September 25, 2021 | David F. Coppedge

How to Turn Dunning-Kruger Inside Out

The Dunning-Kruger Effect is supposed to prove that
ignorant people are the most confident. It’s fake news.


Occasionally CEH’s Twitter feed gets responses from atheists and evolutionists appealing to the “Dunning-Kruger Effect.” This refers to the conclusion of a psychological survey done by Dunning and Kruger in 1999 that supposedly proved that confidence in a subject is inversely proportional to knowledge about it: i.e., ignorant people show the most bravado when talking about things they have no expertise in. Our attackers think to undermine our critique of Darwinism by this meme, implying, “You don’t understand evolution.” Well, the joke is on them.

Psychologist Andrew Danvers wrote in Psychology Today (Dec 20, 2020), “Dunning-Kruger Isn’t Real.”

The Dunning-Kruger effect is commonly invoked in online arguments to discredit other people’s ideas. The effect states that people who know the least about a topic are the most overconfident about that topic while people who know the most tend to be more humble and accurate in their self-assessment. It seems intuitively right, and it’s often a way to undercut people who present their opinions and arguments with “absolute certainty” that they’re right. The only problem is that the Dunning-Kruger effect itself is wrong.

Dr Danvers shows how the statistical methods used by Dunning and Kruger were flawed. When checked by others, the effects they supposedly measured did not differ from randomness. The upshot is that everybody tends to be a little overconfident at times—experts, ignoramuses and everybody in between. It’s a common trait in human nature. Replication tests using better methods showed that “Everyone was just a bit overconfident in their abilities, no matter what level they were at.”

Psychology Needs Reform

Danvers believes this is another example of the “replication crisis” in psychology, where claims are published but never reproduced. Even when reproducible, though, the claimed results may not be right.

This debate highlights a point central to recent discussions of how best to reform psychology. On the one hand, reformers (like me) suggest that we need to make sure that the effects we publish can replicate. Otherwise, we risk drawing conclusions about patterns of data that might have just been a fluke. On the other hand, reformers from the mathematical psychology and modeling community suggest that we need to start by considering how the processes might work—starting with the model—before deciding what results we would expect to see. They would argue that even a result that replicates consistently, like Dunning-Kruger, might not properly explain what’s going on if we don’t stop to think about the process that leads to the result. The Dunning-Kruger debate of December 2020 illustrates very clearly why psychology reform needs to do more than just make sure research replicates.

And so Dunning-Kruger is a fluke. It’s not true. It’s fake news. It gets passed around in the Twittersphere as a way to shame people, but the people using it are the ones to be ashamed. Danvers welcomes victims of the meme to point to his article.

What a comeback! The very people claiming to be the most knowledgeable about Dunning-Kruger know the least about it. Put this article in your defensive toolkit. In our experience, the opposite of Dunning-Kruger is often observed: the best experts in the world on Darwinian evolution are often the worst dogmatic blowhards.

Credit: J.B. Greene

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