Yeats Was So Right….

One of my favorite quotes is from a poem by William Butler Yeats, who wrote that “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Science has confirmed the observation, at least with respect to the “worst,” and to the extent that “best” and “worst” refer to intellectual acuity.

In 1999, David Dunning and Justin Kruger of the department of psychology at Cornell University conducted a fascinating study after reading about a man named McArthur Wheeler. Wheeler  robbed two banks after covering his face with lemon juice in the mistaken belief that, because lemon juice is usable as invisible ink, it would prevent his face from being recorded on surveillance cameras.

Earlier studies had suggested that what might delicately be termed “ignorance of performance standards” accounts for a substantial amount of incorrect self-assessment of competence. In other words–as the Facebook meme has it–stupid people are too stupid to recognize their stupidity.

Dunning and Kruger found that, for a given skill, incompetent people will:

  • fail to recognize their own lack of skill
  • fail to recognize the extent of their inadequacy
  • fail to recognize genuine skill in others
  • will only recognize and acknowledge their own lack of skill after they are exposed to training for that skill

According to Dunning, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.… [T]he skills you need to produce a right answer are exactly the skills you need to recognize what a right answer is.”

According to Wikipedia (yes, I know–I don’t let my students cite to Wikipedia, but it’s convenient and generally, albeit not always, accurate):

Dunning and Kruger set out to test these hypotheses on Cornell undergraduates in psychology courses. In a series of studies, they examined subject self-assessment of logical reasoning skills, grammatical skills, and humor. After being shown their test scores, the subjects were asked to estimate their own rank. The competent group estimated their rank accurately, while the incompetent group overestimated theirs.

Across four studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.

(This definitely explains most of  the students who come in to complain about their grades….but I digress.)

How did Yeats put it? Those who know the least are those with the most “passionate intensity.”

The evidence is everywhere. Just look at Congress, or the Indiana General Assembly.

Or the “Y’all Qaeda” standoff in Oregon…


  1. Oh my; this description of inadequacy and unawareness of same takes me back to the Goldsmith days in City government. Their lack of awareness and qualifications of what their appointed job descriptions entailed, plus their total misunderstanding of following laws, rules, ordinances, regulations and expectations of results of their actions often jeopardized the residents of Indianapolis in ways they never knew. Others, who were forced out of their homes and businesses under the guise of imminent domain, understood too well the power wielded by those who were unaware of consequences of their actions and “only following orders”. Like the millions of “good Germans” during WWII.

  2. Sheila:

    “Incompetent people will fail to recognize genuine skill in others”

    I need to have that tattooed on my wrist when I address the Jacksonville City Council this coming Tuesday. I hope that at least one or two of the council members will understand that I have the “genuine skills” to start a “World-wide boycott against the City of Jacksonville ” if the City Council fails to pass the LGBT human rights ordinance by the end of January.

    If you can boycott Donald Trump in Europe, I can’t see why you can’t do the same to the Tea Party’s municipal prototype in America. Does anyone disagree?

    My main objective in “Democracide: The Far Right’s Path to Power” was to warn both sides about the dangers of Jacksonville. 25 years should be enough. Don’t you think so?

  3. I guess the joke’s on the incompetent people, but why does it seem to impact the rest of us so dearly?

  4. Marv – Good luck with the Jacksonville Council. I’m joining the boycott. I visit Florida every year but will avoid Jacksonville. Thanks for the alert.

  5. I’m curious about the degree of mutual exclusivity. It’d be nice to find a passionately intense intellectual. I understand the competency aspect that was discussed within the study, but I genuinely hope that when I find myself in times of “passionate intensity” I’m not exhibiting or overcompensating for ignorance. Just a thought upon reflection.

    Such a sad world it would be to have emotions and mind continually disjunct. In modes of fight or flight reasoning ability fails due to adrenaline release. This is getting a bit off topic, but I wonder how dopamine and serotonin play into this dynamic. Do the “passionately intense” enjoy it to the point that they become addicted? Drunk on their own ignorance. Continually pleased by narcissistic delusions.

    On second thougt, maybe the passionately intense intellectual is a bit of a problem. I just conjured visions of Dr. Strangelove. There must be a bridge, though. If training and skill acquisition is the only way…well, we might be stuck. How do you reach the depths of a sick system and power structure to inject the necessary skill sets if highly influential people are beyond reproach? I would only hope that planted amongst the passionate, the intense, and the intellectuals are the bridge builders. Communicators able to transcend ideology and develop understanding.

