Welcome to part 4 of a 10 part series:

How to get smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies

In this article we’re talking:

  • Black and white thinking
  • The Dunning-Kruger effect
  • Uncertainty > the illusion of knowledge
  • Standing on the shoulders of giants
  • The importance of having lots of gurus

Let’s begin…

35. Beware the Dunning-Kruger effect

“One of the surprising discoveries of modern psychology is how easy it is to be ignorant of your own ignorance.” – Daniel C. Dennett

We all know people who think they’re much better, smarter, more talented etc. than they really are.

Awful singers on American idol who think they’re amazing.

Average workers who think the company couldn’t survive without them.

Closed-minded idiots who think they know everything.

Conversely we also know there are lots of smart people who think they know nothing.

“The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” – Socrates

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” – Confucius

“What we know is a drop, what we don’t know is an ocean.” – Isaac Newton

“We don’t know a millionth of one percent about anything.” – Thomas Edison

“We know nothing at all. All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren. The real nature of things we shall never know.” – Albert Einstein

What explains this curious phenomenon?

Why are so many people ignorant of their ignorance?

Why do so many stupid people think they’re smart?

Are they too stupid to realize they’re stupid?

The answer: The Dunning-Kruger effect

The Dunning-Kruger effect in a nutshell:

  • The less competent and intelligent you are, the more likely you are to overestimate your abilities and knowledge, and the less likely you are to perceive your incompetence, because you haven’t yet developed the knowledge and experience with which to recognize your incompetence
  • The more competent and intelligent you are, the less likely you are recognize your skills and abilities as being vastly superior to those of other people

In other words:

  • Stupid people tend to overestimate their intelligence and skills relative to other people, and they often think they’re much smarter than they really are – because they’re too stupid to know that they’re stupid
  • Smart people tend to underestimate their intelligence relative to other people, and often think that everyone else has approximately the same amount of knowledge as they do

Or as psychologist David Dunning of the Dunning-Kruger effect puts it:

“In many areas of life, incompetent people do not recognize – scratch that, cannot recognize – just how incompetent they are. 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.

To know how skilled or unskilled you are at using the rules of grammar, for instance, you must have a good working knowledge of those rules, an impossibility among the incompetent. Poor performers—and we are all poor performers at some things—fail to see the flaws in their thinking or the answers they lack.

What’s curious is that, in many cases, incompetence does not leave people disoriented, perplexed, or cautious. Instead, the incompetent are often blessed with an inappropriate confidence, buoyed by something that feels to them like knowledge.

An ignorant mind is precisely not a spotless, empty vessel, but one that’s filled with the clutter of irrelevant or misleading life experiences, theories, facts, intuitions, strategies, algorithms, heuristics, metaphors, and hunches that regrettably have the look and feel of useful and accurate knowledge.” – David Dunning, the Dunning-Kruger effect

This explains why stupid people often think that they’re a lot smarter than they really are, and why those who know the least seem to know it the loudest.

“When you are dead, you do not know you are dead. It’s only painful & difficult for others. The same applies when you are stupid.” – Unknown

Another reason stupid people tend to overestimate their intelligence and skills relative to others, is because they’ve never spent time with a true expert, genius, prodigy etc. and so they don’t really know what ‘good’ is, because they’ve never seen ‘good’.

In other words: What’s ‘good’ to an amateur, isn’t ‘good’ to an expert. What you call ‘smart’ and what Elon Musk calls ‘smart’ are probably two different things. So when most people think they’re intelligent, skilled, talented etc. they’re not necessarily being dishonest or intentionally trying to deceive themselves, they really believe what they’re saying. They just don’t have an accurate basis for comparison.

The funny thing is that almost everyone suffers from the Dunning-Kruger effect and thinks that they’re above average as students, parents, drivers, employees etc.

In fact, if you were to rate yourself compared to other people as a student, driver, parent, employee etc. you would probably rate yourself above average and give yourself a “7”.

I say that confidently because almost everyone gives themselves a 7 and thinks that they’re above average at almost everything.

