Swimming Against the Current of Unearned Confidence

There’s a nineteenth century saying—variously ascribed to Mark Twain and Josh Billings and Will Rogers (probably not) and Artemus Ward and Kin Hubbard—that encapsulates how I feel about the world today:

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

There’s a vast crowd of people who get their information from Facebook who believe that mail-in voting is a scheme for massive voter fraud, even as they aspire to more “local control” over elections, local control that’s been demonstrably (and almost definitionally) uneven.

The birthers are back, this time wondering if Kamala Harris is eligible to be VP. “I heard it today that she doesn’t meet the requirements… I have no idea if that’s right.”

Nora was called to the town office today to review the one minor-party ballot cast in last Tuesday’s state primary, to see who got the one write-in vote. The Board of Civil Authority (BCA) members present, along with our state representative and our town clerk, representing both major parties, unsealed the ballot bag and took careful notes along the way. But they were told firmly by a state representative from another district (a friend of the clerk) that what they had done was ILLEGAL. Not merely that it didn’t comply with best practice, though I haven’t looked up the state code to see what it says, but ILLEGAL. The BCA members appropriately called the secretary of state’s office and described what they had done and why, and were reassured that it was all perfectly acceptable, and thanks for checking.

Stupid people lean on their caps lock, both figuratively and literally. They seem to equate loud with true, repetition with fact. The concept of slowing down and looking something up has never once occurred to them. And in the time it takes me to look up and debunk one bullshit thing, they can broadcast seventy-four more. The ratio is off. And when they’re disproven, they back away from it, and say, “I just thought it was funny.” Honest, I spent a whole Saturday back before the 2016 election carefully looking up each so-called fact that someone had sent me in a giant group e-mail, taking each one apart with real statistics, and sent it to the fellow who had first forwarded the nonsense to his group. His reply? “I just thought it was funny. Something to think about, right?”

No. No, it’s not something to fucking think about. It’s something that should never have made it to the table in the first place, because it makes no sense. Don’t be stupid.

I was reading an online comment a few years ago by someone claiming that Social Security was imminently about to go broke because of the aging population. Well, that’s a claim that can be tracked actuarially and investigated in both policy and finance, but he followed that by saying “75 million Americans retire every year now.” And that’s just stupid. Do the arithmetic. There are about 330 million Americans altogether, from birth to advanced age. A lot of them are under 18. A lot of them are already retired. So let’s just guess that there might be 250 million Americans of working age. A third of them are going to retire every year? Every single American will be retired in the next three or four years? Really?

I mentioned this to my correspondent, who became wildly belligerent. “Just ’cause you don’t like it don’t mean it ain’t true,” he said. Well, that’s correct. I don’t have to like it or not, but I do know that 250 divided by 75 equals bullshit.

The internet has fully weaponized the Dunning-Kruger community, and the mob has seized the day. But Dunning and Kruger themselves have posed the remedy:

Dunning and Kruger suggest that as experience with a subject increases, confidence typically declines to more realistic levels. As people learn more about the topic of interest, they begin to recognize their own lack of knowledge and ability. Then as people gain more information and actually become experts on a topic, their confidence levels begin to improve once again.

So there’s today’s lesson. Slow down, look it up, ask other people if what you just said makes sense, and work harder to learn more before you speak. Peer review is just as self-corrective in community life as it is in intellectual life.

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