Reality Straight Up!

Thoughts & Observations of a Free Range Astrophysicist

dunning-kruger effect

A Dunning-Kruger Universe

Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”

Some people are sure they know more than the experts, but it can take a lot of knowledge to realize just how wrong an idea is.

This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.


The other day I got an email from someone claiming to have solved all the outstanding problems in physics and cosmology. Having read a few popular science books, the author insisted that only his brilliant and original perspective could save science from itself. His new “theory” would revolutionize the world!

I’ve gotten a lot of messages like that over the years, and they always make me smile. Most scientists who are in the public eye have their own collections. I’ve even received full-fledged manuscripts and autographed, self-published books.

People’s “theories” about the universe are often anything but.

Of course, the problem with these “theories” is that they aren’t scientific theories at all. In science, a theory is not just a wild guess. To a scientist, a theory is an idea that is consistent with known facts and makes testable predictions about the world.

Quantum mechanics is a theory that a lot of people never really liked. It made Einstein apoplectic, and some physicists are still trying to strip it of what they see as its philosophically troubling aspects. But quantum mechanics is still around for a simple reason: Even the theory’s most bizarre and seemingly preposterous predictions have always turned out to be correct. The same can be said for theories like relativity, the Standard Model of particle physics, the Big Bang, and on down the line.

Dunning-Kruger Milky Way

As you gaze into a starry sky, it’s easy to draw up your own ideas about how the universe works. But that doesn’t make them battle-tested by the scientific method.

There is more to it that what you see on TV.

“Theories” like the one that appeared in my email come nowhere near meeting that standard. For centuries, thousands and thousands of very clever people have spent their lives teasing precious facts out of nature, and building theories that make sense of those facts. Job No. 1 for a new theory is to do no harm; it must account for what is already known. In an established scientific field like cosmology, those facts involve elementary particles, star formation, stellar evolution, galactic structure, general relativity, and so on down a very long list. You just don’t get that watching documentaries on cable TV.

I don’t want to be harsh. If you are reading this column, you doubtless enjoy the fascinating glimpses of the universe that you find in a magazine like Astronomy. You don’t have to be an expert to appreciate that beauty. I feel much the same way about things like art and music. It’s fun to contemplate the waves you see on the surface of the ocean, even if you don’t fully grasp the depths that lie beneath.

But sometimes talking to someone with a “theory” is anything but fun. Those are the people who are true believers in their own speculations, and they often view scientists with contempt. “The audacity of those scientists! Who are they to pretend that their decades of post-secondary education and research mean anything!”

Sometimes people don’t know enough to realize just how wrong they are.

After all, those self-styled Leonardos are really smart. They are just amazingly smart. They are really just the best and smartest people around. They are so, so much smarter than scientists. And if there is something that they don’t know about or that doesn’t agree with them, well, it must be wrong and it can’t really be all that important, anyway.

Welcome to the Dunning-Kruger effect, named after two Cornell psychologists who gave a large group of people tests and then asked them how they thought they did. Kruger and Dunning were startled by what they found. Almost everyone who took the tests was sure they did much better than average. That was even true for the very worst performers, who wildly overestimated their scores. At the same time, the very best performers typically underestimated how they did.

What Kruger and Dunning found was that if people don’t have the skills needed to do well on a test, they don’t know enough to assess their own performance. People who know very little can truly believe themselves experts because they can’t tell the difference. Meanwhile, experts who fully understand just how difficult and subtle things can be think themselves less competent than they truly are.

Where might the Dunning-Kruger Effect lead us?

British philosopher Bertrand Russell knew about the Dunning-Kruger effect long before it had a name. Quoting Russell: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.”

I started keeping a file labeled “Dunning-Kruger,” where I put things like the “theory” I received in the mail the other day. It joins articles on climate denial, intelligent design, and connections between vaccines and autism, to name a few.

I wonder sometimes just where the Dunning-Kruger effect might lead us. I hate to say it, but that folder is getting thicker and thicker by the day. 

 

A Dunning-Kruger Universe ^ Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”  © Dr. Jeff Hester
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    Read Article

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Click on thumbnail to select post:

  • Great Deceiverism 101  Explanation or Theory? Therein lies the rub.Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • One Step at a Time  The  not-so-mysterious origin of lifePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • The Mind’s Siren Call  Being certain is a primrose pathPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Constrained Hallucinations  How the brain uses science to perceive the worldPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy Redux  Why our universe isn’t boringPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Entropy’s Rainbow  The statistically likely path to complexityPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Cassandra Smiling  Science, politics and a march in the rainPosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • EPA Rehash  A suddenly partisan NASA faces its futurePosted in Thoughts
  • The Hermeneutics of  Bunk  Alan Sokal and postmodernism’s black eyePosted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • A Dunning-Kruger Universe  Everyone, it seems, has a “theory”Posted in For Your ConsiderationUnreasonable Faith
  • Our Need to Know  We crave certainty, even when it is only an illusionPosted in CoachingThoughtsUnreasonable Faith
  • A Saguaro’s universe  Building a cactus starts with the Big BangPosted in For Your Consideration
  • If someone can’t tell you how they would know that they are wrong, they don’t have a clue whether they are right.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Once seemingly incomprehensible, the origin of life no longer seems such a mystery. Most of what once appeared as roadblocks are turning out to be superhighways.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Being certain lights up our brains like a junkie’s next hit. Literally. Unfortunately, being certain and being right are two very, very different things.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The unique worlds we each consciously inhabit – the only worlds we will ever experience – are constrained hallucinations, products of hypothesis testing by our predictive brains.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • A month’s worth of sunlight could pay the entropy bill for a billion years of biological evolution. Entropy is evolution’s best friend.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Entropy is often maligned as the enemy of order. In truth, without the inexorable march of entropy, the universe would be a very boring place.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • On a cold day in April, 2017 scientists gathered in Washington DC and cities around the world for the March for Science. Their message was a single powerful idea. Truth is not a political expediency. Reality cannot be ignored. In the year that has followed the vital importance of that message has only grown.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • When I look at NASA’s new Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, it is his fellow Oklahoman Scott Pruitt’s EPA that jumps to mind. As politically uncomfortable science is pushed aside, NASA’s history of nonpartisanship appears headed for an abrupt end. Will a strongly partisan NASA have a target on its back?

  • Some years ago, NYU physicist Alan Sokal wondered whether anti-science postmodernists could recognize politically-correct-sounding nonsense even if he rubbed their noses in it. The unwitting subjects of the Sokal Hoax jumped at the bait.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • Some people are sure they know more than the experts, but it can take a lot of knowledge to realize just how wrong an idea is.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

  • The human brain craves the sensation of knowing like a drug addict craves the next fix. If real knowledge is uncomfortable or not at hand, we are quite content to just make something up, then convince ourselves it’s real. In a world where knowledge matters, that’s dangerous.

  • The iconic saguaro cactus gives the desert an otherwordly beauty. That beauty does not exist in isolation. It embodies the fascinating and awe-inspiring processes that have shaped the universe, going all the way back to the Big Bang itself.

    This article originally appeared in my Astronomy Magazine column, For Your Consideration.

Over his 30 year career as an internationally known astrophysicist, Dr. Jeff Hester was a key member of the team that repaired the Hubble Space Telescope. With one foot always on the frontiers of knowledge, he has been mentor, coach, team leader, award-winning teacher, administrator and speaker, to name a few of the hats he has worn. His Hubble image, the Pillars of Creation, was chosen by Time Magazine as among the 100 most influential photographs in history.
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