The Dunning-Kruger Effect

What do Mike Pence and Donald Trump have in common? They both exhibit the Dunning-Kruger effect— a scientific theory establishing the truth of Mark Twain’s observation that “It ain’t what you don’t know that hurts you, it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

Or–in other formulations–it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know.

There are plenty of politicians in both parties who exhibit the Dunning-Kruger effect, but few do so with such stunning obliviousness as these two. Here in Indiana, voters have been treated to ample evidence of our Governor’s ideological rigidity in the face of inconvenient realities (it will be interesting to see how “gung-ho for vouchers” Pence responds to recent research showing that Hoosier children using those vouchers perform more poorly than children remaining in public schools).

But I must admit that even Pence’s delusions pale next to those displayed by “The Donald” he has endorsed.

Again, the key to the Dunning-Kruger Effect is not that unknowledgeable voters are uninformed; it is that they are often misinformed—their heads filled with false data, facts and theories that can lead to misguided conclusions held with tenacious confidence and extreme partisanship, perhaps some that make them nod in agreement with Trump at his rallies.


For example, in a CNBC interview, Trump suggested that the U.S. government debt could easily be reduced by asking federal bondholders to “take a haircut,” agreeing to receive a little less than the bond’s full face value if the U.S. economy ran into trouble. In a sense, this is a sensible idea commonly applied—at least in business, where companies commonly renegotiate the terms of their debt.

But stretching it to governmental finance strains reason beyond acceptability. And in his suggestion, Trump illustrated not knowing the horror show of consequences his seemingly modest proposal would produce. For the U.S. government, his suggestion would produce no less than an unprecedented earthquake in world finance. It would represent the de facto default of the U.S. on its debt—and the U.S. government has paid its debt in full since the time of Alexander Hamilton. The certainty and safety imbued in U.S. Treasury bonds is the bedrock upon which much of world finance rests.

Even suggesting that these bonds pay back less than 100 percent would be cause for future buyers to demand higher interest rates, thus costing the U.S. government, and taxpayer, untold millions of dollars, and risking the health of the American economy.

Those of us who teach public administration–whose academic mission is to give prospective government workers the specialized knowledge and tools they will need in order to perform adequately and in the public interest–get pretty disheartened when voters who would never ask a non-dentist to extract wisdom teeth, a non-electrician to wire their homes, or an auto mechanic to draft a lease, blithely assume that anyone with “business sense” (or in Indiana, the “right” religious beliefs) can therefore manage a nation or a state.

Too many voters think of their ballots as a form of symbolic speech, rather than as the act of making a real-world choice between inevitably imperfect alternatives.

The fact that our alternatives may all be flawed is not to suggest that all flaws are created equal.

In November, Indiana voters will have a choice between pretentious piety and managerial competence.

Nationally, voters will have a choice between the unthinkable, a Democratic candidate that many find unsatisfactory, and a smattering of minor-party candidates with absolutely no chance of winning the Presidency. If the electorate doesn’t know what it doesn’t know–if voters fail to understand the difference between less than ideal and dangerously, monumentally unfit, we’ll all suffer the consequences.


  1. Sheila,

    What we need to know, that we don’t know, we don’t know, can be found by examining the classic horror movie….THE KILLER SHREWS…. A DVD can be purchased from the last time I checked. It’s that easy.

  2. I just checked. The Killer Shrews (1959) can be rented for $2.00. The movie was made at Cielo Studios which was located on a private island in Lake Dallas. Gordon McLendon plays the part of the mad scientist who engineers the change in the DNA of the “Shrews” which led to the destruction of the island. The private island and studios were owned by the McLendon Corporation located in Dallas, Texas [as I have mentioned previously, I was the General Counsel of the McLendon Corporation].

    Ten years after the movie was made, Gordon McLendon, who also was a founder of the CIA Alumni Society, orchestrated the change in the DNA of the socio/political culture in America just like he did as the scientist in the movie…..”The Killer Shrews.”

  3. Well said. I don’t understand how any Republicans (maybe w a few exceptions) can endorse Donald Trump as a serious presidential candidate. I also find Pence’s political advertising jaw-dropping; it’s like the last four years never happened – let’s forget about RFRA, his refusal to expand health care coverage w federal funds,the take over of the state’s educational system (without the benefit of voter participation), etc. Are we really that gullible?

