Archive for February, 2012

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What is the Dunning-Kruger effect?

February 28, 2012

In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger published a journal article entitled ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’.[1] Their research indicated that people who are unskilled, or lacking academic or professional qualifications in a particular field, have a tendency to estimate their knowledge and skills in that field unrealistically highly.

Citing the observation of Charles Darwin that ‘ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge’,[2] Dunning and Kruger explained the cognitive process by which people over-estimate their competence in fields concerning which they are unskilled or uninformed. In agreement with the popular saying ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’,[3] Dunning and Kruger noted ‘in order for the incompetent to overestimate themselves, they must satisfy a minimal threshold of knowledge, theory, or experience that suggests to themselves that they can generate correct answers’.[4]

Accordingly, we ought to refrain from commenting authoritatively on subjects concerning which we are not academically informed or professionally qualified, and should instead seek to understand the subject from the relevant professional literature, instead of from non-professionals and those who are insufficiently qualified.

Additionally, we should be prepared to accept that our non-professional personal views (and the views of others who are similarly unqualified in the field), are of considerably less value than the existing scholarly literature and consensus, and we should be prepared to accept that the consensus is most likely to be correct, even if it contradicts views or sources which we would prefer to believe are more accurate.

The following dot points list indicators of the Dunning-Kruger effect, based on the reasons given by Dunning and Kruger as to why individuals succumb to the effect, and why they ‘fail, through life experience, to learn that they are unskilled’.[5] The more indicators are present in a specific case, the more likely it is that the individual in question is experiencing the effect.

 

  • Skill-boundary transgression: The individual is seeking to operate as an authority or qualified individual, in a field beyond their personal level of academic and professional qualification.[6]

 

  • Self-identified authority: The individual identifies themselves as sufficiently competent to comment authoritatively on the subject. [7]

 

  • Unrecognized competence: The individual’s self-assessed competence is not recognized by those who are academically and professional competent.[8]

 

  • False peers: The individual believes that the favourable commentary of other unskilled and non-professional individuals, indicates they themselves are sufficiently qualified.[9]

 

  • Scrutiny avoidance: The individual fails to submit their work for professional scrutiny (such as in the relevant scholarly literature), for review by those genuinely qualified.[10]

 

  • Pioneer complex: The individual self-identifies as a pioneer unconvering previously unknown or unrecognized facts; a Copernicus or Galileo.[11]

 

  • Conspiracy claims: The individual explains opposition by qualified professionals as a coordinated attempt to suppress truth, in order to defend the existing scholarly consensus.[12]

 

  • Allocentric [13] claims of bias: The individual explains the difference between their views and those of qualified professionals, as the result of inherent bias on the part of the professionals; accusations of bias are directed at anyone other than themselves, and they claim objectivity.


[1] Kruger & Dunning, ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (77.6.1121-1134), 1999.

[2] Darwin, ‘The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex’ volume 1, p. 4 (1871).

[3] Commonly misquoted as ‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing’, this phrase is a line from English poet Alexander Pope’s poem ‘An Essay on Criticism’ (1709).

[4] Kruger & Dunning, ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (77.6.1132), 1999.

[5] Ibid., pp. 1131.

[6] ‘Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria.’, ibid., p. 1122; the importance of formal academic and professional qualifications is that they constitute objective criteria by which competency can be assessed, so we should place less trust in those lacking such qualifications.

[7] ‘These findings suggest that unaccomplished individuals do not possess the degree of metacognitive skills necessary for accurate self-assessment that their more accomplished counterparts possess.’, ibid., p. 1122; we cannot rely on those who are not academically and professionally qualified in a particular field, to assess accurately their own authority and competence in that field.

[8] ‘We propose that those with limited knowledge in a domain suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach mistaken conclusions and make regrettable errors, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to recognize it.’, p. 1132;. it is far more likely that an unqualified non-professional will be wrong in a given field of specialization, than a qualified professional whose competency has been recognized formally by their equally qualified peers

[9] ‘Second, the bungled robbery attempt of McArthur Wheeler not withstanding, some tasks and settings preclude people from receiving self-correcting information that would reveal the suboptimal nature of their decisions (Einhorn, 1982).’, ibid., p. 1131; by keeping themselves predominantly in the intellectual company of those who agree with them, individuals experiencing the Dunning-Kruger effect place themselves in a setting which typically prevents their errors being exposed, instead keeping them in a kind of intellectual echo chamber in which their views are reinforced by being repeated back to them with approval by those unqualified to assess them competently.

