Too stupid to know you’re stupid

Great Errol Morris series in the NY Times this week. Excited enough about part 1 that I’m posting this before reading part  2. Morris is speaking with David Dunning, a Cornell professor who came up with the Dunning-Kruger effect.

When people are incompetent in the strategies they adopt to achieve success and satisfaction, they suffer a dual burden: Not only do they reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize it.


And I became very interested in judgments about the self, simply because, well, people tend to say things, whether it be in everyday life or in the lab, that just couldn’t possibly be true.  And I became fascinated with that.  Not just that people said these positive things about themselves, but they really, really believed them.  Which led to my observation: if you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent…If you knew it, you’d say, “Wait a minute.  The decision I just made does not make much sense.  I had better go and get some independent advice.”   But when you’re incompetent, the skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.


People often come up with answers to problems that are o.k., but are not the best solutions.  The reason they don’t come up with those solutions is that they are simply not aware of them. Stefan Fatsis, in his book “Word Freak,” talks about this when comparing everyday Scrabble players to professional ones.  As he says: “In a way, the living-room player is lucky . . . He has no idea how miserably he fails with almost every turn, how many possible words or optimal plays slip by unnoticed.  The idea of Scrabble greatness doesn’t exist for him.” (p. 128)


The average detective does not realize the clues he or she neglects.  The mediocre doctor is not aware of the diagnostic possibilities or treatments never considered.  The run-of-the-mill lawyer fails to recognize the winning legal argument that is out there.  People fail to reach their potential as professionals, lovers, parents and people simply because they are not aware of the possible.

His fantastic example is of a gentleman from Pittsburgh who robbed a bank in broad daylight with no disguise and was recognized and arrested immediately following his photo appearing on the nightly news. Turns out the gentleman had taken precautionary measures, applying lemon juice to his face to render him invisible to all video cameras. So Dunning took this example and developed this theory that we’re too incompetent to be aware of our incompetence. If we had the knowledge to know we needed to seek objective outside expertise, we would have done so. Without that knowledge, we use what we have and make terrible terrible decisions.

Anyway, great article. All should read.

More Special Effects, Please: (L’Objet Danse)

Watching this rather amusing (and spectacular) period film about Louis XIV and Lully (and other things) called Le Roi Danse. Whoever claimed that it is only in the twentieth century that we have become addicted to special effects (and 3D glasses, and the spectacle) is only correct to a certain extend – this looks pretty “in-your-face” sort of ballet de la nuit – I wish there was more spectacular stuff in philosophy (for example, objects could dance and sing, as opposed to boringly withdraw or vicariously allure) – just saying…

Back to Kant: Jon Cogburn Edition

Jon is reacquainting himself with Kant and posting his notes online. I have to say that such monumental undertakings are awe-inspiring as I rarely attempt any such feats (knowing that I will give up early on). I’m hoping to follow Jon’s progress if only to do some reading (I admit that I haven’t read the whole of first critique in one sequence probably since I did it for the first time long time ago, it’s always been sections here and there since then).

The wisdom is collected here. I must add that Jon’s familiarity with the analytic tradition makes for a great read even if you have read Kant for many years (or do so on the regular basis, like reading the Bible).

Profound Statements Not Made By Me: Tree Falling (Yet Again)

Me: So this is a sort of a sophisticated version of the “tree falling in the forest” riddle?

Not-Me: [Quizzical Expression on Face]

M: You know – “If a tree fall in the forrest and there is no one there to hear it fall, does it make a sound?”

N: You serious?

M: Quite. Well, I didn’t make it up. It’s out there, it’s a “riddle”.

N: So people really ask these sorts of questions?

M: Well, not people, really, just philosophers.

N: So I suppose if you say “yes” then are affirming a kind of objectively certain world in which trees falls and make sounds independently of our perception and if you say “no” then it’s back to esse est precipi and all that wonderfully insane idealist shit?

M: Sort of. I suppose it is a question of larger implications, you know? Can I say something about reality as it exists outside of my perception – or rather, whether my perception of it (sound of tree falling I hear) corresponds to what, I’m assuming, takes place when I’m not there (sound of tree falling and me being home drinking tea).

N: I suppose the only options are “yes” or “no”?

M: I guess.

N: Can I go with “maybe”?

M: [Astonished Silence, World Grows Dark, Life Ceases to Make Sense]

Delightful Excuses…

A student email (I left the horrific composition in tact):

Dear Prof Shahar:

I am so sorry to tell you that I am taking off today. This morning, when I was about to go to school, i got diarrhea. It took me about an hour. So I couldn’t go to school on time. I ‘ll ask my friend about homework. And if we have a test today, could you please allow me to take it another time? Therefore, can you tell me when can I see you and do it?
Thank you so much.

File under: Too much information.  Funny, yet disturbingly inappropriate, but funny…

Phrase of the Day: “Cretinous Tirade”

Thanks to an anonymous tipster, we have this awesomeness developing story: cretinous tirade. Since these exchanges usually end up being punctuated with hilarious hysterical hissy-fits, denunciations, and pathetic attempts at covering it all over and blaming the ever-present trolls, read it before it gets erased by either party. Continue reading

‘Tis the Season To Be Jolly (Cogburn Edition)

While you were stuffing yourself with turkey and listening to your creepy uncle’s war stories, Jon Cogburn was expecting (and then having) a baby girl (well, actually his wife was, at least that’s how it usually goes). Since Jon’s an old friend of the blog, I’d like to suspend all sarcasms for just a minute to congratulate him on the new arrival.

Shostakovich: The Execution of Stepan Razin (Op. 119)

Here’s a nice late Shostakovich piece that I’ve rediscovered lately and would like to share with the general public. The figure of Stepan Razin is, of course, historically very interesting and significant, but this music is just so haunting and so heroic, even my sarcastic trollish heart is moved, even if ever so slightly: Continue reading