In 2020, we find ourselves in unfamiliar territory; a time when information is available instantaneously in the palm of our hands, but we face great uncertainty as the novel coronavirus, SARS-COV-2 perplexes even the experts most qualified to understand it.
While scientists are used to this kind of uncertainty, the rest of us are not so comfortable with it, and some among us display that discomfort with unparalleled ignorance of their own ignorance on the topic of COVID-19.
The benefit of hindsight over the last few months has shown Twitter gods such Elon Musk, Helen Zille, and Donald Trump to be breathtakingly wrong on some of their claims regarding the pandemic. This got me thinking about what gives otherwise brilliant people in their respective fields the conviction to speak on matters with the same confidence as the experts.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s not so much that they were wrong that got to me, it is the sheer audacity to think they know what’s going on at a time when the people most qualified are still looking for answers themselves. I think we face another pandemic caused by a germ that seems impossible to cure; the ignorance of one’s own ignorance.
In Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 2011, David Dunning describes what’s now called the Dunning-Kruger Effect as a cognitive bias in which “the boundary where people’s knowledge ends and their ignorance begins frequently arrives far sooner than one would expect.”
In other words, people are greatly unaware of how deficient they are in certain expertise and they tend to overestimate their knowledge and interpretation of the data on certain topics.
A few months ago I claimed on Twitter that food retail corporations would let people die of hunger instead of giving them food that would otherwise be thrown away. I was wrong, of course; the world is not that simple.
A friend pointed out that my ideology may have blinded me to the truth. You see, not only was I incredibly wrong, but I was so confident in my knowledge on the topic of socio-economics and the supposed evil of capitalism that it never dawned on me how out of the loop I actually was.
The COVID-19 pandemic exposes daily examples of the Dunning-Kruger Effect as more and more people who do not seem to be disease experts or scientists make ever bolder claims. It amazes me that non-experts constantly make proclamations with far-reaching consequences on a novel disease that experts don’t even understand yet.
Science is such a long and arduous endeavor that it is tempting to internalise the quick information we get from confident-sounding thought-leaders more than the advice we get from cautious experts who live on the far-end of the Dunning-Kruger curve; having the most knowledge and yet least confidence in making sweeping claims.
We live at a time when it is difficult to decide who to trust when our media landscape thrives on catering to echo chambers, and when someone we trust confidently spouts ideas about which they are not qualified, or promotes a quack who supports their agenda. What can be done to stop this disease of the ignorance of ignorance?
My advice would be to be wary of anyone who is certain without any doubt about complex matters such as a brand new virus, or non-experts who have conveniently found data that supports their, and by extension your own, worldview.
Nothing is as clear-cut as we think it is, but the rule of thumb is that the more you know about a topic, the less likely you are to have iron-clad convictions about it.
Maliciously spreading false information is like a symptomatic person purposely infecting others with the novel coronavirus by coughing in their faces. But perhaps even more dangerous is the person with undiagnosed ignorance, spreading false information without malice the same way a person might unknowingly put others in danger by refusing to wear a mask in public.
So, what is the equivalent of a test for COVID-19, but for ignorance? According to Dunning, “there is no iPhone app for that.” He mentions many factors, such as central worldviews that prevent people from changing their minds on topics when presented with contradictory evidence.
In my opinion, I can only vouch for the same advice that applies for COVID-19 prevention right now: assume you have the virus to prevent spreading it to others. In other words, cover your mouth! [And your nose!]
Copyright © 2020 www.noseweek.co.za