  4. Pence’ ad featuring his wife Karen telling us how wonderful he’s been for education is such a distortion of facts. They actually bribe educators and their families and friends will believe him? Guess he’s trusting us to not know what we know.

  5. We have difficult choices to make this November because the media has made it so with their misinformation, sensationalism, distortion of facts, publishing what they know are outright lies and providing subliminal urging in their chosen direction – pro and con – regarding the available candidates locally and nationally.

    They delighted in publishing Trump’s financial, marital and sexual didoes for decades; they now publish his picture and report his words ad-nauseum, posting him as the national hero of the GOP and for all Americans. They repeat previously discounted as untrue “facts” regarding Hillary Clinton and label Bernie Sanders a Democratic Socialist without explanation of the meaning of that rather new terminology. Being a former Independent voter, I fully understand Bernie’s Democratic option because Republicans no longer exist as we knew them. Past history provided qualified candidates in both parties from which to choose; this is gone the way of one land-line phone in homes.

    Locally, the media reports Pence’s switcheraroos supporting some issues as news, with little or no background regarding his previous stand. Currently, it is education – he suddenly wants those federal funds for our pre-school and/or Kindergarten needs. Will he do the same regarding those much needed Medicaid funds for those who NEED Planned Parenthood Clinics – those women and MEN who depend on them for testing and treatment. We know the answer to that; he will not switch his control on that issue any more than he will change his RFRA fiasco.

    John Gregg seems to be a silent partner of the Democratic party; is he more outspoken and doing more campaigning than we are informed of? How are we to know? I see him on my Facebook page but not nearly as often as I see Trump. Pence, by taking action and making decisions via his position as Governor gets much free publicity, putting his face and words (truth or lies) before the public on a daily basis.

    We don’t know what we don’t know because the media decides what we need to know and the media is corporately owned and operated, putting these decisions in the hands of corporate America. Here we are with “follow the money”; the only path to knowledge and enlightenment available. But; that is one of those facts we are not supposed to know.

  6. daleb,

    Are we really that gullible?

    You aren’t. But I’m afraid a significant MINORITY is. They’ve been seriously BRAINWASHED over many, many years.

    It’s much more than just a media problem.

  7. I believe the Republicans that will still vote for Trump this fall will be doing so only because they do not want any Democrat in power. They are willing to risk our country and the sanity and safety of the entire world just to get a Republican back in the White House.

    We can see this taking place as Repub leaders are now agreeing to back Trump – McConnell and Paul Ryan are the latest and most powerful that have decided to back the devil rather than lose their power to a Democrat, even if it means destroying our country.

  8. JoAnn,

    “Here we are with “follow the money”; the only path to knowledge and enlightenment available. But; that is one of those facts we are not supposed to know.”

    “Follow the money” is an important path. It’s your path. However, it’s not the only path as Earl pointed out a few days ago.

  9. Nancy,

    This might help a little to understand why we are in such a “deep” mess.

    “Margaret Singer, who also spent time studying the political brainwashing of Korean prisoners of war, in her book Cults in Our Midst, describes six conditions which would create an atmosphere in which thought reform is possible.[27][28] In 1983, the American Psychological Association (APA) asked Singer to chair a taskforce called the APA Task Force on Deceptive and Indirect Techniques of Persuasion and Control (DIMPAC) to investigate whether brainwashing or “coercive persuasion” did indeed play a role in recruitment by such movements.

    Before the taskforce had submitted its final report, the APA submitted on 10 February 1987 an amicus curiæ brief in an ongoing court case related to brainwashing. Although the amicus curiæ brief written by the APA denies the credibility of the brainwashing theory, the APA submitted the brief under “intense pressure by a CONSORTIUM OF PRO-RELIGIOUS SCHOLARS (a.k.a. NRM scholars)”.[29] The brief repudiated Singer’s theories on “coercive persuasion” and suggested that brainwashing theories were without empirical proof.[30] Afterward the APA filed a motion to withdraw its signature from the brief, since Singer’s final report had not been completed. ~Wikipedia

