Dunning-Kruger, Cultural Amnesia, and Tyrannosaurus rex

Dunning-Kruger, Cultural Amnesia, and Tyrannosaurus rex July 7, 2021

The Dunning-Kruger effect (famously described by social psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger) is the idea that people who know little to nothing about a subject tend to wildly overestimate their competence in that subject. This is because their knowledge is so limited, they lack even the categories to recognize their own ignorance.

We see the Dunning-Kruger effect at work in historian Tom Holland’s confession at the beginning of his book “Dominion.” Holland (whom I interviewed last year on the BreakPoint Podcast), writes that as a schoolboy, he obsessed over two subjects: dinosaurs, and Greco-Roman civilization—and for the same reasons. As he puts it, both were “exciting, large, glamorous, fierce, and extinct.”

But while Holland always knew that Tyrannosaurus rex lacked beneficence, he soon become disillusioned and bewildered by the Greeks and Romans. Why? Because although he admired the military achievements of men like Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar, the more he read about these men and their empires, the more alien they seemed. Holland realized that they truly were like predatory dinosaurs: vicious, bloodthirsty, and utterly lacking in anything we would recognize as mercy.

This shattered his conception of the ancient world. It dawned on him that he had been viewing the Greeks and Romans through a set of assumptions shaped not by their moral code of conquest and slaughter, but by the ethics of an itinerant mystic and miracle-worker from Nazareth—a man whom the Romans crucified.

Holland’s book is a fascinating read in its own right, but the point I want to make is how easily he let his childhood values—values he inherited from Christianity—inform the way he viewed ancient civilizations. In line with Dunning-Kruger, Tom’s ignorance of shifting moral norms was so profound that he didn’t even notice it at first. He didn’t know enough to know what he didn’t know.

In many ways, his book is the counterpoint to a more recent book we’ve talked about a lot lately at the Colson Center: Carl Trueman’s “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self.” Where Holland seeks to illustrate how profoundly Christianity has shaped Western values, Trueman seeks to illustrate how our values have radically departed from the Christian past—so much so that a statement like, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body” now makes intuitive sense to millions.

Yet I think there’s a synthesis to be had between these two masterfully-written historical surveys. And it really comes down to a concept Trueman highlights in his subtitle—a phenomenon that has a lot in common with the Dunning-Kruger effect: “cultural amnesia.”

When I sat down with Dr. Trueman in front of a live audience at the recent Wilberforce Weekend in Fort Worth, Texas, I asked him what he meant by “cultural amnesia.” He defined it as the contempt for, or disregard of the past and the beliefs and values of those who lived there. We hear cultural amnesia in grating refrains like, “It’s 2021, get with the times,” or “you’re on the wrong side of history.” And of course, it’s not difficult to guess at the social beliefs of anyone who deploys these slogans in casual conversation. They’re likely very progressive, and they likely believe that categories and identities younger than the iPhone are non-negotiable pillars of human life.

These sayings are also closely related with Owen Barfield’s concept of “chronological snobbery”—the idea that we’re smarter and morally superior to ancestors simply because we live in the present, and they in the past. But what really fascinates me is the way cultural amnesia or chronological snobbery—call it what you like—tends to blind us to both the good and the bad in our age.

In C. S. Lewis’ essay, “On the Reading of Old Books,” he argues that every age has its characteristic blindness—a blunder of which posterity will marvel, “How could they have thought that?” None of us can fully escape this blindness, he admits. But we can significantly reduce it by reading old books.

It’s not that Lewis thought people in past times were necessarily wiser or more righteous than us, or that they didn’t also have their blind spots. It’s that their blind spots are very unlikely to have been the same as ours. Very often, in fact, their blind spots were the opposites of ours. Lewis suggests that writers from past ages tend to emphasize precisely the virtues we have forgotten, and criticize precisely the vices we have embraced. By exposing our minds to “the clean sea breeze of the centuries,” we make ourselves aware of our blind spots, and realize (as Holland did) that the standards we take for granted—those assumptions we’re not even fully aware of—are very often what’s blocking our view of the past.

In a very real sense, “Dominion” and “The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self” offer the same insight from different angles: Holland’s book is about how cultural amnesia has blinded us to the good of our age (more specifically, the good our age retains from its long centuries basking in the Christian sun). Trueman’s book is about how we’re blind to the lies of our age—specifically the lie that our identities are primarily grounded in subjective, psychological experience.

The solution both writers offer is strikingly similar: become deeply familiar with the past, with the way those who live there thought, and with how peculiar our assumptions and cultural prejudices are by comparison. It’s this kind of exercise in awareness that can teach us what we don’t know. But more importantly, it will teach us how to know what we don’t know.

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