Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Epistemology of Don

This post fromAtomicNerds includes a link to this article. Incompetent People Really Have No Clue, Studies Find

There are many incompetent people in the world. Dr. David A. Dunning is haunted by the fear that he might be one of them.

Dunning, a professor of psychology at Cornell, worries about this because, according to his research, most incompetent people do not know that they are incompetent.

On the contrary. People who do things badly, Dunning has found in studies conducted with a graduate student, Justin Kruger, are usually supremely confident of their abilities -- more confident, in fact, than people who do things well.

This brought to mind the famous/infamous quote by SecDef Donald Rumsfeld.
"Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know."

The epistemology of Don divides human knowledge into three parts:

1. The things we know we know

2. The things we know we don’t know

3. The things we don’t know we don’t know

The scary part of Dr. Dunning’s study is that truly incompetent people vastly overestimate their grasp of #1 and are blissfully unaware that #2 and #3 even exist. Competent (one might say, wise) people are always aware of #2 and temper their confidence in #1 by acknowledging #3.


  1. I believe the way I first heard it put was:
    "What gets you in trouble isn't what you don't know, but what you 'know' that ain't so!"

    There are a lot of people who don't understand the difference between "feeling" something, "thinking" it, and "knowing" it. They tend to use the terms interchangeably as a result. But when you hear them say "I feel that...", stop them and tell them that their feelings don't constitute a source of knowledge about the world. Be prepared for a backlash, because they've been told their whole lives that those precious feelings are the most important things in the world. In fact, we've created a whole industry out of being outraged.

    And if they say they "think" or "know", ask them to explain how their "thinking" led them to this conclusion, or the chain of evidence by which they "know" it.

    They probably think Rummy is a joke because he recognizes that in the abstract, we know that we don't know everything, and we can't wait for perfect knowledge before we act. So we know that we're working with raw data of inconsistent provenance, and yet we have to make the best possible decisions.

    For instance, we know that every person who tells us something has his own agenda, so we have to take that into account when we decide what to believe about what they tell us. In the real world, people understand this. In their fantasy world, whatever The Party tells us is true. Life is so easy when you don't have to think.

  2. The complete set has to include "the things we don't know we know" also. These would be things that are ubiquitous and have become part of the background, tacit assumptions (but borne out by observation) about the way the physical world and human nature work, and other things of this sort.

    As to Monster's throw-away line about a whole industry of outrage, I think it's more of a psychological problem. I believe (yes, I say "believe" precisely; I have no evidence of this) that many if not most of these people are suffering from rage addiction, where they come to enjoy the feeling they get from anger and to need the stimulation it gives them.

  3. dloss,
    Though I appreciate the symmetry of an "unknown known" I can't for the life of me come up with an example. Yes we make assumptions based on experience and take things for granted but the reason we take them for granted is that they are known. So well known, in fact, that we have forgotten we know. But the basis for those assumptions is still there and can be traced.
    Can you give me an example of an "unknown known"?

  4. Maybe it would be better phrased as, things we don't realize we know. I don't mean things we've forgotten we know, but things we so much take for granted that we don't realize them. As they say, a fish doesn't know anything about water. Just so, there are things we all know that we just assume to be true without thinking about them. Physical things like when you let go of something it falls, or temperatures generally increase during daytime and decrease at night. Societal things like people usually respond in kind to the attitude you have when you greet them, friendly for friendly, belligerent for belligerent.


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