A good 5 minute video summarizing the Dunning-Kruger effect from Ted:

The famous British actor John Cleese speaking about the Dunning-Kruger effect:

I’ve experienced the effects of the Dunning-Kruger phenomenon in my own life.

As a teenager and in my early twenties I thought I was relatively smart, but now after 17+ years of intense study into pretty much everything from critical thinking to psychology to science to spirituality, I’ve come to realize just how incredibly ignorant I am – how incredibly ignorant we all are – about EVERYTHING.

In other words: I never realized how dumb I was until I started getting a little smarter.

“The only thing I know is that I know nothing.” – Socrates

I like the above quote but I honestly don’t even know what it means to ‘know’ something. Nor do I know what the ‘proof’ of ‘truth’ is. I don’t say that to sound smart, I honestly don’t know what it means to ‘know’ something.

“The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” – Aristotle

How to overcome the Dunning-Kruger effect:

  • Challenge, quiz, and test yourself frequently – this will give you a reality check and allow you to find out what you know and what you don’t
  • Don’t be intellectually lazy
  • Don’t assume you’re smarter than the stranger you’re speaking with
  • Remember that you don’t even know 0.000000001% about ANYTHING
  • Read books above your level that cause you to stretch and think
  • Read/watch/listen/speak to people much smarter than you
  • Stay humble, stay hungry, empty your cup, open your mind

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” – Charles Darwin

“The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.” – William Shakespeare

“The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.” -Bertrand Russell  

34. Beware of black and white thinking

As a child, and throughout my teenage years and early twenties, I was frequently guilty of black and white thinking, and of seeing things in an overly simplistic kind of way.

I “ALWAYS” saw “EVERYTHING” as one of only two extremes:

  • BEST/WORST
  • GOOD/BAD
  • RIGHT/WRONG
  • TRUE/FALSE
  • YES/NO
  • THIS/THAT
  • US/THEM
  • RICH/POOR
  • SUCCESS/FAILURE
  • WINNERS/LOSERS

Since then, I’ve observed that this overly simplistic type of language and thinking is not only very common amongst children, teenagers, and young people, but it’s also found commonly in adults, the media, politics, religion, and society.

Black and white thinking is when you tend to see things in an overly simplistic way, often as only one of two extremes – with no middle ground or grey areas. It is also known as “ALL or NOTHING” thinking or splitting.

Are you a black and white thinker?

Here are some signs you might be:

You tend to see things as one of only two extremes

You frequently use a lot of absolute type words in conversation

  • ABSOLUTELY
  • ALL
  • ALWAYS
  • AWFUL
  • BEST
  • CAN’T
  • DEFINITELY
  • EVERYONE
  • FAILURE
  • LOSER
  • MUST
  • NEVER
  • NONE
  • ONLY
  • PERFECT
  • SUCCESS
  • WINNER
  • WORST

This “ALWAYS” happens.

I’m “DEFINITELY” right.

“EVERYONE” knows that.

She’s “NEVER” on time.

I’ve had the “WORST” day.

You have a strong sense of certainty in what you believe in

As a black and white thinker, when you believe something, you believe it 100%, and you have absolutely no doubts that you’re right.

In fact, not only do you think you’re right – you KNOW you’re right – and anyone who disagrees with you is DEFINITELY WRONG!

You’re intolerant and find yourself unable to see things from other points of view

As a black and white thinker, not only do you think, I mean KNOW you’re right, but you don’t allow for different perspectives, other opinions, shades of grey, or a middle ground.

Instead it’s likely that you find yourself intolerant towards other people’s BS (belief systems), and unable to see things from other people’s perspectives.

If you’re watching an argument or a debate for example, you’re likely to find yourself only able to see things from only one perspective, as if one side (e.g. Democrats) were 100% right about everything, and the other side (e.g. Republicans) were 100% wrong about everything.

