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Skeptics and the Dunning-Kruger effect

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7 minutes to read “…people are unaware of their incompetence, innocent of their ignorance. Where they lack skill or knowledge, they greatly overestimate their expertise and talent, thinking they are doing just fine when, in fact, they are doing quite poorly.”

I have noticed that atheists (especially the “new” variety) consistently under-perform in discussion. This is frustrating, but it is far more frustrating because they are generally unaware of this. In their own assessment, they are doing quite well.

This is what is called the Dunning-Kruger effect; that “people tend to be blissfully unaware of their incompetence.” See “Why People Fail to Recognize Their Own Incompetence” by Dunning, Kruger et al. As their abstract puts it,

This lack of awareness arises because poor performers are doubly cursed: Their lack of skill deprives them not only of the ability to produce correct responses, but also of the expertise necessary to surmise that they are not producing them. People base their perceptions of performance, in part, on their preconceived notions about their skills. Because these notions often do not correlate with objective performance, they can lead people to make judgments about their performance that have little to do with actual accomplishment.

Paul warned in a slightly different context, “I say to every one of you not to think more highly of yourself than you ought to think, but to think with sober discernment” (Romans 12:3, NET). Every apologist should ask himself whether he has put in the requisite study, and received the requisite recognition from qualified peers, to be within the 75th percentile or better of expertise for any topic he discusses. If not, as the graph in the paper shows, he is probably overestimating his ability.

That said, skeptics seem particularly affected by this cognitive bias. New atheists, especially, are characterized by a teenage-like confidence (some might daringly say arrogance) which is quite unconnected to any actual knowledge or ability. Remarkably pertinent to them is Dunning & Kruger’s comment that,

Participants taking tests in their ability to think logically […] tend to overestimate their percentile ranking relative to their peers by some 40 to 50 points, thinking they are outperforming a majority of their peers when, in fact, they are the ones being outperformed.

I have picked some examples out of recent comment threads to illustrate this point.*

Blindness to self-contradictory statements

There is no inherent, absolute meaning under the atheistic worldview, yes. What you’re missing is that this doesn’t mean that humanity can’t construct its own. Yes, most atheists accept that there is no inherent purpose, but it’s not denying reality to actually try to do something about this. source

The problem here is that the obvious self-contradiction is going unnoticed. Trying to create something that, in the final analysis, cannot in principle exist, is irrational. If all human-constructed meaning reduces to objective non-meaning, then all human-constructed meaning is objectively meaningless. The stated position is a contradiction in terms.

Moreover, if all human-constructed meaning reduces to non-meaning, then even the claim that human-constructed meaning reduces to non-meaning is itself meaningless—which is self-referentially absurd. This position completely eliminates even the possibility of knowledge, since knowledge presupposes meaning.

Gross oversimplification and lack of presuppositional awareness

Christians base their morals on what they WANT the bible to say. Not what it says. That’s why Christian morality has evolved so much over the years. source

The problem here is that while there’s no disputing that Christians’ understanding of morality has differed in various times, the commenter is evidently oblivious to the reasons for this.

We are all products of our time. Someone reading the Bible against the backdrop of robust libertarianism and separation of church and state is bringing a significantly different set of presuppositions to the text than a powerful baron-come-clergyman living in medieval Europe, who believes that 1500 years of speculation, syncretism and doctrinal accretion constitute sound theology. One of them will think that heretics should probably be burned at the stake; one of them will not. One of them will think that slavery is permissible; one of them will not. But equally, one of them will understand slavery to be chattel slavery; one of them will probably understand it in terms of the hard necessity of indentured servitude for survival. Etc etc.

Grossly oversimplifying the issue as “Christian morality evolving” suggests that the commenter is likely to be blind to the socially-conditioned presuppositions that affect his own beliefs. That makes discussion of these sorts of issues virtually impossible, because it will always devolve into unsophisticated caricatures.

Going into an argument motivated by intellectual contempt

Here’s a telling comment thrown into the middle of an otherwise seemingly-earnest argument:

Again, there is no magical man in the sky that makes something moral and something else not moral. source

The problem is obvious. There is no sense in which this describes the Christian understanding of God. There is nothing “magical” about God on any standard definition of magic. Neither is God a man, let alone one who lives in the sky. Statements like this betray the fact that the commenter is not interested in honest discussion or truth. He is motivated by contempt rather than inquiry. He does not take Christians seriously for what they believe; but we cannot take him seriously because of how prejudicially he caricatures our beliefs without apparently noticing.

