Failing to competently assess our incompetence

The other day I caught myself doing something akin to spitting into the wind: arguing with my 15-year-old son. It’s an exercise in futility, and highly contrary to Mark Twain’s sage advice, “Never argue with a fool, onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.”

Fortunately, we had no audience. Had the shouting gotten much louder, we might have, for I was making the classic blunder of unconsciously raising my voice in an attempt to compensate for another’s visual deficit, the way many people do when they encounter someone who is blind.

It makes no sense, yet we do it in an attempt to make sense of something.

In this case, I was attempting to help my son see the light; that his future wasn’t so bright he’d have to wear shades, but rather that he might want to invest in a good carbide lantern to shed some light on the mineshaft of a hole he’s been steadily digging for himself lately.

Most people with an above double-digit I.Q. are familiar with the Twain quote about arguing with fools. But you never hear it verbalized as much as this proclamation: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion.”

What kind of haphazard horse hooey is that?! For one thing, it’s redundant. By definition, an opinion is one’s belief, hence the word “own” is not necessary as a descriptor. Why not simply say, “everyone is entitled to his opinion”? Even worse than the redundancy is the ridiculous thinking bias of illusory superiority contained in believing everyone deserves to have an opinion. Says who?

As it’s a political year, I’ll venture out on an opinion limb on this: I strongly believe a person should earn the right to have an opinion. You heard me right. Yes, I know my right-wing roots are showing, but I would rather see opinion-sharing centralized in the hands of a few, experienced doers, than have opinion-sharing rights proportionately distributed across a largely clueless and lazy populace. Free speech is a great concept, but the assumed thought process that precedes it is frequently absent or lacking depth.

Those who have no idea what they are talking about should follow the fool-directed advice of another American icon, Abraham Lincoln, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

In this seasoned fool’s opinion, there are numerous subjects on which I should remain silent. So I do. Why? Because when I have not adequately researched those topics and know not, I have nothing worthwhile to contribute to a discussion. It’s ill-advised to comment outside of one’s breadth and depth of knowledge. So if I speak up, I preface my remarks with a disclaimer, such as, “My opinion is based on one experience I had” or “I have read that . . . ” I also identify my information source(s), as I have here.

However, sure as that know-it-all Cliff Clavin bellied up to the bar at “Cheers”, there’s someone right now talking out of his butt about something of which he knows virtually nothing. A Cornell University study along those lines was released in 1999, resulting in “Dunning-Kruger Effect” entering our national lexicon.

Researchers David Dunning and Justin Kruger observed that people seem unable to accurately estimate their level of competence/incompetence: the least competent people believe themselves to be more competent than they are, whereas the more competent people tend to underestimate their competence. Few people are aware how far off they are with their competence calibration, including conversationally.

Dunning and Kruger explain ignorance of one’s ignorance thusly, “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.” In other words, people are too stupid to grasp just how stupid they are.

We’ve become a nation of out-of-our-butt-talkers, which brings to mind another quote, “Opinions are like butts: everyone has one and they all stink.” So, I stopped arguing with that out-of-butt-talking son of mine. Instead, I suggested he brush the teeth in his stinking mouth and go to bed. Cheers!


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