Science & Politics (Apr 17)

There’s something called the Dunning-Kruger Effect, which says that incompetent people don’t see their own lack of skill. The name comes from a 1999 study, when a Cornell research team tested undergrads for humor, grammar and logic ability. The subjects judged their own talent to be above average at 55% to 75%. Actual competence ranged from 0% to 100%.

The idea has been around for a long time, as in “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing” or “hold my beer”. The paper won an Ig Nobel prize in 2000 because it was so obvious.

I suspect that the results would be different if based on small business owners in their 50s or 60s, rather than late-teen/early-20 Ivy League students. From hard experience, many people learn how to accurately rate their own competence. All it takes is a couple of rashly-made construction estimates, and you quickly gain some (expensive) humility. Likewise, it’s hard to run a successful business long-term if you can’t judge skill levels in yourself and others, and respect them.

Of course, not everyone matures with age. Wisdom seems to come from hard knocks, and some folks are rich enough, pretty enough or charismatic enough to avoid them. Unfortunately, because folks like that are attractive, they often gain power as politicians.

I’d say the recent history of Covid-19 is full of Dunning-Kruger. Too much prideful incompetence in leaders who believe they are much smarter than a virus.

Epidemiologists have been predicting for years that something like Covid-19 would happen. It doesn’t take rocket science to look at H1N1, SARS, Ebola and MERS, and guess that more might be on the way. Those scientists are the real experts, but their voices have too often been drowned out by people in power who have a “gut feeling” that they know better.

Science is hard. It requires patience and discipline, and a willingness to endure tedium without much reward. With rare exceptions, the folks that do it are not charismatic. But, the whole purpose of science is to understand some small bit of reality better. Successful scientists need to be extremely competent in their field.

The path into this mess has many people to blame, or maybe it’s just normal human biases that are at fault. Getting out will need a ton of competence, or it’s going to get much, much worse. The problem is not just the disease, but all the social and economic fallout.

There is a silver lining to all the mistakes: they will provide great data for scientists, over the next few years.

Norway and Finland shut down, but Sweden didn’t. Their counts will be interesting. Angela Merkel is a former research chemist, and Germany has unusually low death rates. Is there a connection? Leaders in Russia, Brazil and the US played down the risks much later than most other countries. That will create interesting data. China and Iran covered up. If their actual numbers ever come out, it’s bound to be worth something.

Dennis Kolva
Programming Director




Author: Dennis Kolva

Programming Director for Turtle Creek Software. Design & planning of accounting and estimating software.