Armchair Experts Never Die, But You Will

TL;DR

Some thoughts on the inability of us modern humans to think about how we think, resulting in us acting like assholes. Especially on the internet.

 Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance

Confucius 

Advertisements

A recently popularised phenomenon we’re all likely to be familiar with is “mansplaining”. This is simply one of a spectrum of ‘splains that exist, however. They are furthermore not limited to men and appear intrinsically coupled to varied degrees with sophistry and the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Allow me to… Wait. Am I doing it now?

Sophistry

Is an art. It often takes shape as a reasonable sounding, seemingly watertight statement or set of statements forming a position that can be difficult to fault, frustrating to argue against and seemingly impossible to reason out to conclusion. The art comes in the subtle shifts the argument will take, fluidly moving away from any potentially weak discussion node to find more solid ground. It is, by design, the art of winning at talking, as opposed to the conventional parry / riposte of discussion with the intention of finding a truth, or at least and answer to the matter in hand.

It is absolutely not philosophical, in any sense, though often comes cunningly disguised as such.

The Dunning–Kruger Effect

Rather than reciting the Dunning-Kruger Effect wiki page, here’s a self-explanatory quote from the paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” by Justin Kruger and David Dunning from Cornell University:

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains 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.

With this in mind, I recreated a graph from untrained participant test data on perceived logical reasoning ability and test performance as a function of actual test performance and have attempted to highlight the areas of importance therein with labelling, colours and by creating a thing called the Zone of WTF. The Dunning Kruger effect appears to show the most incompetent among the tested group tended to overestimate their abilities or understanding and as we creep up the competence scale, the more accurate the self-assessment becomes, until we get to the point where we see them underestimate their skill, ability or understanding in the subject matter.

Image of perceived logical reasoning ability and test performance as a function of actual test performance

It’s important to note that the subpar members of the tested cohort guessed they were pretty average. They weren’t claiming to be experts, but the gulf between their ability and their perception was significant. Now for the best part of this whole thing…

The Internet

 

And image of the image results from an internet search for Dunning Kruger

When we search the internet for Dunning Kruger images, we don’t see the graphs used in the paper, but various u-shaped graphs, some of which talk about “Mount Stupid”. In articles, memes and social media posts, users often attach one of these images and erroneously claim they understand the Dunning Kruger effect because “Here is a graph I found.” Their ignorance begets confidence in citing a misrepresentative graph on a subject they claim to comprehend. Who’s on the peak of Mount Stupid now, eh?

Metacognition

With the above in mind, we can start to think about thinking about thinking. Evolutionarily speaking, we developed as social creatures with a keen ability to observe patterns and use them to better survive our environment. The term ‘survive’ can be applied not only to “That slope looks like it’s about to avalanche” to “Whatever I just said pissed all of these people off.” We relied on the reading of situations to survive them. If we didn’t, we went dead. We had to develop a broad ranging situational awareness to make sure we could get through the day. Depending on where we were, we perhaps developed specific expertise in a certain area, but as with all things, this takes time.

All this evolving by observing, parsing and template matching doesn’t leave much time for what your friends and mine Justin and Dave were talking about: metacognition. Since they’ve established for us that if we lack metacognitive skill, we’re unlikely to be able to accurately evaluate our own competence. Now let’s apply that to emotional interactions. In a world where a privileged majority are no longer required to have a handle on social interaction for survival, the trait appears to have been very much de-emphasised. We spend all our time worrying about our car / house / abs / clothes / job / finances / loneliness / likes / followers and not whether or not we’re going to be clubbed to death for mis-stepping in a social interaction. We are socially unskilled and unaware of it.

Emotional Metacognition & Social Interactions

Could we suggest then, that if we are less practiced socially, it’s possible we are unable to evaluate whether or not we’re coming across like a dick? You tell me. The lower our emotional metacognition, the more likely we are to estimate that we are behaving in a socially acceptable manner, when in reality we are cluelessly coming across like assholes. The next time you think what the fuck is their problem remember: it might be yours.

‘Splaining

As stated, the renowned mansplain, is merely one on a spectrum of ‘splains – examples of which are ten a penny. There’s the intellectualsplain, typically the domain of the expert or academic lifer in a field who will actually the shit out of us with things that are obvious to them, largely (only) due to their having literally spent years studying whatever it is. Well done them. Here’s the thing – they might have a PhD, but they can still lack any trace of emotional metacognition, resulting in them cluelessly imparting “wisdom” and coming across like a total motherfucker. An interesting by-product of success in a field can also result in them seeing the world through that lens. See also: climate change denying physicists “Because here is a simple equation…” or middle aged engineers who lost 25kg when they went keto / plant based / low carb / fruitarian / etc. so “Nutrition is easy, here’s how to do it…”

Another common occurrence I call the threadsplain. One will typically parse and appropriate common opinions found on the internet into statements without citation or attribution. Often easy to spot by noticeable recurring phrases and patterns of speech. There is usually just enough content to sound like an authoritative opinion, especially given our average thread length, attention span or combination thereof.

My all time favourite has to be aggro-piety. This one belongs to indoctrinated bumblefucks flopping around arbitrarily chastising others from the imagined position of moral high ground due to their belief system. This system is typically associated with a paper-thin / black-and-white / right-and-wrong / this-way-to-utopia worldview. Perpetrated with a volume of breast-clutching proselytising that would make one’s eyes roll so hard as to induce perma-migraine. This belief can appear scientific, religious, social or political, but shows a clear metacognitive dearth through an inability to identify or address the inherent grey absurdities of their position. As Koppel once put it they “are determined that ideology is more important than facts”.

Rage Staycation

It would be remiss not wilfully lunge into the minefield of mentioning another cognitive virus found worming its way into societal normality. Said spectacle is the trendy enterprise of recreational outrage, whereupon aggro-piety becomes a fashionable virtual pin-badge for those of us with no skin in the game, nor any intention of being involved further than either having the appearance of giving a fuck or attempting to profit (financially and/or socially) by taking a certain position. An abundance of finger pointing, opening a rule book that doesn’t exist and recruiting others to join the aggro-party of assault, all without a trace of empathy is typical behaviour of the modern patron of outrage as a pass-time.

The dire consequences of this vampiric behaviour are seeing the words of those who do care, those trying to change the status quo, those genuinely sympathetic to what or whom they believe to be subjugated, being lost in the cacophony of shrill, bored and often privileged voices.

Send it back from Whence it Came

With all of the above in mind, it’s important to register that we all carry blind spots and biases. The above may assist us in understanding more deeply a potential root cause of this bizarre logic free-fall the human race appears to be in. We are all too busy, too numb, too stressed and too lonely to have learned social cues our ancestors’ lives once may have depended on. We lack the energy to muster empathy for our neighbours. When thinking for ourselves is societally discouraged, it’s little wonder we find ourselves wanting to twist our phones in half or drive a fist through our computer display.

There’s a very strong chance we are part of the problem by making dumb decisions our cognitive ineptitude can’t identify. If we listen before we talk, question instead of follow, think instead of worry, put all these fucking screens away and sit down to dinner, we just might realise there’s a world full of humans just like us out there.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.