You may have noticed that since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a whole lot of regular folks are suddenly experts in epidemiology, the economy, and political science. Or, hell, why not all three? These experts, whose highest level of education in the field of epidemiology was the C+ they earned in high school biology, are not only absolutely, 100 percent certain about the conclusions they have drawn from Breitbart’s Facebook page and their uncle Jim’s collection of angry memes about “libtards” and the “deep state,” but they are also convinced, down to their very marrow, that you are very, very stupid. And so is everyone else who doesn’t agree with them, especially scientists.
Harvard-educated scientists are — no, seriously, people actually think this — just a bunch of “ivory tower intellectuals” who “hide behind prestigious degrees” but are really just “pseudo-experts” who don’t know anything about how stuff actually works. Because what’s the point of an education when you can think about stuff all by yourself? Why reinvent the wheel by considering the opinions of folks who have spent decades studying thousands of years’ worth of accumulated knowledge when you can simply start from scratch and make up your own “facts”?
These folks are flawless, shining examples of the Dunning-Kruger effect — they are too stupid, incompetent, or intellectually lazy to be aware of their own shortcomings, and therefore they’re incapable of recognizing the potential that they could be wrong.
The Dunning-Kruger effect is named for the scientists who discovered it via multiple studies. Study participants were given tests on grammar, humor, and logic, and then asked to assess their performance in relation to the performance of others. Across four different studies, those who performed in the lowest 12 percent estimated themselves to have performed in the 62nd percentile. Meanwhile, those scoring in the highest percentiles consistently rated themselves lower than their actual ability. As the study notes, “people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”
Conspiracy theorists have freed themselves from the lies of The Establishment, the Deep State, the Mainstream “Fake-News” Media. They, and their robust group of like-minded science-deniers, are the only ones who know the real truth. They know something — a lot of things, actually — that the rest of us don’t. They laugh at what fools we are for falling prey to obvious political agendas of scientists who are, after all, notorious for making baseless claims, duh. Everyone who does not share their ideas is a gullible idiot.
As Dunning states, “in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”
There is nothing to be done to dissuade these self-professed experts of their rightness. The fact that scientists live and work by a code that requires them to revise their hypotheses when new data is presented only confirms their belief. Scientists are sometimes wrong, but they, the conspiracy theorists, have always been right. And every new news article, every new study, every new expert opinion, only serves as further evidence that the world is against them.
A Pew poll from March found that nearly 30 percent of Americans believe COVID-19 was created in a lab, with 23 percent believing it was created on purpose. This is despite virus experts’ clear and repeated explanations of the origins of the virus.
This morning a friend of a friend on Facebook stated that “the country is being held hostage by politicians that knew about this virus and it’s mutations clear back in 2015.” A few people tried to educate this person, citing links from various articles and studies, but they remained undeterred. They likely are confusing the fact that coronaviruses are not new with the fact that this particular coronavirus is new. But it doesn’t matter. This person is right, and you’d better not try to confuse them with the facts.
The mother of a friend of mine refuses to abide by any social distancing rules because she thinks the whole thing is a liberal hoax. When the COVID-19 vaccine comes out, no way is she taking it, she says, because it will be laced with nanochips that will track and record her every move. She provided a link to an article about nanochips and the deep state.
Remember what Dunning said? “The incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence.”
*clears throat loudly*
Sadly, these people are numerous, and they vote. In droves, because they have convinced themselves they are fighting a great collective wrongness. They are confident in their ideas despite the fact that they contradict widely respected scientists who use mountains of scientific data to back up their points. And in the past few years, their paranoid theories and their attitudes of superiority have been encouraged and cemented by a president who sows distrust of the scientific and journalistic communities, both of which have strict ethical codes.
None of this is to say a person can’t educate themself without a formal education. That is the beauty of the internet — if you’re discerning with the sources from which you gather information, you can educate yourself. It’s also a fact that every one of us is susceptible to the Dunning-Kruger effect at some time or another.
The key is being open to the potential that you may be wrong. If you’re incapable of admitting you could be wrong, you close yourself off to science and data, blind yourself to the intellectual revision by which a person of just about any level of intelligence can gather wisdom — which is more valuable than intelligence anyway, because it is malleable and capable of infinite growth.
The scientists who study the Dunning-Kruger effect call this metacognitive awareness. Victims of the Dunning-Kruger effect call it conspiracy.