[10] ‘One reason is that people seldom receive negative feedback about their skills and abilities from others in everyday life (Blumberg, 1972; Darley & Fazio, 1980; Goffman, 1955; Matlin & Stang, 1978; Tesser & Rosen, 1975)’, ibid., p. 1131; avoidance of scrutiny by professionals enhances this effect, keeping the unqualified away from those who are best able to expose their errors, and preserving their self-delusion that they are correct.

[11] This is a self-delusional identification since neither Copernicus nor Galileo were ‘gifted amateurs’ opposing a body of professionals (both men were professionals, holding formal teaching positions), and Galileo in particular knew that the subject should be decided by professionals astronomers, placing no value whatsoever on the opinions of the unqualified; writing against the papal edict silencing publications on heliocentrism in the preface of his ‘Dialogue’ (1632), Galileo scorned the unqualified amateur: ‘Complaints were to be heard that advisors who were totally unskilled in astronomical observations ought not to clip the wings of reflective intellects by means of rash prohibitions.’,  Galileo, quoted in Næss, ‘Galileo Galilei: When the Earth Stood Still’, p. 131 (2005).

[12 ‘Third, even if people receive negative feedback, they still must come to an accurate understanding of why that failure has occurred. The problem with failure is that it is subject to more attritional ambiguity to success. For success to occur, many things must go right: The person must be skilled, apply effort, and perhaps be a bit lucky. For failure to occur, the lack of any one of these components is sufficient. Because of this, even if people receive feedback that points to a lack of skill, they may attribute it to some other factor (Snyder, Higgins, & Stucky, 1983; Snyder, Shenkel, & Lowry, 1977).’, ibid., p. 1131; when an unqualified non-professional attributes opposition to or dismissal of their theories by qualified professionals as a conspiracy to maintain the intellectual status quo, the Dunning-Kruger effect is very likely responsible: an example is the Science and Public Policy Institute (a non-profit group in the US which opposes the scientific consensus on global warming), ‘People who are not scientists, or even experts on the subjects they write about often write the SPPI reports, and many convey conspiratorial themes. For example, an SPPI publication by Joanne Nova, who describes herself as a “freelance science presenter, writer, & former TV host”, exemplifies not only the ‘Dunning-Kruger’ effect (Dunning et.al. 2003), but also the inactivist movement’s frustration with mainstream climate science and its inflated sense of victimhood.’, Elshof, ‘Can Education Overcome Climate Change Inactivism?’, Journal for Activism in Science and Technology Education (3.1.25), 2011.

[13] Allocentric means ‘focused on others’, or ‘aimed at others’.

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What is quote mining?

February 27, 2012

Quote mining is the dishonest practice of collecting quotations selected out of context, to make authors appear to support a position they do not actually hold. It should be avoided completely by anyone attempting to be an honest human being. Sources practicing quote mining lose any claim to credibility.

Searching for evidence of historical atheism, many atheists appeal to quotations which they claim were written by atheists, but which were actually written by theists, deists, or agnostics.[1] [2]  [3] [4]

Hitler[5] and Stalin[6] are misquoted by some atheists in attempts to claim they were devout Christians whose atrocities were motivated by their Christian belief.

Scientists are often misquoted by those who disagree with them; many have been misquoted dishonestly by Christians, in attempts to support their beliefs. Darwin’s comments on the eye,[7] on fossils,[8] transitional forms,[9] and apparent doubts about evolution,[10] [11] [12] are commonly used in this way.

Other commonly misused quotations include statements by Futuyama,[13] [14] Gould,[15] [16] [17] Kemp,[18] and Mark.[19] Unfortunately, pages could be filled with examples of this kind of shameful conduct by Christians.

Quote mining is also found frequently in the popular media, especially on subjects which generate social controversy, such as global warming. The largest national newspaper in Australia (‘The Australian’), typically expresses skepticism of anthropogenic global warming and climate change, and its writers have been accused repeatedly of quote mining.[20] [21] [22]

Other news agencies criticized for the same tactic in their published opposition to the scientific consensus on anthropogenic global warning are Fox News (US), The Daily Telegraph (Australia), and The Telegraph (UK).


[1] A theist believes in a personal god who can be known by revelation (Christians are theists), and a deist believes in an impersonal god who cannot be known by revelation (some Buddhists sects are deists); neither are atheists.

