The Mind’s Ceiling

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity… – Yeats, “The Second Coming”

 Yeats has poeticized the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.” I am especially fond of it, because it defines something that drives me nuts. Yeats is the clear winner of the “says it best” contest. Bertrand Russell is runner-up: “One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” In more mundane (but definitive) words,

unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to an inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes. Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conclude, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”.

I have known all that for awhile. What I did not know was how Dunning himself first got this idea – which I think is a hilarious tale (except for the poor perp). Dunning read one of those Dumb Criminals stories about a bank robber who made no effort to disguise himself, so was immediately caught after his video appeared on the 10 o‘clock news. When the cops explained the trouble he was in, he was amazed. He said, “But I wore the juice!” He had become convinced somehow that if he rubbed his face with lemon juice, he wouldn’t show up in a video!

While pondering this, Dunning had his epiphany: If the guy was too stupid to be a bank robber, perhaps he was also too stupid to know that he was too stupid to be a bank robber — that is, his stupidity protected him from an awareness of his own stupidity. So, if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent. …the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.  In logical reasoning, in parenting, in management, in problem solving, the skills you use to produce the right answer are exactly the same skills you use to evaluate the answer. (This is why you shouldn’t proofread your own writing.)


What all this implies, I think, is that one has at least a shot at understanding others of equal or lesser intelligence, but not a prayer of “getting” more intelligent people. Our dog is intensely interested in motorcycles; he may have ideas of what they are about; but his ideas are bound to be screwy (like humans’ ideas about deities).

So – if Carl Levin’s comb-over necessitates that his part starts at the height of his ear; if Lindsay Graham wants to treat the Boston bomber as an “enemy combatant” (so we can torture him), are they thinking we’re too dumb to figure it out? Or (sadly), does their own level of intelligence keep them from realizing that their motives will be transparent to those who are smarter than they are?

I have trouble acknowledging that history’s monsters were occasionally right; but Rumsfeld had at least one second-hand winner: the idea about known knowns, known unknowns, etc. The blog identified below is an extended exploration of unknown unknowns. It begins with a more elaborate version of the story of the robber and the lemon juice, but I was also taken with the gestalt of the whole thing, which left me feeling that I had for the first time made the concept wholly my own. It’s long, but I promise that if you can stick it, you’ll be smarter!

I was gobsmacked by Parts 1 and 5, Morris’s dialog with Dunning. The parts in the middle are an investigation of anosognosia itself, and are also fascinating if your mind runs to this kind of stuff.

I kept thinking of my in-law and ex-missionary, talking recently with my son, and saying “I’m of average intelligence, and it hasn’t hurt me.” I wanted to interrupt, but didn’t. (I’ve become modestly circumspect in my dotage.) Anyhow, it seems to me that if the stork drops you in Dogpatch, you might reasonably – if you were a little brighter – question whether your peers are likely to have a corner on The Whole, Unique Truth — whether your superstition is actually superior to all others’, so warrants missionarying — the “Preposterous Proposition”..


And here’s a benediction: a couple of things that will make you think some more (if you’re one of the ones who can).

37% w/no clue

Too dumb for democracy

Time to tie off this bleeder.


The Mass is ended. Go in peace.

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