The Inverse Correlation Between Knowledge and Confidence

Thanks to Jim Thomas at Nimble Security for this one.

“It has often and confidently been asserted, that man’s origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.” – Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871)

“The fundamental cause of trouble in the world is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.” — Bertrand Russell, Mortals and Others 1: American Essays 1931-35


Somehow, David Dunning and Justin Kruger get credit for what Darwin and Bertrand Russell (and no doubt many others) had previously observed, I guess because they did a study on it (fair enough, but still). From Wikipedia:

The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes.[1]

Actual competence may weaken self-confidence, as competent individuals may falsely assume that others have an equivalent understanding. David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University conclude, “the miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others”.[2]

We’ve all seen this play out in real life; I call it the inverse correlation between knowledge and confidence. Though Dunning and Kruger’s attribution of the lack of confidence of the competent to “an error about others” seems a little pat. The more I know, the more I discover how much I really don’t know. So, as I gain knowledge, my conclusions become more couched with caveats. Certainty gets replaced with the awareness that there is a multitude of other factors that must be considered before any conclusion can be definitive.

“Actual competence may weaken self-confidence” is ham fisted (should I expect more from a Wikipedia contributor?). It ironically offends the prospect of becoming “weakened”. Better said, “unearned self-confidence— naïveté— is replaced with an acknowledgement of the likelihood of unknowns that can alter conclusions.”

A mark of wisdom is the awareness of how little one truly knows.

Of course, perhaps my confidence in my assessment of their conclusions stems from the fact that I have only just read about six paragraphs out of what is surely volumes of discussion on this very topic, and have only considered it for about 15 minutes. Surely, I know virtually nothing of this.

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