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know with confidence only when we know little; with knowledge doubt increases”
(adapted from Goethe)


What is the “Dunning-Kruger”-effect? How should we define confidence and doubt?  In what sense does knowledge
lead to more confidence? In what sense does knowledge lead to less confidence?



“Modernity has long been obsessed
with, perhaps even defined by, its epistemic insecurity, its grasping toward
big truths that ultimately disappoint as our world grows
only less knowable. New knowledge and new ways of understanding
simultaneously produce new forms of no knowledge, new uncertainties and
mysteries. The scientific method, based in deduction and falsifiability, is
better at proliferating questions than it is at answering them. For instance,
Einstein’s theories about the curvature of space and motion at the quantum
level provide new knowledge and generates new unknowns that previously could
not be pondered.

Over time it has been seen that the best of theories have
been shown to be incomplete. The theories might explain a lot of phenomena
using a few basic principles, predict new results but sooner or later new and
more precise experiments show a discrepancy between the workings of nature and
the predictions of these theories. It may appear that the theories were not
‘Accurate’ to begin with but we cannot deny the fact that theories at their
time were very good approximation of the truth or the reality these addressed
to understand and know.

In physics Newtonian models were crude approximations of
the truth. Similarly, in Biology the Mendelian process has turned out to be an
even greater simplification of reality than Newton’s laws. The discovery of
gene-protein interactions and other aspects of epigenetics has challenged the
view of DNA as destiny and even introduced evidence that environment can
influence inheritable traits, something once considered a genetic
impossibility. The more we learn in any area of Knowing, in Evolutionary
Biology for example, the further we find ourselves from a model that can
explain it.

The physicists have long encountered ignorance about
disorder in the atmosphere, in the turbulent sea, in the fluctuations of wild
life populations, in the oscillations of the heart and the brain- the
irregular, non linear, erratic and discontinuous side. And where classical
science stops, Chaos begins. “Relativity eliminated the Newtonian illusion of
absolute space and time; Quantum theory eliminated the Newtonian dream of a
controllable measurement process; Chaos eliminated the Laplacian fantasy of
deterministic predictability.

In the field
of psychology, the Dunning–Kruger
effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability
suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive
ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority
derives from the metacognitive inability of low-ability persons to
recognize their own ineptitude; without the self-awareness of
metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual
competence or incompetence.

As described by social psychologists David
Dunning and Justin Kruger, the cognitive bias of illusory superiority
results from an internal illusion in people of low ability and from an external
misperception in people of high ability; that is, “the miscalibration of
the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration
of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

Conversely, highly competent individuals may
erroneously presume that tasks easy for them to perform are also easy for other
people to perform, or that other people will have a similar understanding of
subjects that they themselves are well-versed in. How confident are
you that you understand the molecules that make up the device and its

If we had a way to go into your head and pull
out your knowledge, we could figure out objectively whether you actually
understand how things in your world work.  Unfortunately, there is no way
to do that.  Instead, you have to make judgments about how well you
understand the world around you.

An interesting paper by Steven Sloman and
Nathaniel Rabb in the November, 2016 issue of Psychological
Science(link is external) suggests that part of
the way you judge whether you understand how something works is by knowing
whether there are other experts who understand it.

In one study, they had participants read about
several new natural phenomena. For example, they were told that scientists
recently discovered a new rock that glows or conditions in which ice forms even
when it is warm.  Some participants were told that the scientists who
discovered the phenomenon completely understand it and have published the
explanation.  Other participants were told that the scientists who
discovered it do not yet understand how it works. 

Later, participants rated how confident they were
that they themselves understood the new finding on a scale ranging from 1 (not
very confident) to 7 (very confident).  Overall, of course, participants
gave low ratings.  That makes sense, because the descriptions did not give
any information about how the new findings worked.  That said, on average,
people were somewhat more confident that they understood the new phenomenon
when they were told that scientists understand it than when they were told that
scientists do not understand it.

A second study in this series demonstrated that
people were most confident that they understood the new finding when they were
told that scientists had published the explanation than when they were told
that scientists were keeping the explanation a secret (as a matter of national

What does this mean?

In human societies, knowledge is
distributed.  People develop particular areas of expertise that allow them
to participate in their communities.  I know a lot about psychology, a
little about the saxophone, and nothing at all about the way my car
works.  That means that if someone wants to know about psychology, they
can come to me.  If they need a sax player for a band, they could come to
me, but they might also go to other people who know more than I do.  I
have to go someone else if my car breaks down, though, because I don’t know
what to do on my own.

That means that you have to rely on the
knowledge of other people all the time in order to get things done.  It
makes sense that you would be most confident that a task can be accomplished if
someone in society has knowledge and skills that would allow the task to be
done.  If the task is one that nobody has ever accomplished before, you
should be less confident that it can be done.

On the one hand, it is important that you know
the limits of your own expertise, so that you do not try to do things that you
are not qualified to do.  That is why the ratings in this experiment were
generally quite low.  People were pretty sure they did not understand much
about these new phenomena.

That said, people still felt somewhat more
confident about knowledge when they were aware that someone actually did
understand the phenomenon.  Essentially, knowing where to go or who to
contact if you need information makes you more confident that you yourself
understand it.  That does make sense.  You should feel more confident
that a problem can be solved if you know where to go to get relevant

It can be a little disconcerting sometimes that
you have to rely on so many other people for knowledge.  However, a big
part of what allows our technological society to advance is that we are willing
to distribute our expertise across many people rather than requiring each
person to know exactly how to accomplish every task.  The most important
thing is that we know where to go when we need someone’s expertise.