“Confident Idiots”

“As the humorist Josh Billings once put it, ‘It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.’”

I’m always interested in how the different people on our planet see or understand the world.  Different cultures do have different perspectives or paradigms through which they view and understand events.  Even within any one culture people can view events very differently, as we see for example in America between liberals and conservatives.  If you start with differing questions, the solutions to problems are going to be quite different as well.  It is hard to change people’s minds about issues they hold dear.    And it becomes obvious that no amount of facts will change some people’s thinking.  I do remember when I was teaching at the University of Dayton that one student bluntly told me, “I don’t care what information you give me, I’m not going to change my mind about what I think.”  They were quite certain that being impervious to information was the wisest course to holding to their own ideas.  They were paying a lot of money to attend a college to shield themselves from being informed about anything.   It does bring to mind the wisdom that some of us need to hear:  “Don’t believe everything you think.”

I found the article, “We Are All Confident Idiots” ,  by Cornell University psychology professor David Dunning (PACIFIC STANDARD magazine, October 27, 2014) to be an interesting read for a couple of reasons. It does show that not knowing about a topic does not stop people from having very strong opinions about that topic.  In some ways it appears that the very lack of knowledge can give people a (false) confidence in the correctness of their opinion.  It is why it is often so difficult to change people’s minds about an issue.  The article also points out that a little knowledge is also dangerous as it can feed a person’s false sense of security about their own ideas.  So Dr. Dunning writes:

 The American author and aphorist William Feather once wrote that being educated means “being able to differentiate between what you know and what you don’t.” As it turns out, this simple ideal is extremely hard to achieve. Although what we know is often perceptible to us, even the broad outlines of what we don’t know are all too often completely invisible. To a great degree, we fail to recognize the frequency and scope of our ignorance.

In 1999, in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, my then graduate student Justin Kruger and I published a paper that documented how, in many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize—scratch that, cannot recognize—just how incompetent they are, a phenomenon that has come to be known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack. To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

The ideas in the article might help us understand the polarization in American politics, for example, when the left and right can’t communicate with each other and can’t even agree on what the facts are about a given issue.  People treat their assumptions as if they are established fact.  Research has shown that people in all cultures have a tendency to see the world from one point of view on a couple different continuums.  Which end of a continuum they are on will effect what they believe the real threats to the good life are and what they believe to be solutions to life’s problems.    This makes communication between people on opposite ends of these spectrums difficult because they start with different fears and with differing ideas about what is good for the nation.  People tend to fall on one end or the other of a continuum opposing egalitarian to hierarchical thinking and also on a continuum opposing communal versus individualistic thinking.

Dunning continues:

  And over the years, I’ve become convinced of one key, overarching fact about the ignorant mind. One should not think of it as uninformed. Rather, one should think of it as misinformed.

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.

Some of this misinformation is a carryover from our childhood experiences.  Some of our thinking shapes who we are and what we believe to be true about others and the world we live in.  As Dunning says:

Some of our most stubborn misbeliefs arise not from primitive childlike intuitions or careless category errors, but from the very values and philosophies that define who we are as individuals. Each of us possesses certain foundational beliefs—narratives about the self, ideas about the social order—that essentially cannot be violated: To contradict them would call into question our very self-worth. As such, these views demand fealty from other opinions. And any information that we glean from the world is amended, distorted, diminished, or forgotten in order to make sure that these sacrosanct beliefs remain whole and unharmed.

No matter what actually happens in the world, we often interpret the events to support our inner presuppositions.  We see the world as supporting our views along those continuums previously mentioned.   Given the exact same information, people on opposite ends of these paradigm polarities will interpret the information to support their viewpoint.  Researchers showed that giving people very precise information about “nanotechnology”, a topic many knew nothing about, tended to reinforce their already held positions, no matter which end of the spectrums they were on.

 If two paragraphs of text are enough to send people on a glide path to polarization, simply giving members of the public more information probably won’t help them arrive at a shared, neutral understanding of the facts; it will just reinforce their biased views.