  10. Marv; this particular “follow the money” is referring to media ownership which cannot be denied. The few and far between privately owned and published newspapers must be sought out; I have trouble finding NUVO, the Eastside Voice is just what the title indicates, neighborhood information with many ads. Our local news broadcasts are obviously biased; CBS dropped WISH TV channel 8 last year, switched to CW which is WTTV channel 4 and was originally locally owned and operated out of Bloomington, IN. CBS, channel 4, has CBS News Sunday Morning from 9:00 – 10:30. CW channel 8 has Sunday morning news broadcasts from 6:00 – 10:00. Their Sunday evening news depends on sports broadcasts. Saturday morning news broadcasts are basically the same as Sunday; evening news again depends on sports broad casts. You must admit sports broadcasts are based on big money.

    MSNBC changed administration last summer; no need to tell you the changes there. CNN has lost credibility over the past few years leaving the option of Fox News which is no option for actual news. It all goes to corporate ownership and follow the money to their decision-making leaders…those with the money. I stand by my statement on this issue regarding “information” sources.

  11. Trump has gotten a ton of free publicity because he is the man biting the dog. He is, to the media, the train wreck they just can’t look away from.

    Many think they know and can’t trust Hillary because of the consistent noise of scandal that has surrounded her for 25 years. The purveyors of that noise know it isn’t true. They have spent millions of taxpayer dollars as well as money from various right-winged foundations just to keep it going.

    These are not the first two flawed candidates in history, but to suggest that Hillary is the lesser of two evils does an injustice to her. She is well qualified. Politifact has said that she is the most truthful of the candidates. She is cautious and private and therefore seems distant and unlikeable. Her presentations on policy, which haven’t been shared by most of the media, are outstanding.

  12. JoAnn,

    I agree with everything you say. No one is denying “$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$” are responsible for media ownership. That cannot be denied. I agree with everything you say. Hopefully, you will be successful in your pursuit of “following the money.” It effect is vital. However, that’s no secret.

    We have different experiences. Many of them are similar. Some aren’t. I’m not fighting you. But I strongly suggest that you’re fighting me. You can do things that I can’t. But I also strongly suggest that I can do things that you can’t. I CAN DO MORE THAN “FOLLOWTHE MONEY.”

  13. So a crazed bigot who has sworn to do things a president can’t do scares you, but a corrupt, warmongering elitist who has sworn to abuse what a president can do doesn’t?!

    Since when did this become a DNC propaganda arm? What about the “coffee party” being an anti-Old Washington spring board?

    Now the movement is a Clinton supporter and apologist? Now it is recommending voting in the same old crap that has led America to this point in the first place?

    Clinton isn’t a “lesser evil”, she’s a different evil. And the idea of voting for (which means consenting to) someone we do not want as our representative is appalling and wrong. The only reasons these more desirable but lesser known candidates don’t stand a chance is because of the oligarchy that has control of the media and resources, and the deplorable rhetoric of people saying you ought to vote for a “lesser” evil – an evil that seeks to and thus far has control who you can even choose from for your vote.

    Don’t lie to us. A lot of what Trump says he wants to do is unconstitutional and beyond the powers bestowed to the President. Please, for the love of everything, don’t vote for Trump nor Clinton. Have enough self-respect and dignity to never settle on an undesirable candidate. Demand better.

    The only way America can become a great nation is when we demand for our government more than we demand from each other. When we start telling them: “No!”

    Voting for Clinton, you might as well vote for Trump.

  14. There is a cure for the Dunning Kruger Effect. A 50/50 mixture of wonder and skepticism.

    You see, Disappointed Joe is without wonder and that turns skepticism into cynicism. Because the absence of wonder destroys curiosity and open mindedness, he has no further thoughts on the topic, no further input is tolerated. The polls are closed before all the votes are in.

    Why? I would guess because of confirmation bias. He’s so convinced that he’s right that feedback to the contrary must be wrong. Why invest wonder in things that are clearly wrong and would require a turn about, a loss of face, a change of mind, a retreat, a defeat? It’s not worth it.

    There’s nothing that says only Hillary haters suffer from the Dunning Kruger Effect. Some Trump haters do too. Some Hillary lovers do too.

    The key question is the evidence behind the belief and it’s sources and whether there is real consideration of new evidence.

