Saint Augustine, Dunning-Kruger, and rules of debate

June 6, 2010

Smite the unworthy!

Those who waste their time with this blog know that I can be argumentative, but I do try to give the other person a chance to explain and defend alternate views.  Anyone who comments on blogs will certainly be aware that this is not the rule.  Venom, flaming, insult, and complete lack of interest in hearing any dissenting views are very common.  Well, it’s a free cyber-world, and if people only want to engage with those they agree with already, that’s their choice.

Since I am interested in the controversy over climate change – anthropogenic? proven? – I visit blogs that take the so-called consensus view, with which I disagree.  Sometimes I comment.  Generally, the response is anything but measured and polite, and a debate at the level of grade-schoolers ensues.  To be fair, the same has happened on blogs that I do generally agree with when I have begged to differ on some particular point.

How to conduct a rational debate with those you disagree with, even fundamentally, has always been a fascinating question for me.  What are the limits?  Reading Saint Augustine’s City of God, commenting on RealClimate, and following up on the Dunning-Kruger Effect [Full Text] has brought this all together!

If you follow the link to RealClimate, a premier pro-AGW blog, moderated by Gavin Schmidt of the Goddard Institute for Space Science (right around the corner from the Seinfeld diner) you can decide for yourself how well or badly I was treated if you have the patience to follow the thread that begins at comment No. 22.  One fellow suggested I was suffering from psychosis, others intimated that I was a nefarious troll, feigning real interest in the discussion, but intending only to sow dissent and distraction at the site.  (Really, they didn’t have to respond to me – are they that easily sidetracked from their great work?)  Many commented that despite their repeating the obvious logical case for AGW over and over, and presenting me with incontrovertible evidence, I remained recalcitrant.

I was reminded of accounts of witch trials and inquisitorial interrogations I have read – the sinner refuses to recant or confess, maintains innocence, despite being presented with indubitable evidence of his guilt.  His stubborness is further evidence of his sinful, heretical nature – burn him!

As in the period of the great religious wars of 17th century Europe, there is an unwillingness to accept that some matters cannot be settled definitively, at least not yet, and that judgement of men and women plays a part.  For the AGW crowd, it’s all settled, the evidence is in, to maintain that one’s judgement of the evidence leaves one unconvinced simply demonstrates that one is:  stupid; ignorant of science; a shill for the oil companies; psychotic; all of the above…OR, a victim of the Dunning-Kruger Effect!

Ah, now we are getting somewhere!  But before we dive into contemporary academic study of incompetence (I kid you not), let us give an ear to Saint Augustine.  Fine man, but he didn’t suffer fools gladly.  At least, not people he knew were fools!  Here is what he says at the opening of Book II, The City of God. [He was refuting pagan authors who laid the blame on Christianity for the recent sack of Rome.]  Anyone who has read AGW denunciations of skeptics, deniers, denialists, and other ‘crackpots’ will have a frisson of déja vu.

If only the weak understanding of the ordinary man did not stubbornly resist the plain evidence of logic and truth!  If only it would, in its feeble condition, submit itself to the restorative medicine of sound teaching, until divine assistance, procured by devout faith, effected a cure!  In that case, men of sound judgment and adequate powers of exposition would not need to engage in lengthy discussions on order to refute mistakes and fanciful conjectures.  But as things are, the intelligent are infected by a gross mental disorder which makes them defend the irrational workings of their minds as if they were logic and truth itself, even when the evidence has been put before them as plainly as is humanly possible.  Either they are too blind to see what is put before their face, or they are too perversely obstinate to admit what they see.  The result is that we are forced very often to give an extended exposition of the obvious, as if we were not presenting it for people to look at, but for them to touch and handle with theirs eyes shut.

And yet, will we ever come to an end of the discussion and talk of we think we must always reply to replies?  For replies come from those who either cannot understand what is said to them, or are so stubborn and contentions that they refuse to given in even if they do understand.  In fact, as the Bible says, “Their conversation is unrighteousness, and they are indefatigable in folly”  You can see how infinitely laborious and fruitless it would be to try and refute every objection they offer, when they have resolved never to think before they  speak provided that somehow or other they contradict our arguments.

