The Dunning-Kruger-Deboer Effect

Isn’t it strange how every theory about intelligence just becomes a stick to beat other (hypothetical) stupid people over the head with? I mean, I can’t think of a better way to make me feel better about myself or about the world in general.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is one of those things. Its popular formulation is something like “stupid people aren’t smart enough to know how stupid they are”, which is kind of a nice shorthand way to slag other people off: Just invoke the Dunning-Kruger effect!

But this kind of misunderstands what Dunning-Kruger is about. It’s not primarily about intelligence, but about skill. Sure, intelligence comes into the mix somewhere (genuinely stupid people will probably have a harder time learning skills and applying metacognitive filter to the skills they have) but that’s a related but different topic.

The point is that going from novice to amateur at anything is easy. This is because skills level isn’t linear to practice. If it takes, say, 10 hours of practice to graduate from novice to amateur, a linear relationship would mean 10 more hours of practice to go from amateur to expert, and then 10 hours more to from expert to master (and then grand wizard, etc, etc).

Of course we all know that’s not how skills work. If the relationship between practice and mastery were plotted it would probably be some kind of inverse exponential curve. It takes a lot more practice to get from level 3 to level 4 than it does to get from level 0 to level 1. (Makers of MMOs get this. In Eve Online for instance there’s a very tangible diminishing return in skill levels. Training from level 0 to level 1 is quick but training from level 4 to level 5 can take months, while providing the same percentile boost in attribute. This makes a certain amount of intuitive sense to people, as we’re used to real world skill working that way.)

So if you’re the guy on the guitar who just learned Wonderwall, it may see like guitar is actually pretty darn easy! Which leads you to overestimate your own skill level, underestimate the amount of skill you need, and (critically) underestimate the skill level of other more skilled people.

Anyways, that’s the Dunning-Kruger effect, a sort of cognitive bias that gets in the way of proper metacognition.

What I’m proposing is the Dunning-Kruger-Deboer effect, which is when your lack of understand of the Dunning-Kruger effect leads you to apply the Dunning-Kruger effect incorrectly. Which is to say it’s a metacognative bias that gets in the way of proper metametacognition. I’d wildly speculate that about 90% of mentions of the Dunning-Kruger effect online are actual examples of the Dunning-Kruger-Deboer effect in action.

The only thing left now is for someone named, say, Jonathan Smith to come along and coin the Dunning-Kruger-Deboer-Smith effect which is when the author of a blog post creating a new Dunning-Kruger variant hasn’t himself quite understood the Dunning-Kruger effect and is subject to a metametacognitive bias which gets in the way of proper metametametacognitive bias.

Or maybe the Dunning-Kruger-Deboer-XKCD effect where somewhere in a hovertext XKCD did it first.

You are so small.

Let’s assume you exist. Let’s not talk about holographic projections of the universe or brains in a bottle. Let’s just assume that you are you, and that you exist.

You are very small. In every conceivable way. Tiny beyond imagination.

But let’s try to imagine anyway.

You exist on a planet. This planet is very large, at least compared to you. It’s some 8.5 × 10^22 more massive than you, give or take a few kilos.

This planet obits around a rather middling star which we call the Sun. The Sun is 334,000 times the mass of the Earth.

This Sun in the centre of a vast solar system. The Oort cloud of comets has an estimated radius of 7.5 x 10^12 kilometers!

Beyond the Oort cloud are other solar systems, the closest of which is so inaccessibly far away that the distances are literally inconceivable. The length of time it would reasonably take to get there beggars the imagination.

And all of this is part of a galaxy we call the Milky Way. I can hardly begin to describe how large this galaxy truly is, but let me try: It’s so wide that we have to completely abandon kilometers, a measure we’re very familiar with, and move on to lightyears, and the on to kilo-lightyears (or thousands of light years). And even then, the Milky Way is somewhere around 120 kilo-lightyears across!

The Milky Way isn’t even very large. It’s a middling to small galaxy. But it exists in what we call the Observable Universe (simply, the universe that we can see because light has had time to travel to earth), a thing of such great size that there are no words to describe it. The numbers we use to put a size to it are simply so massive in so many ways that we will never be able to wrap out tiny minds around it. Let’s just say that the observable universe is 93 BILLION light years across.