I.e. If you’re a black and white thinking liberal – you just CANNOT see things from the conservative point of view. They’re just backward, bigoted, homophobic, islamophobic, misogynist, racist, sexist, idiots. The end. Nor can you agree with ANYTHING Donald Trump says. He lies about EVERYTHING. He is wrong about EVERYTHING. He is AWFUL. The WORST.

You feel your emotions very strongly

Because you feel such a tremendous sense of certainty about your beliefs – you also feel your emotions very strongly too.

You’re not just angry – you’re FURIOUS.

You don’t just dislike someone – you HATE them.

You’re not just upset – you’re DISGUSTED.

You’re religious

If you’re religious you almost certainly see things in a very black/white way, (just as I did when I was a Christian), because you’re taught to. There are no grey areas if you’re religious. Something is simply either good/bad, right/wrong, true/false etc.

The Bible/Quran/Torah is the infallible unerring word of God – end of discussion.

If you believe – you go to Heaven.

If you don’t – you go to Hell.

The end.

You tend to generalize people by race, religion, and sex

As a black and white thinker, you also have a habit of generalizing people by race, religion, and sex:

“Asians” are so smart.

“Black people” are so athletic.

“Christians” are such hypocrites.

“Conservatives” love guns.

“Gays” are such drama queens.

“Jews” are good with money.

“Liberals” are too politically correct.

“Men” only want one thing.

“Muslims” are intolerant.

“White people” can’t dance.

“Women” are emotional.

PS: That’s not to say that I don’t believe that a lot of stereotypes don’t have some elements of truth in them. Of course they do. Otherwise they wouldn’t exist.

I’m just saying that there are almost no absolutes, and 99% of the time there are lots of exceptions to the rule.

You’re a distinction denier

“There’s a difference between, you know, patting someone on the butt and rape or child molestation, right? Both of those behaviors need to be confronted and eradicated without question, but they shouldn’t be conflated, right?” – Matt Damon

Yep, slapping a stranger or a workmate on the ass, child molestation, and rape, are all forms of sexual assault/harassment, but let’s not pretend for one second that they’re as equally bad as one another, and to refuse to see any distinctions between them is not only intellectually lazy and stupid, it’s a definite sign of black and white thinking.

I’m not a fan of Bill Maher, but he’s right here:

Speaking of distinction deniers, let’s talk about the relativity of wrong…

The relativity of wrong

“When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together.” – Isaac Asimov 

Isaac Asimov, the American science fiction writer and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, makes a good point here in his essay: The relativity of wrong

“The basic trouble, you see, is that people think that “right” and “wrong” are absolute; that everything that isn’t perfectly and completely right is totally and equally wrong.” – Isaac Asimov 

Obviously that’s not true. That’s black and white thinking. Just because an answer isn’t 100% completely right, or a solution isn’t 100% perfect, that doesn’t mean it’s 100% completely wrong and should be discarded. Nope. There are different degrees of ‘rightness’ and ‘wrongness’. Just as some answers are more ‘right’ than others, and some solutions are superior to others, some answers are ‘less wrong’ than others.

Neil deGrasse Tyson does a great job of illustrating this point by talking about the difference between the spelling of “CAT”, “KAT”, and “X-Q-W” in this video:

Yep, there are degrees of accuracy. Not all answers are equally right or wrong.

Some answers more ‘right’ or ‘less wrong’ than others…

PS: Don’t fall for false dilemmas

“Either you’re with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” – George W. Bush

You also need to be aware that sometimes people will try to manipulate you into black and white thinking, by oversimplifying information and presenting you with only two options, as if there were only two possible choices, with no other possibilities:

“You either agree – or disagree”

“You either like it – or you don’t”

“You’re either with us – or you’re against us”

This is an overly simplistic (and stupid) way of looking at things and it ignores all other possibilities:

Why can’t you agree on some things – and disagree on others?

Why can’t some parts of a statement be true – and other parts be false?

Why can’t you agree on parts a), b), and c), and disagree on points d), e), and f)?

Why does it have to be ALL – or NONE?

