15 February 2015
Well, it actually an effect rather than a syndrome, but it can seem like one to others. The vaccine for it is science literacy, but make no mistake, it doesn’t work for everyone. It’s kind of like the flu shot, it protects many and lessens the severity for most others, but some people get the full-blown illness anyhow. If you’re wondering what the Dunning-Kruger effect is, just look at the images on this post (They are the results of my Google image search for Dunning-Krueger.)
I know several renowned experts on atmospheric physics who’ve been told by their garbage collector, mechanic ,and someone standing in a grocery store line, that they’re all wrong about climate change, and I know biologists who have been told that Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been disproved countless times (It hasn’t). Have you ever tried to explain thermodynamics of air and water to a chemtrail believer? These are all examples of folks who are deeply infected by D-K. They have no idea how absolutely ignorant they appear to those around them. D-K can be an expensive disease if you’re a newspaper editor too (as the National Post found out this last week).
You can see Dunning-Kruger in action by reading the comment section of any article about climate change, vaccinations, natural selection, or even astronomy posted to a major news website. Some of them are sadly funny, and have you done a YouTube search for moonwalk video lately? I wonder if the Arkansas legislature, who voted this weekend to stop cities from enacting non discrimination laws, realize how similar they are to the extremists in the Middle East? Those folks who forbid women to drive, attempt to kill cartoonists, and who make it impossible for girls to get an education. I suspect there’s some Dunning-Krueger going on there in Little Rock as well.
While it’s certainly not foolproof, understanding the value of scientific method is a valuable defense against D-K. Accepting as true, things you can see with your own eyes, and that other sane people agree is visible to them as well is a start. Accepting only theories that are testable (and could be proven wrong) is an integral part of the method. People who understand this have increasingly labeled themselves as skeptics, and I certainly consider myself one. If you’ve read more than two books by Carl Sagan, or Neil de Grasse Tyson, you are likely one as well!
There has been a lot of discussion in the blogosphere lately, and even in the NY Times, about how to label those who think climate change isn’t happening or a hoax. I say label, because I think name calling is never the right thing to do, but newspapers and bloggers do search for a label for these groups. They apparently prefer to be called skeptics, but that’s almost certainly what they are not. Scientists in general are trained to be skeptics (see the xkcd cartoon- it gets it spot on!). These folks seem to like to name call using words like warmist etc. but seem to hate the word “denier”.
What is a good word for people who refuse to believe something for which there is an undeniable mountain of evidence for? I’m not sure, but I think Bill Nye’s best seller UNDENIABLE is aptly named. There is good psychological data that trying to convince someone of something they refuse to accept (be it climate change etc.) actually strengthens their misguided belief, and that is one reason I never argue with these folks. The best thing we can do is to explain scientific method and teach it well to students, thus giving them the tools to make rational decisions.
Everyone is susceptible to D-K, but understanding how science works is a vaccine jab worth getting as much as the one for measles.