    The GOP has been spreading evidence of Hillary’s duplicity for more than two decades knowing that this moment would eventually come. That evidence has been thoroughly vetted and found to be lacking in veracity. DK folks have purposely ignored that news.

    The key distinguishing feature of Dunning Kruger compared to intellectual curiosity is the ability to support beliefs with admissable evidence and compelling logic and rational thought.

    DK is emotional. Intellectual curiosity is rational.

    Unfortunately entertainment is always compellingly emotional and intellectual curiosity takes time and effort and preparation.

    So, maintain an open but skeptical mind. Wonder always. Listen for evidence. Reject appeals to emotions.

    Democracy demands it. The failure to do so can be very costly.

  15. Marv,

    I am not surprised at all to read that a religious consortium fought any evidence of brainwashing. Extreme right wing religious leaders and groups are some of the most skilled at brainwashing their followers, typically doing so with fear and threats of going to hell.

  16. IMO:

    There are two kinds of information in the world; factual and opinion.

    Opinions are pervasive but unreliable. Everyone has to fill in around the facts of any issue with opinions; things that may be factual but may also not be.

    Faith is opinion that folks feel is important enough to take a stand on, right or wrong.

    Fashion is also opinion.

    Emotions are visceral reactions to opinions.

    There are two professions where it’s critical to separate opinion and fact; science and judicial law. Both are based on developing skills to rigorously distinguish fact from opinion.

    Statistics is a math to quantify the extent that any reliably factual inference can be drawn from a set of data – what can be concluded factually vs what can only remain opinion.

    Both facts and opinions are necessary and useful but the more critical a decision is the more important it is to distinguish what’s known for sure vs what may or may not be true.

    Politics is largely a marketplace for opinions but political decisions, policy, perform according to reality, the relevant facts.

    No wonder political discussions are endless.

  17. Disappointed Joe – there’s nothing worse than an uppity broad. I know. I was one. Everything is Hillary’s fault. Her husband cheated on her. It was her fault. Dumb uppity broad!

  18. Eyes on the prize! We have to keep the monkeys from taking over the zoo. Don’t drink the Bernie Nader Cool Aid!

  19. Earl,

    “Don’t drink the Bernie Nader Cool Aid!”

    I believe we both see the same danger…..we just use different words to describe it.

  20. Daleb – simple calculations – (1) Trump goes down in flames: establishment Republicans are still around and regain control of the party or (2) Trump wins and establishment Republicans in control of congress steer the agenda — Trump is in this for ego, not policy, so he wouldn’t care.
    It is win-win for the establishment Republicans to support Trump–not so much for their down-ticket candidates.

    Earl – Nader Cool-aid, yes, but not Bernie. One belief of Democratic Socialists is that third parties are doomed to fail. He is as likely to run on or support a third party as was Hillary was against Obama in 2008.

  21. What are our young people; the future voters and leaders of this country, learning from this presidential election? What will they “know” when it finally ends? How can we get them to “un-know” the wrong lessons they are learning? The way it stands right now; they would be better off not knowing what is going on during this election campaign than to try to re-educate them regarding what civics is supposed to mean to all of us and has been lost in the current chaos.

  22. Len,

    “Earl-Nader Cool-aid, but not Bernie. One belief of Democratic Socialists is that third parties are doomed to fail…..”

    I’m not trying to “put words into his mouth”but I don’t believe Earl was thinking about Sanders running as a third party candidate when he made his statement.

  23. Rex Bell’s “comment” is totally inappropriate on this blog. If we had the ability to delete; I would have done that immediately.

    Earl; exactly what DID you mean by your comment “Bernie Nader Cool-Aid”? And those monkeys have already taken over the zoo; this is obvious when you see Republicans supporting Trump but trying to distance themselves from what he says and the conflicting delegate counts for both Bernie and Hillary. Those monkeys sitting at typewriters haven’t come up with the great American novel yet.

  24. Pete – I’m not without wonder, I’m a realist. I’ve watched over the years and studied enough history to see the same tired patterns emerging again and again.

    The Democrats pretend to fight the Republicans while they pass bulls which allow the next office to piggyback other bills off the last offices that has eroded the Constitution and our rights.

    The two parties unite resources during elections to ensure only one of their candidates win and each side attacks a different aspect of our freedom.

