The Inverse Correlation Between Knowledge and Confidence

A sign of intelligence is an awareness of one’s own ignorance.

—Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527)

The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.

—William Shakespeare, As You Like It (1599)

Cherish those who seek the truth but beware of those who find it.

—Voltaire (1694-1778)

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)

Education is the path from cocky ignorance to miserable uncertainty.

—Mark Twain (1835-1910)

It is paradoxical, yet true, to say, that the more we know, the more ignorant we become in the absolute sense, for it is only through enlightenment that we become conscious of our limitations.

—Nikola Tesla (1915)

The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.

—W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming (1919)

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)

Never let it come to the surface;  never let him ask” ….  “and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.

— C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (1941)

The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.

― Charles Bukowski (circa 1960)

The stupider you are, the smarter you think you are, and vice versa.
I’m smart enough to know that I’m dumb.

—Richard Feynman

David Dunning and Justin Kruger deserve no credit for what Shakespeare, Voltaire, Darwin, Tesla, Bertrand Russell, Charles Bukowski, Richard Feynmann, and no doubt many others had previously observed, but some of us place value in language cloaked in sciency buzzwords more than pithy statements of the obvious. Quoth 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. 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 acknowledgment 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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