A cognitive bias known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect has, I think, considerable relevance in alternative medicine. The effect means that, the less you know, the less able you are to recognize how little you know, and the less likely you are to recognize your limitations. Consequently, your confidence in yourself is inflated and you believe you are more competent than your opponent. Expressed differently:
- Incompetence prevents the recognition of incompetence.
- Too stupid to doubt.
The relevance of the Dunning Kruger Effect to alternative medicine seems obvious, I think. Here we are confronted with all sorts of practitioners who believe they know it all, can treat any condition, alleviate the ‘root cause’ of all ills, etc., etc. Many of my previous posts on this blog have dealt with aspects of this problem. And with unfailing regularity, the discussions brought some individuals badly affected by the Dunning-Kruger Effect to the fore. Typically, they go on and on and on… consumed by their inflated confidence and trapped by their incompetence to realise their incompetence. And typically, they find an audience who is gullible enough to applaud them.
They often remind me of a cartoon I once saw:
The little graph below explains it all quite neatly:
The novice lacks knowledge but, as he acquires a modicum of (pseudo-)knowledge, he gets a boost of confidence. An experienced person has enough knowledge to know that he knows very little; therefore his confidence is relatively low. When experience and knowledge combine to become wisdom, confidence grows and we might be talking to a real expert. Oddly, in terms of confidence, the novice can score higher than even the wisest expert.
To some extent, this simple graph even explains the popularity of many forms of quackery: they are being promoted by people who know very little but are bursting with confidence. And it is this high level of confidence that tends to impress the gullible public who then eagerly adopt the quackery.
Where the graph is somewhat misleading, I think, is where it might give the impression that there is an automatic and necessary transition from novice to expert (from left to right on the X-axis). In many individuals, this development does occur but, sadly, in many others it does not. The evangelical believers in alternative medicine, I fear, usually belong to the latter, sad category.
If I am correct, the Dunning Kruger Effect can therefore partly explain 1) the inflated confidence of proponents of alternative medicine, as well as 2) the current popularity of quackery.