As many readers know, my husband and I homestead 20 acres in the North Idaho panhandle. It’s a fun challenge that simultaneously keeps us young and gives us gray hairs (depending on whether the cattle are on the right or the wrong side of the fence). We’ve done it all on a shoestring budget, which means often things are done in unorthodox (read: cheap) ways, which sometimes raises a few eyebrows among the armchair class (alternately known as the Oliver Wendell Douglas “Green Acres” group).
Since I blog about such matters, we are frequently the recipients of much criticism about this or that. Why do we construct our fences THIS way? Don’t we know fences must be done THAT way? Why do we garden THIS way? Don’t we know we should garden THAT way? Why do we store firewood THIS way? Why don’t we store it THAT way?
Generally, we’re very good about ignoring most “advice” unless the giver has some truly experienced perspective. That’s because we’ve discovered a Great Truth in the 25-plus years we’ve been at this, to wit: The greatest experts in homesteading are those who have never tried it themselves.
I call this the “How hard can it be?” syndrome, and it’s not limited to homesteading. The smartest parents are those without kids. The smartest doctors are those who never went to medical school. The smartest businessmen are those who never ran a business.
Now keep this in mind a moment as we explore something I only recently heard about: The Dunning-Kruger effect, the quasi-satirical notion that people with the least skill are the most likely to overestimate their abilities, and stupidity breeds greater confidence than knowledge.
According to Wikipedia: “In the field of psychology, the Dunning-Kruger effect is a cognitive bias wherein people of low ability suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly assessing their cognitive ability as greater than it is. The cognitive bias of illusory superiority derives from the metacognitive inability of low-ability persons to recognize their own ineptitude. Without the self-awareness of metacognition, low-ability people cannot objectively evaluate their actual competence or incompetence.”
It’s why talent shows attract profoundly untalented people. It’s why cartoonist Scott Adams could build a career poking fun at the ineptitude of the Pointy-Haired Boss. It’s why Hillary Clinton can blame everyone but herself for her election loss.
Most of the time, these overconfident idiots are fairly harmless. It’s no big deal when a performer bombs on “American Idol,” or when a customer tries to tell us how we could make a million dollars by making wooden trivets “just like grandma’s” (true story). Once in a while this kind of cognitive bias has profound historical impact (the defeat of the Spanish Armada springs to mind), but for the most part these people are minor speed bumps on the road of life.
Armchair expertise (i.e. stupidity) is not the same thing as ignorance. Clearly, there are zillions of things I don’t know. I’m clueless about the properties of nuclear fission. I don’t have the faintest idea how to build a computer. I’m hopeless when it comes to neurosurgery. But here’s the thing: I would never, ever dream of telling a nuclear physicist, a computer engineer, or a neurosurgeon how to conduct his or her business.
In these respects, I’m ignorant about the above subjects – not stupid. Everyone is ignorant about most things; it’s only the stupid who convince themselves their ignorance is expertise.
Problems arise when those suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect achieve positions of power in which they can impose their phantom wisdom on those who are true experts. It’s what happens when Child Protective Services removes smart, respectful, well-behaved, healthy, happy children from their parents because the kids are homeschooled. It’s what happens when government bureaucrats insist Muslim immigrants would never, ever cause problems, despite all evidence to the contrary. It’s what happens when a president who never ran a business, made a payroll, or taken entrepreneurial risks dares to claim, “If you’ve been successful, you didn’t get there on your own. … If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
Naturally, pundits have seized the Dunning-Kruger effect and made it their own, particularly with regards to Trump. “[P]eople who’ve never held public office think they’ll make a terrific president. How hard can it be?” snarks William Poundstone in Psychology Today.
Progressives seem to derive a great deal of amusement at the thought of a non-politician holding a political office, but never question whether politicians themselves are qualified. We have decades – generations – of political leaders who have become astounding experts in ignoring, bypassing, or evading constitutional limitations of government growth and regulation, yet they’re given a pass because, after all, they’re experts.
Similarly, we have hundreds of thousands of pencil-pushing government bureaucrats whose sole purpose in life is to pry, scrutinize, regulate, intrude, impose, fine, restrict, meddle, or otherwise make life and business more difficult for everyone except their own departments (which flourish).
This is what happens when a relatively few members of the federal government feel they can hold 320 million Americans hostage to their whims and vagaries because they know how to run our lives better than we do.
It’s also why so many people are relieved to have a businessman in office, rather than a politician. Whatever the criticism of Trump, at least he’s trying something new and different: decreasing government meddling, not increasing it, to stimulate the economy. He’s one of the first presidents in a long time to show some compassion for the little people who have spent generations becoming more and more oppressed by governmental oversight.
True, he’s not as good at nuanced speech (read: lying) or “working across the aisle” (read: betraying the voters) as the trained and often hereditary members of the political class. But is that so bad?
When Mr. Douglas of “Green Acres” used book-learning instead of farming realities, the only thing he screwed up was his farm. But when Ivy League elitists ignore the real world to advance their own theoretical agendas, lots of people suffer. When their schemes fail – as they always do – they don’t learn. They simply repeat those failures under new names. It’s got to work. It’s brilliant. It wasn’t the plan that failed, it was those stupid people who don’t understand what’s good for them.
After all, how hard can it be?