Here are some examples of George W. Bush using the false dilemma fallacy:

CONCLUSION

Although it’s easier to think about things in such an overly simplistic black/white, good/bad, right/wrong, true/false kinda way, (it certainty makes decision making a lot easier and you don’t need to think as much), if you’re completely honest with yourself, it’s probably not the most accurate or honest way to look at things.

For example: Is it really the case that someone is “ALWAYS” late, or that they “NEVER” tell the truth, or that you’ve had the “WORST” day ever?

Probably not.

I know the answer sometimes really is black and white (e.g. 2 + 2 = 4, the light is either ON or OFF, you’re either pregnant or you’re not etc.) but most of the time it’s not, and for that reason, in the interests of accuracy, honesty, and truth, we need to get out of the habit of this overly simplistic way of thinking.

Most people aren’t “WINNERS” or “LOSERS” – they’re winners in some areas, and losers in others (I.e. You can be a “WINNER” financially, but have a shit personality, no friends, and be a “LOSER” with women).

Most people aren’t “DUMB” or “SMART” either – they’re smart in some areas, and dumb in others.

Smart people say stupid things.

Stupid people say smart things.

Evolve your thinking beyond overly simplistic black and white thinking.

33. Uncertainty > the illusion of knowledge

“The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” – Stephen Hawking

It’s almost as if people think it’s a crime these days to be ignorant, to not have an opinion, or to say “I don’t know”.

In fact, most people feel so uncomfortable with the feelings of ignorance and uncertainty, that rather than being honest with themselves and others, confessing their ignorance and saying “I don’t know”, “I’m not sure”, “I have no idea” etc. they’d rather pretend to know things they don’t, in order to avoid looking ‘foolish’.

Brian tries it on here with Stewie in Family Guy:

I believe this explains the popularity of all the world’s religions which all promise the answers to life’s biggest questions. People just hate the feeling of uncertainty so much, that they’d rather believe something – no matter how illogical or ridiculous – than nothing. They’d rather believe a conspiracy theory, than to have no theory.

And this is the problem: Because most people are in such a hurry to fill in the gaps in their knowledge and to get answers to their questions, they’re often far too quick to believe the very first thing they hear from ‘authorities’ and ‘experts’, friends and family, the news, a blog, podcast, social media etc. – without any evidence or fact checking.

What happens next is predictable:

They get answers – but they’re the wrong answers.

They get information – but it’s disinformation and misinformation.

They get ‘news’ – but it’s fake news and propaganda.

In short: They end up with the illusion of knowledge and think that they know things when they don’t. Instead of getting informed – they get miseducated and misinformed with false facts, fake news, propaganda and pseudoscience.

I know it’s tempting to have blind faith in ‘authorities’, ‘experts’, the news media etc. and to form opinions about things you know nothing or very little about, just to get out of the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty. Most people can’t resist the urge.

But if you want to get smarter, you must learn to get comfortable with the feelings of ambiguity and uncertainty, and you must be intellectually honest enough to say “I don’t know” – until you’ve done your homework and research and you do know.

There is no shame in saying “I don’t know” or in not knowing the answer to something.

“Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know’, and you will progress.” – Maimonides

Remember: You can’t know everything and not everything is knowable. Sometimes there just isn’t enough information available to know something one way or another.

I believe:

It’s better to believe nothing (no-thing) – than a bunch of bullshit.

It’s better to be honest and to admit to yourself: “I don’t know” – than to cling to the illusion of knowledge and to try to convince yourself that you know things you don’t.

It’s better to keep an open mind and to form no conclusion – than it is to jump to stupid ill-informed conclusions if there isn’t sufficient data or information available to know something one way or another.

“Start with ‘I don’t know.’ Why not just start where you’ll end up anyway?” – Adyashanti

“Beware of false knowledge; it is more dangerous than ignorance.” – George Bernard Shaw

“Doubt is an uncomfortable condition, but certainty is a ridiculous one.” – Voltaire

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

By being honest with yourself and admitting “I don’t know” you keep your mind open to the very possibility of knowing, instead of closing it with some stupid ill-informed conclusion, and deluding yourself with the illusion of knowledge.