Many of us have had the experience of arguing with someone in thrall to some weird conspiracy theory (men did not land on the moon!) and it is very frustrating.  At some point, you have to give up.  But at what point?  And how do you tell if you are arguing with a person uninterested in reason or someone who just completely disagrees with you?  A certain amount of trust in the good faith of the other is absolutely essential, and a willingness to bend over backwards to try and understand them.  This is rarely present in abundance.

And why bother when the Dunning-Kruger Effect (DKE) is handy?  (I’ve been it’s victim several times, according to some bloggers.)  The simple truth is that those who are incompetent in a field are the least able to judge their own level of expertise.  Moreover, their very incompetence is an obstacle to them realizing how little they know.  (Ignoramuses are famously confident.)

Having a dispute over a complex scientific question?  Your opponent refuses to accept your argument, claiming that your evidence is weak and your logic is full of holes?  DKE to the rescue!  Obviously, your gadfly is one of those who just doesn’t get what science is all about (The argument for AGW is basic physics, duh!) and it’s useless to engage because he hasn’t the mental  tools to  understand how ignorant he is!!  The simplicity, neatness, and unassailable logic of this riposte is simply beautiful!

What do Mssrs. Dunning & Kruger really say?  From the abstract of the article available at the link above (italics mine):

People tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains. The authors suggest that this overestimation occurs, in part, because people who are unskilled in these domains suffer a dual burden: Not only do these people reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the meta-cognitive ability to realize it…Paradoxically, improving the skills of participants, and thus increasing their metacognitive competence, helped them recognize the limitations of their abilities.

The article is a careful academic exercise in experimental social psychology.  I would be very surprised if the authors would endorse the free-wheeling use of their names to silence opponents in scientific disputes.  They are also careful to point out that self-overestimation of competence can have other sources as well.  Finally, their work was concerned with a rather narrow range of phenomena, for which they were able to develop fairly uncontroversial measures of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  Even their measure of competence in humor, yes!, was based on a survey of professional comedians’ assessment of a fixed sample of jokes – surely they have a good idea of what’s funny!

The interesting thing about the misuse of this academic article is that it takes a study that assesses peoples’ self-awareness of competence in uncontroversial areas – logical deduction, grammar, etc. – and applies it to a…controversy!  The whole point of scientific controversy is to arrive at the truth, which will then be, perhaps, uncontroversial.

I did have another reaction to this paper, however.  It struck me as similar to saying, “The problem with poor people is they have no money.”  Sort of obvious.  Incompetent people don’t know they are incompetent.  Well, sometimes they do.  And why in heck is it paradoxical that giving people training and tutoring will improve their self-assessment of skill?  I would venture that the notion of competence includes the idea of self-awareness of skill level.  We used to call this wisdom or judgment.

The authors begin their article with the sadly comic story of a man who robbed a bank, thinking he was invisible because he smeared his face with lemon juice.  Obviously, not competent to judge  a lot of things.  They conclude with a cutesy remark:

Although we feel we have done a competent job in making a strong case for this analysis, studying it empirically, and drawing out relevant implications, our thesis leaves us with one haunting worry that we cannot vanquish. That worry is that this article may contain faulty logic, methodological errors, or poor communication. Let us assure our readers that to the extent this article is imperfect, it is not a sin we have committed knowingly.

Ha, ha.  So funny.  Maybe they suffer from the DKE…Boy, good thing they don’t do stand-up comedy.  These are professors at Cornell University by the way.  What do we learn about anything from this article?  Stuff like this is what makes academic a pejorative term.

Krug’s feet of clay…

October 24, 2009

Feet of clay

More on the theme of Paul Krugman going off the deep end after serving the country so well.  In a recent blog post of his, he weighs in on the lastest kerfluffle about climate change.  The guys who wrote the best-seller, Freakonomics, have a new book out with a chapter that is somewhat critical of the so-called consenus on human civilization causing the planet to get warmer.  He delivers himself of this ghastly howler, emphasis mine:

…not only that they didn’t check out the global cooling stuff, the stuff about solar panels, and all the other errors people have been pointing out, but that they didn’t even look into the debate sufficiently to realize what company they were placing themselves in.

No, it’s not his placing of the preposition at the end of the sentence that has my blood boiling.  It’s the idea that the way science should be done is by checking out who’s on what side of the controversy, and then joining the right team.  That’s politics, and people who can’t tell the difference shouldn’t be writing about this issue.

