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The danger of being swamped by confident idiots

The Trump phenomenon and the influence of One Nation on local politics highlight how irrational beliefs seem to be shaping world events to a disturbing degree, writes Hugh Harris.

Five years ago, who’d have thought Donald Trump could become the leader of the free world? Truth may be stranger than fiction, but if there’s any lesson here, it’s that too many people prefer fiction to the truth. Conspiracy theories have gripped the public imagination to such an extent that a dangerous novice stands at the White House lawn.

Acting as a mirror for America’s anger, prejudices and grandiose delusions, he relies on the public consuming a diet of lies, conspiracy and misinformation. Working back from whatever outcome would “make American great again, Trump proposes ideas and solutions on the fly – building a $25 billion wall, or deporting 11 million immigrants – seemingly unconcerned with how implausible, dangerous, or just plain stupid these ideas might be. An egomaniac who believes his own latest thought bubble is good enough to become policy for the world’s most powerful country, may soon learning how to operate the nuclear codes.

But evidently, stupidity knows no borders. Closer to home, we have One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, who’s still enthralled by the vintage conspiracy theory that Jewish International Bankers control the world. He may have read Pauline Hanson’s ironically titled book, The Truth, in which she supports the crazy paranoia about the “New World Order”.

Since that déjà vu moment, when her quavering falsetto echoed through the Senate chamber, informing us that we’re in danger of being swamped by Muslims (not Asians), her support has quadrupled.

Mysteriously, the conspicuous failure of Asians to overrun us, hasn’t dampened Hanson’s confidence, or fatally wounded her credibility. Quite the opposite, in fact. Why is this so?

An answer may be found in the Dunning-Kruger effect: the curious phenomenon of “confident idiots” emboldened by their own ignorance, rather than cautioned by it.

The 1999 Dunning-Kruger study found those armed with low metacognitive skills grossly overestimated their own competence in metacognitive tasks. Those with test scores in the 12th percentile estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.

And so, according to David Dunning, those with intellectual deficits are often “blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge”.

This hasn’t passed through history unremarked: Recall Shakespeare – “a fool thinks himself to be wise but the wise man knows himself to be a fool”.

As Dunning states:

“Logic itself almost demands this lack of self-insight: For poor performers to recognize their ineptitude would require them to possess the very expertise they lack…”

The Dunning-Kruger effect applies to all humans. Beleaguered by an impressive array of confirmation biases which evolved to allow us to survive in a bewildering world of imperfect knowledge, we’ve adapted in ways which compensate for the gaps by applying greater certainty. The effect is something to be conscious of and to guard against.

Misbeliefs, according to Dunning, arise from cherished ideals, “narratives about the self, ideas about the social order—that essentially cannot be violated”.

“And any information that we glean from the world is amended, distorted, diminished, or forgotten in order to make sure that these sacrosanct beliefs remain whole and unharmed”.

Scorn of scientific expertise represents the hallmark of the “confident idiot”. Climate change denial has become the bellwether of a conspiracy theory epidemic, which has taken hold of many otherwise intelligent people. Luminaries such as Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt think climate change is part of a one world government conspiracy, aided and abetted by the United Nations, our own Australian Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO. But somehow they are apparently embarrassed by Malcom Roberts assertions that’s it’s all a NASA cover up. Alternatively, Donald Trump thinks the global warming hoax was created by “the Chinese to make U.S manufacturing non-competitive”.

Increasingly, the ability to discard inconvenient truths, to suspend belief in scientific fact, and to succumb to half-truths and spin, becomes a necessary skill-set used to choose whatever belief butters our bread, or suits our biases. Google provides an easy way of aligning the world to suit one’s prejudices: using the wrong-way round research method of finding the argument to suit the conclusion. Just by falling down a hole in the internet, crackpot theorist’s such as Flat Earthers, 9/11-Truthers, Chem-trailers, and Anti-Vaxxers, can find all the “empirical evidence” they need.

Science is not above reproach, or immutable. But its limits are well established enough. Adhering to established scientific fact should be a prerequisite for participating in public debate. Political correctness might have gone too far, but it’s consequences pale in comparison to scientific incorrectness.