Thinking that a tirade is a substitute for an argument

the trancedental argument is utterly absurd, the fact that you think it exposes major problems in an athiestic worldview shows how easily you fell for the tricks of calvinist conmen, as well TAG is nothing more then one big fat equvication fallacy with some question begging and stolen concepts added in. Non-believing philsophers dont even bat an eye at it because of how absurd it is, and actually even pretend to care about it would be like giving a mathmatican giving a person who thinks 2+2= 5 creidability . source

Extremely bad grammar is generally a sign of a breathless need to answer back without thinking. No one is immune to this, which is why James 1:19 warns Christians to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger”.

But the larger problem here is that the commenter simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He is not conversant with the actual philosophical literature; and indeed is too lazy (or overconfident) to have ascertained that such literature even exists. He seems unaware that professional philosophers like Greg Welty and James Anderson have written papers such as “The Lord of Non-Contradiction: An argument for God from Logic”, which has been published in a professional philosophy journal (Philosophia Christi) and has received interaction from other professional philosophers, such as Nathan Shannon, Alexander Bozzo, Tony Lloyd and William Vallicella—who all seemed to take it quite seriously—and to which they have in turn responded. Lloyd, for one, is hardly a sympathetic audience—although whether a philosopher is a believer or not is of course irrelevant; it both begs the question and commits the ad hominem fallacy by tendentiously implying that Christian philosophers are unable to accurately assess the kinds of arguments on which their profession and careers are built.

What should we do when we encounter Dunning-Kruger skeptics?

We inevitably and repeatedly will. If Dunning & Kruger are correct that “the skills needed to produce correct responses are virtually identical to those needed to evaluate the accuracy of one’s responses”, then there is actually very little we can do to directly expose incompetence on the part of dogged skeptics.

However, their research does suggest that if we could find a way to furnish our interlocutors with the skills required to more accurately assess their performance, they would be likely to realize how badly they were actually doing. This means that patient education may sometimes be appropriate—it’s a judgment call of course. (Simply pointing out how abysmally they’re arguing is extremely unlikely to have any effect.)

Shortcutting education

There is one useful method for avoiding a lot of hard work repeating yourself for the umpteenth time to the umpteenth skeptic, and that is simply asking questions which expose to him that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

It is usually fairly easy to spot the key assertions he is making, and to ask him to clarify them and explain why he believes them. These questions work well (appropriately adapted of course):

  1. In what sense? For example, if an atheist tells you that it’s not denying reality to construct our own meaning in a meaningless universe, one could ask, “What exactly do you mean by ‘denying reality’? In what sense are atheists not doing this, if in reality meaning doesn’t exist?”
  2. How do you know? For instance, in the case of an atheist claiming that TAG-like arguments aren’t taken seriously by philosophers, simply asking him to document his claim is likely to give him pause. Similarly with common situations like a claim of biblical contradictions. “Well, which ones did you have in mind?” That’s a conversation-changer for most skeptics.

This approach can be quite effective on some skeptics who aren’t aware of their own ignorance, and are intellectually honest enough to reassess their position. It doesn’t work on all of them though. In cases where results are not quickly forthcoming, the best option is to simply end the discussion.

Remember, apologetics isn’t about winning arguments; it’s about winning souls. Some people—especially apostates—are only interested in mocking. We should not generally waste time on scoffers (especially ones the Bible says cannot be restored to repentance; Heb 6:4-6) when there are other people who show more promise. Unless you have an audience observing proceedings, who may be more open to what you’re saying, there is little point fighting a battle when the other person either cannot know, or does not care, that you have won. This is a case where we should answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes; and if that fails we should not answer him according to his folly, lest we become like him (Proverbs 26:4-5).

In other words, pick your battles, and don’t be distracted from your objective. The end of apologetics is evangelism and building up believers; not self-satisfaction or intellectual tyranny. I know from experience that this is hard to keep in sight sometimes—but it is critical to being a soldier in the Lord’s army, rather than a mercenary out for his own glory.

* Many of these are from the same person, simply because he was most active in the comments recently. In my experience, they are quite representative.

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