Errol Morris on Dunning-Kruger and Other Blind Spots

I have just finished reading A Wilderness of Error, Errol Morris’s recent book, about the trials of Jeffrey MacDonald. For the first half of the book, I remember feeling that painful tension of being persuaded by an argument when you already know it has failed. As I got closer to the end, I actually found myself saying out loud, “This guy is never getting out.” Never ever. I then came to a passage in which a member of the Innocence Project says it seemed like MacDonald was convicted and failed his appeals because he is a jerk.

Decades in prison for a crime you didn’t commit could easily make a saint into a pretty big jerk, but it seems he rubbed people the wrong way from the beginning. He also didn’t seem to have any self-awareness about it – he was able to articulate peevish objections when people complained about his manner or affect but not able to make the leap that the responses he was getting, as unfair as they may have seemed to him, contained useful information for him.

MacDonald’s fate was probably sealed by the wide sales of Joe McGinnis’s Fatal Vision, a book concluding he was guilty, which was promoted in a “60 Minutes” special and ultimately made into a television miniseries. MacDonald’s manner was such that even Janet Malcolm, who went on to write a book critical of McGinnis’s problematic book, actively avoided reading the correspondence she received from MacDonald, finding it overwhelming and claiming that she could not learn anything from the evidence – that it was necessarily unable to inform, because one’s interpretation is inevitably colored by his (or her) preconceptions (a position that is trivially reasonable but ultimately seems to deny the value of having a court system at all, or indeed any other search for understanding).

This thicket of meaning and self-awareness has been at the center of Morris’s interests for quite some time, and he addressed several such deficits in a series of articles at the New York Times, beginning with a neat summation, Something’s wrong but you’ll never know what it is (part 1).

Morris gets this wonderful quote from David Dunning, Professor of Psychology at Cornell University:

Donald Rumsfeld gave this speech about “unknown unknowns.” It goes something like this: “There are things we know we know about terrorism. There are things we know we don’t know. And there are things that are unknown unknowns. We don’t know that we don’t know.” He got a lot of grief for that. And I thought, “That’s the smartest and most modest thing I’ve heard in a year.”

Brilliant. I have it posted in my office at work. I mean, Rumsfeld’s remarks. Anyway, Morris draws Dunning out some more, and it’s well worth reading, as are Morris’s explorations into how this plays out in detective work and medicine.

Here are parts 2 through 5:

The Illness of Doubt: Everyone Poisons Himself in His Own Way
Doctors Everywhere
Belief Is Not a Monolithic Thing
Honest Feedback

Dunning and Kruger published Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments in 1999. This is a fascinating paper, and was even a winner of one of my favorite awards, the Ig Nobel prize, in 2000. Yes, it is funny, and it will definitely make you think. And once you start thinking about it, you may find it hard to stop considering what is perhaps the most fundamentally limiting cognitive bias of them all.

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