority that can justify policy action — scientism — is what renders both policy and its supporting science vulnerable to the dogmatic amplification of doubt.”

        So we have two fundamental points: first, Oreskes is against doubt, and pushes on “scientism” (a twisted interpretation of scientific evidence) to make sure policies are built despite doubt. Secondly, Nature is against doubt too, although Wynne understands that scientism is too much of a bad thing.

        Seems a good double-case of D-K to me.

        ps “rational risk mitigation PRINCIPLES” should include: do much less certain harm than the potential harm you want to mitigate against. I hope we agree on this at the very least

        • Alteredstory Says:

          She’s not against doubt, she’s against people who try to manufacture unreasonable doubt.

          Like people who say “four out of five doctors smoke camels”, or “but they were trying to hide the decline in temperature”.

          People who tell lies to create doubt where none exists.

          There ARE numerous questions and areas of research in climate science where we just don’t know the answer, but the presence of an impact by humans on the climate through CO2, and the approximate SIZE of that impact (bigger than is safe) are NOT at the cutting edge anymore. We figured out that we were having a definite impact in the 1950’s (earlier, if you want to include Arrhenius’ calculations), confirmed it even more just a few years later, and also showed that the warming was going to be greater and faster than is conducive to adaptation by species or by society.

          It’s like creationists calling into question whether species change over time, and saying “we just don’t know”.

          It’s like somebody trying to cast doubt on whether this pencil will fall towards the center of the earth every time we drop it in normal circumstances.

          There are legitimate areas in climate science, evolutionary biology, and gravitational physics where the cutting edge of researchers are exploring territory that is currently beyond our understanding, but those boundaries are NOT where deniers claim they are.

          Doubt is great, but doubt without basis in reality is like skepticism without grounding in evidence – it becomes a self-serving tool of those who cling to irrationality that allows them to continue clinging.

        • otter17 Says:

          “Now, now…who is _certain_ enough of potential future climate disasters to call for mitigation? (hint: it isn’t me)”

          “Certain enough” is not the same as “certainty” you mentioned originally. Considering the vast weight of evidence, scientists, and all the major scientific societies, there is likely no standard of evidence to which you would begin mitigation. I recall you have said before that mitigation should only be conducted where there is very close to certainty it will do more good than harm.

          omno quote from a week ago on Climate Crocks:
          “… I’m all for mitigation as long as it’s shown cost-effective. It’s an almost impossible task, mind you, unless the mitigation effort is of very little cost.”

          omno quote from WUWT I came across:
          “Humanity’s never been as powerful, resourceful and resilient as today. There’s no past climate we wouldn’t be able to adapt to, even the pre-oxygen eras and iceball Earth.”

          So, you place an almost impossible task as the standard of evidence for risk mitigation, barring a very little cost, a wait and see attitude. This is not rational risk mitigation because there is likely no study that can reach the level of certainty required, at least depending on how you define further. Furthermore, I don’t know of anybody (military, engineers, etc) that conducts risk mitigation this way, particularly with credible threats having no prior experience. And if you still believe that we can adapt to anything… I just don’t know what to say to that.

          • omnologos Says:

            Well, take the Montreal Protocol. That is a good example of cost-effective mitigation. Done and dusted in how many years? I’ll leave that as an exercise to the reader.

            There’s no past climate we wouldn’t be able to adapt to doesn’t mean that we HAVE to adapt to anything. It’s like going regularly to see a dentist: of course nobody would do it if it costed more than having each single teeth replaced. And yet it makes sense to do it even if one could in theory adapt to live without teeth.

            In my case each 6-month visit costs slightly less than having one tooth extracted, let alone replaced.

          • otter17 Says:

            So, what should have been the alternative to the Montreal Protocol, then? Adapt to the increased risk of skin cancer near the polar latitudes?

