Tue | Sep 25, 2018

The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Published:Tuesday | February 17, 2015 | 12:00 AM

My love of satire was born and nurtured by my teenage addiction to Mad Magazine.

To the creative team at Mad Magazine, no topic was off limits. My favourite section was 'Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions' by a comic genius named Al Jaffee. It should be required reading for all public officials and media hosts.

Among my favourite examples:

1. You're trying to get some rest in a dark room. Some idiot pushes the door and asks, "Are you asleep?" The correct reply: "No, I'm dead. Leave the flowers and get out!"

2. A mother is walking her two identical-looking, identically dressed, cute young sons when a nice lady stops her and asks, "Are they twins?" The correct answer? "No, he's an only child. Who's your eye doctor?"

I find these questions are usually asked by highly educated people, proving education is no cure for stupidity. Legendary comedian John Cleese, in a hilarious 2014 routine, explains the phenomenon:

"The problem with people like this is that they're so stupid they have no idea how stupid they are."

Expanding based on studies conducted by Cornell University researchers Justin Kruger and David Dunning (who produced what's known as the Dunning-Kruger effect), Cleese elaborated:

"In order to know how good you are at something requires exactly the same skills as it does to be good at that thing in the first place, which means ... that if you're absolutely no good at something, then you lack exactly the skills you need to know that you're absolutely no good at it."

The recent Senate brouhaha brought this to mind. Somebody actually asked why the court refused to grant an injunction preventing new senators' appointment when the original dismissals/resignations were no good. Al Jaffee would've responded, "Because its crystal ball was at the repair shop."


Polite response


The more polite response is:

1. The nation's business couldn't be held up for months awaiting that determination;

2. More damage would've been done nationally had the appointments been prevented, and Williams subsequently lost the case, than would be caused to only two individuals if new appointments were allowed and Williams subsequently proven to be right.

All this emphasises that speculation and conjecture resulting in wild assertions that these new senators were "never appointed" and Williams and Tufton are "still senators" belong in the pages of Mad Magazine.

Invalidation of the new senators' appointments wouldn't only be illogical but creates a slippery slope with never-ending consequences. Were any laws passed while Reid and Clarke acted? Were any amended at the specific suggestion of either Reid or Clarke? Can these laws be legally "validated"? What of citizens who may have been convicted under these laws and currently spending time in prison?

The alternative interpretation of the combined legal proceedings limits the "damage" to two men who can claim compensation from the person found by a first-instance tribunal to have wronged them. The popular extrapolation would result in a maze of adverse sequelae incapable of complete remedy.

Maybe Dunning and Kruger could widen their study to include the effect of looking at issues through a political lens. I'm reminded pilots need tertiary degrees but maintenance workers are employed with high-school diplomas. That's why the following true story restores my faith in the value of common sense over too much formal education.

After every flight, pilots fill out "gripe sheets" telling mechanics about problems with the aircraft. Mechanics correct the problems; document their repairs on the form; then pilots review gripe sheets before the next flight.

The following appeared on one airline's gripe sheets. 'P' stands for pilots' maintenance complaints. 'S' stands for the solutions recorded by maintenance engineers:

P: Left inside main tyre almost needs replacement.

S: Almost replaced left inside main tyre.

P: Test flight OK, except auto-land very rough.

S: Auto-land not installed on this aircraft.

P: Something loose in cockpit.

S: Something tightened in cockpit.

P: Dead bugs on windshield.

S: Live bugs on back-order.

P: Friction locks cause throttle levers to stick.

S: That's what friction locks are for.

P: IFF inoperative in OFF mode.

S: IFF is always inoperative in OFF mode.

P: No. 3 engine missing.

S: Engine found on right wing after brief search.

P: Aircraft handles funny.

S: Aircraft warned to straighten up, fly right, and be serious.

P: Target radar hums.

S: Reprogrammed target radar with lyrics..

P: Noise coming from under instrument panel. Sounds like a midget pounding on something with a hammer.

S: Took hammer away from the midget.

Al Jaffee would be proud.

Peace and love.

- Gordon Robinson is an attorney-at-law. Email

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