Dunning-Kruger Effect

How even the brightest of us can appear quite dim.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone about something you are passionate and knowledgeable about? Most of us have and it’s natural to share and impart our cumulative knowledge with the rest of the world. However, what if you don’t know as much as you think you know? How can you check?

The Dunning-Kruger effect is essentially a cognitive bias where someone with low ability in one area perceives themselves as more knowledgeable than they really are in that area. They are overestimating their depth of knowledge. Coupled with misplaced haughtiness and arrogance, the person suffering from this condition may have difficulty changing their position when approached with new knowledge.

This happened to me recently wherein a woman informed me that elderberry, probiotics, vitamin C, and fruits and vegetables can help with Covid. There may be some benefit to partaking in some of these depending on one’s health state but to somehow improve symptoms after a lifetime of poor dieting and while in a state of actively fighting a viral attack may not help very much. These would be useful post-infection while healing but even probiotics should be taken with caution as one’s immune system is already compromised. Non-pathogenic bacteria could convert to become pathogenic if the environment is suitable. Thus, one could make matters worse. A prebiotic may make more sense as this may help to simply restore the gut ecosystem that was already present. However, whether pre- or pro-, any significant change can take between 3 days to months to years depending on that person’s personal environment. When this was mentioned to this person, I was quickly informed that this worked for them. Of course, personal anecdotes are not how science works. Worked how? What do you consider as having worked? Was your recovery time statistically significant from groups that haven’t followed your regimen? If the healing times are not statistically significant, what does this reveal?

The person informing me of this has two degrees in Criminology. They have no expertise in diet, nutrition, science generally, or biology; yet, they quickly informed me that they know it works from personal experience.

Why do they rank their knowledge as more correct than mine? As a professional trained in science, it is clear that they don’t understand scientific or research methodology. Anecdotal evidence is the worse kind of evidence as the average person tends to draw conclusions from correlations that have not been tested or vetted.

I decided that it wasn’t worth the effort to remind this individual that I teach science for a living and have multiple degrees, diplomas, certificates, and certifications in science, nutrition, and health. One reason why I refuse to play the education card is that despite having gained a lot of knowledge in many fields, I still feel as if I don’t know very much. There are always new things to learn.

How to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect

In my view, there are a few things one can develop to help avoid this dilemma.

1.) Humility – Learn to be honest about what you know and what you don’t know.

2.) Check your biases. Do you believe this way because you wish to believe this or is there solid scientific evidence supporting your claims?

3.) Admit that you could be wrong. To be truly open-minded is to accept the possibility that you could be wrong. Starting with this position helps to place the researcher in a position where they can seek information disconfirming their biases

4.) Develop research skills – Learn how to discern a valid source of information from an invalid source. Checking one’s biases can help with research skills as the honest researcher will be able to identify when they are seeking only sources that match their preconceived notions and beliefs.

5.) Thinking metacognitively – This is thinking about your own thinking. This process can be developed and becomes easier with practice. This is one of the most challenging aspects of critical thinking which helps to analyze why you should do something in contrast with the feeling to do something just because it feels good.

These steps can help one better control cognitive bias and to better assess their claims of knowledge. However, I could be wrong.

-Dr. Finley

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