2019

What we don’t know

Periodically, one hears this line: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Wonderful insight on Mark Twain’s part, had he said it. But there’s no evidence proving he did. Which ironically proves the statement’s point when people attribute it to him.

In my series on post-truth last August, I referenced the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which holds that certain people with low aptitude in social and intellectual domains tend to overrate their abilities. Based on their 1999 study, researchers David Dunning and Jason Kruger suggest they “suffer a dual burden.”

“Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the metacognitive ability to realize it.”

Not all do that, of course. To err, as the maxim says, is human. But there’s a fundamental difference between ignorance and stupidity. Ignorance is the lack of knowledge. Stupidity is state of continually acting in unintelligent ways or refusing to accept one’s humanness.

Some refuse to admit to their mistaken thinking and in so doing compound it. Those that have emotional attachment to strongly held beliefs, studies show, often become more entrenched in their false beliefs when presented with irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

Which prompts the question: Why do certain psychological types un-embarrassingly become intransigent or boast about their obviously deficient knowledge and skills and refuse to change their minds when confronted with evidence proving their ignorance? Is it ego? Perhaps, but Dunning and Kruger think it could be related to an undeveloped skill set.

“Several analyses,” they write, “linked this miscalibration to deficits in metacognitive skill, or the capacity to distinguish accuracy from error.”

In other words, recognizing and accepting a personal mistake is not necessarily about attitude.

If so, for them there’s hope. Intervention, they say, helped participants “recognize the limitations of their abilities.”

A recent study, “Less than you think: Prevalence and predictors of fake news dissemination on Facebook,” published in the Science Advances journal shows that during the 2016 election strong conservatives and those over 65 were seven times more likely to share articles from fake news domains and Facebook than liberals, moderates, or the youngest age group. It found the “strong age effect” held after controlling for education, partisanship, and ideology.

Two caveats: The study was done in context of a medium the elderly are the least adept—the Internet and social media—and only one out of twelve, or about 8.5 percent, shared false information.

From a lifetime of personal and professional experience, I can attest to the fact that no one enjoys being proved wrong. Nonetheless, most comfortably accept their inaccuracies and work to improve as Dunning and Kruger point out.

So, what can be done to increase media literacy so that people, especially the elderly, are better critical users of online information?

“Both theory and existing curricula,” say the news-dissemination researchers, “could serve as the basis of rigorously controlled evaluations, both online and in the classroom, which could then help to inform educational efforts targeted at people in different age groups and with varying levels of technological skill.”

That’s educationese for become more skilled and receptive, not resistant, to evidence.

Recently, there was a wonderful letter in the Denver Post from a woman who adamantly refused to believe she had run a yellow-to-red light several times. That is until she watched the videos of her doing just that. Unlike human eyes, which filter billions of bits of information taken in each second, cameras don’t lie. The reason: Unlike you and I, cameras have no prejudice.

Admitting to a mistake is not the end of the world. Accepting of one’s fallibility is a sign of strong moral, ethical, and psychological character.

The letter-writer publicly owned up to her mistakes. That’s courage. Refreshing, eh?

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