Palin, Teabaggers and the Dunning-Kruger Effect

The first of the original Dunning-Kruger experiments involved a group of undergraduate students who were asked – just as they walked out of a final exam – to rate their performance for the class just completed. In particular, they were asked how well they had mastered the course material, and what they predicted their raw score would be on the test they had just taken.

After comparing the student’s own impressions with their actual performance, a clear pattern emerged in Dunning and Kruger’s data: the worst students grossly overestimated their own performance, while the top students somewhat underestimated theirs. You can get a clear sense of the extremity of the poor students’ tendency to overestimate their own performance when you consider these results: in the bottom quartile, while their actual performance may have

put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated their mastery of the course material to fall in the 60th percentile and their test performance to fall in the 57th.

Bottom performers tended to overestimate their performance by roughly 30%; a general pattern that has been replicated in subsequent studies many times since.

Subsequent studies have also underlined the key component of the Dunning-Kruger Effect: ignorance cannot recognize ignorance.

For WC, this explains much of recent American politics, including George W. Bush, Sarah Palin and most of the Teabag movement. Those who vote for them are too ignorant to recognize how ignorant they are. Dunning and Kruger often refer to a “double curse” when interpreting their findings: people fail to grasp their own incompetence, precisely because they are so incompetent. And since overcoming their incompetence would first require the ability to distinguish competence from incompetence, people get stuck in a vicious cycle.

The skills needed to produce logically sound arguments, for instance, are the same skills that are necessary to recognize when a logically sound argument has been made. Thus, if people lack the skills to produce correct answers, they are also cursed with an inability to know when their answers, or anyone else’s, are right or wrong. They cannot recognize their responses as mistaken, or other people’s responses as superior to their own.

So they become fans of Sarah Palin. They become climate change deniers. They become Obama birthplace crackpots. They become Teabaggers.

And colleges men from LSU
Went in dumb. Come out dumb too
Hustlin’ ’round Atlanta in their alligator shoes

– Randy Newman, Rednecks, from Good Ol’ Boys (1974)

But this is the human condition. It exists everywhere, although studies show it is far more prevalent in Americans. What Bush, Palin and some Republicans have done is aggravate the Dunning-Kruger Effect in two important ways.

First, they have made ignorance a badge of honor. Palin, in particular, seems to be extraordinarily proud of her ignorance in any number of areas. The logical fallacy of the appeal to ignorance is well known, and used in arguments by politicians of all stripes. (WC was once confronted by an evolution denier who argued he had never seen a mouse give birth to a monkey as “proof” evolution didn’t exist.) But when you combine ignorance, the Dunning-Kruger Effect and pride in that ignorance, together with an unwillingness to development judgment skills, well,  you’ve got Sarah Palin.

Second, an appalling number of right wing commentators have made cynical, manipulative use of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh – assuming they don’t suffer the same problem – can only be viewed as taking advantage of the ignorance of their listeners. D-K Shock Jocks, as it were. Not since Huey P. Long was assassinated has there been such a broad-scale, systematic effort to manipulate the body politic through its ignorance. WC saw this comment recently:

Pundits like ‘ol Rush, regardless of their position in the political spectrum, specialize in taking a single factoid and expanding it into a Potemkin Village of opinion masquerading as a City of Truth. They are the electronic age’s equivalent of demagogues and polemicists, stirring up the unwashed populace of the slums for personal and political gain.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect used to personal advantage. WC suspects that’s not what Jefferson and Madison had in mind when they created the country and gave citizens the franchise.

WC is not so arrogant as to believe he cannot himself fall to the Dunning-Kruger Effect. But WC also finds a lot of truth in Sir Isaac Newton’s observation, late in life: “I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

WC is aware of his limitations. Palin? Teabaggers? No so much.