Hopefully, Donald Trump won’t become President of the United States and we’ll look back on his candidacy as a grotesque caricature which appeared briefly, and then floated away, like a blimp at New York’s Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. But the 50 million or so US citizens who’ll vote for Trump represent a more widespread malaise in critical thinking.

Muslims or Mexicans aren’t about to “swamp” us anytime soon. But we needn’t consult our tea leaves or call a psychic to recognise the danger posed by the Dunning-Kruger effect, and to wonder why we’re not doing more to mitigate the influence of confident idiots.

hughphotoHugh Harris is a freelance writer, and board member of the Rationalist Society of Australia.

Hugh has written for ABC’s The Drum, The Brisbane Times, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Courier Mail, The Huffington Post Australia, New Matilda, and The Daily Banter (US). Hugh blogs at rationalrazor.com.

Articles by Hugh:

Review Signals the Beginning of the End for Bible Classes – The AIMN 28 September 2016

Trying to Silence Unwelcome Views Only Perpetuates Them – The Huffington Post Australia 6 September 2016

Religious Freedom Doesn’t Care What You Believe, But The Census Does – New Matilda 8 August 2016

Queensland’s abortion law among the most repressive in world and must change – The Courier Mail 9 August 2016

No More Tax Loopholes: It’s Time For Faith Groups And Religions To Render Unto Caesar – New Matilda 5 January 2016

Parents should worry about religious education materials – The Sydney Morning Herald 7 June 2016

The Church and its weakening grip over Telstra and taxes – ABC’s The Drum 14 April 2016

The horrifying religious instruction classes planned for Qld schools – Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Brisbane Times 20 April 2016

Queensland law should reflect public support for abortion The Brisbane Times 7 April 2016

We Should Be Promoting Freedom of Belief, Not Religious Freedom – ABC’s The Drum 22 October2015

A Letter to Gun Obsessed America From a Concerned Australian – The Daily Banter 18 December 2015


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  1. Harquebus

    The damage has already been done. We just haven’t seen it yet.

    “There’s also the 40 year lag-time between behavior and outcome to consider which means that we’re only now experiencing the repercussions of our collective behaviors and actions from the 1970’s.”

    “If this wave of “post-fact” thinking triumphs, the world will face a future dominated by pure ideology. “all the big challenges of our time are being mixed in disturbing ways: The crisis of the scientific method, the crisis of nature, and the crisis of humanism become one.””

    “Climate sceptics widen their net to claim all science – from medicine to physics to computing – is ‘in deep trouble'”


  2. Niall McLaren

    The problem for flat-earthers, ACC-deniers and all manner of conspiracy theorists is partly that these people don’t actually have the brains or education to be able to sort complex fact from self-gratifying noises, and partly that even if they did, the truth is just too scary for them to behold. It’s easier to believe that Jews are doing it all (or Reds, or fags, or Muslims, or you name it) than grapple with the awful truth that it’s humans who are horrible, and that means the human in the mirror.

  3. kerri

    Here’s a suggestion for journalists at the next Malcolm Roberts presser?
    Ask Roberts if he believes in god?
    Then ask him to provide empirical evidence of god’s existence?

    Niall Mc Laren I believe there is one other factor the luddites hold dear! If they believe in global warming, then they will have to act. And that means a change of lifestyle and a loss of independance.

  4. Peter F

    Two perfect examples of the simple idea that …… those who KNOW they know, . . . don’t.

  5. Harley Fuzi

    9/11 is no theory

  6. totaram

    Absolutely nailed it! I have been saying this for quite a while. The more our society depends on science and technology, the more likely the Dunning-Kruger effect will rear its head. But what is the solution? I haven’t seen anyone think of one, especially when the “free” press is only a propaganda outlet for the owners. There is a claim that the rise of the internet will break that stranglehold, but then people with deep pockets can hire the resources required to carry out campaigns on-line as well. Although I will be gone shortly, I despair for the future of my children and mankind as a whole.

