June 26, 2010

If you were just a little smarter, you'd know how dumb you are! Errol Morris, the guy who directed The Thin Blue Line and The Fog Of War, has an interesting essay/interview up at the New York Times about the way our egos and our ignorance shape our perception and conception of the world.

"There have been many psychological studies that tell us what we see and what we hear is shaped by our preferences, our wishes, our fears, our desires and so forth. We literally see the world the way we want to see it. But the Dunning-Kruger effect suggests that there is a problem beyond that. Even if you are just the most honest, impartial person that you could be, you would still have a problem — namely, when your knowledge or expertise is imperfect, you really don’t know it."

"If I were given carte blanche to write about any topic I could, it would be about how much our ignorance, in general, shapes our lives in ways we do not know about. Put simply, people tend to do what they know and fail to do that which they have no conception of. In that way, ignorance profoundly channels the course we take in life. And unknown unknowns constitute a grand swath of everybody’s field of ignorance."
Donald Rumsfeld's "There Are Unknown Unknowns" speech would have actually been really insightful if he weren't using it as an excuse for the irresponsible casting aside of even known knowns in the invasion of Iraq. The New York Times's new feature "The Stone" (named after the Philosopher's Stone) also has a lot of other interesting essays, including one about Lady Gaga's brand of feminism and what it reflects about the evolution of gender roles.
  • Yes, so I robbed that bank. And yes, I had lemon juice smeared on my face because I thought it would make me invisible to the security cameras. But that's no reason to call me stupid or to say I was "too dumb to know how dumb I was". You see, I did know what the "unknowns" were. And I asked my friend Larry how to avoid video surveillance. He says, "Don't go outdoors in the UK". Funny guy, Larry. But then he suggests that lemon juice would make me invisible on video, and even with my limited scientific training it sounded a little rum at first. But then I got to thinking... Invisible Ink! That's made from lemon juice (or is it onions?) and on the TV they do the "green screen" thing and that makes you invisible. Right? And honestly, which monkey amongst us really understands the details of the chemistry that makes invisible ink go brown when heated (quiet down, FishTick), and who knows the real deep details of TV signal encoding that lets green fabric in one feed switch to an alternative background frame? So I reckoned "Invisible Ink + Green screen + Green Onions = Invisible Lemons!" Right? And also, Larry and me had been listening to some primo Bob Marley all night, (right?), so it seemed like a tentatively plausible theory at the time. But here's the bit where you can separate me from the Fox News viewers. As you can read in the article, instead of blindly accepting whatever "facts" were thrown at me I had a moment of self doubt. I questioned the theory. I wondered if there were any of Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns" waiting for me. And then I did science. That's right! I formed a hypothesis, designed an experiment, smeared my face with the juice and took a Polaroid of myself. Then I analyzed my results in a way to avoid tester bias. And I was not in that picture. "Too dumb to know how dumb I was"? Shag you, NYTimes.com! I do science, me! I was brave enough to trust to these results (as counter intuitive as they might have seemed) and walk into that bank upon the burning fire of my scientific convictions. And with the burning fire of lemon juice in my eyes making me weep like Glenn Beck on the 4th of July. The irony here is that the author of the article (while mocking me for my stupidity) did not recognize that I did know how little I knew, and did an experiment to verify what I doubted. But apparently my testing was not broad enough - lemon juice only makes you invisible to Polaroids, not video cameras, I can now conclude. But I still stand by my convictions (five to ten for armed robbery being just one of them).
  • MonkeyFilter: Too dumb to know how dumb I was
  • MonkeyFilter: Too dumb to know how OH LOOK SHINY!
  • Good chunky reading for a Sunday morning. I always figured the self is screwed anyway as it has to rely on senses and perceptions that misrepresent objective reality even on fairly simple tasks like this illusion. Therefore, my fantasy world where I am the dictator of Ithuvania is as good as any. No one understands is chuckle.