Science denial, Dunning Kruger and the Tuteur Corollary

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I spend my days wrangling with science denialists on the Skeptical OB Facebook page. I don’t really argue with them since a doctor can no more argue science with a denialist than a mathematician can argue calculus with a four year old. Neither denialists nor four year olds know enough to come to grips with the actual subject.

Most four year olds would be quick to agree that they don’t understand calculus, but most denialists aren’t nearly so self aware. As victims of the Dunning Kruger effect, they actually think they know what they are talking about.

The Tuteur Corollary: If they don’t understand it, it must be a plot to harm them.

The Dunning Kruger effect explains why those who know the least about a particular topic — science, for example — actually believe they know the most. They simply don’t know what they don’t know. According to Dr. Dunning:

What’s curious is that, 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.

It seems to me that there is a corollary to Dunning Kruger — I’m going to call it the Tuteur Corollary — that applies to science denialists:

Those who lack relevant knowledge look at what they don’t understand and imagine it must be a plot to harm them.

I’ve noticed that when bad things happen to people, they can be roughly sorted into two groups: those who look at the untoward event they don’t understand and ask, “How did this happen?” and those who look at the exact same event and ask, “Who did this to me?” In other words, those with a modicum of knowledge want to understand — and assume they will be able to understand — what happened; in contrast, those who lack basic relevant knowledge (and often basic logic as well) assume that if they don’t understand something bad, it must be because someone, generally a corporation or government entity, is trying to harm them.

Anti-vaxxers are the perfect example.

Those who don’t understand basic immunology obviously don’t understand how vaccines work. Dunning Kruger leads them to conclude that vaccines don’t work; the Tuteur Corollary impels them to explain the world-wide consensus of immunologists, pediatricians and epidemiologists on the efficacy of vaccines as a world-wide plot to boost the fortunes of Big Pharma.

Those who don’t understand basic statistics obviously don’t understand that the recent apparent increase in the incidence of autism can be attributed to better diagnosis and expanded classification. Dunning Kruger leads them to insist that autism is an epidemic; the Tuteur Corollary leads them to conclude that corporations, with the blessing of government, are deliberately causing autism.

Those who don’t understand basic chemistry obviously don’t understand that a chemical that is dangerous in its elemental form, like mercury, is not dangerous when a component of a chemical compound, thimerosal. Never mind that there are many examples in every day life: elemental sodium is exposive; sodium chloride (table salt) is beloved as a seasoning for food. That’s Dunning Kruger. The Tuteur Corollary is responsible for the nonsensical belief that Big Pharma once added an expensive chemical to its vaccine preparations for no therapeutic reason and intended to poison children.

Those who don’t understand the scientific method obviously don’t understand that a single scientific citation (or even a dozen) that they’ve never read is not an argument against vaccination, especially when compared with the literally tens of thousands of papers that demonstrate the safety and efficacy of vaccines. Dunning Kruger leads them to assume that they are more educated about vaccines that those with PhDs in immunology. The Tuteur Corollary forces them to conclude that the entire scientific, medical and public health communities are deliberately ignoring all the fascinating data on whale.to and NaturalNews that seems so compelling to them.

Dunning Kruger explains why those who know the least are most likely to fall prey to anti-vax charlatans. The Tuteur Corollary explains why they abandon common sense to conclude that a random quack is more dedicated to curing their cancer than their own oncologists, that people peddling worthless miracle cures are less interested in profit than doctors, and that the vaccine conspiracy is so massive and so dastardly that doctors, pharma execs and public health officials are willing to inject their own children with vaccines in order to maintain the deception.

Dunning Kruger also explains why those who know the least are most likely to fall prey to COVID denialist politicians. The Tuteur Corollary explains why they abandon common sense to conclude that a politician like Donald Trump is more dedicated to preventing COVID than a scientist like Tony Fauci. It explains why denialists imagine simple public health measures like mask wearing to be a nefarious plot to deprive them of their “freedom.” It explains why denialists twist themselves into pretzels trying to argue that the hundreds of thousands of EXCESS American deaths in 2020 were all people who died of other causes.

The bottom line when it comes to science denial is that large groups of Americans now rest their self worth on the twin delusions that their own ignorance is “knowledge” and that whatever they don’t understand must be a plot to harm them.

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  • fiftyfifty1

    Yep, I have seen this from some of my acquaintances. They believe that Covid is being massively over-diagnosed by doctors for “financial gain.” They say that even the pediatricians are in on the plot: checking the diagnosis code for Covid when they really know it is “really” influenza, or an ear infection, or strep.

  • Montserrat Blanco

    So true and well said!!!!

    The paradox is that people with real knowledge about something, we are always open to new ideas, approaches and evidence! I have a very narrow sub-specialty in a medical field, I always recognize my lack of knowledge in other fields and respect my colleagues knowledge. I try to work as part of a team where we all have different expertises.

    When I hear about conspiracy theories I always think about illegal or underground organizations. They always work in small groups of people that do not know other groups, six people in each group tops, with only one of the group knowing another one of another group. This is to minimize the risk should one group fall to the law enforcement. If there is too many people, the risk of someone getting caught, crossing lines or simply giving away too much information to someone else grows exponentially. A massive conspiration involving thousands of people is simply not possible to implement.

    But it is much nicer to have someone to blame…

  • Russell Jones

    Epic! It is good to see that Dr. T is still vigorously kicking the backsides of anti-vaxxers and other assorted denialist loons.

    Happy New Year, y’all.Here’s hoping it’s substantially better than 2020. (I was gonna say something along the lines of “It pretty much HAS to be better than 2020,” but as 2020 taught us, that simply isn’t true.)