Noted documentary filmmaker Errol Morris has been writing a series of posts about incompetence for the NY Times. The most interesting parts feature an interview with David Dunning, a psychologist whose experiments have discovered what’s called the Dunning-Kruger Effect: our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence.

DAVID DUNNING: There have been many psychological studies that tell us what we see and what we hear is shaped by our preferences, our wishes, our fears, our desires and so forth. We literally see the world the way we want to see it. But the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that there is a problem beyond that. Even if you are just the most honest, impartial person that you could be, you would still have a problem — namely, when your knowledge or expertise is imperfect, you really don’t know it. Left to your own devices, you just don’t know it. We’re not very good at knowing what we don’t know.

I found this interesting in light of my recent posting about universally self-affirming outlooks (i.e. seeing the world the way we want to see it). In any case, the interview continues:

ERROL MORRIS: Knowing what you don’t know? Is this supposedly the hallmark of an intelligent person?

DAVID DUNNING: That’s absolutely right. It’s knowing that there are things you don’t know that you don’t know. [4] Donald Rumsfeld gave this speech about “unknown unknowns.” It goes something like this: “There are things we know we know about terrorism. There are things we know we don’t know. And there are things that are unknown unknowns. We don’t know that we don’t know.” He got a lot of grief for that. And I thought, “That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.”

It may be smart and modest, but that sort of thing usually gets politicians in trouble. But most people aren’t politicians, and so it’s worth looking into this concept a little further. An interesting result of this effect is that a lot of the smartest, most intelligent people also tend to be somewhat modest (this isn’t to say that they don’t have an ego or that they can’t act in arrogant ways, just that they tend to have a better idea about how much they don’t know). Steve Schwartz has an essay called No One Knows What the F*** They’re Doing (or “The 3 Types of Knowledge”) that explores these ideas in some detail:

To really understand how it is that no one knows what they’re doing, we need to understand the three fundamental categories of information.

There’s the shit you know, the shit you know you don’t know, and the shit you don’t know you don’t know.

Schwartz has a series of very helpful charts that illustrate this, but most people drastically overestimate the amount of knowledge in the “shit you know” category. In fact, that’s the smallest category and it is dwarfed b the shit you know you don’t know category, which is, in itself, dwarfed by the shit you don’t know you don’t know. The result is that most people who receive a lot of praise or recognition are surprised and feel a bit like a fraud.

This is hardly a new concept, but it’s always worth keeping in mind. When we learn something new, we’ve gained some knowledge. We’ve put some information into the “shit we know” category. But more importantly, we’ve probably also taken something out of the “shit we don’t know that we don’t know” category and put it into the “shit we know that we don’t know” category. This is important because that unknown unknowns category is the most dangerous of the categories, not the least of which is that our ignorance prevents us from really exploring it. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence. In the interview, Morris references a short film he did once:

ERROL MORRIS: And I have an interview with the president of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, a cryonics organization, on the 6 o’clock news in Riverside, California. One of the executives of the company had frozen his mother’s head for future resuscitation. (It’s called a “neuro,” as opposed to a “full-body” freezing.) The prosecutor claimed that they may not have waited for her to die. In answer to a reporter’s question, the president of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation said, “You know, we’re not stupid . . . ” And then corrected himself almost immediately, “We’re not that stupid that we would do something like that.”

DAVID DUNNING: That’s pretty good.

ERROL MORRIS: “Yes. We’re stupid, but we’re not that stupid.”

DAVID DUNNING: And in some sense we apply that to the human race. There’s some comfort in that. We may be stupid, but we’re not that stupid.

One might be tempted to call this a cynical outlook, but what it basically amounts to is that there’s always something new to learn. Indeed, the more we learn, the more there is to learn. Now, if only we could invent the technology like what’s presented in Diaspora (from my previous post), so we can live long enough to really learn a lot about the universe around us…