Take Back Skepticism, Part III: The Dunning-Kruger Effect
Arguments over scope and the conflation of atheism and skepticism have reached a fever pitch, as have arguments over tone. I will talk about some of this, but I will not attempt to explain all of the issues in any detail because everything that needs to be said has been said here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here… Well, you get the picture. In fact, if you want to argue the definition of skepticism or Skepticism* in the comments of this post, don’t bother. Instead, read what I wrote about it last year, which I would simply repeat in answer…
…I suggest is this: Skepticism*, as a movement, is not hindered so much by the conflation of atheism and skepticism, the ridicule of believers, or attempts to promote values-based ideology as it is hindered by the blatant ignorance, arrogance, and irrationality displayed when those acts are committed.
In a field dedicated to reducing ignorance and irrationality, a field in which arrogance is toxic, I find this kind of behavior offensive. It is time that we reclaim Skepticism and restore its credibility and integrity.
If one of the major goals of Skepticism is to educate, shouldn’t we all understand the material?
I am angry. I am angry and a little fearful for our future. We live in dangerous times and the work of Skepticism is serious. The work is hard. It requires patience, discipline, empathy, and knowledge.
I am angry because an influx of people who have stumbled upon or been recruited to the work of Skepticism are making it much more difficult. We’re moving backwards. This is happening, in part, because some of these rookies insist that their understanding of that work is as good or better than the understanding of people who have studied and worked in the field for years. Many have little or no education in the basics of science or the scientific process. Some claim to follow the teachings of people whose works they have never read. Some believe that the ‘old guard’ have more to learn from them than the other way around. These people voice their opinions on blogs and in talks, discussing topics about which they consider themselves competent after reading a couple of blog posts, listening to a podcast, considering their own limited experiences, or MAYBE reading a book or two on the topic.
What’s worse, they argue about details with little or no understanding of even the big picture. They believe that their understanding is complete and, therefore, requires no study, no thought beyond the surface features, and certainly not time or mentoring.
This is anti intellectualism in a field which promotes intellect and deep thought.
The problem has bothered me for some time and, in fact, ignorance of one’s own incompetence is something that bothered me in my classroom so much that I studied its relationship to academic entitlement, narcissism, external attributions for achievements, and study strategies. What we learned is that narcissism, entitlement, and shallow study strategies are strongly correlated with the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which is the phenomenon that the least competent people overestimate their competence the most as part of a self-serving bias. As relative competence increases, overestimations decrease, until the 75th to 95th percentile (depending on the domain), when estimates are fairly accurate. This is particularly problematic in an academic setting because the less students understand a concept, the more likely they are to believe that they understand it, the less likely they are to make changes to ensure that they learn it, and the more likely they will be to feel entitled to a high grade for their poor work.
Skeptical activism is not unlike academics. Incompetence feeds on itself in this effect. The more an individual overestimates their competence, the more entitled they believe they are to an uncritical audience to which they can voice their opinions. What’s more, the more confident a blogger appears, the more their audience will reinforce their views (because they convince the audience that they know; the same thing occurs with eye witness testimony), although this is somewhat limited to situations in which the view is shallow enough to for the audience to understand, a perfect enhancement to the Dunning-Kruger Effect.
But high confidence is not an indication of actual understanding, nor is the number of supportive cheers of agreement from their followers.
The rest of this post will focus on one example of this, but there have been countless. This particular example is an especially egregious one, since she attacked both a friend for whom I have a great deal of respect and the field I defend daily. It was back-breaking straw for me.
When Amanda Marcotte whined that Daniel Loxton doesn’t want us to talk about religion, she built a now very familiar straw man and dressed him with inappropriate comparisons and other ignorant rambles. She appears to be upset because she somehow thinks that the usurping of a movement in motion, one which is founded on scientific principles, for the promotion of her personal political and religious ideology, should go unchallenged.
Amanda does not appear to understand what skepticism actually is or what science involves, yet she’s thrown her hat in, anyway. Perhaps she is insulted that somebody tried to tell her, I really don’t know, but I do know that the confidence with which she writes about the issues is unwarranted, a fact which is clearly demonstrated by the content of her post.
“Look: atheism is the result of applying critical thinking and demands for evidence to the god hypothesis. It’s not any different than non-belief in all sorts of supernatural claims, such as ESP and ghosts. All of the weaseling around that is intellectually dishonest. It’s not about critical thinking, but about politics and frankly, not taking on religion because religion is seen as too powerful. “
What is intellectually dishonest is arguing about something you do not fully understand against people who are experts in the field. What is intellectually dishonest is advancing an uneducated opinion because the educated one does not help you achieve your own goals.
Her first two sentences demonstrate the problem with this entire post and most of the comments on it: ignorance. The rest of the paragraph is bullshit that Amanda made up. Nobody is ‘backing down’ and there is no concern that “religion is seen as too powerful”. This is not about politics. It is about scientific integrity. This point has been made again and again, but ignored by people like Amanda. Perhaps they ignore it because they do not understand it, or maybe they ignore it because it doesn’t help them, but the reasons don’t matter. Ignoring it won’t make it go away.
