Thursday, June 6, 2019

You Don't Know What You Don't Know

Psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger have repeatedly shown that people who aren't good at something often overestimate their performance - PubMed(Unskilled and Unaware of It) [1]. And people who ARE good at something underestimate their performance. This seems counter-intuitive, but we all know examples of this already. For example, more than 80% of drivers think they are above average - Modern Driver [2]. Or maybe you have seen contestants on American Idol who think they are really good singers, but they aren't.

This phenomenon is now known as the Dunning Kruger effect (D-K), but it has long been recognized, just lacking the research and the catchy name. Consider this quote from Alexander Pope in 1709. The Wiki page even references Dunning Kruger.

A little learning (knowledge) is a dangerous thing - Wikipedia(Essay_on_Criticism) [3]. 
Or this observation from Charles Darwin. Some may find irony here.
Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge -  BrainyQuote [4].

If you like this (or not), check out my other articles at the
Between The Ears BLOG INDEX, with titles and summaries.

D-K happens because our brain is hiding its own blind spots from us. When people don't get it, they don't realize they don't get it, that is you don't know what you don't know. The skill you need to evaluate your performance is the very skill you lack to actually perform well.

The maddening part is that D-K happens to all of us. We can't be expert in everything. "Not knowing the scope of your own ignorance is part of the human condition" - Vox(D-K_Explained) [5]. When we learn something new, we underestimate how much there is to know about a subject, so we assume we have nearly mastered it, and overestimate our performance. When we study something deeply, we realize how much we don't know, so we underestimate our performance.

Hold My Ladder
Let me share one of  my own D-K experiences, involving painting (walls, not portraits). I know a few tricks about painting, things like keeping a wet edge, cutting in, how to quickly spread paint, etc. I thought I was pretty good at it. After my stroke, when I could no longer work over my head, we wanted our living room (which has high ceilings) painted. We hired a guy. I watched him paint. I realized my mediocrity. He painted that ceiling in a couple hours. It would have taken me two days. He had the right tools, knew the right techniques, and painted faster and better than I ever could, pre-stroke that is.

I think the ultimate example of D-K is Mother Eve in the Garden of Eden. She got a tiny bit of (mis)information, and made a decision to overrule God Himself. Did she think that she knew better than her Creator?

The poor performers fall victim to thinking "how hard can it be?" As in "Nobody knew health care could be so complicated".

Hypothetical Dunning Kruger Effect - Independent(William Poundstone) [6]

The graph above depicts the hypothetical Dunning-Kruger effect, plotting confidence against competence. It shows that absolute beginners more accurately evaluate themselves, that is they recognize that they are incompetent. Then, at a certain skill level, people begin to overestimate their competence. This graph was published by William Poundstone, not by Dunning and Kruger however. The D-K paper included four graphs, all of them similar to the one at right, which plots perception versus ability to recognize humor. Note the graph does not go to zero, so it really says nothing about absolute beginners, though a recent study by Dunning shows "beginners don’t start out falling prey to the Dunning-Kruger effect, but they get there real quick" - Vox(D-K_Explained) [7], PubMed [8]. Visit Graph Paper Diaries [9] to see the original D-K graphs for logic and grammar comprehension.

I think one has to distinguish between the D-K effect and arrogance. The D-K effect can be attributed to ignorance. Beginners are simply unaware of how much there is to know about a topic consequently overestimate how much they know about it. But there are people who offer opinions about things they know little about; often wrong, but never in doubt. Everyone falls prey to D-K, but the arrogant more so.

Enter Politics

Whether you're a voter or a politician, the Dunning Kruger effect is in play. Ill informed voters appear to be extremely overconfident in their political knowledge, but also strong in their opinions - Science Trends [10],  PsyPost(Study) [11].  In short, beware the loudest and most confident voices on social media. Politicians propose solutions that can't possibly work, but they are unaware of the costs and consequences of their solutions. I think this is especially true of campaign promises. Some politicians are sadly uninformed about science, technology, economics, history, etc., but make laws about these  very subjects that they don't understand, and be very vocal about it.

One problem for voters is that a truly knowledgeable candidate will likely underestimate his own solutions or his ability to govern. He may even appear to doubt himself. Who is going to vote for that person? People want confident leaders, and D-K says that those people are often the least qualified.

Enter Religion

In a sense, religion deals with "what we don't know", the very realm of the unknown.  We look to religion to give us the answers to life's biggest questions. There are things we simply cannot know from human physical experience, and we expect religion to know the "unknowable". But that leaves huge opportunities for not only D-K, but fraud as well. But to reuse an old joke, "never attribute to fraud what can adequately be explained by D-K" - Hanlon's Razor [12].

