If you’re a follower of my content, you’re probably someone who loves to study topics that other people find boring and over complicated. I know I’m such a person. I can spend hours reading through books on philosophy, economics, or religion; and afterwards I’m all too eager to share what I’ve learned with my friends and family.
Of course, one thing I’ve always found I have to be careful of is to make sure I don’t overestimate how knowledgeable I am when making the case for something I’ve only just begun to study. Unfortunately, this is something most everyone falls victim to at some point and has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect (Dunning, 2011). A victim of the Dunning-Kruger effect is someone who is not only ignorant of the topic on which he speaks, but is also ignorant of his own ignorance. As Sam Harris has stated, “the less competent a person is in a given domain, the more he will tend to overestimate his abilities. This often produces an ugly marriage of confidence and ignorance that is very difficult to correct for” (Harris, 2010, p. 123).
However, the point of this post is not to warn you about the Dunning-Kruger Effect itself but rather to help you recognize when you are erroneously accused of being an example of it. While the Dunning-Kruger Effect is certainly real, I’ve found that erroneous accusations of it may be even more common than the Dunning-Kruger effect itself.
For example, you’ve probably been in a discussion or debate of some sort and encountered a person who, in apparent frustration, simply told you, “You just don’t get it.” They then launch into a short tirade about how you need to pick up a book and start doing research, after which they laugh loudly, stick their nose in the air with an aura of condescension, and walk away. They may even explicitly tell you that you are a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
However, what’s interesting is that seldom have I encountered a person who makes this kind of claim and also proceeds to explain what part of the other person’s view was incorrect. They’re willing to tell you that you don’t know what you’re talking about, but they’re completely unwilling to educate you so that you don’t make the same mistake in the future. Granted, it may be the case that they simply don’t have the time to do so, but I doubt that this is the case in the vast majority of circumstances.
If someone tells me that I don’t know what I’m talking about in the course of discussion, I try my best to always pause. After all, if I can’t even acknowledge the possibility that I’m wrong, what is the point of having a discussion? However, there’s something I feel should be very obvious to anyone who actually understands what it means to be knowledgeable.
If the person making the accusation of ignorance actually understands the topic in question, it should be very easy for them to explain it in a way that even laypeople can understand.
I took Chemistry in college, and I hated every second of it. I don’t pretend for a moment that I could describe the intricacies of Chemistry with any specificity or detail. However, what convinced me that my professor could, was the fact that when she explained something, she was able to take a complex idea and put it into terms than anyone in the class could grasp. The same thing is true when considering an expert in any topic, not just chemistry.
When debating adherents of Marxism, I’m often accused of not knowing what socialism really is. However, when I challenge my opponent to set me straight, I’m almost never met by an attempt to do so. They simply say, “I’m not going to do the work for you. Go read The Communist Manifesto.” When I explain that I have a digital copy on my phone and laptop and have read it many times, they simply laugh at me and claim that I must be too stupid to understand it and walk away.
I’ll never be impressed with these kinds of dismissive statements and neither should you. Regardless of what topic you’re debating, the person making the positive claim always bears the burden of proof. Claiming your opponent doesn’t understand what he’s talking about is a claim that needs to be defended like any other. They shouldn’t be impressed if you make statements you don’t back up, but by the same token, you shouldn’t be impressed if they accuse you of ignorance but then refuse to back up that assertion.
Simply put, if the person accusing you of ignorance really understood the topic in question, they should be able to summarize it in a way that is easy to understand. Hiding behind statements like, “Go read this book,” or “You just need to do more research,” only inclines me to believe that they are the one suffering from the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
And that is my 2 cents. Take it for what it’s worth.
Dunning, D. (2011). The Dunning-Kruger Effect: On being ignorant of one’s own ignorance. Advances in Experimental Psychology, 44, 247-296.
Harris, S. (2010). The Moral Landscape. New York: Free Press.