Science is the pursuit of truth. Truth is not value. Desires are not facts. Facts are not morals.
Scientific integrity requires adherence to scientific principles. Likewise, scientific skepticism relies on scientific integrity. Otherwise, we are just a bunch of people with opinions.
… Loxton decided to shit all over the work of people looking at improving gender, sexual oriention, class, and race diversity in the movement by complaining that the panel at The Amazing Meeting dedicated to this didn’t have any fucking Christians on it.
Again, she’s just making stuff up. Daniel noted that the diversity of the panel did not reflect the diversity of the audience in one important aspect. Framing this as “complaining that there were no Christians” is dishonest and the implication that Daniel does not care about issues of gender, class, and race is simply unfounded and abhorrent. Anyone who actually knows Daniel understands just how stupid that accusation is.
He firmly believes that the god hypothesis should be off-limits for skeptics, and that there should be a bright line between atheism and skepticism. This is ridiculous. “God” is a supernatural claim just like fairies and ghosts.
This statement, once again, not only demonstrates gross ignorance and shallow thinking, but the fact that she’s written an entire blog post questioning the knowledge of a professional skeptic on very basic definitions of the field without first educating herself is offensive and disrespectful. Had she even tried to understand the issues, a task which takes time and energy, she might have learned enough to at least recognize that she has a lot more to learn.
But I am clearly expecting too much, because Amanda thinks that “I don’t get it” equates to “It must not be true” as demonstrated by this parroting of Skeptical sound bites and bullet points, mostly taken out of context or misused (bold mine):
The excuse from “traditional” skeptics for making an exception for religion is that the god hypothesis is an untestable claim, and they’re only interested in testable claims. But as this fairy example shows, that’s not really true. There are plenty of things skeptics are skeptical about because of the preponderance-of-evidence standard. We don’t believe in ESP or ghosts or fairies because no one has ever produced solid evidence in favor of these things existing, and we combine that with an assumption that these things are highly unlikely and so the burden is on the people making the claims to prove them. I don’t see how god is any different.
… Yes, it’s true that you can’t test whether or not there is a god somewhere that simply refuses to show himself, but that’s also true of fairies, people with ESP, and ghosts. And yet it’s considered a good use of skeptical time to point out the weakness of the ghost/ESP argument. So why not god?”
She doesn’t ‘see it’, so it doesn’t exist. I hate to add to the sound bites when what is needed here is serious coursework, but there are some basic concepts that could help Amanda “see how” these things are different, starting with breaking down some of her giant straw man. Here are a few basic points that Amanda should have known before she wrote this post:
- Science is empirical, therefore scientific skepticism is empirical. This is more important than testability, although it is related. NOTE FOR THE RECORD: The concept of testability is watered down somewhat in my posts and comments because it is complicated. For a good discussion of these issues, I recommend Carl Sagan’s Demon-Haunted World.
- Skeptics do not “make exceptions” for religion. The fact that “God exists” is not an empirically testable hypothesis is not the fault of skeptics or Skepticism. It is the nature of the hypothesis. Science and skepticism have nothing to say about any hypothesis which can never be tested empirically.
- Skepticism is not a set of beliefs or conclusions. This is important. “We don’t believe in ESP or ghosts or fairies” is not something that a good skeptic would say and the ‘we’ part is presumptuous. I certainly do not want someone like Amanda Marcotte speaking for me if this what she thinks skepticism is.
- What any Skeptic believes is irrelevant. Personal knowledge is derived in whatever way the individual chooses to derive it. Science and skepticism deal with shared knowledge. Shared knowledge requires empirical evidence.
- The reason that we can easily discount ESP in most cases is because it is usually easily tested empirically.
- Requiring empirical testability is not “giving religion a pass”. It is holding true to the scientific process, which is designed specifically to ensure that our human biases and personal values do not affect our ability to distinguish what is true from what is not true. Religion’s most basic claims usually involve an omniscient and omnipotent being, making them largely untestable. This is not at all true of ESP, ghosts, or other traditional topics in skepticism. More on that below.
- A good skeptic would never state that there are no ghosts. A good skeptic would investigate specific claims of hauntings, searching for natural phenomenon which would explain the evidence. A good skeptic would not say there is no such thing as extrasensory perception. A good skeptic would say that we have no evidence to support precognition, telekinesis, etc.
- Skepticism is not about pointing out the weaknesses of arguments. It is about evaluating the evidence. These are not even close to being the same. When a self-proclaimed psychic moves the bar and says, “If it failed the test, then the forces that give me these powers do not want to be seen,” they make their claim untestable. Skeptics then have nothing to say in response. However, skeptics can provide natural explanations for phenomena (e.g., reveal that Peter Popoff was being fed information via an ear piece) which are much more parsimonious than supernatural explanations. This is also what we do with religious claims. If someone claims that God created man as he is today, we can point to the evidence which support the theory of evolution. If they claim that God created the universe, we can point to the evidence for the Big Bang. If they claim that God created the universe and man by making these natural processes possible, well then, we cannot refute that.
