Saturday, June 26, 2010

Re-post: The Dunning-Kruger effect

Note: This post is a re-post of my write-up of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Since I wrote it originally, the link to the article in the journal no longer work, so I've changed the link to another location on the internet.

We've all experienced situations where we've run into people who seemed unable to estimate their own (lack of) skills in a particular area. It might be as extreme as the Creationist who tries to explain science to the scientist, but it can also be people in your day to day life, who overestimates their own skills in one thing or another.

There are two explanations for this. One is the "above-average syndrome", the other is the Dunning-Kruger effect.

The "above-average syndrome" is, simply put, that the average person in a given field will believe themselves to be above average. In other words, more people believe themselves above average than really are. Obviously, only 50% can be above average, but there are perhaps 80% who believes they are.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is related to the above-average syndrome, but it's one explanation of why this syndrome exist (there can be other reasons). The effect is named after Justin Kruger and David Dunning who made a series of experiments, which results they published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in December 1999. The title of the article was Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments (.pdf), which to my mind is one of the greatest titles I've ever seen on an article.

I highly recommend downloading the article, and reading it. It's fairly straightforward, and you don't need any background in psychology to understand it.

Dunning and Kruger looked at the above-average effect, and formed the hypothesis that it takes skills to evaluate yourself. With that hypothesis in mind, they set out to make a number of experiments to either disprove it, or to support it. Since I'm writing about the effect now, you've probably already figured out that their experiments supported their hypothesis.

Their experiments were fairly straightforward:
- Ask people to do some tests.
- Get people to evaluate how well they did compared to others.

At later tests they also included the following:
- Show people how others did.
- Get people to re-evaluate their level compared to others.

First they put people through a number of tests in different areas, and afterward asked them to evaluate how well they would do compared to others based on how they perceived their skill level. The results can be seen in the following figure from the paper.

Dunning-Kruger results 1

As can be clearly seen, while the trend line of the perceived skill level was correct, everyone who took the tests believed that they were in the 3rd quartile. In other words, while the people in the 1st quartile estimated themselves lower than the people in the 2nd quartile, they vastly overestimated their abilities compared to others (by some 50 percentage points).

As the study says, there are two potential sources for the this wrong estimate, which Dunning and Kruger tried to evaluate.

Finally, we wanted to introduce another objective criterion with which we could compare participants' perceptions. Because percentile ranking is by definition a comparative measure, the miscalibration we saw could have come from either of two sources. In the comparison, participants may have overestimated their own ability (our contention) or may have underestimated the skills of their peers.

The way they tested this, was by not only asking people to compare themselves with other people, but also by asking them to tell how many questions they thought they had answered correctly. If they were correct in the number of questions they had answered correctly, this would mean that they had underestimated the skills of their peers rather than overestimated their own skills. This was, unfortunately, not the case. It turned out that people were actually pretty good at estimating how many correct answers would place them in their position, but were not able to estimate how many answers they would answer correctly.

In other words, it was not a failure of estimating others, it was a failure of estimating themselves (this held true across all quartiles, but was most strikingly among the lowest quartile).

All in all, the test results pretty much supported the hypothesis which Dunning and Kruger had made, but while it demonstrated the inability of people to estimate themselves, it didn't really address whether people would have the skill-set to re-evaluate their ability.

This is also something Dunning and Kruger set out to test.

Participants. Four to six weeks after Phase 1 of Study 3 [a grammar test] was completed, we invited participants from the bottom- (n = 17) and top-quartile (n = 19) back to the laboratory in exchange for extra credit or $5. All agreed and participated.
Procedure. On arriving at the laboratory, participants received a packet of five tests that had been completed by other students in the first phase of Study 3. The tests reflected the range of performances that their peers had achieved in the study (i.e., they had the same mean and standard deviation), a fact we shared with participants. We then asked participants to grade each test by indicating the number of questions they thought each of the five test-takers had answered correctly.

After this, participants were shown their own test again and were asked to re-rate their ability and performance on the test relative to their peers, using the same percentile scales as before. They also re-estimated the number of test questions they had answered correctly.

The results were very interesting, as can be seen in the two figures I'e made based upon the numbers from the article.

Dunning-Kruger lowest quartile

Dunning-Kruger highest quartile

As the figures plainly show, the people in the highest quartile could use the information they gained to adjust their evaluation in the correct direction, though they were still too low. The people in the lowest quartile on the other hand, were unable to properly estimate their own effort, and actually misjudged their score even more afterward.

All in all, the tests supported Dunning and Kruger's hypothesis, and it gives us a better understanding of why people some times are so bad at judging their own skill level.

Having said all that, I should probably mention that later researchers disputes some of the conclusions made by Dunning and Kruger. In Skilled or Unskilled, but Still Unaware of It: How Perceptions Difficulty Drive Miscalibration in Relative Comparisons (.pdf) Burson et al. argues that it's not just unskilled people who can have a hard time evaluating their own skill level.