And by the way, I am trying to still admire Krug a little, but it’s getting hard.

“Feet of Clay,” by the way, comes from the Old Testament (Dan.2:31-32).


August 23, 2009


While on vacation in San Francisco, I watched cable TV that I don’t get at home, where I don’t watch TV anyway.  On Larry King Live, Elizabeth Edwards and Tommy Thompson, looking like a turtle, were sharing a split-screen while King’s voice asked the questions.  A nicely balanced image.

They were discussing the overheated rhetoric of the healthcare debate.  Thompson opined that it had gotten too extreme, “on both sides.”  As an example, he cited Representative Barney Frank (D) asking a constituent of his “What planet are you on?”  That’s way over the top for Tommy.

Even when your constituent is calling the president a Nazi?” asked King.  Thompson was momentarily discomfited.  “Uh, yes, like I said, the rhetoric is way too extreme..,” but debate is the American Way, blah, blah, blah…

Love it.

Abelard and Eloise

March 4, 2005


I’ve heard about these two for so many years, but I never read their letters. They figured in the film “Being John Malkevich” – the J. Cusak character used the text as the salacious dialog for one of his marionette shows – and, of course, there’s Cole Porter:

As Abelard said to Eloise,
“Don’t forget to drop a line to me, please”
As Juliet cried, in her Romeo’s ear,
“Romeo, why not face the fact, my dear”It was just one of those things
Just one of those crazy flings

A bit of a shock to find that the passion in the epistles is mostly a one-way affair, from her to him. He’s rather a drip, filled with self-pity, condescension, pedantry, and a desire to justify himself at length. As a sample of the heat generated by Eloise’s letters, I offer the following:

The name of wife may seem more sacred or more worthy but sweeter to me will always be the word lover, or, if you will permit me, that of concubine or whore. I believed that the more I humbled myself on your account, the more I would please you, and also the less damage I should do to the brightness of your reputation. … God is my witness that if Augustus, Emperor of the whole world, thought fit to honour me with marriage and conferred all the earth on me to possess for ever, it would be dearer and more honorable to me to be called not his Empress but your whore.

Talk about being a love-slave! And this from a woman who was renowned for not only her beauty, but her incredible erudition, all the more remarkable in an age that did not look to her sex for intellectual guidance. Despite Peter’s unappealing correspondance, it is a great story, a love story the likes of which we can hardly imagine today:Peter was the intellectual superstar of his day, the late 11th century in France. When I say superstar, I mean it – crowds come to hear and see him engage in learned disputes with other theologians and philosophers. His pronouncements on logic were pored over by intellectuals everywhere. Someone had to worry about which was correct, nominalism or realism, right? And what of the status of universals? I can’t even remember which stands for what anymore! (I think that realists held that univerals did, in fact, exist. There IS a perfect triangle, somwhere. Nominalists held the reverse point of view.)

He grew rich from the largesse of his students and patrons, and this was before the founding of the great universities of Europe – he was a freelancer! Fair and handsome, a spellbinding speaker, he had the world at his feet. Then he encountered Eloise, a very lovely, and VERY smart young lady. He became her tutor and used his position to seduce her, though from many accounts, the desire for a liaison was mutual right from the start. She becomes pregnant, they marry secretly, although Eloise, slave to love and to Peter, consents only after extended argument. What does she care for marriage, convention, society? She is in love!

The whole business is discovered and publicized by Eloise’s uncle who becomes enraged, and sends his henchmen to castrate Peter. Yes, no holds barred in those days. Peter orders Eloise to become a nun, which she does, and he becomes a monk. This is the time during which their famous letters are exchanged. In her subsequent career as an abbess she is renowned for her administrative skill and intelligence – he lives on as an increasingly curmudgeonly, cranky, intellectual. Understandably, he could never quite live down the humiliation of his condition, and this in a time when such punitive barbarities weren’t that uncommon. [By the way, in case you are under the illusion that castration (after puberty) renders one impotent, guess again. Harem women were said to prefer sex with eunuchs - merely sterile - since they could hold erections longer, and, of course, there was no risk of pregnancy. See: Eunuch - Myths]


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