The Confident Fool


 “To be ignorant of one’s ignorance is the malady of ignorance.” — A. Bronson Alcott

No doubt they thought their 'masks' were a brilliant disguise

Two confident fools implementing identification-deterrent technology.

I saw this TMZ video (56 s) posted on the BCM Facebook page; in it Cesar Millan says  “dogs don’t think.” Naturally he is wrong – as he usually is – but I was struck by how confident he is when making painfully stupid claims. It’s  not an uncommon condition, certainty and ignorance go hand-in-hand.

We’ve all met confident idiot; a self-proclaimed expert who spouts absurdities with the absolute certainty that only be fueled by  true ignorance. The confident idiot is not a new phenomenon – though it seems like the internet has spawned hordes of them and I am not the first to note their existence.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge” — Charles Darwin

 The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” — William Butler Yeats

 The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”  — Bertrand Russell

These fools have even immortalized in a Woody Allen movie.

I wish life was like too; and even when it is, the confident idiot is not swayed.

In Dominance and Pseudoscience: Making Sense of Nonsense, Bekoff answers one CI I’ve mentioned before, Kevin Behan.

CI: “The current science says dominance is variable according to a number of factors, and that it is also instinctive and unconscious. But then one will not be able to enunciate this factor of variability without projecting human thoughts and rationales into the minds of the animals, which immediately contradicts the notion of instinct. Which is it, instinct or psychology? If instinct, how then is it variable?”

Bekoff: In any basic ethology course or Animal Behavior 101, students learn that dominance is not “instinctive and unconscious.” And, students also learn that just because a specific pattern of behavior is instinctive this does not mean it cannot be modified due to individual experience. These sorts of individual tweaks lead to variability.

The Confident Idiot (CI) goes 3 for 3. Not unconscious. Not. instinctive. Not invariable. But you can be sure, like all fools he is confident in his proclamations.

Here we have a McLuhan-moment comes to life, but a year and a half later the CI is still repeating his nonsense about instinct. Of course the world of dog training is filled with confident fools and CI is not alone.

Cesar Millan confidently asserts that it is possible to reward fear” , dogs are “dominant to light (and shadows)” and women are “claimed” by their male dogs. Brad Pattison is adamant positive-training creates “aggressive dogs”, claims submissive urination is a dominant dog attempting to “manipulate” and learned helplessness results from carrying a dog up the stairs.

Most recently the Confident Idiot asks “why isn’t there a domesticated version of the raccoon perhaps the most prolific animal at the dump?” The CI thinks he has stumbled onto some deep problem when all he is doing is arguing from ignorance and personal incredulity. The CI is confident that with these questions he has destroyed evolution. He might as well ask why Gorn, Tygra and Hawk never come to the parent-teacher meetings and point to this as evidence of his “energy” religion. [See this article, or better yet the paper as to the importance of rare events in evolution]

We don't see Gorn, Tygra and Hawk therefore energy mumbo jumbo.

We don’t see Gorn, Tygra and Hawk walking around, therefore energy mumbo jumbo.

Why does ignorance result in certitude?  Why are the least informed the most dogmatic?

There is a paradoxical phenomenon associated with overconfidence, it’s the Hard-Easy Effect; the tendency to underestimate performance with easy subjects while difficult tasks tend to produce overconfidence.

In a 1987 study comparing international bridge players and amateurs, the participants were asked to assess the chances of making a final contract (don’t ask me what that means) on a bridge round. The high level amateurs felt certainty (100% sure) in 29% of the cases compared to the international players who gave a 100% probability only in 2.5% of the trials – the international players were always right.

Another link between marginal knowledge and overconfidence was explored by Kruger and Dunning in the now-classic paper ‘Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments’. Or more colloquially, ‘Incompetent and Oblivious: People who suck don’t know they suck and think they are smarter than they really are’

Test score (blue) and predicted scores (red) Dunning & Kruger 1999, Vol. 77, No. 6. ] 121-1134

Test score (blue) and self-assesment (red)
Dunning & Kruger 1999, Vol. 77, No. 6. ] 121-1134

According to Kruger and Dunning, the unskilled face a double burden; same set of skills needed for competence are also needed for accurate self-assessments. Specifically, the incompetent lack the metacognitive skills to 1) achieve high performance, and 2) properly assess their skills.

