Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Too incompetent to see incompetence

I have recently read a book called Bad Science, which talks about the current trend for many people to look for quack alternative medicine, like homeopathy, acupuncture and other less "mainstream" modalities of mumbo jumbo, and how this is partly to blame on journalists doing a terrible job in reporting science. Besides one interesting insight regarding people who took degrees in the humanities inability to understand science leading them to try to undermine science in their reporting, the author refers to and comments a very interesting paper about incompetence.

This paper is called Unskilled and Unaware of It: How difficulties in recognizing one's own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments, by two psychologists from Cornell, and I even went to the trouble of downloading it and reading it all. It is indeed a treasure trove of interesting quotations and, I believe, spot on in its analysis of incompetent people. In a nutshell, the article investigates the hypothesis that incompetent people's lack of understanding of any given field not only causes them to do poorly in the area of their incompetence, but also robs them of the ability to notice that they are incompetent, leading them to inflate their assessment of how well they do in the area of their incompetence. This conclusion is also interesting to relate to the fact that most people believe in a logical fallacy, that they are above average in a given domain. If you have not realized what the fallacy is, I will be kind to point out that it is statistically impossible for most people to be above average in any given field. Although it does seem to be the case that most men truly believe that they are better drivers than the average man.

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