The Ruffled Crow

Animation, Art, and Other Shiny Things

Putting the ‘In’ into Incompetence

The term “Peter Principle” has been around forever – one rises to the level of their incompetence – but I think there is more at work than merely putting the “In” in Ineptitude. The Dunning-Kruger Effect may explain it; our incompetence masks our ability to recognize our incompetence. (download the paper here)

From the wiki:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which an unskilled person makes poor decisions and reaches erroneous conclusions, but their incompetence denies them the metacognitive ability to realize their mistakes.[1] The unskilled therefore suffer from illusory superiority, rating their own ability as above average, much higher than it actually is, while the highly skilled underrate their abilities, suffering from illusory inferiority.

Now please, don’t try the old “They’re just pushing their limits/boundaries/safety zones and failure is a learning experience”.

That idea just allows people the practice to fail even more spectacularly at some critical moment in the future. One isn’t always able to learn the right lesson from any given failure, especially if one can not understand their own complicity. I think the main driver to the highly skilled person’s feeling of inferiority is that they do see and understand that.

I’ve heard it alternatively termed “Elective Non-comprehension” (EN) in a syllabus from Occidental College, but I wonder if that doesn’t give the comprehensee a bit too much credit; they may not have altogether too much electivity on the ball there.

In a way this is a distinct variation on stupidity, though. In my discussions with a few folks that inhabit a partisan political habitue there is a definite element of electivity or intension to their incomprehension.

One conversation turned to tax cuts, specifically the extension of the current tax cuts began under the last presidential administration. Some months ago I had emailed them a short article on revenue generated by tax cuts over time. It even included a handy chart that showed the drop-off and eventual net negative revenue impact. I also added a quick explanation of the Laffer Curve that notes the relationship between taxation and revenue generation; in short, there is a sweet spot between taxing too much and too little.

These folks had both worked in the stock market and one of them ran a budget so masterfully that even while pinching pennies so hard that Lincoln whimpered they live pretty comfortably and want for very little.

But present to them the facts of diminishing returns on tax cuts and the projected immense costs of maintaining them and all of the sudden the incomprehension sets in. When scaled down to a personal budget level for example’s sake, the budget maven will agree that it’s not a good strategy, but when re-applied on the macro scale it all flies out the window. Offering to show reports from the CBO or other agencies, top economists of all stripes, historical facts and figures, I am told no, I am wrong and they don’t want to see it. Pretty much the definition of Elective Non-comprehension as it became a choice at that point.

These two forces of human nature seem to play well and often together, however, and is powering a shift towards anti-intellectualism. Smart is bad, maybe even evil, it isn’t normal, gut-level, working folk like us.

A classic, emotionally driven ‘us v them’ set-up. Politically, it’s been very useful, certainly over the last dozen years, and at many times over recorded history. McCarthy invoked the fear of the ‘reds’, the last administration promoted a fear of the Islamic terrorist and hiked the threat level of homeland attack within the few weeks prior to nearly every election. While we initially went to war over WMDs, or so we thought at the time, the reasoning of “why we went to war” shifted several times over the last seven plus years and those with the “EN” gene couldn’t or wouldn’t see the reforming of their opinions via external rhetoric. It fits their world view and that’s all that is heard.

And this is where it all disconnects; it’s akin to reverse evolution, devolution, as it were. Culling the intellectuals and consciously rejecting fact to impede progress. Marie Curie said it best for me:

Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.

Yet fear is the driver. A base emotion, easy to evoke. Unfortunately, fear eventually leads to violence, and in today’s politics we’re seeing that rise. There is a certain ‘mainstreaming’ of hate rhetoric because it too is based on fear of a ‘them’, and if you can make a person fear ‘them’ then whatever ‘them’ thinks or does is bad and possibly evil.

So simple and so very caustic to civilized society.

I do have some hope, however, as there are plenty of us that are just regular working folks that know the need for intellectuals and different opinions and tolerance and compromise – true compromise.

Gawd I hate civilization. Anyone know of a good cave somewhere?


2 responses to “Putting the ‘In’ into Incompetence

  1. MT August 14, 2010 at 7:55 am

    You might find this blog post interesting, especially the first linked article in that post. Kind of a sad commentary on the human race.

  2. sacredcalf August 15, 2010 at 1:21 pm

    I’ve read a bit about that, MT, and it is an odd aspect of human behavior. The idea of strengthening misinformation is terribly frustrating at times and seems to have a few bases that I can identify. The article you pointed me at fills in a few more pieces that I didn’t include here.

    The ‘accepted worldview’ idea is probably the primary determinant of receptability to a different opinion. If that doesn’t pass then a whole bunch of fun kicks in: ‘us v them’ where the messenger or the medium becomes ‘them’ and is therefor suspect. The inability to admit wrong – which I see prevalent in older folks especially, though it rears it’s head when someone knows they’re argument is illogical or blatantly non-factual also.

    Interesting case in point: A speech where the President says “…it’s not because they’re bad people, but because it’s profitable”

    What was heard by a partisan and frequent discussion partner was that the President was calling them ‘bad people’ and did not hear the ‘not’. In showing the clip to them they continued to insist that he ‘really meant’ they were bad people.

    In politics and religion it appears that the messenger has far more determination as to acceptability than does the opinion or ‘fact’ itself. The ‘cult of personality’ as it were. Here I’d refer you out to google up Newt Gingrich and his moral dilemmas.

    Anyways, appreciate the link, MT!

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