Metacognition refers to the awareness and ability to monitor our own thought processes; it is usually described as thinking about thinking and while not essential to learning it is essential to the acquisition of expertise. I didn’t bother to check if poor performers are not metacognitive because they are incompetent or if they are incompetent because they are not metacognitive. Or a little bit of both?. But I think I can safely say one thing:

These people don’t know what they are saying because they don’t know what they are thinking.

I don’t have a solution for the confident fool, all I know (or maybe I just think I know) is that we need to be aware of them and not mistake their certainty for knowledge.

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” — Voltaire




10 thoughts on “The Confident Fool

  1. I think that to speak of dominance and subordination, hierarchy and domination of one individual over another within a biological species is quite complicated topic.

    This topic should be viewed from different angles and current behaviors of animals and it is not correct to simply say – dominance and hierarchy exist or do not exist.

  2. i am tempted to suggest that this phenomenon of confident tone plus absence of knowledge is very much used by politicians in public office. When a politician expresses doubt he or she is often ridiculed. Confidence seems to be prized even over truthfulness.
    To me, a confident tone is a marketing ploy, not a sign of depth of knowledge.
    Thanks for this interesting essay.

  3. The Confident Idiot [CI] wrote about SPARCS and criticized what he predicted was going to happen. He himself can’t take any criticism so he won’t post the comment which is giving you credit for.

    And it should be easy for an expert to point out where I’m going wrong simply by answering the above

    It is. But you refuse to accept facts. Your strawman of evolution is a good place to start. You cannot cite a single study that paints evolution the way you claim.

    This is how modern biology countered Intelligent Designs’ assertion

    Also false.

    Evolution never countered ID, never had to. It was merely dismissed and the courts did the same because they recognized it was based on religion and hiding behind science-jargon. The court wrote: “In making this determination, we have addressed the seminal question of whether ID is science. We have concluded that it is not, and moreover that ID cannot uncouple itself from its creationist, and thus religious, antecedents.”

    ones which border on magical thinking.

    Zero self awareness. Your whole theory is based on magical thinking. Don’t complain. If it’s ok for you to lobby that accusation then it’s ok to describe you with it.

    two diametrically opposed randomly occurring reflexes, have to have emerged at exactly the same time so that the signal is received in a way that is coherent to the other party

    Also false.

    Maybe instead of pretending you are an expert you should have spent that time looking up evolution of signalling. Solid models indicate they can arise from random signals and evolve from simple signals. The research is only more 1/4 century old.

    Also, a dominant dealing with another potential dominant, one who in this case is not so inclined to submit, must be able to soft shoe its aggressive approach so as to not push a dominant wannabe over the edge by being too aggressive in its dominance

    Your argument is reminiscent of creationist who say abiogenesis is impossible use the current level of molecular complexity of a cell to justify their flawed thinking. You too are stuck in this mistaken path. Secondly you are thinking about individuals when evolution deals with populations.

    For the most part the thinking is so far off left field it leaves you in the parking lot; it makes it hard to discuss any ideas when you can’t even bother to learn about the concepts you are trying to criticize.

    Funny that a search for “neo Darwinian logic” turns up links to creationist literature. The term is never seen in those that discuss real science.

  4. That idiot Behan has replied to this. I dropped him a line yet I don’t expect to see my post because he doesn’t like people pointing out his mistakes. Here is what I wrote.

    Nice hack job.

    You misrepresented Bekoff, Mech, McConnell, Science of Dogs, psychology, physics, biology and science in general. Nothing about group behavior requires is to invent and imagine your Ley lines of power. I don’t know why you keep insisting on this lie.

    Try reading for comprehension. Here a few things you apparently misread.

    • McConnell isn’t struggling “to apprehend the nature of “territorial aggression.””
    • Dr. Elegans has shown you regularly contradict yourself
    • dominance doesn’t require thinking – this is another lie you promulgate.
    • as for your factual mistakes, TMTC

    And while you mock uncertainty, better a doubting scientist with data than a confident fool with no facts.

    “The sign of intelligence is that you are constantly wondering. Idiots are always dead sure about every damm thing they are doing in their life.” — Jaggi Vasudev

  5. Pingback: Dogs Behave Jealously… in 1871 | Science of Dogs

  6. Much food for thought. Thanks for this. Begins to help me to explain things that have baffled me for years. Maybe one take away is that you should just bypass rhetoric entirely, go for the underlying facts, or lack thereof, and assess them for yourself. Or, in other words, avoid accepting things on the basis of any kind of authority unless you have a really, really good reason to trust the authority. Lot’s to think about.

Comments are closed.