[2] Commonly misquoted deists (believers in an impersonal god), are Epicurus (Greek philosopher), Xenophanes (Greek philosopher), Anaxagoras (Greek philosopher), Euhemerus (Greek philosopher), Marcus Aurelius (Roman emperor and philosopher), Abul ʿAla Al-Maʿarri (Arabian philosopher), Abu Bakr al-Razi  (Arabian philosopher), Ibn al-Rawandi  (Arabian philosopher), Denis Diderot, François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire), Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, David Hume, Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ulysses Grant, George Washington (some historians believe he was a highly unorthodox theist), Thomas Paine, and Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain).

[3] Commonly misquoted theists (believers in a personal god), are Al-Ghazali (Muslim), Al-Haytham (Muslim), Thomas Hobbes, Blaise Pascal (Christian of the Jansenist sect), John Adams (American president, and Unitarian Christian), and Annie Besant (Theosophist and mystic).

[4] Commonly misquoted agnostics (undecided as to whether or not any god exists), are Prodicus (Greek philosopher), Protagoras (Greek philosopher), Cicero (Roman orator, politician, and historian), Omar Khayyam (Persian philosopher, poet, mathematician, and astronomer), Robert Ingersoll, Henry Mencken, Ibn Warraq, Charles Templeton, Bill Maher, Karl Popper, David Attenborough, Marie Curie, Albert Einstein, Émile Durkheim, Stephen Jay Gould, Milton Friedman, Carl Sagan, and Bart Ehrman.

[5] Hitler’s religious beliefs are a matter of scholarly debate, but despite his repeated affirmations of Christianity and professions of belief in a personal God in his public writings and speeches, a number of historians and several people who knew him personally believe that his Christianity was a show, and that although religious he was actually anti-Christian; ‘Michael Reissman’s analysis of Hitler’s conception of God suggests that it had much more to do with a providential deity who had chosen him to lead the German people in accordance with ancient principles of leadership than with any Christian concept. As Goebbels commented at Christmas 1939, ‘The Führer is deeply religious but entirely anti-Christian’.’, Bonney, ‘Confronting the Nazi war on Christianity: the Kulturkampf newsletters, 1936-1939’, p. 20 (2009); ‘Hitler’s own religious views underwent significant change in the latter half of the Third Reich. He gave up on the Protestant Church after three failed attempts to achieve unity within its ranks. It is only in the period after this failure that we begin to see some of the anti-Christian remarks for which he is so famous. In October 1937, Hitler commented privately: “I have been freed, after an intense inner struggle, from the still living and childish imaginnings of religion….I now feel as liberated as a foal in the pasture.” Although he did not say so explicitly, the personalistic tone of the comment reveals that this was primarily a reference to his original Catholic faith, not to all religion per se.’, Steigman-Gall, ‘The Holy Reich: Nazi conceptions of Christianity, 1919-1945’, p. 252 (2003); Speer (Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, and close personal friend), indicated Hitler’s profession of support for Christianity was politically motivated, ‘Hitler usually concluded this historical speculation by remarking: “You see, it’s been our misfortune to have the wrong religion. Why didn’t we have the religion of the Japanese, who regard sacrifice for the Fatherland as the highest good? The Mohammedan religion too would have been much more compatible to us than Christianity. Why did it have to be Christianity with its meekness and flabbiness?’, Speer, ‘Inside the Third Reich’, p. 96 (1970).

[6] ‘When Stalin was a student at the Tiflis Russian Orthodox Seminary, where his mother sent him to become a priest, he becamse a closet atheist. (Many would late note, however, that his works were influenced by a distinctly biblical style.) His atheism remained rooted in some vague idea of a God in nature. Stalin once read a book by Antole France and was particularly impressed by the following line: “If Napoleon had to choose a religion, he would have chosen the adoration of the sun.” Stalin had circled the word “sun” and written in the margin, “Good!”’, Zubok & Pleshakov, ‘Inside the Kremlin’s Cold War: From Stalin to Khruschev’, p. 20 (1996); while historians do not debate that Stalin was an atheist, his atrocities cannot all be attributed simply to him being an atheist, though his anti-religious atrocities (such as his imposition of state atheism by force and his persecution and murder of hundreds of thousands of people because they were religious), certainly can as they were motivated directly by his atheism.

