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Ignorance Begets Confidence - the Dunning-Kruger Effect

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

The Dunning-Kruger Effect, which I had never heard of, was mentioned recently on this site in a comment by Jim Jones. So, I investigated, and found a fascinating scientific insight into the mind of the typical Christian. As it turns out, the reason most Christians are so difficult to budge from their religious views is because they know so little about their religion. This may seem counter-intuitive, but this is the essence of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, discovered and described by psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger, both then of Cornell University, in a 1999 paper titled: "Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One's Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments."

The D-K Effect was frequently suggested historically, notably by Charles Darwin -

"Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge"

– and Bertrand Russell -

"One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision."
In a series of studies, Dunning and Kruger found this pattern across many skills, including reading comprehension, operating a motor vehicle, and playing chess or tennis. Apparently, those displaying the D-K Effect are so lacking in competence that they are even unaware of their incompetence, thus they tend to overestimate their level of skill and fail to recognize skill in others. Conversely, people with high levels of skill or knowledge tend to underestimate their standing relative to others. It seems that the more one knows, the more he realizes how little he knows.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, Dunning and Kruger also found the Effect operative in broad tests of logical reasoning skills.

The D-K Effect goes a long way toward explaining why those with the least competence in their religion are the most sure they are right about it. Similarly, those who know the least about science are the most certain that it has nothing important to say about how the world works. And, in general, those who are the least adept at critical thinking are the most confident they have the answers.

But do Christians really lack competence in their religion? One way to measure this would be to measure their knowledge of the Bible, relative to other groups. This has been done, and the results - confirming the D-K Effect - should be shocking to Christians. The Pew Research Center’s US Religious Knowledge Survey of 2010 reported that atheists and agnostics were the most knowledgeable on the Bible, followed closely by Muslims and Jews, with Protestants and Catholics trailing far behind.

Further, while nearly 80% of Americans self-identify as Christians, Time magazine observed in a 2007 cover story that only half of U.S. adults could name even one of the four Gospels, and fewer than half could identify Genesis as the Bible's first book. Obviously, most Christians have scant knowledge of even the basics of their own religion. Or, as George Gallup Jr. and Jim Castelli said in a widely quoted survey finding, "Americans revere the Bible but, by and large, they don't read it."

While nearly 80% of Americans self-identify as Christians, Time magazine observed in a 2007 cover story that only half of U.S. adults could name even one of the four Gospels, and fewer than half could identify Genesis as the Bible's first book. This helps explain why debating religion with the typical Christian generally becomes frustrating very quickly. His knowledge of the Bible and critical thinking skills are usually severely limited. BUT HE FAILS TO RECOGNIZE THIS! And that is the message of the D-K Effect.

Those who do begin to question religion quickly come across troubling logic problems, such as, if Satan is evil and harmful to man’s best interests, why does god allow him to exist? Or, if Adam and Eve weren’t meant to eat the fruit of that tree in the Garden of Eden, then what was it doing there? Or, why was the punishment of Adam and Eve (and all of their descendants) so harsh, for their first (and possibly only) mistake? Or, if the Garden of Eden “fall of man” story was just metaphor, then what need is there for a redeemer? These things seem so obviously illogical that one begins to doubt his competency. Surely, anyone could see that these things don’t make sense, so the problem must be my misunderstanding. Reflecting the D-K Effect, once we realize we don’t have all the answers we begin to doubt our competency.

“The quintessential emblem of religion – and the clearest manifestation of the perversity that lies at its core – is the sacrifice of a child by its parent.”

This is a paraphrase of Lucretius. He wasn’t speaking of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ because this was written in pre-Christian times. Yet, this statement is so obviously true that if it occurs to a believer, he immediately questions his own critical thinking competency and may push the problem into the “Mystery of God” pseudo-answer.

Historically, Christians have been routinely advised not to question the Bible or preachers too much. In fact, the Catholic Church attempted to suppress the first complete English translation of the Latin Bible in the early 15th century. Similarly, the Council of Valencia and the Council of Trent forbade letting people have a Bible in their own language and reading it for themselves. Clement XI also issued a papal bull against Bible reading. Perhaps these Church leaders suspected that the Bible wouldn’t stand much scrutiny by educated readers.

But shouldn’t this be a red flag? Why don’t they want us to learn more about this religion? I am reminded of the Carfax TV ad where the salesman keeps changing the subject rather than producing the Carfax. Shouldn’t any normal person be suspicious? But, no, they claim faith is the most important thing; that is, believing without - or even despite - any evidence. Paul of Tarsus said, “Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1: 17) And Augustine went even further, all the way to absurdity: “There is another form of temptation, even more fraught with danger. This is the disease of curiosity. It is this which drives us to try to discover the secrets of nature, those secrets which are beyond our understanding, which can avail us nothing and man should not wish to learn.”

But isn’t it obvious that the only people who fear knowledge are those who are on the wrong side of it? And hasn’t history proven Augustine totally wrong on this issue? Think of all we have learned about how the world works since Augustine’s time, thanks to our curiosity – from physics, biology, psychology and medicine, to central heating and the flush toilet. How incredibly ignorant must one be to exalt ignorance? And yet this is what the Bible authors did, and what modern priests and pastors do all the time. They tell you to “just have faith,” to “trust in faith,” and even to ”work on your faith.” Does this differ significantly from telling one to “just stay stupid?”

This is apparently the toughest hurdle that one must get past to free his brain from religious authority; to accept that questions are good and ignorance is not, that evidence matters, and that faith is really a cop out since it requires no evidence and even intentionally ignores it. After all, no amount of belief makes something a fact.

We see the Dunning–Kruger effect very clearly in the debate on evolution versus intelligent design. Those who know the least about evolution are the most certain that it is false. Yet, there is only one major scientific theory on the origin of species because it has passed test after test. The only alternative is based on religion, and specifically on the claims of ancient texts written by primitive men in a pre-scientific age. If the evidence for any single religion was as thoroughly tested and conclusive, then there would only be one religion. As it stands, however, there are still hundreds of different active religions in the world simply because none of their proponents can prove anything of significance about them. (I once had a bumper sticker that read, “Science is knowledge. Religion is opinion.”)

The beliefs of our peers are extremely important and can help us get past this feeling of incompetence as we begin to question standard religious beliefs. A new survey by the Pew Research Center finds that belief in the existence of God has dropped 15 points in the last five years among Americans 30 and under. Apparently, the word is spreading rapidly in this age cohort. Similarly, the trend away from religious observance in Europe may be accelerating.

Also, the Clergy Project’s rapid growth from 52 to over 200 since its creation just last year suggests a potentially influential anti-theism movement has been unleashed in America. These are educated priests, pastors, etc., who have questioned deeply and still came to the conclusion that the dogma is false. Doesn’t the existence of large and growing numbers of such religious experts leaving the fold suggest that they may be onto something? This is paralleled by recent surveys that show religiosity in America is inversely correlated with educational attainment.

Christianity survives, in part, by imparting fear in its inductees; fear of hell and fear of an empty, meaningless life. However, a simple reading of a few de-conversion stories on puts the lie to this teaching. The majority of those leaving Christianity report feelings of increased happiness, and a loss of guilt and fear. A great many of these people report that investigating their doubts, especially with respect to the Bible, was the first step toward a better life. And, as the Dunning-Kruger Effect has demonstrated, their doubts were a sign of their increasing religious competence.