Unknown Unknown

"Knowledge is what we know. Also, what we know we do not know. We discover what we do not know essentially by what we know. Thus knowledge expands. With more knowledge we come to know more of what we do not know. Thus knowledge expands endlessly. ------ C Radhakrishna Rao, STATISTICS AND TRUTH"

It is the end of 2018. My post about some of my thoughts in 2017 feels like yesterday. I still can’t answer the question I laid out on the first day of 2018. Here are the keywords in my mind at the end of 2018: Dunning-Kruger effect, anti-new year resolution, information anxiety, the veil of ignorance, jerk taxonomy, the least romantic thing, consistent philosophy of life and intimate relationship. I hope to go through each in a series of posts.

Dunning-Kruger effect: Unknown Unknown

Dunning Kruger effect is a cognitive bias discovered by two social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999.

Here is the story behind it. Have you heard about lemon juice as “invisible ink”? That is true. If you write messages on a piece of paper using plain lemon juice, you won’t be able to see the words once lemon-juice dries completely. The invisible messages can be revealed by heating the paper because the lemon juice corrodes the paper.

One day in 1995, a middle-aged man named McArthur Wheeler rubbed two Pittsburgh banks by himself in board daylight without any disguise. He even smiled at surveillance cameras before walking out of each bank. Wheeler was surprised when the police arrested him later that night and showed him the surveillance tapes. He stared at the video in disbelief and mumbled: “But I wore the lemon juice.” Apparently, Wheeler thought that he was invisible to videotape once rubbing lemon juice on his skin.

The unfortunate affair of Mr. Wheeler caught the eye of psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger. They conducted an outstanding research to see what was going on. They focused on the relationship between one’s skill in a particular domain and one’s awareness of his/her skill in that domain. They argued that people tend to hold overly favorable views of their abilities in many social and intellectual domains, i.e., over-confidence. That is not the worst news.

They also found that the same knowledge, what cognitive psychologists term metacognition, that underlies the ability to produce correct judgment is also the knowledge that underlies the ability to recognize correct judgment. It leads to an unfortunate cognitive bias to inflate self-assessment, and the most unskilled people suffer the bias the most. In other words:

The more stupid you are, the less likely you realize you are stupid.

No wonder Steve Jobs said: “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish.” If you don’t stay foolish, then you are foolish. In other words, there is no way not to be stupid. You can only choose to admit or deny it. That is the essence of free will. Understanding that helps a lot. I started from trying to be smarter to later trying to be less dumb, until now, I realized neither of them would work. I should focus on trying to figure out how dumb I am or at least to know if I am too dumb to figure that out.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb claims in “The Black Swan” that although people tend to place a higher value on the things they know that on the things they don’t know, it is the things we don’t know, and therefore can’t see coming, that tend to shape our world most dramatically. So, we should often remind ourselves the unknown unknown.

Taleb argues that people need an antilibrary which “should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates and the currently tight real-estate market allow you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books.” If you feel guilty about all the unread books on your shelves, you should read this article titled “Why You Should Surround Yourself With More Books Than You’ll Ever Have Time to Read.” Someone thinks the Japanese word “tsundoku” is a better term for it (see “All Those Books You’ve Bought but Haven’t Read? There’s a Word for That”).

Now it is the end of 2018, should I have an anti-new-year-resolution? List all the things I want to do but I don’t know how to do in 2019. As Warren Buffett mentioned the concept of the Circle of Competence in his 1996 Shareholder Letter: “The size of that circle is not very important; knowing its boundaries, however, is vital.”

comments powered by Disqus