People are inaccurate judges of how their abilities compare to others’. J. Kruger and D. Dunning (1999, 2002) argued that unskilled performers in particular lack metacognitive insight about their relative performance and disproportionately account for better-than-average effects. The unskilled overestimate their actual percentile of performance, whereas skilled performers more accurately predict theirs.
However, not all tasks show this bias. In a series of 12 tasks across 3 studies, the authors show that on moderately difficult tasks, best and worst performers differ very little in accuracy, and on more difficult tasks, best performers are less accurate than worst performers in their judgments. This pattern suggests that judges at all skill levels are subject to similar degrees of error. The authors propose that a noise-plus-bias model of judgment is sufficient to explain the relation between skill level and accuracy of judgments of relative standing.

In the Burson et al. study, the best quartile underestimated themselves when dealing with hard tasks as the worst quartile overestimated themselves when dealing with easy tasks.

Burson et al

This doesn't necessarily invalidates the Dunning-Kruger effect, but it does tell us that we can't rely on people to correctly evaluate themselves, no matter their skill level.

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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Why I consider myself a skeptic, rather than atheist, activist

Last weekend, the Danish Atheist Society (Ateistisk Selskab) and Atheist Alliance International hosted an atheist conference, Gods & Politics, in Copenhagen.

I went there, together with a bunch of pharyngulites (people who comment at the Pharyngula blog), and had an informative and all-round great time.

Still, the conference reminded me of why I consider myself a skeptic, rather than an atheist. Or rather, why I focus on skepticism rather than atheism these days.

The reason for this is that being an atheist is not evidence of rationality.

During the conference I ran into both global warming deniers and 9/11-truthers, and even got accused of being dogmatic by the later, when I said that his claims were moronic.

Well, if maintaining a rational view on things is dogmatic, then I'd be happy to be so.

Skepticism on the other hand, requires rationality - otherwise it's denialism (denial of things, in spite of evidence).

As an atheistic skeptic, I will fight many of the same battles as atheist activists, since these battles are also skeptic battles, and I think that skeptics and atheists could and should work together to make the world move towards a more rational place. I just also think that many atheists can be harmful to the skeptical movement (Bill Maher is a good example of this), and I equally consider them a hindrance for a rational world.

In other words, if you're an atheist, I will work together with you, but I don't necessarily think that we're allies, just because we both don't believe in gods.

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Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Just a quick comment on an internet phenomenon

If you follow atheist, skeptic, and science blogs, you will be aware of the concept of a Poe - a commenter named after Poe's Law "Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won't mistake for the genuine article". In other words, a commenter pretending to be a kook so well that it's impossible to tell the poster from the real thing.

I don't know about the rest of you, but I have come to detest Poes.

I can understand the fun for the poster pretending to be something else, and see how many people it fools, but for the rest of us, it just derails the conversation, and make people waste energy trying to convince someone about the errors of their positions.

Here I should probably make clear that I am only talking about Poes in the context of rational discussions. In other places, such as Conservapedia, Poes serve as a good tool for exposing the extreme views of the site. On rational sites, however, they just waste everybody's time - there are plenty of kooks out there which are willing to do that already, why add to them? It's just trolling, and we don't need more trolls.

OK, I am better now - just needed to get this off my chest. Just don't get me started on people who writes "first" in the comment sections.

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Saturday, June 05, 2010

A very real cost of our consumption

I haven't touched the BP oil spill story, since I didn't feel that I had anything to add to the coverage in the media and in many blogs.

Like many people, I feel angry and helpless because of it.

Stories like this one in the New York Times certainly doesn't help me.

Pelicans, Back From Brink of Extinction, Face Oil Threat

The images of oil-covered birds — pelicans, northern gannets, laughing gulls and others — are eerily reminiscent of the Exxon Valdez disaster 21 years ago, and have in recent days have become the most vivid symbol of the damage wrought by the hundreds of thousands of barrels of crude oil that have poured into the Gulf of Mexico since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20. Since the spill, 612 damaged birds had been cataloged as of Friday, most dead but some alive and drenched in oil, federal officials said.

Yet the brown pelican, because of its history of robust recovery in the face of extreme peril, has a special significance for the public.

All of this is cause by our dependence on oil - without it, there would be no off-shore oil drilling, and thus no oil spill.

Right now, all focus must be on stopping the oil spill, which is still happening, but after that, it's time for reflection on how we can stop this from ever happening again in the future.

We will need to look into making offshore platforms and pipelines more secure, but we also most certainly will need to look into alternatives to oil.

A lot of oil is used for electricity - here other alternatives exist; from solar power to burning of trash, from wind energy over hydro energy to nuclear plants. Some of these options are not available everywhere, but by implementing those available, our oil dependency can be reduced.

Oil are also used for transportation - as fuel for motor vehicles and airplanes. Here alternatives are also starting to appear, and more research should be put into these.

Plastic is oil based as well. Here there is research into alternatives, but so far with little success. This is an area where further study most certainly should be done, especially when considering the ever-increasing use of plastic materials. Recycling of old plastic should also be stepped up, reducing the need to produce new.

All of these things can be done, but each of us can also do something - we can try to reduce our oil consumption, by switching off electrical devices which are not used (including adapters, which often consume electricity, even when not plugged into anything), by walking, biking, or using public transportation instead of driving cars (if possible), and by recycling and producing less waste.

We didn't drill for oil, BP did, but we are part of the reason why BP drilled. We need to face up to this, and take the consequences.

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