You get the picture. To scale, you’re not just like the sand on a beach. You’re like quark of the electron of the atom of the molecule of the sand on the beach.

Still, as far as we know, you’re unique. You live, breath, die. You are special in that way. You live on a special place. We have sifted through the universe for many years not and not found anything like you. You are biological. Your body responds to stress by making itself better. The composition of your body changes as you shift between environments. You adapt. You are completely unlike any other matter in the universe.

You are the only type of matter that thinks, “How small am I?” You are perhaps the only type of matter that thinks at all.

But you’re not only small in size. You’re not just small in relation to the amount of space you take up. You’re also small in time. You’re small in relation to all the things that have happened.

Take the history of the universe. Some people think it’s only been around 10,000 years or so, but I think that’s a foolish humanistic reaction to the threat of near-infinity. The universe certainly appears very old. So let’s assume that it is.

In all the history of the universe, from what we call the Big Bang (the current scientific consensus regarding the origin of the physical universe) till now, you occupy a vanishingly small frame. Barely a blink of the eye, if that.

Cut out the slices of history that were never recorded. Cut out everything that happened without life existing on earth. Even then you have billions upon billions of years!

Cut out all the time that humans haven’t existed. You’re down to a mere 200,000 years. Yet still, you are relatively insignificant.

Cut out anything that hasn’t been recorded. Cut out everything before the Epic of Gilgamesh or something like it. You’re down to 5000 years. And STILL, you’re tiny.

Cut out anything that hasn’t happened in your lifetime, and yet there are 6 billion others to whom that same sentence could apply.

Imagine you have died. How long will they remember you? I imagine you will be remembered well for 20 years, and then fade away 100 years after that. Two generations after you death, you will most likely not be remembered at all. Not only will you not be remembered, but no-one will care that you’re not remembered. The things you did with your life, who you married, what you did as a job, where you went on holiday… these things might mean something to someone in the future. Someone or maybe many people will be affected by what you did. But no-one will know your name.

You are tiny. Your life is short. The memory of your time on earth fades quickly. Everything you do will simply… go away. So there it is. You are so small.

How does that make you feel?

That dog’s/kid’s/whatever’s got personality

Dogs are kind of like children. Sort of. Furry children that you can leave alone in their crates while you go to work. So you might say that dogs are better than children, though of course I would never say that.

I did have a relative tell me recently that I shouldn’t replace having children with having dogs. Children are, after all, a blessing, and dogs are an epithet. I understand the sentiment. I think it’s an odd thing to say. But I understand.

That said, I’ve been in and around large families for a long time. Like, I mean large. My family is 13 people, parents included. Including those who have married in and a few grandchildren, we number 21 in all (if I haven’t counted wrong). Now, I plotted this growth on a graph, and by the time I’m 60, there should be about 700 of us. (I know, I know, that doesn’t work.)

One thing you get to understand very quickly in a large family is that every person in the family has their own personality. Sometimes wildly their own. I might be a liberal semi-introvert, but other in my family are very conservative and outwardly focused. We all express ourselves differently. We all extend into the world differently.

Dogs are remarkably similar. While Turtle (named after the character from Entourage) is a pure-bred Boston Terrier and a bit older, Winston (named after the racist, misogynist, obese smoker who was once prime minister of the UK) is a Boston/Poodle mix and very much still a puppy.

While Turtle only needs to be told once (or if it’s something juicy and delicious) twice not to do something. Winston on the other hand needs to be told again and again and again and again even if it’s something as dull and uninviting as chewing on the stuffing from Turtle’s bed which she has pulled out and distributed throughout the house.

With children they sometimes say you love the bad ones a bit more.

I call bullshit.

For the most part anyway. I mean, I can understand why you’d want to chase down your strays more than the ones that stayed at home, and humans aren’t dogs. But one of my former girlfriends’ brothers was such a little demon, there’s no way his parents didn’t often think, “Why did we ever give birth to this little bastard?” I myself caused my parents no end of grief. I wouldn’t blame them at all if they often wanted to send me to an all-boys school built on the edge of a volcano to be trained as a bomb diffuser. I’d get that.

In the meantime, I spend most of my limited spare time watching that one dog. And while I’m doing that the other one is getting into trouble behind my back.

It’s a wonderful life.