False Self Confidence – 1 Sure Way to Spread Misinformation and Hurt Others

False Self Confidence - 1 Sure Way to Spread Misinformation and Hurt Others


Today, I want to reflect on false confidence. This is something I see often in my climate work, and it has reared it’s ugly little head in the current COVID-19 crisis. Psychologists call it the Dunning-Kruger effect.

Just like many of you, I find myself cooped up at home with time on my hands. So, I took some time to do a bit of research on Dunning-Kruger.  I stumbled onto a concept that explains the unending stream of misinformation about climate change. It also helps me understand the eruption of instant-experts on viral disease, economics, and exponential math that we’ve seen since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There is nothing that saps one's confidence as the knowing how to do a thing.

Dunning and Kruger Observations about Self-Confidence

David Dunning and Justin Kruger did many experiments on cognitive bias. That’s where folks believe something that isn’t true. Here, they feel they are experts when they’re not. Over many experiments, Dunning and Kruger noted that people who know very little about a topic often believe they know a lot.
In one famous example, they found that over 88% of American drivers believe they are above average drivers. Just think about that for a moment. Only 50% of drivers could ever be above average. So, what’s up with the other 38%?

As We Learn More – Self Confidence Decreases

But when people learn more, take a course or get experience, self-confidence decreases. Basically, they learn enough to know that they don’t know a lot. Finally, experts often see how special they are. They believe they don’t know enough, and also everyone else knows a lot about the topic too. Unfortunately, folks who know the least often have the most self confidence. Experts typically never reach that level.

Some Thoughts about Dunning-Kruger

​I didn’t plan this to be a tutorial on Dunning-Kruger. There is a ton of great information about this out there. For those who are interested, here are some links to good descriptions of the Dunning-Kruger Effect. 


However, I would like to share my thoughts and in the process not fall prey to the syndrome myself.

​First, Dunning and Kruger identified that this syndrome is normal. We can all do it. This is not a disorder to which only a few foolish folks fall prey. We are hard wired to feel great when we learn something new and want to share. 

Folks Who Know the Least Have the Most Self Confidence

Second,  folks who know the least have the most self confidence. In social media this can be very damaging. Folks who know squat about climate or COVID-19 project the greatest confidence. It’s easy to accept their misinformation as fact and follow bad advice. In a crisis, this costs lives. For example, the awful, but sadly common advice that COVID-19 is just the flu, so don’t bother social distancing. A misinformed opinion that has led to infection, misery and death. 

Experts Aren’t So Sure

Finally, experts seem to be unsure of themselves. They qualify everything. They share all the nuances and often send the message they have no faith in the information they share. Their honesty can confuse us, and we dismiss their message.

In climate change, experts will often share information about the uncertainties in the modelling to give the full picture. Then, sceptics twist this to discredit the message. “If you are so unsure, we can’t believe anything you say.”
We need to protect ourselves. I need to make sure I don’t become the guy that shares bad information that hurts others. Also, I have to be careful not to accept bad information spread by folks who don’t know a lot.

Fact Check, Fact Check, Then Fact Check Again

Thankfully, the cure is the simple. But it takes work. We have to check our facts before we share them! 
Who said this? Are they credible? Where did this come from? Sometimes it is a reliable source like NASA, CDC, or the WHO. Other times, it’s just a clever meme with a great picture.  That ain’t science, and while it may be fun, it is not good advice on how to deal with COVID-19 or climate change.
So, fact check, fact check, then check again – before you share! We don’t want to be the source of bad advice that hurts a friend or neighbour.

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