Street Philosophy: Bro, do you even know?

The now famous Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which the incompetent overestimate their own competence, while the competent tend to underestimate their own competence. The general gist of it is that the skillset you need to be objective about your competence in relation to others is the same ones you need to actually be competent. Simply put, if you’re incompetent, you can’t really know that you’re incompetent. Similar echoes can be heard in the area of knowledge and confidence:

The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

This is Bertrand Russell in 1933, concerned about developments in Germany which turn out to be prophetic. He speaks of modern times, but I suspect that confident morons were always a thing and probably always will be; the idea that things and people were better in the past is itself a kind of survivorship bias. You only expose yourself to the best of past modern art, music, literature, and ideas; they survived for that reason, but you see the best of modern art, music, literature and ideas in between a heap of horrible modern ideas, music, etc. They haven’t had time to filter out yet, which makes the past look better than it probably was. While it can seem inconceivable with the facebook spam sandwich, the past was probably even more full of confident morons.

In particular, the fields where inappropriate confidence seems to show up the most are:

  • Economics
  • Politics
  • Religion
  • Health

What they all share in common is that it involves strong emotions, high noise, and little to no punishment for being wrong. That’s for another post though.

Lay people who have barely laid eyes on an economics book opine all the time with sincere conviction how the bird is the word, and you should listen to Marx, Keynes, Hayek, and how it can cleanly be applied to a particular policy decision. It’s self-evident, of course, and all opposing views are moronic although again, they’ve never looked into such views anyways. They are usually expressed in absolutes: Corporations are evil; welfare is for lazy people; we should abolish minimum wage.

There was a recent poll on the partisan divide on the subject of Russian hacking.

Did Russians interfere in the election by hacking the DNC?

Clinton Voters: 87% yes 8% no

Democrats: 78% yes 15% no

Republicans: 22% yes 61% no

Trump voters: 20% yes 63% no

Did Russian interference affect the election’s outcome? (Asked to those that answered yes)

Clinton Voters: 84% yes 12% no

Democrats: 84% yes 12% no

Republicans: 29% yes 68% no

Trump voters: 212% yes 86% no

Would Clinton have won if it wasn’t for Russian interference?

Clinton voters: 54%

Trump voters: Less than 1%

Are the voters justified in their belief about election outcomes, the nature of the hack, if it played a role in people’s voting decisions, or if Clinton would have won? I mean, how could they have any confidence in holding that belief? The numbers themselves aren’t surprising or interesting. It’s a simple case of motivated reasoning: Democrats are crying sour grapes, and Republicans don’t want to feel that their victory is somehow tarnished. As we know, when we believe something, we look for the first piece of evidence that collaborates our view, and stop looking. We don’t scrutinize the evidence, except when it opposes a view we hold. The stronger you believe something where you have no expertise, the more likely that you are simply accepting hogwash as evidence.

There are far more interesting questions that I would have asked:  

  1. Did the Russians hack the DNC?
  2. How confident are you in your belief?
  3. Bonus question: What if anything would change your belief?

I would expect roughly the same split, even though we are now asking a factual question to which very few people are in a position to reliably know anything about. People increasingly seem to argue about factual matters. The boundary between opinion and fact merges and becomes fuzzy.

So, what distinguishes someone knowing something, and just being a confident button clicker? Generally, there are three requirements for knowledge:

  1. That you believe X.
  2. That the belief is true.
  3. That the belief is justified.

*I’m going to skip the Gettier Problem for another time when I feel like being lame.  

1 and 2 aren’t very contentious. It’s hard to say that you know something if you don’t believe it, and it’s hard to say you know something if it isn’t true. 3 is a bit more nuanced and people aren’t agreed on what exactly constitutes justification. For the most part, it is agreed that justification is necessary and that true beliefs are different from knowledge. A simplistic explanation is that a mere true belief could be true accidentally. Without going into details about justification:


Student S was taking a math class. S didn’t study, and was mostly going by feel. S overhears a “keener” talk with the teacher about how he knew the answer to the bonus question was 4, but… S stops listening in and writes down the answer 4 on his sheet, and then proceeds to make up random formulas, scribble around messily, erase, and make such a mess so that the work is barely legible.  


But why? Either the keener is right or he’s not, surely? S is more confident in the keener’s opinion than his own random shot in the dark.

That’s because it’s not enough to just be accidentally right. In math, you have to show your work. That is, accidentally being right (or by overhearing someone who does) does not demonstrate knowledge. S was trying to fool the teacher by pretending to be justified in getting to what the keener had got to. That is, S is confident that K is right and the answer is 4, but his answer still has to be justified to demonstrate knowledge.