As David Dunning points out:

 The way we traditionally conceive of ignorance—as an absence of knowledge—leads us to think of education as its natural antidote. But education, even when done skillfully, can produce illusory confidence.

A good example given in the article concerns driver’s education which can give people an overconfidence in their driving abilities.  The consequence is that instead of staying home during bad winter weather, they  feel confident to just carry on with normal activities and drive out into winter storms, falsely believing in their own abilities to handle whatever wintery conditions they face.

 In cases like this, the most enlightened approach, as proposed by Swedish researcher Nils Petter Gregersen, may be to avoid teaching such skills at all. Instead of training drivers how to negotiate icy conditions, Gregersen suggests, perhaps classes should just convey their inherent danger—they should scare inexperienced students away from driving in winter conditions in the first place, and leave it at that.

The issues raised when applied to politics are not new.  Dunning reminds us:

 Thomas Jefferson, lamenting the quality of political journalism in his day, once observed that a person who avoided newspapers would be better informed than a daily reader, in that someone “who knows nothing is closer to the truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods and errors.” Benjamin Franklin wrote that “a learned blockhead is a greater blockhead than an ignorant one.”

My interest in Dunning’s research and conclusions is not related to American politics.   I’m interested in the implications of his comments for dealing with the issue of sexual misconduct in the church.   Clearly, the OCA adopting new policies to tighten its discipline in dealing with misconduct, can cause a backlash with some people thinking any such efforts are draconian: using artillery to kill a fly.  But while it is true that in the Church, incidents of sexual misconduct are fairly rare (thankfully!), they do happen.   The threat is real.   If even one incidence of misconduct is thwarted and only one innocent child is protected, the efforts are worthwhile.   Vigilance in the church for signs of misconduct  is important for reducing (not eliminating) the risk to vulnerable populations.    Lax attitudes about sexual misconduct in the church are tested by predators who appreciate the opportunities these attitudes give them to operate undetected in the church.   A tightened discipline makes it more difficult, though not impossible, for the predator to operate undetected.

OCAThe risk in the church, as Dunning’s article points out, would be that knowing there are stricter Policies, Standards and Procedures, might give some a false sense of security that there is now no risk.  Vigilance is still needed.  The PSPs, SMPAC and ORSMA cannot stop predators from trying to offend, but they can create an atmosphere in which it is difficult for the predator to go undetected.  Changing attitudes though is difficult.  People have many reasons for resisting a new perspective, especially if it challenges their cherished beliefs that misconduct occurs “someplace else” but not in my church.

We are today working to create a climate in the church where predators feel it not safe to attempt their grooming and predatory activities.  They feel “safe” in the church when they get away with some misconduct.  The PSPs cannot stop them from trying, but they can help us all become consciously aware of the importance of the issue and to support the efforts in keeping vigilant about the real possibilities.  Misconduct has occurred in the church.  This is tragic but the fact should not catch anyone unaware.  Even in the Orthodox Scripture in the Book of Daniel, we find the story of Susanna who is caught in a scheme of sexual misconduct by two prominent judges.  Sexual morality and misconduct is found in biblical times.   Even if one act of misconduct is prevented and one innocent child is spared abuse, the effort as cumbersome as it may be proves its worth.


One thought on ““Confident Idiots”

  1. Fr. Ted

    A friend asked me to post his comment to the above post:

    I must admit that at the start of the Iraq conflict I was rather taken by the daily appearances of Donald Rumsfeld.

    And in this Wiki article,


    Rumsfeld said, “Reports that say that something hasn’t happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns — the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult one.”

    This actually received some good reviews and caused the additional comment:

    “Psychoanalytic philosopher Slavoj Žižek says that beyond these three categories there is a fourth, the unknown known, that which we intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know:[7] “If Rumsfeld thinks that the main dangers in the confrontation with Iraq were the “unknown unknowns”, that is, the threats from Saddam whose nature we cannot even suspect, then the Abu Ghraib scandal shows that the main dangers lie in the “unknown knowns” – the disavowed beliefs, suppositions and obscene practices we pretend not to know about, even though they form the background of our public values.”

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