Public Policy Polling’s Tom Jensen said recently, “The first lesson you learn as a pollster is that people are stupid.” Jensen represents a common attitude among media denizens that ordinary citizens are mostly an ignorant lot.
And this feeling is seemingly backed up by research, such as that put forth by Cornell’s David Dunning and NYU’s Justin Kruger. They find “that incompetent people are inherently unable to judge the competence of other people, or the quality of those people’s ideas.”
To some extent this is not controversial. Most people say they are “above average” in everything from sports to stock picking. If somebody has no experience in a particular area, this person will often be unable to judge what is accepted as quality work in this area. Suppose a citizen is asked to judge the formatting of a grant submission. The further he is from university life (for example), the less he will be able to say much that is interesting and useful about the process.
Also, D & K’s statement is not universally true. I do not know how to fly a jet airplane, but I can tell you that if one crashes it is not a good thing. Of course, Dunning and Kruger actually claim something more subtle:
For example, if people lack expertise on tax reform, it is very difficult for them to identify the candidates who are actual experts. They simply lack the mental tools needed to make meaningful judgments.
Taking up this theme was actor John Cleese who in a video discussing Dunning’s work said (beginning at 3:30):
The problem with people like this is that they are so stupid is that they have no idea how stupid they are…There’s a wonderful bit of research by a guy called David Dunning at Cornell…who’s pointed out that in order to know how good you are at something requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place. Which means…that if you’re absolutely no good at something at all then you lack exactly the skills that you need to know that you’re absolutely no good at it.
And this is false. Absolutely, positively false. It is so blatantly false that even those of moderate intelligence should be able to see it.
I do not know how to run the Large Hadron Collider; that is, I know that I do not know how to run it. I am not being facetious when I say that I do not know how to prepare my taxes, which are especially complicated because of the difficulties I have in getting people to pay their bills; my ignorance of the operation of filling out these forms is what led me to employ an accountant.
These are just two of very many things which I happen to know that I am not good at. And, it should (but doesn’t) go without saying that you will know of many things at which you are not good. Perhaps this is brain surgery or rocket science or writing legislation. Whatever it is, you might not rise to the level of intelligence required to understand these things, but you will certainly have the brain power to know that you are not good at these things.
Now it is true that there are some people who believe they are intelligent enough to be good at all these things and more, but who are actually ignorant. But we mustn’t confuse barroom bluster with actual claims of ability. Actual and genuine megalomaniacs are rare.
The other end of the spectrum are those who claim not to know about certain things but who secretly or in private believe they actually do know, or hold with the idea that they might not know, but they could if they put their minds to it. Again, these people are a minority.
Orthogonal to these three groups are Cleese, Jensen, and so forth. These are people who think they know everything they need to on just about all subjects, but who make statements like Cleese did and who do not trust the average citizen to be intelligent enough to know his own interests.
Here is another easy truth: It is a different skill to be good at a thing than to be good at judging who (else) is good at it. It is not clear that being good at the thing makes one a good judge of the thing. Hence movie and drama critics are often not directors or playwrights, and vice versa. Successful CEOs of engineering firms are often not engineers, and vice versa. Et cetera. And citizens are equipped, at most times and places, well able to judge who their political representatives are.
It is this truth that has escaped Cleese, Dunning, and the many others who would usher in a Brave New World for the good of those who, the elites believe, cannot judge their own affairs. Since this easy truth has escaped them, we are right to question their intelligence. It is surely less robust than these folks claim. This being the case, perhaps it is best if somebody is sent to look after them.
The Ultimate Failing
Ignore all this and focus on an even more fundamental, outrageous fallacy that lurks in Cleese-Dunning arguments, which I’ll leave as a homework question. Start with the premise that only somebody intelligent enough to do a thing can judge that thing. See where that leads you. Report back here.