A few weeks ago I was sent via facebook messenger the Wikipedia page on the Dunning-Kruger effect.   An initial read of the first couple of paragraphs and I found myself nodding my head in agreement (mainly with relationship to some work colleagues).

Further reading after laughing and further cussing, you settle into the understanding that this is actually quite a serious assessment and study and probably why Dunning and Kruger won an Ig Noble in 2000 for this work.

There are plenty of other writings on the subject, some commentary of these below, as well as my own thoughts. 

Now interestingly both the Wikipedia article and Dunning Kruger mention a quotation from Bertrand Russell, the English philosopher, mathematician and general, all round interesting person. 

In their article (with a host of coauthors) “Why the Unskilled Are Unaware: Further Explorations of (Absent) Self-Insight Among the Incompetent” there is a 1951 quote from Bertrand Russell (see below), but alas it’s not cited so you cannot understand the context in which it’s written. 

Bertrand Russel 1936
Bertrand Russell in 1936

“One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.”

If you do a quick search on Bertrand Russell quotes, then you find another quote (usually #1 in the lists) which essentially says the sames thing.  

The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.

And if you have a quick search on BrainyQuote, then lo and behold you can find a similar quotation, again without citation from Russell (though BrainyQuotes allow you to do a citation from them, raising the whole can of worms about the search for the real truth in sources). 

The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.

However, this is to a large extent a distraction, though if pressed on the accuracy of the quote and what it means,  you may have to say that you aren’t really sure of the exact meaning. Irrespective of the versions of the quote then it’s meaning and is clear.  That some people are not aware and are incapable of being aware of how wrong or foolish they are. 

The process of understanding and accepting this statement as fact leads onto a number of other statements that need to be considered :

  • that the only people who think that they might be stupid and overly confident are the people who are probably not; that they are wise but that they doubt that they are.
  • that it will be impossible to convince individuals that they are foolish; attempting to do so will fail because their confidence is in opposite proportion to their ability to reason and their intelligence. 
  • that mechanism of assessing the foolish and overconfident isn’t possible by those around the person, because it is also true that rather than being solely applied to individuals, it is indeed  a more powerful force in groups, where self reinforcement is backed-up by reinforcement of others. 

In hierarchical organisations it is far easier for the foolish to thrive, where lack of actual ability can be hidden from managers through effective managing-up techniques [1] and from the lack of ability of the manager themselves. Rather than a meritocracy, you have a kakistocracy , where you have government and management by the most stupid.  Given the current state of politics in parts of the world, you may also want to argue that this democracy [2]. 

 The clever and wise, attempting to confront and challenge the position and ideas of the foolish, their followers and their advocates, comes with risk. Risk of accusation of  harrying, of undermining and having a personal vendetta. It also comes at risk of livelihood, future rights of representation and in extreme circumstance, risk of life. Therefore does it make sense to do so ?  Suffering fools gladly has in modern times being primarily used in its negative context, where not suffering fools gladly has been a call to wise to get off the fence and get angry with the stupid.  This confrontational approach it could be argued is doomed to failure, as the stupid will ignore any remonstration and seek others for confirmation of their views and abilities for the equally stupid. It is therefore not wiser to suffer them gladly, to live within their group, their world and make the best of the organisation that this provides ?  By using their techniques, is not very easy to the wise to coast through life in the happy knowledge of life being easier if the stupid are happy and content with their own oblivious view. 

This happy state is however hard to achieve; the stupid will place repeated, excessive calls upon others to reinforce their overstated view of the abilities as well as making decisions that negatively impact you, the wise. Their ineffectiveness means you need to do their work for them and their overstatement of achievement means that you find yourself providing evidence to counter it, in order for your own efforts to be effective and recognised. 

Obviously a kakistocracy thrives in an environment that is doing well, where resources, climate and other inputs ensure that it is doing well, despite the input and actions of the stupid. In a world which is struggling, then the stupid cannot thrive and their actions and views do not have ingredients in which to survive.  It can therefore be argued that a long game, not a short term strategy is needed by the wise, one where that ultimately the stupid will be responsible for their own undoing, rather than this being brought about directly by others. 

Shaun of The Dead : a metaphor for surviving stupid ?

For those therefore not wishing to suffer the fools gladly (or at all) there the following might be worth considering:

  • remove the nutrients from the environment where the stupid currently exist; this could be intelligent, long suffering coworkers and subordinates
  • remove the mouthpiece and routes for pontification and therefore self-reinforcement
  • provide clear and distinct means of measurement of ability based on actions of the individual, not words 
  • ring fence the groups of stupidity and use individual measurements and apply them to the group.

Reading the above, it comes across more of a mechanism for dealing with Zombie apocalypse than it does a strategy for dealing with frustrating friends, colleagues or politicians.  This sense of inevitable doom is sometimes whats faced when dealing with an increasing hoard, that’s infecting a large majority of people around you.  Sitting there watching Shaun of the Dead and you can easily transpose this to the task of explaining the real impact of Brexit to the people who your are connected. 

So, finding yourself surrounded by a thicket of idiots, you have a number of strategies for survival, but none of these provide any guarantee of success of personal survival. 

[1] Of the articles you will find online, see managing up as personal skill to be enhanced.  For example :-   https://psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understand-other-people/201304/eight-ways-manage-effectively.

[2] A useful list of government types is provided by Wikipedia, of course. So happy was I with the discovery of kakistocracy that I donated £20 to Jimmy Wales.   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_forms_of_government.