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

March 14, 2010

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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