Quote of the moment: Bertrand Russell, on the Dunning-Kruger Effect, 64 years prescient

Lord Bertrand Russell in a BBC Radio studio

Lord Bertrand Russell in a BBC Radio studio,circa 1940 – BBC Radio 4 image

The trouble with the world
is that the stupid are cocksure
and the intelligent
are full of doubt.

– Bertrand Russell, The Triumph of Stupidity in Mortals and Others: Bertrand Russell’s American Essays, 1931-1935 (Routledge, 1998), p. 28

With these words Russell stated, in 1935, a phenomenon observed and chronicled by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, in research at Cornell University, published in 1999 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. “Unskilled and unaware of it:  How difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments” reported on research they had conducted on subjects at Cornell.  The effect they observed is generally called, after them, the Dunning-Kruger Effect.  According to the abstract:

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because 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. Across 4 studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although their test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd. Several analyses linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error. Paradoxically, improving the skills of the participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2009 APA, all rights reserved)

In other words,

  1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
  4. If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill.

Thus, the Dunning-Kruger effect explains the existence and arguments of creationists, climate change denialists, Tea Baggers and birthers, and the actions of the right-wing historical revisionist faction of the Texas State Board of Education, and provides Monty Python’s Flying Circus with volumes of new material each month, should they ever care to revive the program.


Tip of the old scrub brush to Mal Adapted, commenting at Open Mind.

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20 Responses to Quote of the moment: Bertrand Russell, on the Dunning-Kruger Effect, 64 years prescient

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Yeats, too?


  2. […] Update, April 4, 2013:  American Elephants, a blog that isn’t about elephants, isn’t about their conservation, and in my view, isn’t much about America, either, fell victim to Crichton’s errors, all these months later. Plenty of time to get the story right since 2008, but American Elephants couldn’t do it.  American Elephants is too often an example of the Dunning Kruger effect, alas. […]


  3. Ed Darrell says:

    Interesting, later interview.


  4. […] act of stubbornness.  We need to take care when resting on faith, that which can be fact checked, lest we become the poster child of the Dunning Kruger […]


  5. […] Like much about our nation’s troubles, assumptions based on ignorance often are incorrect assumptions.  Consequently, they give rise to what is today clinically known as the Dunning Kruger Effect (or syndrome), so elegantly summed by by Bertrand Russell in the 1930s: […]


  6. […] Update, April 4, 2013:  American Elephants, a blog that isn’t about elephants, isn’t about their conservation, and in my view, isn’t much about America, either, fell victim to Crichton’s errors, all these months later. Plenty of time to get the story right since 2008, but American Elephants couldn’t do it.  American Elephants is too often an example of the Dunning Kruger effect, alas. […]


  7. […] the sentiment in the quote.  Asimov noted the Dunning-Kruger Effect, even if he didn’t have the advantage of Dunning and Kruger having named it yet, and he lamented the powerful undertone of anti-intellectualism that victims of the syndrome […]


  8. […] of the Dunning-Kruger Effect? Mark at Sting of Reason may have the graph to illustrate the Dunning-Kruger Effect perfectly: Saturday Morning Breakfast Comics for March 8, 2011, via Sting of […]


  9. […] Earlier flotsam in Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub:  “Quote of the moment:  Bertrand Russell on the Dunning-Kruger Effect, 64 years prescient&#82… […]


  10. Ed Darrell says:

    You confuse “struggling student” with “stupid.” In my experience, struggling students know all too well that they are ignorant of information they need.

    That’s rather the opposite of “stupid.”


  11. john says:

    As a school teacher, I’d call this complete garbage.

    Struggling students tend to _underestimate_ their abilities.
    Every school program has verified this.


  12. gnickles says:

    Yeats’ “Second Coming” has been running through my mind for the last several years, but more frequently recently. I think I now understand why…and why I keep teaching it. [Thanks, Robert for the reminder.] I’m fixated on the phenomenon. David Callahan’s The Cheating Culture might be pretty good on this topic, especially as it addresses Marion Delgado’s query about the effect of a hyper competitive culture on cheating. BSing and arrogant incompetence is a cheat, I think.


  13. […] bit of background; with a nod to Photon in the Darkness and Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, along with Mal Adapted: Dunning and Kruger published a study in 1999 with one of those ‘oh, […]


  14. davidpj says:

    I want to know: is it ethical to burst their bubble by giving them the basic education needed to realise how poorly they really do fare compared to others? It could be a world-shattering experience to realise that, far from being above average, you’re so thick you can’t even grasp how thick you are.

    Comfortable in the assumption that I’m honest with myself about my competence and that it’s unlikely to happen to me, I lean towards ‘yes’.

    As you said over on my blog, Ed, I’ve been suffering through a protracted exchance with a D-Ker (perhaps that is the long awaited substitute term for denialist!) on climate change. I must say, it was markedly different from a previous exchange I’ve had with a creationist, who was equally obstinate but far less arrogant – he seemed intelligent, but brainwashed, rather than plain incompetent.

    I think I’m going to have to hit that article while I’m at work, because I’m behind a paywall at the moment and can’t read the full paper. However, when I first saw this paper summarised, it was one of those ‘oh, THAT’s why!’ moments for me.

    I find it amusing that, in the comments following the D-K link over at Tamino’s blog, the sceptics just blatantly continue with their baseless assertions. Who needs to read a paper when it’s happening in front of your face?


  15. Robert says:

    I hope Russell gave credit to Yeats in paraphrasing his great line from “Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”


  16. ligne says:

    i’d forgotten about that bit, TwoYaks. and i even wore the lemon-juice!

    thanks for reminding me :-)


  17. Marion Delgado says:

    I should amend the above – one of the worst D-Ks out there is the ability to evaluate sources. That’s probably the pathway to the rest of it.


  18. Marion Delgado says:

    This should not exist; I am not even sure how competence in self-assessment even applies. There seems to be an expanded syndrome: not compensating for whatever level of Dunning-Kruger you have by checking with references and authorities.

    I don’t know anything about, say, jai-alai. My competence is as low as anyone’s. In other words, their stupidity and ignorance CANNOT be worse than mine. We’re all incompetent. But I don’t assess my competence as high. If I were still reporting and an editor said, we need a jai-alai story, I’d probably (since I once turned down a sports reporter job on the grounds that I didn’t think I’d ever make a good sports reporter) ask first if a sports reporter was available, but assuming no one else could do it, I’d consult as many sources as I could, and not Matt Drudge type sources like ClimateAudit or what have you. Assuming the paper or magazine would pay for it, I’d go to a jai-alai game, and hang out and talk with players if possible (I’d increase my competence) but my story would mostly come out of whatever are the official sources for information on jai-alai.

    So I would like to know whether a hyper-competitive culture a produces more Dunning-Kruger. I would also like to know, if people are in the conservative cyberculture where not accepting any official sources makes you Galileo creates an increased Dunning-Kruger. I don’t know, by the way, these are surmises.

    When I lived in Japan, there was a noticably lower tendency to B.S. people. If you didn’t know, you were expected to say so, and you would lose more status by BS-ing than by not knowing.


  19. TwoYaks says:

    One of my favourite parts of the 1999 paper, which I’d hung on the wall at my previous university, is the story about the thief at the beginning. While of questionable utility in contributing to the science, it was, none the less, hilarious. :)


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