    The Coffee party used to be about fighting the corruption in Washington and trying to restore our rights and lift America to a better place and now it’s just puking out pro-Clinton/liberal propaganda.

    Clinton is the same old Washington we have seen. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.

    We already know what to expect from Clinton and it is not good.

    I have hope for the future: hope that one day we will unite and demand better candidates, that we will unite and demand Washington remember their our employees, not our bosses. That we will unite and hold them accountable.

    Voting for Clinton is not that path and even morons know this. People who back Clinton and expect better are delusional.

  25. If GOP wins the election they won’t care who sits in the WH. They will run Trump like they ran W who was also a sociopath. He has already said they he will use tdhe ‘best’ to employ his plans for America, We know who they are. Same ones who’ve done it since 1980.

    Bernie has no plans to run Indie. There is no infrastructure to support him. He’s been running as a Demo the whole time.

    Bernie actually thinks he is entitled to the WH because of his ideas for America, which are very good but this America is not ready for them. We are are still capitalism gone wild and it will take a time to uproot that. Viewed from any angle, his reckless continuation of this mad pursuit places this nation in grave peril. You will admit that in many cases, it was only the Court which has saved this nation from shedding it’s blood. Nowhere in history will you find a peaceful revolution with the possible exception of India. And the only reason it is ‘called’ peaceful is due to the fact that no Angle blood was spilled. Plenty of Indiana blood was. Pete is closest to seeing it as it is; it is going to take time and evolution. A complete change in American ideals, outlooks and expectations.

    Bernie’s divisive, egotistical run threatens to put Trump in the WH and destroy that Court. Don’t rationalize past the word “threatens’.

    Remember that Citizens United was never and issue before the Court. It was an aside created by the right wingers Scalia and Alito. Just as it was self generated by the Court, so it could be self reversed by a more intelligent and far sighted Court.

    There is hope. Never before have two races co-existed, even in mutually agreed hate and distrust, as successfully as blacks and whites in America. There are actually some in American who believe that those of a different race are equals. This was not true during the Raj. It is only because they see blacks being able to exist among whites do Asians and Indians dare to come here. They have not forgotten what has been done to them..

    Brace yourselves for it but there is hope.

  26. Earl; quite eloquent comments, incisive and you voiced your strong opinions against Bernie. Yes; his ideas ARE good for America, as were Barack Obama’s in 2008 and many in this country believed we were not ready for HIM or his ideas. You are correct in your assessment of the capitalism in this country; we are owned and operated by corporate America who are robbing middle and lower-income families of their ability to provide what was once an accepted middle-class life style. Bernie’s ideas are much the same as Barack’s; many of those ideas were never brought to fruition due to the racism which elected the Tea Party Congress in 2009 and went into effect January 2010. This governmental Civil War rages today; support for what you call Bernie’s “ideas” I see as goals to return this country to the middle-class by providing a living wage…we ARE ready for that. We will not see it with Hillary any more than we will see it with Trump.

    “Bernie actually thinks he is entitled to the WH because of his ideas for America, which are very good but this America is not ready for them.”

    “Bernie’s divisive, egotistical run threatens to put Trump in the WH and destroy that Court. Don’t rationalize past the word “threatens’.”

    Bernie speaks to and for the masses; there will be little difference between Hillary or Trump if they take the reins from President Obama. We, the American people, stand to lose if either of them are in the White House.

  27. About what we know and what we don’t know about our government. Not until I finished reading Annie Jacobsen’s “Operation Paperclip” did I know that approximately 1500 Nazi scientists and medical doctors were brought straight to the US immediately after Hitler’s Nazi regime was defeated. These top Third Reich scientists and medical doctors were Nazi ideologues, were aware of the Nazi atrocities, and many of these men were accused of war crimes, and others had stood trial at Nuremberg; one was convicted of mass murder and slavery.

    For a candid documented view of the little-known practices of the dark side of the US government, I recommend your reading “Operation Paperclip”. Annie Jacobsen is not a slouch conspiracy leaning journalist, but rather she’s a New York Times bestseller author, a graduate of Princeton University where she wrote with Joyce Carol Oates, and a stickler for citations and documentation.

    “When the U.S. recruited Nazis for ‘Operation Paperclip'”…March 31, 2014 PBS interview with author Annie Jacobsen.

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