Tag Archives: skill

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…


Intelligence vs. Skill

Just as there is a difference between job training and education, there’s a difference between intelligence and skill.

A recent DailyKos post by a neurologist disputed the notion that being a neurosurgeon should be taken as evidence that Ben Carson is smart. The author distinguished between genuine intellect and technical skill.

“Smart” is a multifaceted cognitive feature composed of excellent analytical skills, possession of an extensive knowledge base that is easily and frequently augmented, possession of a good memory, and being readily curious about the world and willing, even eager, to reject previously accepted notions in the face of new data. Being smart includes having the ability to analyze new data for validity and, thinking creatively, draw new insights from existing common knowledge….

My point is that neurosurgeons are not automatically smart because they are a neurosurgeon. To get through training and have any sort of practice they must be disciplined, have immense ego strength, a reasonably good memory, and have mental and physical stamina. However, like many other doctors, they are not always smart. Neurosurgeons, like other surgeons, can be outstanding technicians but that is different than being intellectually brilliant. A truly brilliant internal medicine specialist once told me that “you can train anyone to perform a procedure”. I’ve seen surgical assistants, not doctors but physician’s assistants that specialize in surgery, perform technically difficult procedures with stunning alacrity. It’s the old rule: do something enough times and you will get damn good at it.

I thought about the difference between skill and intellect–both of which are important, but which are not the same thing– when I heard Marco Rubio’s astonishing statement in the recent GOP debate that “Welders make more than philosophers. America needs more welders and less [sic} philosophers.”

Not only was Rubio wrong on the facts (philosophers actually earn more than welders), but think about what this sneering dismissal of the worth of intellectual pursuits tells us about his worldview. Clearly, Rubio (and apparently everyone on that debate stage) evaluates  the worth of any profession solely on the basis of what it pays. If welders did make more than teachers, then welders would obviously be superior.

I’m a big fan of market economics, but the fact that the market rewards pornographers more than it rewards nurses doesn’t mean we need more pornographers and fewer nurses.

Let’s be clear: the skilled trades are important and honorable. But scholarship, research, scientific inquiry and yes, philosophy and theology, are essential to human progress. They also give our lives meaning and purpose.

Socrates–a philosopher– said the unexamined life is not worth living. There wasn’t anyone on that debate stage who appears to understand that sentiment, let alone agree with it–and that is terrifying.