            And, glad that we don’t HAVE to adapt to those extreme conditions, but the very idea that you leave it on the table is kind of troubling. The teeth analogy isn’t an example of risk reduction since the costs of each dental care scenario are exactly known. Risk mitigation is about making decisions based on uncertain information.

          • omnologos Says:

            Sorry if I didn’t explain myself. The Montreal Protocol had no better “adaptation” alternative.

        • otter17 Says:

          “ps “rational risk mitigation PRINCIPLES” should include: do much less certain harm than the potential harm you want to mitigate against. I hope we agree on this at the very least”

          Yes, of course, that statement is obvious. Where it seems you differ from rational risk mitigation comes where you impose certainty on large economic harm, but there is uncertainty there too. The risk to the economy from climate mitigation is a manageable risk, in that we can always stop if we detect undue harm. We have control over our own economic destiny in that regard.

        • otter17 Says:

          Oh, if you haven’t seen sound risk mitigation explanations concerning this particular topic, check this out.

          Search on Youtube:
          How It All Ends: Risk Management (pt 1 of 7)

          I don’t like Craven’s goofy hats or some of his terminology, but it is a fairly entertaining overview of risk mitigation, using sound principles. There are other more academic sources, but this goes into detail without getting too dry. About an hour long total.

          • omnologos Says:

            Oh boy..not THAT Craven, uh? The guy with the ridiculous risk management chart, where one of the “four boxes” is heavily catastrophist, whilst the consequences of action are disregarded as minimal and confined to economics alone??

            Oh boy…google “Bufo Marinus” please. “What’s the worst that could happen” indeed.

            Leonard Darwin and Winston Churchill wanted to improve the human race. “What’s the worst that could happen” in making humans better? Auschwitz, that was the worst that did happen.

            Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels wanted to build an equitable world. “What’s the worst that could happen” in making society fairer? Pol Pot, that was the worst that did happen.

          • MorinMoss Says:

            Bufo Marinus? You’ve been licking Cane Toads?
            That explains so much that was previously unfathomable.

          • omnologos Says:

            You aren’t even funny. Even if you have no argument, you should try harder.

          • MorinMoss Says:

            You’ve repeatedly demonstrated that your omnological arsenal lacks a sense of humor so if anyone should try harder, it would be you.

          • MorinMoss Says:

            And I forgot to congratulate you on earning the Godwin’s Law prize for bringing Auschitwz into the discussion but I strongly suspect you’ve already earned quite a few of these already.

          • Mike Says:

            I believe Heartland are looking for a new Billboard designer.

          • Mike Says:

            Since you brought up an ecological issue and I happen to be from Queensland Australia I feel I should jump in.

            You have cherrypicked a very good example of what not to do when introducing a mitigation strategy…from how many years ago? The lessons learned from the cane toad mistake…all those years ago, have not been repeated nor will they ever be. You may as well find examples from 100 years ago or 200. That is how knowledge moves on though isn’t it? We make mistakes, we learn and we progress. This desire that you and your ilk have for dragging up stuff from a long time ago is symptomatic of the poor arguments you have, in that as time moves on, more and more evidence piles up making it harder for you to make a case.

            That said, I think I might try it on… see how it feels to cherrypick. Here goes… How about the Cactoblastis moth? The most successful ecological mitigation strategy in the world. Google that. Wow, that feels good not having to think or really justify my position.

          • omnologos Says:

            We learn from our past…exactly! We should have learned for example that actions might have unforeseen consequences.

            And if we’ve learned that, then we will not make the mistake to assume that the only consequence of failed mitigation policies will be money thrown down the drain.

            But wait…that’s exactly the mistake that Craven did in his videos. So Craven (and you, and your “ilk) have not learned from past mistakes, hence you aren’t progressing. QED.

            ps I googled “Cactoblastis” and this is from the first few lines in Wikipedia: “In some places this has led to its uncontrolled spread and its classification as an invasive species”. A success in Australia, a failure some other place.

            Today’s lesson from the past: mitigation strategies should pivot around choosing the right solution for the right environment (be it natural, economical, social, etc).

