An assertive ignoramus

In my last post I mentioned the Dunning-Kruger effect, whereby those least competent at a task tend to rate themselves best at it. I encountered a nice example during the week. At a quiz, we were asked to name one subatomic particle. It so happened that I was sitting next to an old friend who had first interested me in particle physics about forty years ago – we both being fans of astronomy – and put me onto to a number of good books on the subject; his son is now studying nuclear physics at university. We laughed that the question was such a gimme, and joked about which of the many subatomic particles to choose for our answer: neutrino? gluon? Higgs boson? In the end, we thought it best to keep it simple so as to avoid the quizzer’s curse of the quizmaster not knowing the right answer, and went for the good old quark. We got a rude surprise when the answer was announced: we could have a mark only for ‘electron’, ‘neutron’, or ‘positron’. When we politely challenged the answer, we were told we’d have to raise it with the question-setter, who was duly sent to speak to us. We told her that we had given ‘quark’ as our answer, but got a blank look; so we apprised her what a quark is. No, we were told, that’s not right; she’d read in a school text-book that there are three sub-atomic particles, and that wasn’t one of them. I explained that that was indeed what science used to think, but it all changed about fifty years ago when it was discovered what electrons, neutrons and positrons are made of. She wouldn’t have it. When I tried telling her that quarks are by definition subatomic because they are constituent parts of atoms, she was not so much enlightened as outraged. She looked me in the eye and announced firmly, “We’ll just have to agree to differ!” Whereupon she spun on her heel and marched off.

After getting over our initial surprise, we did agree that this is a wonderfully effective way of dealing with stuff of which one is ignorant. “You say you have proof of this relativity nonsense, Mr Einstein? Well, we’ll just have to agree to differ”. You could just say that the woman was stupid or pompous, either of which may have been right. But I’d prefer to think she was a victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and inclined by her ignorance to be more assertive than she might have been had she known anything at all about physics. A little learning is certainly a dangerous thing.

Although this a difficult and divisive time in politics, with the presidential race in America and Brexit in Britain, I have at least found it fascinating from a psychological point of view. Dunning-Kruger is one of several phenomena that have been to the fore among the citizenry. It intrigues me how people I have known for many years, and would consider to have the political knowledge of a walnut tree, are suddenly experts in the field and, most painfully, extraordinarily sure of themselves. No longer do we hear the waiver, “I don’t know a lot about politics, but…” Instead, it’s always “This is the truth, and if you don’t agree, you’re plainly a rogue, a maniac, or an idiot”. In an evolutionarily competitive universe, what most people believe is nothing but a reflection of what best serves their own selfish interest, no matter how piously they dress it up; so the arguments you hear are only what Ayn Rand called parrot squawks: post-rationalisations of “Me! Me! Me!” I’m always fascinated by the manifold ways that people try to convert these squawks into what pass for socially acceptable arguments, though it’s much less interesting when they’ve simply cut-and-pasted them from the media. The trouble is that arguments made more of heat than light generally bar one from listening to counter-arguments that might actually be of personal benefit. No wonder the Nobel Prize-winning mathematician Bertrand Russell complained that, despite spending his life looking for human rationality, he’d never found any.

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