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Carl Sagan and the Dunning-Kruger Effect, Part II

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

Note: This article is the second in a two-part series. Read Part 1.

In Part I of this article series, I discussed Carl Sagan’s final book “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” and how Sagan feared a looming intellectual regression in our society. I also explained how this regression has now occurred much as Sagan predicted and how a cognitive bias called the Dunning-Kruger Effect has contributed to this downward spiral.

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How the Dunning-Kruger Effect Affects People’s Outlook in Today’s Society

But why should you care about the Dunning-Kruger Effect? What consequences does this psychological phenomenon have in American life today?

Here are some questions of major geopolitical importance and how they tend to be seen differently by competent versus incompetent people according to the Dunning-Kruger’s cognitive bias:

1. What should we do about nuclear threats and rogue nations?

Competent Position: We need to look at the potential consequences of different actions on all stakeholders involved, as well as any collateral damage and long-term effects. While our own self-defense is the highest priority, we also don’t want to destabilize a region and cause decades of anarchy that could lead to the perpetuation of dangerous rogue factions and regimes.

Incompetent Position: Bomb the heck out of ‘em. This is America.

2. Is climate change a legitimate concern?

Competent Position: Yes. 97% of climate scientists agree that this is a major problem which, if not abated, will lead to extreme weather and a rise in sea levels. In turn, this will cause mass casualties and the displacement of people in low-altitude coastal regions. We should continue rigorous research on the subject and do all we can to mitigate further greenhouse gas emissions.

Incompetent Position: Of course not. It snowed today.

3. Did Russia interfere in the 2016 presidential election?

Competent Position: Our intelligence communities found that it did. We ought to investigate this matter thoroughly so that we understand exactly what happened in 2016. In doing so, we can prevent future meddling by foreign powers in our election cycles. Our democracy must not be undermined by hostile foreign influence.

Incompetent Position: It’s just a witch hunt.

4. Should we care about immigrants crossing the border to seek asylum from dire circumstances in Latin America?

Competent Position: There are dangers to completely open borders, so we obviously want to control access to our country and properly vet anyone attempting to enter. But we also need to be considerate of the human rights crises taking place in Central and South America, some of which the United States had a hand in creating over the last several decades.

These countries are our neighbors and our allies, and their citizens are human beings just like us. At a minimum, we should carefully craft our immigration policies in a way that reflects the values of our society.

Incompetent Position: Nope. They’re not Americans. Keep ‘em out.

Of course, none of the issues mentioned here are simple or easy to tackle. But we can all agree that how we respond to them will have major consequences. The stakes could not be higher.

Each of these major geopolitical issues demands a careful scientific analysis of all of the relevant variables before a decision is rendered. If we fail to do that because we lack the requisite capacity for critical thinking and intellectual reflection, then the outcomes could be catastrophic not only for the U.S., but for other nations.

Recognizing and Combating the Dunning-Kruger Effect

So what can we do to combat the Dunning-Kruger Effect in our society? The fact is that we humans are all potentially susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

No one is an expert in everything. As a result, we all run the risk of being blissfully unaware of gaps in our own areas of knowledge. However, in “The Demon-Haunted World,” Carl Sagan left us with three pieces of advice for overcoming blinding ignorance: develop curiosity, employ skepticism, and exercise humility.

Developing Curiosity

Sagan urged us to continue to be curious about the world around us, as well as everyone and everything within it. As children, we are all born with an innate curiosity. Why is the sky blue? Why is the Earth round? Why are there seasons? Why does the Sun go away at night? Why? Why? Why?

But somewhere along the way, that curiosity is beaten out of us. Maybe we don’t want to look foolish for admitting that we don’t know the answers.

Perhaps we become anxious or frustrated with our own ignorance. But if we conquer our fears and continue to be curious about that which we don’t understand, then we stand to learn much more than we would if we stop asking “Why?”

Employing Skepticism

Carl Sagan emphatically cautioned us against assuming truth where none has been proven. When we are children, we are told to accept arguments from authority.

How many times did you hear “Because I said so!” from a parent growing up? This saying is sometimes used as a means to pacify defiant youngsters and often deployed as a facade when an adult doesn’t know the answer to one of those “why” questions.

For example, if your child asks you why the sky is blue, do you really know the answer? And if not, are you inclined to admit to that child that you don’t have an answer? Often it is far easier to preserve their respect and admiration for you, and simply end the conversation with “because I said so.”

But as adults, giving this answer is no longer acceptable, nor should it be. Nothing is true because someone “says so.” We must be willing to courageously question authority and pursue our own lines of thinking if the evidence supports it.

Exercising Humility

In his book, Carl Sagan encouraged us to remember that we’ve been wrong before, and we could be wrong now. It’s easy to slip into a comfortable feeling of confidence in one’s own knowledge and abilities.

Working in higher education with faculty who have earned terminal degrees, this is an attitude I see often. From time to time, I am guilty of this assured self-confidence as well. We all need to be reminded to keep our egos in check every now and again.

But we should do our best to remember that, for all we know today, we were once ignorant of literally everything. By doing this, we give ourselves permission to be flexible and open to new ideas and new ways of thinking.

This is not to say that every idea — no matter how outlandish — should be given serious weight and consideration. Rather, it’s the basic philosophy that we shouldn’t dismiss new information simply because we assume we already know all there is to know on the subject. This hubris only serves as a catalyst for deeper ignorance.

Listen and Learn At Least As Much As You Talk and Teach

Through Carl Sagan’s tenets of curiosity, skepticism and humility, we can learn more about people, places and things, as well as learning more about ourselves. It is this self-awareness which is so essential to canceling the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

It is my hope that the next time you feel yourself swelling with pride and confidence over your own perceived knowledge, skills, or abilities on a given topic, you’ll remember that you might not know as much as you think you do. From there, you can then seek to listen and learn at least as much as you talk and teach, and progress further on the road to self-improvement.

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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