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  • Glenn Sonnenberg

Musings from the Bunker 6/5/20

Good morning!

 

WHY DO SO MANY PEOPLE REJECT THE IDEAS OF EXPERTS?

I just read a reader’s book review on Amazon where the reviewer panned the book and said “the author acts like he knows more than anybody else.” I was struck by this because I agreed—but it was a good thing—he knew more than me and was sharing that knowledge with me! The author was an expert in his area and I am not.

We are living in a moment where inconvenient facts are labeled as “fake news,” where conspiracies gain traction through elaborate methodology to spread their word through social media, and when the advice of experts is dismissed as the elitism and rejected in favor of the opinions of talking heads and celebrities. But part of this is just that people think they know more than the experts—that one’s personal experience, a data set of one, or the anecdotes of a few friends, can take precedence over scientific studies or years of learning.

I learned there is actually is a thing called the Dunning-Kruger Effect. The findings of Messrs. Dunning and Kruger are described in their study’s name, worth quoting in full:

“Unskilled and unaware of it: How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments.”

Their work, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1999, relies on four studies to show that ignorant people not only make poor decisions, but also lack the metacognitive ability to recognize their own ignorance and bad choices.

Below is a graphic representation of this effect. The x-axis is the level of one’s competence and the y-axis is one’s confidence in one’s knowledge. What it illustrates is that there is a point of relative ignorance when one is imbued both with self-confidence and ignorance. It is only with increasing knowledge does one develop the cognition of what one doesn’t know. As further knowledge is acquired, confidence builds again, but nowhere near the confidence of the truly ignorant.


When I look at this curve, I see the far left populated with those screaming “fake news,” those convinced that they don’t need to wear masks or social distance, the anti-vaxxers, those convinced that the Mueller investigation uncovered no wrongdoing by our Commander-in-Chief and his minions, that the Bidens drove engage in completely unsubstantiated (and undefined) activity in Ukraine, those who follow Qanon and the crazy theories proliferating on the Internet, and those who ascribe to the crazy conspiracy theories about a cabal of the “deep state.” Ignorance apparently not only is bliss, but also a guarantee of absolute certainty and gullibility.


One might also look at the above chart as mimicking our own lives, with a spike of certitude in our college years, when we believed we knew everything, followed by a drop in confidence when we started in the working world and learned life is just more complicated than we thought!

I am pretty confident of my knowledge level and abilities in areas that might push me toward the right end of the scale. But there are plenty of things about which I am not expert and find myself on the left side of the ignorance scale. It is in these areas that we must resist the tendency to draw quick conclusions and acknowledge our ignorance and rely upon experts. Experts may not always be right, but they evolve as information increases. Personal experience, the experience of your Aunt Mildred, the anecdotes gleaned from friends, and the pronouncements of political allies or celebrities, are not a substitute for science and expertise.

Seems logical (of course, I relied in part on a study, written by an expert).

 

A QUESTIONABLE CROWD

As I have mentioned in earlier Musings, I have been working with my Aunt Seemah on putting on paper the history of our family. So what if we discovered a woman who was likely prostitute and so what if a relative was a disbarred mob lawyer? I’m sure all families have such stories. But the most colorful fellow in our family tree is Seemah’s father and my grandfather, Eddie Abrahams. (He would always say you could tell which one on the family tree was him—he’s the one swinging from limb to limb). We laughed about Eddie’s general lack of interest in politics, yet his run-ins with the Communists over the years…

When Eddie was a sailor, he had picked up an IWW song book, learned the tunes because he loved to sing and was labeled a Communist and thrown off of the ship.

Fast forward to the 1940s, when Eddie was the proprietor of gas stations in upstate New York, first in Oscawana and then Croton. Croton at that time had a community of intelligentsia that was located within a city of working class people. My aunt says that much of the credit for the three girls becoming educated was from being around such interesting people. Some of these interesting people belonged dabbled in Communist ideology.

My aunt traveled across country with a girlfriend from that crowd, who kept looking out the window saying strange things like, “it looks like they’ve changed cars” and requiring random stops at odd places along the way. These odd behaviors, Seeman later learned, were because her friend was a courier from cell to cell for the Communists and they were being followed.

Upon Seemah’s return, two FBI agents came to their home, noting Seemah’s travels with this woman, and asked Eddie to keep track of the comings and goings of some of his patrons. When he declined, the conversation took a nefarious turn, “Mr. Abrahams, we are aware that you entered this country illegally.” And so, at risk of deportation, Eddie reluctantly played a role in keeping America safe from the red menace by monitoring their comings and goings.

How does one man, who could make friends with anyone, who was happiest spinning yarns, telling stories and singing songs, with only a passing interest in politics and policy, find himself Zelig-like at these points in his life? Croton was a colorful place, with right wingers meeting and the likes of Frank Gorshin, Jackie Gleason and Peter Falk patronizing “Eddie’s Shell.”

 

QUIZ TIME

Congrats, Dennis Mulhaupt, for being the only to answer that when Herbert Hoover and his wife wanted to keep secrets from the staff in the White House, they spoke Mandarin to each other. Hoover made much of his fortune as an engineer in China. A wonderful side trip on a trip across county (something some of you may be doing…!) is the Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa.

Next question: How many of the “Mercury 7” astronauts (portrayed in the book and movie, The Right Stuff) can you name?

Have a great weekend,

Glenn



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