  6. Peggy,

    “I guess the joke’s on the incompetent people, but why does it seem to impact the rest of us so dearly?”

    Because of America’s great need for “domestic tranquility.” Yeats warned us about the “center not holding.” And what would be the result if it didn’t. Just look at the Obama Presidency.

  7. We learn that water seeks its own level….
    Maybe that is why stupid people elect stupid people

  8. Marv; I just read a Facebook post stating that in November, Judge Matthew Destry of Broward County, Florida, sentenced a young man, Herbert Smith (black of course) to 60 years in prison for driving with a suspended license. Does this fall under “incompetence of performance standards” or typical Florida racism in the judicial system? Are there no sentencing guidelines in that state or are sentencing guidelines written on a segregated basis?

  9. I need to amend my address this coming Tuesday to the Jacksonville City Council as follows: “I will call the boycott OFF if the LGBT Human Right’s Ordinance is passed by the end of January.”

    I believe, the Jacksonville City Council needs a short history lesson, since I was one of the leaders of the successful Dallas Boycott in 1991.

  10. I think a early Hoosier Robert Owen said it right:

    ‘All the world old is queer save thee and me, and even thou art a little queer.’

    Robert Owen was a Welsh social reformer and one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. In 1824, Owen travelled to America to invest the bulk of his fortune in an experimental 1,000-member colony on the banks of Indiana’s Wabash River, called New Harmony. New Harmony was intended to be a Utopian society. Before travelling to America, he was an industrialist in Scotland.

    Thanks Sheila

  11. Ignorance and being too lazy to search for facts are the reasons all of the Republicans that I know keep harping on how the poor need to get jobs and stop living off of the taxpayers’ back.

    They seem completely incapable of comprehending that large corporations are the real welfare queens. When I have tried to explain this they get the “deer in the headlight” look in their eyes and I realize that they will continue to believe what they have been told.

  12. JoAnn,

    Stop being so sarcastic.

    Sounds like we have a new prejudice forming…… it’s against North Florida. It could spread to the whole state. Since I’m the Director of The Political Epidemiology Institute, I might be accused of doing this only for personal reasons. They might be right.

    I’m regaining my youth. I’m starting to regain my old reputation in Jacksonville of being “outrageous.” That’s the only way you can get anything done here. Also, it helps that I understand the underlying political system better than those who are presently in control. I guess I should have explained this to everyone when I came back home in 1991. Some of the new power brokers are ignorant of the important part I’ve played in Jacksonville history. Tough luck!

  13. Thank you Sheila for a most humorous and thought provoking way to start the day. This reminds me of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “Dare to Be Stupid” parody song of 1986. Given what likely all of us either see or experience first hand everyday I think that there ought to be an award akin to the Presidential Medal of Freedom to showcase those that demonstrate the greatest level of stupidity each year. Right now those that would be producing those medals would be garnering overtime pay to keep up with the demand. It would be good for the economy.

    My personal goal every day is not to receive one of those awards myself.

    Happy Saturday!

  14. It’s universal when hearing “Dunning Kruger” to think of others who are frequently mistaken but seldom uncertain.

    Unfortunately it applies to all of us.

    What we know best we are least certain of because we know that the path to lean it has been long and the destination is still not in sight.

    What others know that we have not pursued generally seems obvious though. There just can’t be much more to it.

    I think that DK is becoming more pronounced in our society perhaps because of our media addiction. We see entertainers so certain that whatever their script says must be the whole picture.

  15. BTW, I believe that the peak of DK in practice was first reached by Rush Limbaugh. While there have been many imitators he was the first of the magnificently ignorant to demonstrate absolute confidence.

  16. Nancy,

    “Marv is your essay online, yet?

    No. Hopefully, it will be ready by Tuesday. I want the City Council to take a good look at it. However, I can always run copies off from the original if it’s not online by then.

    We must do everything necessary now. The Tea Party is beatable because of Trump’s vulnerability. Cruz doesn’t have the same vulnerability. If Trump starts to weaken Cruz will step in. He’s a bigger danger.

    I want the City Council to feel like Custer did at the Little Bighorn: surrounded…….Boycott and Criminal investigations by the Attorney General and Congress.