In the real world, we need to have appropriate evidence in believing something, if we are to say that we know something. Merely being right and believing it does not count as knowledge. Depending on the level of evidence that is available, we should have varying levels of confidence in our claims. As it’s rather rare that we are personally an expert in any specialized field, we need to accept an authority’s opinion on these subject matters. If authorities vary in their opinion, we can break down the arguments and evidence presented and estimate a conclusion on our own (and ascribe a 30-70 on the confidence level)…or we can pick what feels right without evidence, which will boost your confidence level to 100. This is why we see inappropriately high confidence levels attributed to fields that they have no right being confident in. Non-experts are supremely confident in their economic and political views. Similarly, people don’t hesitate to make claims about the CIA, hacking, etc. when we are often in a position where truth is actively being hidden from us. Yet, it’s not uncommon that people make claims that make you wonder if they understand the difference between opinion and fact.


Conspiracies and Script Flips: The Ultimate Range Merge

Conspiracy theories offer an extreme version of inappropriate confidence. While many of us think that these areas are reserved for the mentally ill (although the average would surely be higher than those who don’t believe) this doesn’t properly explain how many people accept such views. Here’s some cool data on conspiracy theories from Public Policy Polling. You think fake news is shocking? You’ve seen nothing.

-21% of voters believe that there was a US cover up of a UFO landing

-28% of voters believe in a secretive New World Order globalist agenda

-4% of voters believe that lizard people control society via political power

No wonder nutters like Alex Jones has listeners; why wouldn’t there be InfoWars when there is a hoard of droolers in need of an alt explanation? Perhaps George Carlin comes to mind: “Think of how stupid the average person is and realize that half of them are stupider than that.” In case you think it’s just a education/red neck problem, cramming vitamins, feng shui, detox, and all sorts of non-evidence based stuff pass as perfectly  legit in the cities. Just as the rednecks seem to have an irrational fear of terrorists, colored people, and gay men (everyone loves lesbians obviously), us city people–we have an irrational fear of child molestors, driving kids to the mall on Halloween and are all in for vitamin and supplement overdose.

Conspiracy theories are interesting in that it’s the positing of a hidden reality or filter that explains the reality in a different way than the currently accepted norm. If you’re not one of “those people” their ideas will seem self-defeating and ridiculous, making you wonder how their heads work if they work at all. The general feel among the norms is that conspiracy theorists are stupid, delusional, or have mental health issues. If you know such a person though, you’d know that they are (typically) capable of reasoning in other areas of their life. If you think about the structure of the conspiracy, a big part of these claims is that they aren’t falsifiable. It’s a consistent with itself, a worldview onto its own. Facts don’t contradict worldviews. Their base belief is protected from facts; it subsumes them. Their view already has an explanation for why things are as it seems. There isn’t really a singular empirical fact, even a hypothetical, that would make the believers change their minds. (#PizzaGate is not debunked by mainstream media because they’re part of the conspiracy to hide satanic rituals, according to a friend of mine who’s currently in the deep end. Why would media cover them; they’re covering them up). Powerful governments, powerful corporations, powerful secret societies, an omnipotent being, lizard people with science beyond our comprehension could certainly fool regular mortals and their perceptions.

If you wonder how it’s possible that people can believe in such ridiculous ideas, there’s the granddaddy of all conspiracy theories: God, and last I checked, this one is still quite popular. There is almost no culture in the world that doesn’t have some type of religion. If we use the Christian conception of God (again, specific beliefs are more varied than you think even within Christianity), we can be confident that believers do quite confidently believe in their God. Could the belief be true? Certainly, it’s possible. The problem with God or many of the conspiracies isn’t that they aren’t or can’t be factual. It’s certainly possible that Christian (or Muslim or Hindu) theology could be true. It’s also possible that there is a New World Order, or that we’re living in a simulation or that we’re actually brain in a vat being prodded to delude us into believing we exist. There are any number of Shamalan type script-flip scenarios that could make our generally accepted understanding correspond with our experiences. Given that there is an indefinite number of such script-flip scenarios, can you even say that you being in one of them is even unlikely? It’s not that these types of beliefs can’t be true; it’s that you aren’t justified in holding that belief. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. In this area (where we almost by definition, cannot have justified beliefs), opinion and fact are accepted as equivalent.

*I note here that some philosophers like Alvin Platinga argue that faith itself can be a basic belief and is therefore justified. I disagree, but like almost anything in philosophy there is no perfect consensus.

I’m going to stop here. In part II, why we all button-click, why it’s actually ok, why the New Atheists are assholes, and the difference between private belief and public policy.


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