            Today’s corollary lesson from the past: international efforts are unlikely to be able to deal with the minutiae needed for the aforementioned lesson. So get them out of the way fast rather than wait for the “silver bullet” solution.

          • otter17 Says:

            He fleshes out his original chart far more in the video I referenced, and provides a clear explanation on how to evaluate sources. Just a suggestion to watch it, unless it is too offensive, haha.

            Look, nobody wants an oppressive eco-fascist government, but if we took unintended consequences to its far extremes nobody would get out of bed in the morning. Furthermore, the economic risks of climate mitigation are completely controllable and manageable. We can always slow down if the detriment is deemed too high.

          • Alteredstory Says:

            On the cane toad thing – that was an issue of somebody taking action for the sake of taking action without actually doing any research into what they were doing.

            Not remotely the same.

          • jasonpettitt Says:

            “We learn from our past…exactly! We should have learned for example that actions might have unforeseen consequences.” ~ Omnologos

            I’m afraid that’s another argument from the land of logical fallacies – the idea that all unforeseen consequences are bad. Which, now I’ve pointed it out, is hopefully obviously rubbish and in no way a reason to not legislate.

            Richard Revesz talks about this kind of stuff quite a lot and is worth a read.

        • jasonpettitt Says:

          “Now, now…who is _certain_ enough of potential future climate disasters to call for mitigation?” ~ Omnologos

          The clue is really in the name but the whole point of Risk Analysis is how you deal with uncertain information. Certainty doesn’t come in to it.

          Not that you need disasters to justify mitigation. Relatively mild negative effects are sufficient to make the case for net economic benefit.


    • MorinMoss Says:

      Then you’ve not read the scientific papers as closely as you’d like us to believe.
      It’s quite striking how much effort the talented and reputable ones expend in detailing and quantifying the unknowns and uncertainties.

      And it’s those very details the denialists cherrypick to support their contorted positions.

      • omnologos Says:

        MorinMoss: I know the story well. The scientific paper details the uncertainties, the IPCC chapter mentions the uncertainties, the IPCC SPM contains some indication of the uncertainties inside one item in the bibliography, the press release doesn’t have space for the uncertainties apart from a side remark in the middle of the text, the interviewed scientist is not asked about the uncertainties, the journalistic article isn’t interested in the uncertainties, and the policymaker either doesn’t know the uncertainties exist, or pivots all his/her career about some of the uncertainties as reported to him/her third- or fourth-hand. Broken telephones all around…

        • otter17 Says:

          The “Summary for Policymakers” (SPM) sections all contain the word uncertainty several times throughout, as I recall. Every working group uses terminology that identifies the level of concensus and uncertainty as well. As an example: “medium agreement, medium evidence”.

          I just looked at the Synthesis Report again, and even the Synthesis Report SPM mentions uncertainty several times, along with error bars in graphs.

          Specifically, which SPM report only contains one mention of uncertainty in the bibliography?

  4. daveburton Says:

    You’re talking about Al “Million Degree Magma” Gore, right?

    • otter17 Says:

      No, Peter isn’t talking about Al Gore, since Gore’s stance, though possibly flawed in some minor ways, is in general agreement with a vast majority of scientists and scientific organizations such as the IPCC, AAAS, AGU, AMS, NAS organizations throughout the world. He consults with scientists and has always maintained that his knowledge comes from scientists, and that he is merely a layman. This is not the behavior outlined by the Dunning-Kruger effect.

      Now, that being said, I don’t think he is the optimal poster boy for climate change action, or by any means find him a super-duper politician, but he is using the correct sources of information.

      • ahaveland Says:

        I’m not sure that D-K sufferers/victims can understand what the D-K effect is, if they can’t be aware of what it is they cannot know.

        Like trying to convince them of the existence of a ghost that only everyone else can see.