    My longtime companion Barbara lived with the Sioux for over 25 years. Afterwards, she taught American Indian Culture at Florida State College here in Jacksonville. Her adopted daughter was a direct descendant of Crazy Horse. I like to think that was one reason she was so attracted to me and me to her.

  17. Of course some say that the peak of DK practice was not Rush but Archie Bunker but I discount that because he was a fictional character. There is some credence though to Joe McCarthy, Adolph Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Vlad the Impaler as early advocates.

    Today the followers are Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump with Ted Cruz an obvious wannabe.

  18. JoAnn, I have a friend, a devout christian, named D. who worked under Goldsmith. He had something to do with streets and roads. He has nothing but high praise for Goldsmith. I think that both he and goldsmith had a direct contact with god.

  19. Marv, I agree with you that Cruz is much more dangerous than Trump. Just the thought of him becoming our President gives me nightmares.

  20. irvin; Goldsmith’s cronies were required to speak only high praise for him or lose their jobs…like the rest of us.

  21. I make it my practice to avoid those people who demonstrate a passionate intensity on any particular subject, whether religious ideology or political ideology.

    The passionate Christian and the passionate atheist are zealots. The passionate liberal and the passionate conservative likewise are zealots. Zealots who cling to their specific ideological stances are unable to compromise, to negotiate, or to reach common ground. Look at our Congress. Look at our nation.

  22. Thanks for the heads up on The Darwin Awards. I had forgotten about them but I do like Weird Al’s title just as much. It sort of personifies the effort that some of the people must take to do the things that they do.

  23. Nancy,

    “Just the thought of him (Cruz) becoming our President gives me nightmares.”

    I’ve got the same nightmare as you. If Trump starts to fade and Cruz steps in, we won’t be able to do much. He’ll play his religious card. And with all the wacko, religious nuts out there, the whole Country will start to look like Oregon. I’m not going to do anything in that environment. I’m not ready for suicide.

    That’s why I’m going to play all my cards now. I own the URL: Hopefully, I can convince George Clooney to help with a documentary to expose this awful mess from the beginning. He sees the problem; but, doesn’t have all the parts to the puzzle. I do.

    We have to deal with this problem out in the open. It can’t be a “gray war.”

  24. The deciding factor in this War Against Secularism will be “civic courage.” I hope we can learn from Dietrich Bonhoeffer on this point. In 2009, I spent ten days living on the campus at Union Theological Seminary attempting to grasp as much as I could from his writings.

    Don’t forget he was a Christian. That’s where most of his strength came from. You can’t leave that out. It’s how he internalized the Sermon on the Mount and the Crucifixion of Jesus. It created a remarkable human being.

  25. Nancy,

    I always can use a little prodding. All thirteen pages were downloaded to my computer thru the use of an optical scanner which made the fonts more professional. This was done five years ago. I wasn’t sure that things would be in as good as shape as they are. All pages are now ready to be uploaded to the website. However, I will need the assistance of GoDaddy to do that. If nothing goes wrong, I should be online at tomorrow.

  26. You can keep your doctor and you can keep your plan! How many are being forced into the arms of government run medical plans with higher premiums and deductibles? And we have to vote a bill in to see what’s in it.
    The ends always justify the means, the pendulum swings hard and instead of a middle ground approach to change health care where the fed could have implemented safety net insurance plans we get hit with tax increases to pay for an over reaching federal beauracracy.
    I even heard one person say the means to balance the budget was socialized medicine. It’s tough to find a middle ground when ideologues want so desperately to tell us all what to do, which doctor you can see. This was a very passionate approach, bigger government, over reaching beaucracy with looming trillion dollar debts.
    Bonhoeffer was right about governments, people who don’t fight for freedom from tyranny will fall into the thuggery of rules and regulations that if you don’t mind you’ll pay the penalty. The Nazis moved into power because of a failed economy, I just hope we can see the difference between the progressive democrats in our party and the socialists who are pushing failed policies to create this revolution.
    Balancing the budget is a must, both sides agree within the state legislatures. What’s so important about our ideologies that we can’t seem to get this done?

  27. Funny, Sheila. I saw that one coming…. because of course, that is where my mind first leapt to when I began reading! Needed that humor as I spend my Sunday afternoon working on semester grades. Thanks.

Comments are closed.