I see dumb people.


I like starting out with a picture.

Think it would work? Probably not. But I laughed, and then read the article below, and got depressed.

There is quirk of the brain called the Dunning-Kruger effect,

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which the unskilled suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes


The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt. - Bertrand Russell, “The Triumph of Stupidity”

What this basically means, is that the lower a persons skill at an activity, the higher they will rate their own ability at it.

Which brings us to voting!

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” “One person, one vote.” We are an egalitarian society that treasures the mandate of its citizenry.

But more than a decade’s worth research suggests that the citizenry is too dumb to pick the best leaders.



Awkward. The research suggests that we have complex problems, and voters that want a solution that can be summed up in a bumper sticker.

Price of gas too high? DRILL MORE! (Except we’re at our highest domestic oil production in 8 years, and drilling more would probably only make a difference, MAYBE, in about 10 years.)

Healthcare costs too much? REPEAL OBAMACARE! (Do these people even know what’s in the bill? I hear a lot of loud voices for repealing a law the CBO showed would save money in the long term, but I never hear what they would do in it’s place.)

Complex problems require complex answers, and the research suggests your middle of the bell curve voter isn’t equipped to process a complex solution.

Wouldn’t it be neat if I had an easy answer, right here, of what to do with this sort of problem?

The key is to acknowledge that you probably don’t know as much as you should. That you can overcome the Dunning-Krueger effect by admitting you just might be an idiot. The tricky part is getting all the other people in your life that vote to admit the same.

Because seriously, just repeat after me: “President Santorum”

And because this post depressed me even with extra pictures, here’s a video!

You can find me on twitter, @DrDavidBurger

I recruit in Kansas City, http://www.kcatheists.org/
& https://www.facebook.com/KCAtheists

About doctorburger
  • brianpansky

    I think it’s awful we basically have a single dial to voice ourselves on the national politics. My solution is to have lots of dials, knobs, and levers. Each for different descisions. And either:

    -only people specializing in that feild get to vote with that particular knob.
    -the votes are weighted according to specialization (which is somehow done to include the young, not just the older generation)

    Ya so that’s my smart plan.

    But, alas, in order to subvert this dunning kruger problem, I may have just commited it myself (meta).

  • prochoice

    Good idea – for those who will read the billboard only,
    let´s hope they do not vote (what their priest tells them to).

    But as to those who would read further – self-doubt is not helpful to achieve something.

  • unbound

    Attributed to Benjamin Franklin, “A Republic, if you can keep it”

    I think the Bertrand Russell quote in the post is the most relevant. Not only are the stupid cocksure, but they are getting louder encouraged by the constant stupidity in the media and leaders that are increasingly using the stupid to their advantage.

    Just need to continue to try to educate them.

  • eric

    the lower a persons skill at an activity, the higher they will rate their own ability at it.

    IANA expert on this effect, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Better to say, the lower a person’s skill, the more wrong they will be on self-assessment of their skill.

    Here’s a purely illustrative example to show the difference between the two statements (and not to be taken too seriously). Let’s say you have a 1-10 skill rating system. A “real 9″ will likely rate themselves 8-10 (difference of 1 between actual and perceived skill). But a “real 3″ might rate themselves as a 6-8 (difference of 3-5). The real 9 still generally rates themselves higher than the real 3, but they are much more accurate about their own self-assessment…and their error may be low; the 3′s rarely or never err on the low side.

    • Brownian

      While that probably is a better way of putting it Eric, I have one small nitpick about your example: in the original paper by Dunning and Kruger, they found on average that people in each quartile of competence rated themselves more or less the same: 6-7 on a scale of 10. So, the 1s and 2s overestimated themselves by 4–6, the 3s, 4s and 5s overestimated themselves by 1&ndash2; the 6s and 7s were pretty close to bang on, and the 8s, 9s, and 10s underestimated themselves by 1-4. (More or less: see the original paper for the details.)

      Further, even though the top and bottom performers were generally inaccurate in their self-assessments (though in different directions and by differing amounts, the top performers showed a much higher ability to revise their self-assessments after being shown the work of their peers (in this case, other study participants) than the bottom performers. This has even worse implications for the discussion of democracy; to coopt a phrase (and a tune) from a great Canadian philosopher: “if a politician has a good idea, will anybody know?

  • lordshipmayhem

    Ah yes, prayer: the spiritual version of homeopathic medicine.

    I have a feeling that most Americans, as in elections past, are going to choose the Red Round Object. That silo’s gonna fill real fast on Election Day.

  • John Eberhard

    Good article, Dave.

    • ash

      If you have a simple solution to a complex problem, you have the wrong solution…

  • Beth

    Democracy is a terrible system for selecting leaders. It’s main recommendation is that it’s better than any other system we humans have yet devised. While dumb people may not elect the most competent leaders on the ballot, I think it’s incredibly important that all of us, including the less intelligent among us, have the right to participate in the leader selection process.

    I suspect that there are ways to capitalize on the wisdom of the crowds and democratically select the best possible leader amongst the candidates. I don’t think that our current system manages to do that. This study certainly provides evidence to support that suspicion of mine. It would be interesting to find out how the outcomes of different voting schemes compare in a simulation of a democratic process.

    Personally, I would like to see a radical overhaul of our voting process, replacing the single choice we have now with a rating of best to worst of all the candidates on the slate. One by one, the candidates with the worst average rating would be eliminated and their votes redistributed according to the next highest preference registered by their supporters.

    • Rory

      I apologize that I don’t recall enough of the specifics to give you a proper citation, but I seem to remember a fairly recent publication in game theory which showed that democracy is basically only good for making sure that the worst choice candidate doesn’t get elected. It’s not very effective at all in choosing the best candidate. Granted this was all based on some kind of decision analysis model and not empirical data (so far as I recall).

  • carpenterman

    I’ve long felt that a major problem of elections is an uninformed electorate. All these campaigns to get out the vote; seriously, if you don’t know where the candidates stand on important issues, then please, stay home on election day. I think that sign is a great idea. If you’re the kind of person who thinks praying for America is going to do one damn bit of good, then please, PLEASE…
    don’t vote. You’re just muddying the waters.
    And Yates put it very well: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”

  • khms

    Beth: I believe that’s the system Debian uses to elect their Project Leader. I forget what it’s called, but googling for “Debian voting method” should find it.

    It was the result of a long debate. The real problem is that it can be shown that no voting system can possibly fulfill all we’d want from a voting system; Wikipedia has articles comparing what the various systems can and cannot do. The one you describe is the one I’d prefer, too. It is good at selecting compromise candidates, and at giving alternative candidates a way to grow their base.

  • anthonyallen

    I don’t claim to understand (nor do I particularly want to) the way Americans elect a leader. Here in Canada, our leader is elected by virtue of being the leader of the party that obtains the most seats in the House. We citizens elect candidates to fill those seats. The current Prime Minister is my MP, in fact. It was once actually possible for a Prime Minister to not be an elected Member of Parliament. How messed up is that?

    Incidentally, there is another aspect of the Dunning-Krueger effect, common in people with low self-esteem, such as myself. It’s the misunderstanding that if the subject has a certain level of competency at a task, that subject mistakenly believes that everyone possesses the same level of competency.

    For example, given a computational problem and enough time, I could write a program to solve it in at least 6 different languages. When someone tells me that it’s a marketable skill, I wonder how it can be, since I can’t understand how so few people can actually do things like that.

    Is there some correlation there, as well? Do the smart, yet hopelessly nerdy among us mistakenly believe that our candidates for leadership have the same intelligence as we do? That they have the same values?