Thursday, January 14, 2016

Stupidity For Dummies: The Study Of Ignorance Helps Understand How Intelligence Works

Stupidity For Dummies
The study of ignorance is helping us understand how intelligence works 

Richard Fisher, BBC 
In 1995, a criminal called McArthur Wheeler did something stupid: he walked into two banks in Pittsburgh with a gun and demanded money, in full view of the cameras. When police arrested Wheeler that evening, he was incredulous. "But I wore the juice!" he said. Detectives realised that Wheeler believed scrubbing lemon juice on to his face would hide his features on CCTV.
When psychologist David Dunning read about Wheeler's story, he was intrigued by one facet: Wheeler was so confident in his abilities, despite his stupidity. Could other people have similar blind spots about their incompetence? Dunning and his colleague Justin Kruger conducted some experiments: they tested their students on humour, grammar and logic, then asked them to estimate how well they had done. The pair found that, like Wheeler, the poorest of performers were also the worst at judging their own abilities accurately.
This became known as the Dunning-Kruger effect: in short, incompetence shields our self-knowledge of incompetence. Or more bluntly, the stupidest person in the room doesn't feel that stupid, because their ignorance also dampens their awareness.
Dunning and Kruger's original research paper became a classic in social psychology. Today, however, Dunning sees the victims of his effect differently. In the years hence, the Dunning-Kruger effect has been observed in all sorts of realms, including chess skills, medical training, social abilities such as emotional intelligence, and even in the firearms safety knowledge among hunters. In any group with a spectrum of abilities, those dwelling in the bottom 25 per cent of performance were the least capable when assessing their talents. But those afflicted by it - medical students, chess players - were hardly unintelligent. 
Look around and it's easy to observe the Dunning-Kruger effect in colleagues and friends - smart people. Consider the case of Paul Frampton, a physicist jailed in November 2012 for drug smuggling in Argentina. He was no McArthur Wheeler scrubbing juice on his face. In his day job, Frampton wrestled with the subatomic world - hypothetical particles called axigluons. Still, law enforcers were incredulous about Frampton's ignorance.
The 70-year-old was caught in January 2012 at Buenos Aires airport carrying a bag with 2kg of cocaine in the lining. He told the police that it belonged to a bikini model, who had seduced him on an online dating site; he'd never met her, he said, but she'd asked him to bring her bag to Brussels. It was so obvious that she was an internet catfish. But not for the erudite and gullible Frampton.
Yet it is much more difficult to accept that the Dunning-Kruger effect can be applied to ourselves. People can label many of their own incompetences - be it the skills required for neurosurgery or complex mathematics - but those pockets of ignorance are known.
It's a profound but unsettling thought that there are countless things in life that we do not know that we do not know. Donald Rumsfeld called them "unknown unknowns". We each operate in a pond of personal knowledge; our ignorance is oceanic.
Worse, it is impossible to fathom just how close and how pervasive these unknowns are, precisely because they are invisible to us. "People are destined not to know where the solid land of their knowledge ends and the slippery shores of their ignorance begins," writes Dunning. He calls this affliction the "anosognosia of everyday life". It's an obscure term from the medical literature, but appropriate: people with anosognosia have a disability - they are paralysed or blind - but crucially, do not know they are disabled. It's not denial; they are simply not aware.
So is that it? Are we all destined to stumble through life unaware of our own concealed incompetence? Perhaps not everybody. 
Philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote about two types of people: "hedgehogs" and "foxes".
A hedgehog is somebody who knows "one big thing"; he confidently navigates his life by relating everything to one world-view. Dick Cheney is a hedgehog. The fox, by contrast, doesn't see the world so simply, and believes reality is shaped by many forces, including luck and unpredictable events, such as black swans. Colin Powell is a fox.
Philip Tetlock, a psychologist, has explored how these two types of thinking affect people's judgment. He asked 284 experts on political and economic trends to assess the probability of world events happening in the future: war in the Middle East, for example. While all performed dismally, the foxes did better than the hedgehogs. One interpretation is that foxes, in their characteristic embrace of the unpredictable, were more likely to account for unknown unknowns that would shape the future. A fox has a talent for what poet John Keats called "negative capability" or a comfort in uncertainty.
The researcher and writer Dylan Evans believes there is a mode of thinking: risk intelligence, which can be graded like IQ. This is not a metric of knowledge, but self-knowledge.
You can measure your own risk intelligence by taking an online test devised by Evans, at Here you rate your certainty about the veracity of statements such as: "No word in the English language rhymes with silver or purple." At the end, you get a score out of 100 that describes your ability to gauge your own uncertainty.
Those with a high risk intelligence know when to be cautious or confident, and according to Evans, that means they will also make better predictions in business and other uncertain situations. He believes that expert gamblers fall into this category. Doctors, by contrast, often display lower risk intelligence as they get older, because their confidence increases faster than their abilities.
This should stand as a warning for the man who has risen to the top thanks to luck and confidence alone. Embrace the reality of unknown unknowns, or end up as foolish as the bank robber McArthur Wheeler.
Richard Fisher is deputy editor of the new science and technology website, BBC Future.
Originally published in the January 2013 edition of British GQ. 

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