Home > skepticism > not just the Dunning–Kruger effect

not just the Dunning–Kruger effect

Movement rationalism has lately been characterized by several archetypical and high-profile manifestations of the Dunning–Kruger effect*, as widely renowned scientists, skeptics, and atheists have slipped in succession into scientistic or proto-philosophical defenses of logically and empirically indefensible assertions or positions. Some notable examples:

  • When Jeffrey Epstein‘s plea deal over allegations of soliciting prostituting minors—itself a privilege of political connectedness—was challenged by his victims’ attorneys, Lawrence Krauss came to his defense with a fairly obvious abuse of scientific language. In short, Krauss professed to “always judge things on empirical evidence” immediately before confusing empirical evidence with personal experience, relationships, and trust (among the most widely-recognized sources of bias in movement skepticism).
  • When Rebecca Watson detailed her experience with (a specific example of) contemporary systemic sexism, Richard Dawkins chimed in to assert that this variety of sexism is unworthy of scrutiny and redress, despite having no relevant background in sociology or feminism. (See also: Michael Shermer.) In a follow-up comment he bemoaned the weak case and foul language of his objectors, though he seems never to have responded to the nine letters tailored specifically (and cordially) to him.
  • Sam Harris has developed something of a reputation for pseudophilosophy. This came to a head a little bit back as he shrugged off expert refutation of his defense of racial profiling by Bruce Schneier. Meanwhile, his defense of torture has gradually come to be seen as minimally-contemplative contrarianism, which he arguably maintains by conflating its philosophically literate criticisms with the mainstream progressive onslaught.
  • Michael Shermer continues to defend his libertarian political ideology and his broader (also libertarian) view of morality on scientific grounds, errors in judgment in disciplines outside his expertise on which he has been called out multiple times, most recently (and publicly) by Massimo Pigliucci.

Beyond (what may admittedly be a pop-science overgeneralization of) Dunning–Kruger—ignorance of the main topic coupled with proportionately undue self-assuredness—these incidents share context that strikes me as at least equally important for movement rationalism. I see three important aspects to this context:

  1. These individuals are established experts in other disciplines, public intellectuals, and held in high regard by a community and movement premised on a commitment to reality and logical consistency in all aspects of life.
  2. A large proportion of this community of reason has rallied, not only in each person’s defense but in defense of their errors.
  3. These individuals focus more of their energy on fallacious rebuttals to their positions than on salient rebuttals, often by experts in the relevant disciplines. They succumb, that is, to a variant of the fallacy fallacy.

The first point is (almost certainly) an artifact of high profiles: Of course these are the cases that come to our notice and become popular narratives. But the second point illustrates how this artifact makes the trend qualitatively different from the form it would take if only speakers, activists, and bloggers of limited popularity had committed fallacies like the above.

On the second point, a mild brand of hero worship crops up frequently, and never any less paradoxically, within movement rationalism. Benson alludes to the phenomenon in a response to Shermer over the incident to which i alluded above. This has most recently marked several celebrations by skeptics of the work of Brian Dunning amidst his indictment for and plea deal over $5 million in wire fraud.**

It’s tempting to frame this as a manifestation of the Dunning–Kruger–Madoff effect, through which a person who views themselves as an authority on a subject they’re ill-informed about (Dunning–Kruger) is highly regarded in media or other dialogue and thereby generates a massive following who invest a great deal of unfounded trust in them on this subject (Madoff). Ultimately, though, i think that other biases are at work. Movement skeptics and atheists are often immensely biased, but we are not immensely gullible. As the examples above illustrate, we take very hesitatingly and apologetically to the defense of our icons. In contrast, our hyperskepticism often shows few signs of self-awareness. Our classic foil is not credulity but denial, a pattern which has characterized our movement since inception (in the era of NASA obfuscation and “global cooling” alarmism that facilitated early global warming denialism). We hold unrealistic standards of evidence, especially when it comes to personal testimony; we jump from objection to objection in order, or at least allowing us, to avoid conceding ground; we selectively divest organizations (governments, businesses, NGOs) of our trust; and we advocate “wait and see” approaches to well-understood problems. These are classic denialist moves.

Escalating our guards against credulity, we unwittingly leave ourselves exposed to denial. We need to stabilize our rear deflectors.

It is the third point, however, in which i am most personally invested.

My own entry into skepticism was roundabout. I loved telling people that they were wrong, and i grew to love getting into arguments because i was often right. As my range of interests widened, my ignorance often got the better of me, and i retained my lust for argument by “discovering” skepticism: the process of checking sources, seeking out contrary perspectives, and restricting my claims to the (most) empirically and logically defensible. Thus equipped, i continued my reign of contrarianism. Very soon, however, my growing appreciation for cognitive biases and deception disabused me of the contempt i’d held for those whose views were irrational (or seemed so to me). I morphed into a more compassionate skeptic, aligned with the principle of the Sagan–Nickell school that the credulous deserve and ought to be taken seriously—that this is what distinguishes proper (scientific) skepticism from cynicism, contrarianism, and dismissiveness.

In contrast, the unfortunate trend i see among some of the most prominent representatives of movement rationalism is an abject willingness to characterize their opposition by its weakest representatives—a variant of strawmanning. If the echo chamber gives us a false sense of consensus, this “reverb chamber” fosters the illusion of being a lonely voice of reason.

Philosophers champion the principle of charity, which a friend of mine repackages as brickmanning: the building up of the strongest possible case for an opponent’s position, in spite of them if necessary, before refuting it. If we can’t refute our own strongest case for an opposing view—or, worse, if we don’t consider what form it would take—then what claim have we to arguing in good faith?

The popularity trap laid out above—the very typical self-confidence in an unfamiliar discipline exacerbated by a coupled echo–reverb chamber effect—is probably a generic problem among public intellectuals, reinforced by a shallow media presence. However, as i’ve expressed elsewhere, the community of reason pride ourselves—are premised—on our ability and responsibility to avoid just this sort of trap. I don’t see that movement rationalists should hold ourselves to any lower standard.

And, in some ways, we don’t. Movement rationalism is defined to a large extent by visibility and to a larger and more meaningful extent by subject matter. However, certain elements ostensibly “within” it are widely viewed as “without”. Alex Tsakiris, while intelligent and pro-science, is generally seen as credulous and unscientific. Judith Curry, despite her collaboration with climate change skeptic Robert Muller, is more widely associated among movement rationalists with climate change denialist Anthony Watts. And by most appearances Thunderf00t’s pseudoscientistic campaign against feminism and socially conscious atheism has absolved him of the broad respect and support among movement rationalists he once enjoyed.

These have been gradual demarcations, they remain contentious, and they will always be fuzzy; but they have emerged. Why, then, do we still seem to have a “leadership” problem? To my mind the leading candidate is the Old Boys Club phenomenon, itself the product of an old guard within the movement*** and a media presence shaped by all the usual entrenched prejudices.

But this is where my familiarity ends, and i opt to read up rather than speak down. In the meantime, if you can better contextualize any of this or disabuse me further of any misconceptions, please have at me.

Update: Chalk up Stephen Jay Gould, though with respect to developments in a field adjacent to his own, and Ron Lindsay, in parallel with Dawkins and Shermer.

* Perhaps it has always been, but that’d be another post.

** Somewhat ironically, the most thoughtful piece i came across while learning about this episode was at SkepticInk.

*** It’s worth mentioning that i don’t entirely agree with Myers’s “old guard” narrative but he seems right to cite it as a major influence on the topics, speakers, and social context of the major rationalist conferences and media outlets.

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