  7. Kaye Lee

    Along with the Dunning-Kruger effect we have the Peter Principle.

    “We are all promoted to our own level of incompetence,” Abbott once quipped to The Australian.”So sooner or later mine will be reached.”

    The author of the Peter Principle suggests that “work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.” Rather than seeking to promote a talented “super-competent” junior employee, Peter suggested that an incompetent manager may set them up to fail or dismiss them because they will likely “violate the first commandment of hierarchical life with incompetent leadership: [namely that] the hierarchy must be preserved”.

    We mustn’t have any of those pesky scientists or expert public servants or, God forbid, women, showing us up.

  8. Wayne Turner

    The Libs fit this too: Such as Abbott,Morrison and Dutton. While Turnbull’s a gutless turd.

    Sadly confident idiots voted in by confident idiots – The failure of democracy when the idiots out number the informed.

  9. jimhaz

    [Political correctness might have gone too far, but it’s consequences pale in comparison to scientific incorrectness]

    Nice sentence.

    The issue with anti-‘political correctness’ is the way it is played with by the media.

    Instead of promoting people who can elucidate the objective truths, and more accurately weigh the negatives and positives of individual facts in context, they select the most polarised as empirical evidence representatives as those more extreme views cause us to emote. Then they excuse this by saying it is just being even handed, that they are avoiding both overbearing political correctness and anti-PCism by presenting these extremes.

    Although the MSM is being forced into this for income reasons by advances in technology widening and changing our information sources and lowering our attention spans or considered reflection of events, that is what makes public entities like the CSRIO and ABC as a source for scientific correctness ever so much more important.

    Of the basket of issues that make us uneasy, such as neoliberalism, high private and public debt, corrupted political processes, religious idiocy etc, one has to ask just how much effect the change to pumped up emotive content in the media is having on the degree of anger in western societies. Times have been much worse in the past with higher unemployment, interest, inflation levels yet so many complain as if the situation is dire at a personal level. Both the MSM and social media is making us into low tolerance self centred complainers, where only the more extreme unite into groups with political and thus media power.

  10. jimhaz

    [But evidently, stupidity knows no borders. Closer to home, we have One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts, who’s still enthralled by the vintage conspiracy theory that Jewish International Bankers control the world. He may have read Pauline Hanson’s ironically titled book, The Truth, in which she supports the crazy paranoia about the “New World Order”.]

    [And so, according to David Dunning, those with intellectual deficits are often “blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge”.]

    In relation to geopolitical conspiracies something that feels like knowledge to me is that the personalities of those who seek to lead us are ones which seek to gain as much power for themselves as they possibly can.

    I am unable to discount the possibility that there is a group of people at the world level who cooperate behind the scenes with political policy and propaganda in order to maintain their positions of power. We see forms of background manipulations at all levels within all types of organisations so one can assume it also happens at the macro level. There are an awful lot of international power talkfests these days.

    The cooperation would be limited to enhancing and strengthening their power over the masses. The competition and strategic collusion between members or subgroups of the power groups would remain, and they would still be using people as disposable pawns in their power plays.

    Jewish people are over represented in financial and media power circles. I think this may be due to the holocaust and the drive to achieve it gave the generations after. They would have formed power groups for the purpose of geopolitical control, but so to have others such as the Christians, Old School Bankers, Oil-Muslim cabals, Arms Manufacturers etc.

    They all need compliant populations. The New World Order “natural conspiracy” is one of parallel vested interests leading to cooperative bad cop/good cop activities. Do whatever we have to, to keep our positions as lords. In effect this means business as usual. As they are already wealthy then business as usual means their existing wealth and power sources remain intact – they will fight progressive or substantial change due to the risk they wont control the outcome. The power groups involved all require irrational situations (false spirituality, war, terrorism, neoliberal nuttery, maximised debt systems etc) or they become redundant.

  11. 2353

    Serious question – when refugees from the USA start arriving on our seaboard in fishing boats, will Turnbull, Hanson and Dutton try to turn them back or send them to Nauru?

  12. John Brame

    Or when auzzie refugees start arriving in New Zealand. Would the kiwi’s let us in ?