How are we supposed to approach it? Who do we believe?  If you don't know what you don't know, can you know what you do know? Personally, I believe the Bible, though I recognize that leaves out atheists and a lot of people who believe in other "sacred texts". I will confine my remarks to Bible believers. But still, Bible believers are split into about 40,000 denominations, they can't all be right. While some may be frauds, I think most are displaying D-K. Consider the D-K preacher, one who can take take a small part of the Bible, make a compelling sermon out of it, yet actually misunderstand the passage. The preacher has the added challenge of wanting to appear confident about the unknowable. Consider the D-K member, one who hasn't read much of the Bible, yet has great confidence they know the truth, or at least their church leaders do. The tendency is to look down on everyone outside one's own faith. Atheists apply D-K to Christians Atheist Forum [13], and Christians apply D-K to atheists  Phillip Jensen [14]. And I would guess that each denomination applies D-K to other denominations as well.

Message Of Hope

Contrary to what Mulder always said, the truth is not "out there" - Wikipedia(X_Files) [15]. And contrary to what Darth Vader said, the truth is not "in here", that is, you can't search your feelings for the truth - Wikiquote(The Empire Strikes Back) [16]. Our feelings are not the arbiters of truth. Truth is in the pages of the Bible, "Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth" - John 17:17. But with all the misinformation and disinformation about the Bible "out there", one needs a guide - like the Ethiopian eunuch said to Philip.
Acts 8:30 Philip ran up and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet, and said, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “Well, how could I, unless someone guides me?”
That guide is available. I invite you to read some of these publications from the United Church of God [17]. This is only a sampling of what is available.

 Does God Exist?

Why are we here? What is our place in the universe? What is the purpose of life? The questions have been asked for centuries. But they all revolve around what is perhaps the most fundamental question of all: Does God exist?

 Why Were You Born?

What is your destiny? Why do you exist? Why were you born? Is there a reason, a purpose, for human life? These questions have baffled the greatest thinkers and philosophers down through the ages.  We ponder the meaning of life.  In the pages that follow, we will explore this, one of the greatest of all mysteries.

 How To Understand the Bible
The Bible is the world's most popular book, but at the same time the most misunderstood! The Bible continues to be printed more than any other book and is available in more than 2,000 languages. It has helped form the basis for Western society and has shaped much of its religious, economic and social outlook.

The Bible itself reveals ways to better grasp its message to mankind. Throughout its pages are principles that, when applied, can help your comprehension. Let’s now explore a number of important keys that will help open up this Book of books to your understanding.


Why should there be such confusion about one of the Ten Commandments that God gave to mankind? Why is there such controversy and confusion over this one commandment when most people, including religious leaders and their churches, have little quarrel with the other nine? You don’t have to look far to discover the answers to these questions. They can be found in the pages of the Bible and history. And we address these basic questions in this booklet.


Prophecy is an integral part of the Bible, God’s inspired revelation to mankind. Through it God reveals Himself, His plan for humanity and why we are here. When properly understood, the Bible speaks with a clear, consistent and reliable message that is just as appropriate for us as it was for the people of ancient Israel.

Why should you believe me? I don't have a degree from a seminary. I'm not an evangelist, and I don't play one on TV. Maybe I'm exhibiting Dunning-Kruger. Well, I'm not a beginner, I've been studying the Bible for over 40 years. God helped me make big changes in my life long ago. I'm not saying I am perfect, but I'm not the man I was in my 20's. People who knew me then would probably be surprised that I write a blog about Bible topics. You can read my blog for yourself, (65 articles as of June 2019), see the INDEX or the list on the right - you can see much of what I believe.

As far as beliefs go, I'm pretty certain about some, less so about others. For examples, I'm certain God exists; the Bible is the word of God; that He expects us to keep the Ten Commandments, including the Sabbath; that Jesus is the Messiah, and He is coming back, soon; Jesus started His church and it is still here (this is not meant to be an exhaustive  list of beliefs I am certain about, just a few examples). If a church teaches the Ten Commandments are done away, or the Sabbath has been changed to Sunday, or keeps Christmas and Easter, that church contradicts the Bible. On the other hand, there are things that I don't fully understand, despite my best efforts, things I may have opinions about, even strong opinions, but can't claim certainty, things like the exact nature of God, God's name, when exactly will Christ return, God of the Old Testament, Nephilim, church government, voting, and more. On the other hand, there are parts of the Bible that are not entirely clear, that people legitimately debate and argue about. Sometimes I think there isn't a verse that people don't argue about. Then I remember what Mark Twain said "It ain't those parts of the Bible that I can't understand that bother me, it is the parts that I do understand" - Brainy Quote [18]. At least I have reached the point where I realize I have SO much more to learn.

Overcoming the Dunning Kruger Effect

Is it possible to avoid D-K effect? The research says no because there are always subjects we are not experts at, which means areas we are ignorant and can't accurately assess our performance. But one key is humility - Vox(Intellectual_Humility) [19]. At least, one doesn't have to cross the line from ignorance to arrogance. "everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think" - Rom 12:3. Life Lessons [20] offers more tips on how to overcome D-K.

Discussion questions

Can you think of "Christian" teachings that contradict the Bible?
Do you have a D-K story?