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The other pandemic we need to talk about – the Dunning-Kruger outbreak

On various topics, many people have been dismissing scientific experts and trying out conspiracy theories from YouTube influencers and vloggers. Some of these are relatively harmless. 

For example, if you believe that the earth is flat, that’s not going to really harm anyone. If you think that the moon landing was not real, it’s also okay – that won’t kill you or anyone. But if you believe that “COVID is not real”, “vaccines have microchips in them to control your mind,” “tuob will kill COVID” then you can potentially harm yourself and others.  

False rumors and disinformation spread really fast. In fact, most of them, especially the ones that elicit strong emotional responses from people, travel the fastest. in a fashion similar to the spread of a biological virus. But that’s not what I want to talk about here. I want to discuss why so many people nowadays think they know more than people who have spent literally decades of their lives studying viruses, infectious diseases, and outbreaks. 

I am an MD with a Master’s degree in infectious diseases and public health and another Master’s degree in vaccinology and clinical development. 

I am doing a PhD in microbiology and immunology but I have always said that with COVID we learn more as days go by and we have to follow what science tells us. I regularly encounter these characters on Facebook, Twitter, or even LinkedIn. 

They make a comment where they sound so sure of what they’re saying and then you check their profile only to find out they have zero experience or training in the topic they claim to know so much about. Is this ignorance? Is this arrogance? Is this a lack of self-awareness? Or perhaps a perfect blend of ignorance, arrogance, lack of self-awareness plus a big scoop of unhealthy self-confidence and self-worth. 

This is a psychological phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect. Coined by the psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger in 1999, it is a cognitive bias in which poor performers greatly overestimate their abilities. Dunning and Kruger’s research shows that for some, their incompetence robs them of the ability to realize how incompetent they really are. This incompetence leads them to “hold inflated views of their performance and ability.”

Why incompetent people think they’re amazing?

In 1709, Alexander Pope one of the greatest English poets of the 18th Century wrote, “A little learning is a dangerous thing.” What he meant was that someone with a substantial amount of learning on a topic is often aware that there is still very much to learn but someone with very little to no learning on a topic can sometimes falsely conclude that they know all that needs to be known about it (“Yeah, I know everything! I’m smarter than the doctors/scientists/real experts) – especially if they have a narcissistic personality disorder.

So how do we overcome this? Question yourself. Whenever you end up in a situation where the Dunning-Kruger Effect might be lurking, question your thought process. Is my conclusion sensible? Do I have enough knowledge or expertise in this topic? Should I ask others what they think of my conclusion?

What if someone you know shows this cognitive bias? Humans do not like to be wrong so it might not be a good idea to confront them. Try showing them their incompetence by letting them find out themselves. The goal should not be to embarrass someone or show him or her that he or she is incompetent, but to help him or her be more competent.

As Albert Einstein once said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” The key to overcoming this cognitive pitfall is to strive to avoid overstepping what you actually know. 

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Dr. Melvin Sanicas (@Vaccinologist) is a physician-scientist specializing in vaccines, infectious diseases, and global health.

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