Unknown Unknowns and the Dunning-Kreuger Effect

One of the goals of University education is developing the ability to introspect about the state of one’s own knowledge. This can involve very narrow technical issues about “unknowability,” such as the mathematical theorem that it is impossible, in general, for any computational engine to be able to always predict whether an arbitrary computer program will run to completion. But more importantly it involves being able to judge “I know thus-and-so; I know such-and-such exists but I don’t know much about it; I know there are things I don’t even know are out there.” In the famous words of Dick Cheney (actually first stated by others), these are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.

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Cheney’s actual quote was
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. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

I recall him being ridiculed for it at the time, but it’s actually a fundamentally important idea. There are scientific papers on the subject.

Known unknowns can sometimes be dealt with. If you don’t know much about some aspect of writing, such as how to think through your character’s greatest desire , you can take classes or look up resources in a library or on the internet. In computer programming, you know that some design decisions you make will change, but may not know exactly how they will change; you can mitigate risks through a technique called “information hiding” so that only one small portion of your program needs to change if you’re forced to revise that decision.

What’s especially troubling are things you don’ even know exist. Until a few years ago I had no idea that there is a community of autistic people who identify as autistic, accept the downsides of our condition and don’t want to change. I’d have been a lot happier if I’d known that earlier. I’ve heard a lot of people express tremendous relief when they discovered on the internet whole communities of people just like them.

One of the aspects of unknown unknowns I find especially is the Dunning-Krueger effect , wherein people less competent in some subject are more confident of their expertise than people who are more competent: the less competent have the illusion of superiority. Dunning has apparently said “The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is you don’t know you’re a member of the Dunning-Kruger club.” I first encountered this at Carnegie-Mellon concerning grades on Ph.D. qualifying exams: those who predicted they had done well tended to have lower grades than those who predicted they had done poorly. I thought of this as “the more you know, the more you’re aware of what you don’t know.”

My cynical side opines that the Dunning-Krueger effect applies especially to some politicians, who make policy in ignorance of the reality they’re governing. It can also apply to well-intentioned people; I’ve read occasional reports on third-world countries unhappy with Western non-governmental organizations coming in to “help” in total ignorance of local conditions, trying to apply solutions that work in the West but are less- or non-effective locally.

As an educator, I’m inclined to think that the solution to the problem of the Dunning-Kreuger effect is to enact a policy on policies: requiring decision-makers to consult experts on the subject. I’m a believer in evidencebased policy making But it appears many of our leaders aren’t.

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