AMU Editor's Pick Original Space

Carl Sagan and the Dunning-Kruger Effect, Part I

By Gary Deel, Ph.D., JD
Faculty Director, School of Business, American Military University

Note: This article is the first in a two-part series. Read Part 2.

Dr. Carl Sagan was a 20th-century astronomer, author and public educator. He was arguably one of the greatest scientific luminaries of his time.

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Sagan was frequently featured on Johnny Carson’s “The Tonight Show,” but he is also well known for hosting the science education television series “Cosmos.” This series aired in the 1980s and is the most widely-watched PBS series in television history.

Sagan died of bone marrow cancer in the mid-1990s. But on his deathbed, he penned a final book called “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.” In this book, he tried to articulate why the scientific method is crucial not only to scientific endeavor but also to critical thinking in any discipline and to the continued progress of the human species.

It’s important to note that when Carl talked about “science” in this book, he wasn’t referring to white lab coats, Bunsen burners, and wild experiments. When many people hear the word “science,” they imagine something like Bill Nye the Science Guy. That is understandable, as “science” in our schools is often limited to such aesthetics.

However, the word “science” actually derives from the Latin word “scientia,” which means “knowledge.” And when Carl Sagan spoke of “science” in “The Demon-Haunted World,” he referred to the scientific method and its application to critical thinking in any and every field of discourse.

Sagan alluded to the way that new ideas should be studied, tested and pursued only if objectively falsifiable evidence supports their validity. This is not a “science” that is limited to the chemistry lab. Instead, it is a “science” that can and should be applied to every aspect of our lives: school, work, hobbies, relationships, politics and government.

Sagan Wrote His Book Due to Concern over Decline in US Critical Thinking and Intellectual Discourse

Carl Sagan wrote “The Demon-Haunted World” because he was concerned about the direction in which the United States was heading in terms of its capacity for critical thinking and intellectual discourse. He wrote: “I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness…”

Unfortunately, this prediction — written over 20 years ago — is eerie to read in light of the current circumstances in America today. We seem to have fulfilled Carl Sagan’s prophecy almost to the letter.

For example, Sagan wrote in his book about how we as a nation were beginning to fall behind the rest of the world with respect to science proficiency. Several decades later, recent studies have indicated that we continue to lag behind most other advanced countries in science and mathematics. In some subjects, the problem is actually getting worse.

Carl Sagan was an active participant in the surge of American scientific innovation and ingenuity during the mid-1900s. He watched American astronauts walk on the Moon and was part of the NASA team that launched the Voyager probes into deep space to explore the outer gas giant planets for the first time. So it’s easy to understand why this downward trend in scientific literacy would have been particularly disappointing and concerning for him.

Why Science Illiteracy Has Become Such a Problem: The Dunning-Kruger Effect

But why has science illiteracy become such a problem for us? One of the culprits responsible for this embarrassing decline is called The Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is a cognitive bias first discovered by David Dunning and Justin Kruger at Cornell University in 1999. The essential premise of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is that people who are incompetent in a given set of knowledge, skills, abilities or understanding tend to be utterly unaware of their own incompetence. And the less competent an individual happens to be, the more confident they feel about their own judgment and abilities.

For example, suppose that I ask you to write a 10-page paper with no grammatical mistakes. If you are a poor writer, then the Dunning-Kruger Effect predicts you will overestimate your own writing abilities and perform much more poorly than you would expect.

Dunning and Kruger asserted that the reason for this occurrence is what they called the “dual burden.” Because incompetent people do not have the necessary skills or knowledge in a given discipline, they also lack the skills or knowledge to recognize what makes for expertise in that same discipline. So if you lack good writing skills, you will also lack the ability to recognize the difference between a poor writer and a good one.

In some ways, this is counterintuitive. You might expect that the less competent or knowledgeable a person is in a particular area, the more humble they would be regarding their opinions and views in that area. Similarly, more learned individuals might be expected to display more confidence in their viewpoints, based upon the augmented levels of cognition, reasoning, and understanding that come with educating and developing oneself intellectually.

However, the results of the Dunning-Kruger experiments revealed just the opposite. It turns out that those with the lowest levels of competence are actually the most confident regarding their abilities and judgments. And correspondingly, the most educated among us tend to be the least certain of themselves.

Dunning-Kruger’s Tests Showed People’s Inability to Recognize Their Own Incompetence

Dunning and Kruger found that when people were tested, objective measures of judgment or ability revealed that less competent people overestimated the degree of alignment between their perceptions and reality. And more competent people tended to underestimate themselves.

For instance, Dunning and Kruger tested thousands of study participants in the areas of grammar, humor and logic. They consistently found that incompetent people would reliably predict high marks on their own tests, but actually scored quite poorly.

In some tests, participants even asserted knowledge of subjects or concepts that were deliberately fabricated by the researchers for the purposes of the study. In other words, some examinees actually claimed to be experts in things that didn’t exist. From the work done by Dunning and Kruger, it is clear that incompetent people tend to have unjustifiably large egos with respect to their own self-images, and inversely, competent people tend to be more humble.

Unfortunately, the “dual burden” of the Dunning-Kruger Effect is in some sense a self-fulfilling prophecy. The very incompetence which causes a person to make mistakes or bad decisions is the same incompetence that prevents them from recognizing their own ineptitude.

The misplaced confidence in one’s own abilities is what dissuades one from ever seeking education or improvement. As a result, the ignorant often have no means of self-correction.

But what kind of large-scale consequences does the Dunning-Kruger Effect carry in our society? And what can we do to stop it? Part II of this series discusses some examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect in our society, as well as the antidote that Carl Sagan offered in his final work.

Read Part 2.

About the Author

Dr. Gary Deel is a Faculty Director with the School of Business at American Military University. He holds a JD in Law and a Ph.D. in Hospitality/Business Management. He teaches human resources and employment law classes for American Military University, the University of Central Florida, Colorado State University and others.

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