Dunning Kruger nation and the disparagement of expertise

Woman plugging ears with fingers doesn't want to listen

We live in Dunning Kruger nation.

What do I mean?

A variety of very loud “confident idiots” — anti-vaxxers, homebirth advocates, climate change deniers — actually think they know more than the experts in the respective fields.

Where did they get that idea?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”The incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.”[/pullquote]

I’ll let Dr. David Dunning explain it:

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize — scratch that, cannot recognize — just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack…

In other words, those who know the least about a particular topic — vaccines, childbirth, climate change — actually believe they know the most. They simply don’t know what they don’t know.


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.

The expertise of immunologists, obstetricians and climate scientists is disparaged by confident idiots who believe their ability to use Google is the equivalent of any PhD.

If you’ve ever tangled with an anti-vaxxer, you know that it’s very difficult to argue with him or her. You can’t reason confident idiots out of a position that they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place. They often don’t understand the terms of the specific scientific discipline, the principles of scientific inquiry or even the rudiments of logic.

And yet they think they are experts, scorning the expertise of real experts.

Why are so many anti-vaxxers, homebirth advocates and climate change deniers “confident idiots”?

Some of our most stubborn misbeliefs arise … from the very values and philosophies that define who we are as individuals. Each of us possesses certain foundational beliefs — narratives about the self, ideas about the social order—that essentially cannot be violated: To contradict them would call into question our very self-worth. As such, these views demand fealty from other opinions. And any information that we glean from the world is amended, distorted, diminished, or forgotten in order to make sure that these sacrosanct beliefs remain whole and unharmed.

In some cases those cherished beliefs are that “corporations are evil,” “natural is always best,” or “government is the enemy.” In many cases the cherished belief is that the confident idiot is both smarter and less gullible than the rest of us poor “sheeple.”

How can the rest of us protect ourselves from confident idiots who parachute into websites, Facebook pages and message boards in order to “educate” the rest of us?

1. The first step is to recognize that those who know the least often think they know the most. That’s why professional qualifications are so important. That doesn’t mean that experts know everything, or that they are always right, but it does mean that they have a strong foundation from which to assess claims about vaccines, childbirth or climate change.

2. Be wary of anyone who claims that formal education is unnecessary, or that experts ignore the evidence of cherry picked scientific papers that don’t represent the consensus of knowledge on the subject.

3. Be wary of anyone who lacks formal education in the topic but nevertheless makes claims about vaccines, childbirth or climate.

4. Don’t “trust” any natural process simply because it is natural.

5. On the web, ignore anyone who cannot tolerate dissent and deletes comments that call their claims into question.

6. Resist the temptation to succumb to flattery. Don’t let the desire to feel superior to other people make susceptible to Internet propaganda.

We live in Dunning Kruger nation. The disparagement of expertise may boost the self esteem of its promoters, but often harms everyone else. What confident idiots know rarely represents the sum total of all knowledge on the subject; that’s why real expertise is worthy of respect.

Those who wish to be acknowledged as “educated” can’t take a short cut of an internet connection. They have to do the hard work of learning science, statistics and the actual subject under discussion, whether it is immunology, obstetrics or climate science; without that formal education, they are merely confident idiots.