  13. Kaye Lee

    Canada looks nice

  14. John Brame

    Pauline Hanson, the One Nation leader first contacted Roberts in 2013 seeking advice on climate change policy as she geared up for the 2015 Queensland election…. OMG, the blind following the blind.

  15. Carole

    Stop calling people idiots. That is your first incorrect assumption. Stop thinking you who call people idiots, that you’re smart. That is your second incorrect assumption.

  16. Freethinker

    Forget about Canada Kaye, their main immigration website has appeared to repeatedly crash by enquirers from USA

  17. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    If Trump has won like it looks like he has, it’s Plan B.

    Let him and his administration fall on their face so that the already disenfranchised and the outraged can sweep up and wipe out neoliberalism in America and Australia too.

  18. cornlegend

    Pauline Hanson to Donald Trump: ‘Mr President my door will always be open’

    Jennifer, it is “disenfranchised and the outraged ” that put him there
    France next?

  19. Freethinker

    Jennifer, they will not fall on their face, they will become richer and fulfilled their aim of dividing the masses so there will be a weak opposition. Just have a look what happens in Brasil and for that matter in France, Germany and here in Australia.
    Poverty will increase and the people will turn into each other instead of rebel.
    It works and worked trough history.

  20. Peter F

    @Carole i am smart enough to put trust in the scientific method.

  21. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    We shall see. (Just quietly, I was trying to put a brave face on because I’m as shocked as everybody else.)

    I still think there is a good chance that this political outcome will bite America on its bum and that could be a good thing for people advocating socio-economic and equitable change.

  22. cornlegend

    The greatest wake up call was not that a blithering idot and dangerous fool like was able to gain nomination but the fact 50 odd million ordinary Americans voted for him.
    Thankfully one of mine is heading home from Cuba soon, too close to bombing range from Florida and I don’t mean by troops

    Greg Jericho Retweeted
    Simon Rowntree ‏@SRowntreeNews 5h5 hours ago Manhattan, NY
    I am at a Trump rally in Manhattan, and thousands are chanting “We hate Muslims, we hate blacks, we want our great country back”.


  23. Jennifer Meyer-Smith

    Generally speaking,

    America proved itself today to be as stupid as many of us have suspected for many decades.

  24. Jexpat

    Revenge of the Rust Belt: the Republican wing of the Democratic party gets another thumping.

    Prior to its shift to Wall Street -vocal support for corporate racketeering arrangements masqurading as “trade” agreements, and the adoption of neoliberal economic polices that destroyed livelihoods and markedly increased mortality rates, Democrats in most elections could rely on working class support in key states Clinton lost in this election.

  25. Kaye Lee

    I bet Donald is saying to himself oh shit….they expect me to work? Will he appoint his children to government roles to help him? I have a feeling Trump will be like Clive Palmer who very rarely turned up to parliament. Donald is going to find it tough to do a gig where there is no off season – he will get sick of it.

    The first thing they should do is shut down his twitter account,

  26. Jennifer Meyer-Smith


    Australians do have the capacity to react against authority and, while we are yet to prove we can rebel as a nation, we have shown ourselves capable of a fighting spirit.

    I actually think Trump’s support base, being pissed off white lower-middle class people, could work against him, if he and his administration cannot lift their standards of living.

    While I’m writing this, I’m hearing Bitchop speaking up TPP in the “lame-dog period”. If America allows that to go through despite Trump’s opposition to it, that would be a very bad start for Trump to prove his pretence of power and influence.

  27. 2Bob

    Murdoch’s FoxNews wins again.
    Theres money in muck!
    You can fool most of the people most of the time, but in America Rupert only needs a controlling share!

  28. Biggyd81

    Hugh the bankers do control the world. Corporations control the media and politicians. How is this a conspiracy theory? The rich get richer and the poor can go to hell.

  29. Kaye Lee

    likewise in Australia 2Bob. I am gobsmacked. I could say so much more but the whole world already knows.

  30. Pingback: The danger of being swamped by confident idiots | Rationalist Society of Australia

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