Thursday, 7 March 2013

The More you Know...

This coming week I will mostly be working on my Kindle collection, so posts may be thin on the ground. In the meantime, here's something to think about. Derren Brown recently tweeted about something called the Dunning-Kruger effect. I'd heard of it before, but not with quite as succinct a wording. Put simply, the Dunning-Kruger effect demonstrates that the less you know about something, the less you realise that you know very little about it; and so you can often approach the subject with inflated and unrealistic confidence. Conversely; the more you know the more you realise you don't know that much, and so you approach the subject with diminished confidence. Or maybe that's not putting it simply at all. Examples then. Most people will be familiar with someone from another department coming down and asking you to do something by the end of the week that you know couldn't realistically be done by the end of the month. Like the graphic designer who's client wants 'all the butterflies replaced with faeries, by 3pm' when they've only got two stock images of faeries, neither are silhouettes and the client didn't send the email 'til 2pm. It could be a requested spreadsheet that the other department generates with the click of a button, but yours couldn't afford the software and so has to assemble the data by hand, and everyone's busy frantically trying to find images of faeries anyway. There's this website as well. To those who don't write it must seem like half an hour or so's work to just type a few hundred words and stick it on the internet. What isn't taken into account is the hour or so trawling through news feeds to find something interesting and thought provoking (you can skip this step if you write for Heat magazine or you're Jan Moir), then the basic write-up, then the spell check, then the redraft, then (because I'm not very good at PHP yet) finding, sourcing and formatting images to embed in the post. Then putting it up and linking it on various social media making sure it's appropriate for the site in question (featured image and leading text on Facebook, attention grabbing blurb for Twitter, porn / hipster inspirationals for Tumblr and so on). And then the time that evening and the next day scouring everything for reactions and replying. So all in all, even a quick post usually takes two to three hours. The best example I can think of is photography - it probably seems like the easiest thing in the world for a lot of people to 'just pick up a camera,' especially with the price of bridge and SLR cameras falling every day. And yet what distinguishes the professional from the amateur is that they will take the original image in RAW (which takes longer to process but captures more information), they will obsessively edit the colour levels, crop the image to better frame the composition and generally faff monstrously over every single shot to the point that would drive any mere mortal screaming for the hills (without even a polaroid to capture the panoramic views). And in all these cases, people are underestimating things because they don't understand the intricacies of them. They have little or no experience in that field, so the large gap between 'beginning' and 'end' is filled with an amorphous green jelly in which they assume you're picking your toenails or staring into space. The client has never sat down with a design program and tried to wrestle with it over a vague and ill-defined list of requirements, so it seems simple to them. Because it looks simple, they think it's easy.
And so goes part one of the Dunning-Kruger effect: The less you know about something, the less you realise that there is a vast amount of information about it that you don't know. Being blissfully aware of that, it allows people to confidently make sweeping generalisations on topics like immigration, welfare reform and climate change. In the last page's examples, all the client knows is that the graphic designer is being difficult over a couple of pictures of faeries. Websites seem to take forever to update (I know, I'm sorry). Complex and inter-related ethical debates get reduced to "hang 'em all" and "send 'em all back." I realised I had been jealous of an old friend who had been putting up amazing photographs on Facebook recently only to find out he had been 'cheating' by going to photography workshops. He hasn't been cheating. He's been learning. Whereas the people who do know the full range of a subject are not only aware of it's complexity, they're also aware that there are more avenues of inquiry to explore. There are conflicting ethical considerations, where alien cultures can seem to be 'taking over' when it's more likely that a minority is no longer small enough to remain ignored. It can appear as though people are flooding to our country because they have it good here, whereas it might also be important to look at what's so bad in other countries that it's making them flee like amateur photographers. And while a blanket policy of sending everyone back out the way they came in might reduce the number of immigrants, it also raises the number of helpless internationals who are being abused, starved and exploited in their own countries. The end result is that the people who actually know the most about a subject are often the least likely to speak authoritatively on it for fear of oversimplifying the subject. In contrast, the people most eager to speak or act on a subject's definitive answer are usually the people who understand and appreciate the subject the least. Unfortunately, Dunning-Kruger is more than just a hilarious oddity of human psychology that explains the classic "I'm no expert but..." mentality, it's a glowing warning sign pointing towards idiocracy. Politics is often as bipolar as it is bipartisan, both sides pouring out unworkable policies backed by righteous belief. Bosses are employed straight out of management degrees who have no experience of the job they're overseeing, running businesses into the ground and destroying the NHS trying to apply business techniques to a public service. People destroy and vilify each other over incompatible 'truths.' Piers Morgan is still on the air. It's horrible. Of course it's entirely possible that I've only been able to write this because I don't understand how it all works. If so, maybe I'm better sticking to fiction, in which case I'll see you on the other side.