But Amanda would like to cast out Pamela Gay because Pamela believes in a personal God. Never mind the fact that she has never tried to sell that view to others, that she never claimed to support it with evidence, or that she is a very competent and knowledgeable Skeptic, scientist, science educator, and science communicator. Nevermind that Pamela Gay is a valued member of the Skeptical community who has done more to educate and excite young minds about science than all but a few others. [NOTE: minor edit for clarity, 08/07/11 9:50am]
Pamela Gay is not being irrational. Amanda Marcotte is.
Marcotte’s diet example is another case of irrelevant comparison. She states, sarcastically, that people are also touchy about their diet and so expressing skepticism about food trends is probably bad idea, too. This is clearly a straw man. We can demonstrate the effects of gluten empirically, so it is a poor comparison, too. Nobody is saying that people should not express skepticism about the existence of a God. What we are saying is that we cannot demonstrate empirically that God does not exist, therefore, if that is your conclusion, you cannot share that conclusion with others. The difference between personal knowledge and shared knowledge is not trivial.
Making others comfortable is not the issue, either, although making people uncomfortable out of arrogance and ignorance is certainly a part of the issue. I would like to point out that Amanda’s double-standard is pretty obvious in that paragraph. Apparently, the needs that matter are the needs of those she thinks deserve our attention and that’s it. But while we’re on the subject, it doesn’t matter if you are promoting skepticism, atheism, or your favorite restaurant. Being an asshole is being an asshole. The reason that DBAD matters to the rest of us is that when a dick represents Skepticism, they make our jobs more difficult.
The issue of scope is more complicated than the atheism/skepticism debate. The only reason that religion is given special consideration in the discussions of scope is that there are more people conflating atheism with skepticism than ever before. There are more people acting like superior assholes than ever before. People who could be helped by skeptical outreach as well as people who contribute a great deal to the movement (people like Hal Bidlack, a brilliant, scholarly, honorable man with years of service to the community) have been run off by the relentless arrogance of people like those I have discussed in this series of posts. The ignorant, the arrogant, and the irrational (I’m picturing monkeys of the ‘no evil’ variety, but with interesting facial expressions).
And this problem is growing.
Most of the comments on Amanda’s post demonstrate a frenzied groupthink that will further convince her that she’s on the right track. Comment number 41 describes this problem (among others) quite well: “One cool thing about having a political blog which is allegedly powered by skepticism is that people will be much more tolerant of logical fallacies.”
Some of the most fallacious comments:
…There’s nothing worse than an agnostic who thinks he’s more logical and skeptical than an openly religious person. Whether you’re an agnostic or a believer you’re engaging in special pleading on the god question, subjecting it to a different standard than any other question of existence, and you are not a skeptic nor are you logical.
“Special pleading” is a straw man that is repeated often. But it is just that: a straw man.
what the hell is skepticism for if not doing away with false beliefs?
More ignorance. There is no such thing as a ‘false belief’. Beliefs are simply what you hold to be true. Nobody actually knows for certain what is true. Skepticism is about evaluating evidence, period.
H0: There is no god. H1: There is a god. There is a serious shortage of evidence for H1, therefore we must accept the null hypothesis.
Introductory statistics cannot address the question of whether or not God exists.
If there’s a lack of humanpower and ressources to do everything, the question skeptics organizations should ask themselves is not why they should get involved in the more political aspects of skepticism, but why they should still waste ressources on the trivial, non-political aspects like Bigfoot/UFO/ghost/cryptozoology debunkings and such.
Wow. This is very disturbing, and I’m not just talking about the spelling or misuse of words like “aspects”. Apparently many commenters don’t watch television or get out of the house much. The number of shows devoted to ghost hunting alone is staggering. Then there are the shows about psychics of all ages, animal mind readers, monster hunting, etc. These shows are appearing on channels once devoted to science, for FSM’s sake. As for why we don’t get involved in politics, read this.
And anyone who is interested in the bigger picture – the picture concerned about meeting the goals of the movement – should read Comment number 75 on Amanda’s post.
The parroting that atheism is the result of applied skepticism that is so prevalent in the comments and stated in Amanda’s post is anti-skeptical. It demonstrates a failure to understand the fundamental process of skepticism and the empirical nature of science and scientific skepticism. The definitions of science and scientific skepticism were arrived at through centuries of study, collaboration, contemplation, and discussion. They are not negotiable, at least not without agreement from a vast majority of scientists. If you cannot accept these definitions as they are, you have three choices:
- Publish your opinions in peer-reviewed journals and hope that philosophers and scientists agree with you.
- Keep arguing about it with Skeptics and impede our progress.
- Go do something else.
*”Big-S Skepticism” refers to the work of the skepticism movement in promoting the practice of skepticism.