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The Dunning-Kruger Effect

By: Daisyworld, 3:21 AM GMT on June 28, 2012

About a year has past since I gave up on the cascade of anti-science reverberating across the media echo-chamber, tossing in the towel on my attempts to actively engage climate change denialists on the subject of global warming. Since shedding that yoke of personal responsibility, much has changed with respect to my view of these denialists. In the past, I've fumed at the incredulity of their media campaign against science, not to mention the audacity of their profoundly inaccurate claims. However, in my search to find the source of denialism fervor, I've discovered that science itself has already provided us with the answer.

It's called the Dunning-Kruger effect.

In psychology, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a form of cognitive bias, wherein an individual who is unskilled and/or incompetent in a particular discipline will drastically over-estimate their own abilities in that field. In contrast, those who are highly competent in said field are more likely to under-estimate their own abilities if they assume that everyone around them are at the same level of competence. I think Wikipedia actually wrote it best by quoting Bertrand Russell: "One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision."

To put it in practice, how many times have you done either of the following?: (1) Went to take a college exam without performing any prior studying, yet convinced yourself that you could pass it with at least a marginal grade. Or, (2) went to take a college exam for which you diligently studied, but knowing the sheer complexity of all the information you had to go over, were convinced that you were going to fail. What were the outcomes of those exams? Chances are that if you knew a lot about the subject, you received a passing grade in both cases. However, if you knew little or next to nothing about the subject (usually by not going to lecture or taking notes), you would have failed in the first case, and not performed as well as a highly competent person in the second case. This personal bias forms the base of the Dunning-Kruger effect, and like the first college exam case, is why climate change denialists know practically nothing about climate science, yet proceed forth with excruciating confidence as if they know substantially more than highly-trained scientists in the field. Put simply: They do not realize how much they DON'T know.

So for now, I've been able to find a tenuous peace with the subject. Now, when faced with denialist propaganda, instead of growing angry or outraged (thus causing a startling metamorphosis to occur), I am able to watch and scrutinize the propaganda with a little more objectivity without immediately seeing red.

For instance, just last month, the climate change denialist front group, the Heartland Institute, initiated a smear campaign against climate science by suggesting that anyone who "still believes" in global warming was on par with murderers, tyrants, and madmen. Their billboards were seen in the Chicago area, establishing Ted Kaczynski (the Unibomber) as a surrogate for climate scientists. The campaign was one in a series which were to include Charles Manson and Osama bin Laden, but the outrage from groups such as Forecast The Facts forced Heartland to pull the ads. Unfortunately, Heartland did not rescind their denialist stance (nor did I expect them to), and an attempt at a counter-campaign was cut short by Clear Channel, who refused to air billboards that publicized the contributions of Heartlands remaining sponsors.

On other fronts, with Colorado forest fires burning out of control due primarily to drought and an abundance of dead pine tress from an extended breeding season of the destructive Mountain Pine Beetle (compliments of a warmer-than-average fall and spring last season), the denialists were hard at work in the North Carolina legislature by attempting to outlaw sea level rise. Strange as it may seem, the State legislature did not like the scientific prediction of a 39-inch sea level rise by 2100, which was determined by their own Coastal Resources Commission, and would prove detrimental to the State's beachside real estate business. So instead, the Republican-controlled legislature is pushing a bill that would outlaw any sea level rise prediction not based on a rudimentary 100-year period of historical data. No fact-based estimates on future polar ice cap melting, or paleographic data from 800,000 years ago can be included. Only a short time span since 1900 would the CRC be allowed to base their conclusions, effectively turning a 39-inch sea level rise into an 8-inch rise. Perfect for beach front property sales and ineffective risk-based flood zone predictions.

Perhaps hitting closest to home (for me at least), back in April, 49 former NASA employees, which included 7 former astronauts (mostly from the Apollo era), wrote a letter to NASA administrator Charles Bolden asking him to stop the agency from publicly stating that human activities are driving global warming. Their letter was flagrant in its errors and omissions, supplanting fact with an odd mix of half-truths and all-out falsehoods. It seems that even a highly scientific organization such as NASA is not without it's share of denialist propaganda patrons, regardless of their past accomplishments. It still disheartens me to see a man like Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt, the world's only geologist to have ever stepped foot on the moon, to succumb to a blatantly anti-scientific political agenda.

Each of the three above situations are prominent examples of fairly intelligent people who, regardless of their lack of understanding about a particular field (in this case climate science), proceed forth with self-assured determination that they are unequivocally correct in their opinion that human-caused global warming is either a fallacy or a poorly understood subject. In these cases, I now have an unswerving, logical two-word answer that best summarizes their contradictory state of mind: Dunning-Kruger.

Climate Change Politics

Updated: 4:25 AM GMT on July 17, 2012

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Daisyworld was one of the first climate models that effectively demonstrated that rudimentary biological feedbacks can affect the global climate.

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