This is one of my favorite videos on this subject from Sadhguru the enlightened mystic:

“Stop bullshitting yourself. Learn to say “I do not know”. What is wrong with that? I do not know carries a tremendous possibility. The moment you destroy “I do not know” you destroy all possibilities of knowing. The very longing to know you destroy. Confusion is better than stupid conclusions. In confusion, there is still a possibility. In stupid conclusion, there is no possibility.” – Sadhguru

32. Stand on the shoulders of giants 

“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton, one of the greatest scientists in history, wrote these famous words in 1675 in a letter to his rival in regards to his incredible achievements in mathematics and physics in developing the three laws of motion and in developing the calculus.

In other words: His incredible achievements were built upon the discoveries of the great minds that had preceded him.

I advise taking a similar approach to your learning and studies.

If you’re going to learn from anyone – why not learn from the best?

Why not learn from the greatest minds in history?

Yes, you can learn from anyone, especially if you have the eyes to see and ears to hear, but let’s be honest: You have so much more to learn from some people than others.

Some teachers are simply better than others. They’re more experienced, more knowledgeable, and more intelligent than others.

Most teachers suck and do their students more harm than good. Not only do they not teach you what you need to know, but they waste your time by teaching you all kinds of bad habits and nonsense that you’re only going to have to eventually unlearn later.

Listen to me: Don’t just learn from anyone or take advice from anyone who wants to give it. Choose your teachers wisely and be careful about who you choose to listen to and learn from.

I generally only listen to the top 1% of experts in any subject, and even then I carefully cross check and screen what they have to say against other experts. Because not only are the ‘experts’ wrong all the time, but they frequently contradict and disagree with one another.

I know it’s unlikely that you’ll get hands-on teaching from the world’s best teachers. They’re too in demand and too expensive and probably don’t have the time nor the inclination to give you personal one on one instruction.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t still learn a lot from them by reading their blogs and books, listening to their interviews and podcasts, and watching their presentations and videos on YouTube.

If you can’t meet with the world’s best teachers face to face this is the next best thing.

I’ve often found this to be the case in my own life. I’ve learnt 1000x more from dead authors and teachers I’ve never met, than I have from any living ones.

31. Have lots of gurus 

In saying that, even once you’ve found your favorite teachers, the very best of the best, the smartest of the smart, it’s important never to get all of your data and information from only one teacher or source.

Why?

Because no one knows everything, no one is infallible or unerring – no matter how smart they are – and like I said earlier: the ‘experts’ frequently contradict each other.

By listening to a variety of different teachers you also give yourself the greatest chance to learn the material. You might not understand the examples and metaphors given by one teacher, but the examples given from another teacher might make perfect sense to you.

Listening to a variety of teachers also allows you to compare notes and to cross check for any contradictions or points of difference.

And:

What one person doesn’t know, another one does.

What one person can’t teach you, another one can.

Personally, whenever I’m learning something new, I like to hear the subject taught by a variety of different teachers, in a variety of different ways (book/podcast/video), using a variety of different examples, to give myself the greatest chance of mastering it.

PS: The same goes for the news: Don’t get all of your information from only one source.

Summary 

This is part 4 of a 10 part series:

How to get smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies

Let’s do a quick recap of this weeks points:

35. Beware of the Dunning-Kruger effect

34. Beware of Black and White thinking

33. Uncertainty > The illusion of knowledge

32. Stand on the shoulders of giants

31. Have lots of gurus

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If you would like to read the other parts in this series here they are:

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – part 1

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 2

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 3

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 5

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 6

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 7

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 8

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 9

How to get Smarter: A guide to critical thinking, cognitive biases, and logical fallacies – Part 10

You might also like to check out my article: How to Learn: 21 Smart Strategies

Or if you would like to read my other articles: Life Lessons All Articles

Footnote:

Donald Trump image credit: egorkeon / Shutterstock.com