[7]To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree.’, Darwin, ‘The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’, p. 143 (6th ed. 1882.); although this makes Darwin look as if he is saying the eye could not possibly have evolved, Darwin goes on to explain that he believes the evolution of the eye is both possible and likely, ‘Reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a simple and imperfect eye to one complex and perfect can be shown to exist, each grade being useful to its possessor, as is certainly the case; if further, the eye ever varies and the variations be inherited, as is likewise certainly the case ; and if such variations should be useful to any animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, should not be considered subversive of the theory.’., ibid., pp 143-144.

[8] ‘The case at present must remain inexplicable; and may be truly urged as a valid argument against the views here entertained.’, ibid., p. 287, however, Darwin goes on to provide a possible explanation, ‘To show that it may hereafter receive some explanation, I will give the following hypothesis.’, p. 287; the context shows Darwin was referring to the lack of pre-Cambrian fossils, but since his time multi-cellular fossils pre-dating the Cambrian era have been discovered, such as the Ediacaran biota.

[9] ‘But, as by this theory, innumerable transitional forms must have existed, why do we not find them embedded in countless numbers in the crust of the earth?’, ibid., p. 134; Darwin goes on to answer his own question, ‘It will be more convenient to discuss this question in the chapter on the Imperfection of the Geological Record; and I will here only state that I believe the answer mainly lies in the record being incomparably less perfect than is generally supposed. The crust of the earth is a vast museum; but the natural collections have been imperfectly made, and only at long intervals of time.’, ibid., p. 134.

[10] ‘Long before the reader has arrived at this part of my work, a crowd of difficulties will have occurred to him. Some of them are so serious that to this day I can hardly reflect on them without being in some degree staggered…’ ibid., p. 133; however, Darwin continues, ‘but, to the best of my judgment, the greater number are only apparent, and those that are real are greater not, I think, fatal to my theory.’, ibid., p. 133.

[11] ‘Not one change of species into another is on record… we cannot prove that a single species has been changed.’, commonly mis-attributed to a book entitled ‘My Life & Letters’ (though Darwin never wrote a book by this title), Darwin’s original words appear in a book written by his son, ‘When we descend to details, we can prove that no one species has changed; [i.e. we cannot prove that a single species has changed] nor can we prove that the supposed changes are beneficial, which is the groundwork of the theory.’, (text in square brackets is in the original), Darwin (ed.), ‘The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter: edited by his son Francis Darwin’, volume 2, p. 210 (1911); this was speaking only of the evidence available in his own time, and scientists say such proof does exist today.

[12] Darwin repeatedly insisted that he was not saying he had proof of evolution, but did make clear that he believed it was the best explanation of the observable biological record; ‘I am actually weary of telling people that I do not pretend to adduce direct evidence of one species changing into another, but that I believe that this view in the main is correct, because so many phenomena can be thus grouped together and explained.  But it is generally of no use; I cannot make persons see this.’, Darwin, letter to FW Hutton 20 April, 1861, in Darwin & Seward (eds.), ‘More Letters of Charles Darwin’, letter 124, volume 1, p. 184 (1903).

[13]Undeniably, the fossil record has provided disappointingly few gradual series. The origins of many groups are still not documented at all. Futuyma, ‘Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution’, pp. 190-191 (1983); the title of the book shows Futuyama supported evolution, and the paragraph before this sentence says ‘Contrary to Creationist claims, the transitions among vertebrate species are almost all documented to a greater or lesser extent.’, and the paragraph after the quoted sentence says ‘But in view of the rapid pace evolution can take, and the extreme incompleteness of fossil deposits, we are fortunate to have as many transitions as we do. The creationist argument that if evolution were true we should have an abundance of intermediate fossils is built by denying the richness of paleontological collections, by denying the transitional series that exist, and by distorting, or misunderstanding, the genetical theory of evolution.’, ibid., pp. 190, 191.

[14] ‘The majority of major groups appear suddenly in the rocks, with virtually no evidence of transition from their ancestors.’, Futuyma, ‘Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution’, p. 82 (1983); on the next page Futuyma writes ‘The transitional forms that evolve so quickly, and in such a small area, are very unlikely to be picked up in the fossil record. Only when the newly evolved species extends its range will it suddenly appear in the fossil record. Eldredge and Gould have suggested, therefore, that the fossil record should show stasis, or equilibrium, of established species, punctuated occasionally by the appearance of new forms. Hence, the fossil record would be most inadequate exactly where we need it most — at the origin of major new groups of organisms.’, ibid., p. 83.

