A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

The beginning of knowledge
“The beginning of knowledge” by dvidal.lorente is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

The Dunning-Kruger effect refers to a type of cognitive bias in which people assess their own knowledge of a topic or subject area as being greater than it actually is. Psychologists note that it tends to occur frequently in those people with a small amount of knowledge on a topic. In other words, it takes a certain amount of knowledge before we can actually know how little we know.

In my opinion, Dunning-Kruger compels us to rethink the way we communicate important ideas (like politics or climate change, for example) to others. Public interest communicators tend to operate on the assumption that knowledge is power, but this adage only applies if we can get enough knowledge to understand an issue in all of its complexity. Otherwise, knowledge isn’t actually power. Instead, knowledge is empowering, but not necessarily in a beneficial way. In some cases, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

In recent research (forthcoming), my team and I asked people to tell us about their internet and social media use, and then rate their own knowledge of social issues such as climate change. It turns out that people who reported the most time spent using the internet per week also rated themselves highly for understanding social issues. On the surface, this looks like it could be a good thing. A shallow reading of this finding, might suggest, as one of my students once claimed, that internet use makes people smarter and more aware of the world around them.

I’m concerned however, that this isn’t the correct interpretation of that finding at all. In fact, all we really know is that people who use the internet more often think that they have a high level of knowledge of social issues. If the Dunning-Kruger effect is at work here, then people could believe that exposure to information on the internet makes them more aware of social issues, and at the same time, they may actually not have the level of knowledge they think they do.

If this is the case, and more work needs to be completed to accurately assess this, then part of the political and social polarization we are seeing in society right now may be in part due to people thinking they have a higher knowledge of the issues than they actually do. If you think you already know about an issue, then you are less likely to seek out additional information. As such, it would be difficult, if not impossible for you to understand someone with an opposite view, who may also think they know the issue well. This could lead to people speaking about the same topic in ways that they can never find common ground. A little knowledge being a dangerous thing.

So how do we overcome this cognitive blind spot? I think the first step is to demonstrate to people that access to information doesn’t make us smarter. I think critical information literacy and critical media literacy are required at a large scale. And finally, I think we need to expose people to Dunning-Kruger in action so they can begin to feel the limits of their own expertise. None of us are as smart as we think we are. And the tools we use to access information may actually be making us less smart.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

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