Ignorance feels so much like expertise

In the Pacific Standard, David Dunning of the Dunning-Kruger effect writes:

A whole battery of studies conducted by myself and others have confirmed that people who don’t know much about a given set of cognitive, technical, or social skills tend to grossly overestimate their prowess and performance, whether it’s grammar, emotional intelligence, logical reasoning, firearm care and safety, debating, or financial knowledge. College students who hand in exams that will earn them Ds and Fs tend to think their efforts will be worthy of far higher grades; low-performing chess players, bridge players, and medical students, and elderly people applying for a renewed driver’s license, similarly overestimate their competence by a long shot.

But education is not always the answer:

While educating people about evolution can indeed lead them from being uninformed to being well informed, in some stubborn instances it also moves them into the confidently misinformed category. In 2014, Tony Yates and Edmund Marek published a study that tracked the effect of high school biology classes on 536 Oklahoma high school students’ understanding of evolutionary theory. The students were rigorously quizzed on their knowledge of evolution before taking introductory biology, and then again just afterward. Not surprisingly, the students’ confidence in their knowledge of evolutionary theory shot up after instruction, and they endorsed a greater number of accurate statements. So far, so good.

The trouble is that the number of misconceptions the group endorsed also shot up. For example, instruction caused the percentage of students strongly agreeing with the true statement “Evolution cannot cause an organism’s traits to change during its lifetime” to rise from 17 to 20 percent—but it also caused those strongly disagreeing to rise from 16 to 19 percent. In response to the likewise true statement “Variation among individuals is important for evolution to occur,” exposure to instruction produced an increase in strong agreement from 11 to 22 percent, but strong disagreement also rose from nine to 12 percent. Tellingly, the only response that uniformly went down after instruction was “I don’t know.”

The way we traditionally conceive of ignorance—as an absence of knowledge—leads us to think of education as its natural antidote. But education, even when done skillfully, can produce illusory confidence. Here’s a particularly frightful example: Driver’s education courses, particularly those aimed at handling emergency maneuvers, tend to increase, rather than decrease, accident rates. They do so because training people to handle, say, snow and ice leaves them with the lasting impression that they’re permanent experts on the subject. In fact, their skills usually erode rapidly after they leave the course. And so, months or even decades later, they have confidence but little leftover competence when their wheels begin to spin.

In cases like this, the most enlightened approach, as proposed by Swedish researcher Nils Petter Gregersen, may be to avoid teaching such skills at all. Instead of training drivers how to negotiate icy conditions, Gregersen suggests, perhaps classes should just convey their inherent danger—they should scare inexperienced students away from driving in winter conditions in the first place, and leave it at that.

The full article is worth reading.

3 comments

  1. I wonder if you quizzed graduate students in evolutionary biology before and after they started their programs, confidence in the answers to many of these questions would go down. For example “Evolution cannot cause an organism’s traits to change during its lifetime” really depends on your definition of the vaguely-defined term “evolution.”

    1. I was thinking along the same lines… is “trait” defined well enough? If height (rather than height at a given time point) is a trait, then a trait can change within an organism’s lifetime. And I’d like to say evolution wrote the program that caused the organism to grow in height. But perhaps I’m not working with the right definition of “trait.”

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