Talky-Tuesday: Dunning-Kruger

How not to fall into the Dunning-Kruger trap.

You have probably heard the term Dunning-Kruger Effect. This basically describes a cognitive bias whereby people with a low ability in some skill or task over-estimate their ability. It’s particularly common in people who’ve studied a little in a field, but not quite enough.

If you ever want to run into this effect in the wild, study a language on Duolingo, especially if it’s brushing up on one you’re fluent in. Watch for an exception to some “rule” to come up, then check the comments.

One of my favorites is in Spanish whenever an expression like “Este es un problema” shows up, especially in the context of translating an expression from English into Spanish: “This is a problem.”

Their translation in Spanish will be flagged as an error for a lot of noobs who will then race to the comments to complain that they were right rather than to ask why what they wrote was wrong.

And those of us who know the language know what they wrote wrong: “Esta es una problema.” And they will insist that they’re right because “problema” ends in “a” and so is feminine.

This is a perfect example of doubling down on one’s ignorance, and people who insist on this are very quickly corrected. Problema, like many other Spanish words adapted from Greek, is masculine despite ending in “a”. It’s just an exception people have to remember.

An English version would be people pointing out that the word “weird” is, in fact, spelled “wierd,” because “I before E, except after C…” Which, of course, is wrong, and is also a rule that has far more exceptions. Right, Keith?

But if you really want to see Dunning-Kruger in action, go to any social media discussion forum on a post relating to science, politics or COVID-19 (you’ll often find all three together), and feast your eyes.

People who only know a little (or nothing) about a subject will make bold statements as if they are fact, and quite frequently double-down on their lack of knowledge after being corrected, especially by experts.

This will frequently come up when people prove that they made it to about 3rd grade Civics, never went further, and then forgot everything anyway.

“Facebook can’t ban Person X. What about their First Amendment rights?” Answer: The First Amendment does not apply to private business or individuals; only the Federal Government. You can’t be arrested or suffer other governmental actions, like a sudden 7-year tax audit, because of what you say or post or publish.

You can, however, be banned from a private business or social media site or sued by an individual whom you’ve libeled or slandered. It’s called “You have the right to free speech, but you do not have the right to avoid consequences for what you say.”

And even not all speech is protected from the Federal Government. There’s the famous “fire in a crowded theater” rule, meaning any speech likely to create a clear and present danger, like, oh, I don’t know… calling for an armed insurrection, perhaps?

When it comes to science, things get even more ridiculous and, again, it’s because of people who only made it through a very elementary understanding of things like genetics or biology who then try to argue about how many sexes or genders there are, how mRNA viruses “really” work, or why vaccines in general don’t.

These topics are a Dunning-Kruger field-day. Sadly, the lack of understanding about biology and genetics when it comes to gender and sex is actually harmful to people, because it leads to the undereducated and uninformed making stupid statements like, “There are only two sexes,” or “The gender you’re born with (?) is your gender, period.”

This also emboldens them to blatantly misgender people — this has come up a lot in stories about the woman who has now become the biggest winner on Jeopardy, even on strictly entertainment websites. Inevitably, some tiny-minded asshole will pop in with “he,” not realizing (or maybe they are) how damn transphobic and hateful they are being.

Not you, not your choice of pronouns, period.

There’s a big problem with misgendering or claiming that gender or sex are binary. They are completely wrong. But I’ll turn it over to a real clinical geneticist to explain why. Share this with people online the next time they try to claim that gender and sex are binary.

And remember, online, unless you’re calling out something that someone has posted that is blatantly wrong, stick to your own area of expertise. Oh… the real one, not the one you’ve Dunning-Krugered yourself into thinking you’re an expert on.

Hint: If you haven’t studied it multiple years with various teachers/experts, then don’t try to play expert yourself. Use their knowledge to point toward informed opinions, but always do the research first. In other words: Don’t be part of the problem.

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