[15] ‘Paleontologists have paid an enormous price for Darwin’s argument. We fancy ourselves as the only true students of life’s history, yet to preserve our favored account of evolution by natural selection we view our data as so bad that we almost never see the very process we profess to study.’, Gould, ‘The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History’, p. 181 (1980); the next sentence says ‘We believe that Huxley was right in his warning. The modern theory of evolution does not require gradual change. In fact, the operation of Darwinian processes should yield exactly what we see in the fossil record. It is gradualism we should reject, not Darwinism.’, ibid., p. 181.

[16] ‘The fossil record had caused Darwin more grief than joy. Nothing distressed him more than the Cambrian explosion, the coincident appearance of almost all complex organic designs…’, ibid. pp. 238-239; Gould later writes ‘His opponents interpreted this event as the moment of creation, for not a single trace of Precambrian life had been discovered when Darwin wrote the Origin of Species. (We now have an extensive record of monerans from these early rocks, see essay 21).’, ibid., p. 239.

[17] ‘We have long known about stasis and abrupt appearance, but have chosen to fob it off upon an imperfect fossil record.’, Gould, ‘The Paradox of the First Tier: An Agenda for Paleobiology’, Paleobiology, (11.1.7), 1985; this is a corruption of what Gould actually wrote, which was ‘Just as we have long known about stasis and abrupt appearance, but have chosen to fob it off up on an imperfect fossil record, so too have we long recognized the rapid, if not sudden, turnover of faunas in episodes of mass extinction.’, ibid., p. 7.

[18] ‘In other words, when the assumed evolutionary processes did not match the pattern of fossils that they were supposed to have generated, the pattern was judged to be ‘wrong.’ A circular argument arises: interpret the fossil record in terms of a particular theory of evolution, inspect the interpretation, and note that it confirms the theory. Well, it would, wouldn’t it? …As is now well known, most fossil species appear instantaneously in the record, persist for some millions of years virtually unchanged, only to disappear abruptly - the ‘punctuated equilibrium’ pattern of Eldredge and Gould.’, Kemp, ‘A Fresh Look at the Fossil Record’, New Scientist  (108. 66), 1985; Kemp was criticizing an approach used by some earlier scientists (but abandoned by his time), not denying evolution or claiming that methods used by scientists are wrong, and his next sentence makes this clear, ‘Irrespective of one’s view of the biological causes of such a pattern (and there continues to be much debate about this), it leads in practice to description of long-term evolution, or macroevolution, in terms of the differential survival, extinction and proliferation of species. The species is the unit of evolution.’, ibid., p. 66.

[19] ‘In any case, no real evolutionist, whether gradualist or punctuationist, uses the fossil record as evidence in favour of the theory of evolution as opposed to special creation.” Mark, ‘Who doubts evolution?’ New Scientist, (90.831) 1981; statements from the article making it clear that Mark was actually arguing against special creation and pointing out that scientists use several lines of evidence to prove evolution (not simply the fossil records, which is the least important), include ‘Someone is getting it wrong, and it isn’t Darwin; it is the creationists and the media.’ (p. 830), ‘So what is the evidence that species have evolved? There have traditionally been three kinds of evidence, and it is these, not the “fossil evidence”, that the critics should be thinking about. The three arguments are from the observed evolution of species, from biogeography, and from the hierarchical structure of taxonomy.’ (p. 831), ‘These three are the clearest arguments for the mutability of species. Other defences of the theory of evolution could be made, not the least of which is the absence of a coherent alternative. Darwin’s theory is also uniquely able to account for both the presence of design, and the absence of design (vestigial organs), in nature.’ (p. 832).

[20] ‘On climate change, The Australian is behaving like the media equivalent of a fog machine. Its unreliable reporting should be avoided by those with an interest in factual scientific information.’, Jones, ‘Spinning uncertainty? The IPCC extreme weather report and the media’, The Conversation, 23 November 2011.

[21]The Australian has a daily column called Cut and Paste which should more properly be titled Quote Mining.’, Lambert, ‘The Australian’s War on Science 58: Quote Mining’, Deltoid, 4 February 2011.

[22] ‘Unfortunately for Kerr, [writer for The Australian] the report is available online, so we can see how Kerr quote mined it:.’, Lambert, ‘The Australian’s War on Science 63: Quote Mining’, Deltoid, 14 July 2011.

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