Tag Archives: choices

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.