        “But I wore the juice!” 🙂

        • otter17 Says:

          I would say it is more akin to a group of people trying to convince them that an elephant is in front of them, yet they close their eyes, cover their ears, and yell “LaLaLaLaLa” at the top of their lungs.

  5. Denier terminology and thinking:

    Scientist – alarmist

    AGW denier – skeptic, the highest form of reasoning individuals , who don’t need no stinkin science degrees to know everything.

    Dunning Kruger – a nice argument that doesn’t apply to skeptics, for sure.

    Monty Python – Huh, what? British sitcom. Don’t get the humor.

  6. Mike Says:

    Peter, thanks for this post. It now gives me the chance to be more polite. I can now tell deniers to look up the Dunning-Kruger effect rather than telling them that they are too stupid to know what they don’t know.

    Interesting that already you have a post in here suggesting that it might be used to describe “alarmists”. D-K in action?

    • otter17 Says:

      Yeah, be polite, because while it is frustrating, they do think they are doing some kind of good in the world. It is a kind of weird self-serving good, but perceived good nonetheless.

      • Mike Says:

        Otter I’m always polite up to a point however I often think that some of the deniers are like would-be singing stars on shows like American Idol. You know the ones that really can’t sing but think they can and when told by the judges that they are in fact terrible, get high and mighty and say things like, “What would they know? They don’t know what talent is.”? I often wonder why the friends and family of these people didn’t suggest to them early on that they need singing lessons. At least with these singing shows, the contestants’ self-perception that they are good is harmless and a little bit entertaining once you get past the cringe factor. With climate change denial, the self-perception that they are doing good has much higher repercussions and I personally am far less tolerant.

    • greenman3610 Says:

      it’s all there in psych 101, projection, rationalization, repression, denial….

  7. Nick Carter Says:

    I tend to feel more comfortable with the motivated reasoning arguments as an explanation of why deniers say what they do. Simply put, there are individuals who will selectively blank out obvious information contradicting their world view for any number of reasons. I warn my flying students about this error of judgement and how deadly it is when pilots ignore weather information that obviously says “DON’T GO!” Yet, they still fly…only to be killed in action. How can otherwise competent and knowledgeable people do this? Quite simply, their motivation is to reach their destination for all kinds of pressing reasons. What’s obvious to us is supressed by these folks. It happened to me years ago, and I almost paid for it with my life.

  8. rabiddoomsayer Says:

    It is not all simple Dunning Kruger although that certainly plays it’s part. Putting profits ahead humanity also plays a huge part. Lame Stream Media that does not want to upset advertisers and Propaganda Media (Fox) that is successfully portraying an extreme position as main stream to gain more profits, enable those who would rather not see reality to see what they want to.

    I do not see how people who have read as many scientific papers as claimed could possibly be of the opinion that climate change is not real. The science and data are simply overwhelming. Is is not one line of study, but multiple fields of study.

    Just open your eyes, so much has changed in the last thirty years. Things were already changing thirty years ago, but not as obviously.

    MM will not believe in climate change until the grid fails in a heatwave.

  9. Great video Peter!
    I’ve been fascinated by the Dunning Kruger effect for quite sometime. (wrote about it myself here:

    I think the lesson here is to not waste your time with people who are obviously suffering from it. It’s a waste of time and furthermore giving them publicity just serves to alert other sufferers to latch on to their strange world views. If you want to see Dunning-Kruger in action look under the #AGW hashtag on twitter. It’s kind of sad really.

    That said, if I am suffering from it, would I not know?? This worries me!


    • otter17 Says:

      By asking that very question, your are not exhibiting Dunning-Kruger symptoms. Nevertheless, you might want to go to a doctor to get a D-K scan. I know I’m all good.

      Don’t be skeptical of me; I know what I am talking about. I have blog science credentials on an alternative healing website, hahaha.

      • otter17 Says:

        Actually, check that. You don’t need a doctor. I could easily do a D-K scan with my credentials and the power of the internet. Just send me $10,000 annually, and you should be free of the disease.

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