The Dunning-Kruger Presidency

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Donald Trump, with hair

The Dunning-Kruger effect is a phenomenon that two psychologists, where it derives its name, identified in 1999 article. It describes the tendency of humans to overestimate their ability in specific fields of endeavor. They studied persons in the areas of humor, grammar, and logic, and found that persons who have essentially zero skill know that and admit it, but persons who have a low skill level above zero tend to overestimate their ability. Persons at the highest skill level tend to underestimate their ability.

In terms of ordinary English, this is the problem of a little knowledge being a dangerous thing, or people who are too stupid to realize that they’re stupid. This is usually a phenomenon that is mostly interesting for academic reasons, or perhaps frustrating if you happen to work or socialize with someone who clearly exhibits it from the lower end of the ability scale.

It became a huge problem for the entire republic in January 2017 when Donald Trump took office because Trump is a walking case study in Dunning Kruger. This problem with him has always been obvious, leading to the conclusion that he must have had a lot of Dunning-Kruger voters voting for him. There is no reason to doubt that persons who have very little skill at evaluating candidates for public office would not also suffer from Dunning-Kruger in that area of endeavor.

But Trump offered up an exceptionally clear piece of evidence for his own, general problem in this regard recently, after his administration chose to release a new report on climate change on the day after Thanksgiving, a day when public officials expect almost no one to notice what they’ve done.

That trick seems to have backfired this time, since lots of reporters have asked Trump questions about the report this week. He has dismissed the report and its dire findings, including predictions of harm to the U.S. economy, going so far as to describe himself as having a “very high level of intelligence.”

Dunning-Kruger on stilts. This is sort of meta Dunning-Kruger. They originally articulated the concept in terms of specific skills in specific intellectual pursuits, not as a statement about overall intelligence, but there is no obvious reason why the concept could not apply to a person’s overall evaluation of her/his intelligence, as here with a man of distinctly, um, modest intellectual ability, as he has demonstrated repeatedly, claiming to have a “very high level of intelligence.”

Whether the refusal of one stupid president of the United States to acknowledge the problem of climate change is enough to kill us all remains to be seen. It seems unlikely.

But Dunning-Kruger may kill us yet.

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Uppity gay, Buddhist, author, historian.

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