The Ignorance that Begets Overconfidence and its Ramification on the Ummah


In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.

Bertrand Russell

Early this morning I read Errol Morris’s New York Times Opinion Piece, The Anosogosic’s Dilemma,  an intriguing article which sheds light on a groundbreaking study that shows how sheer incompetence leads to overconfidence [1]. Morris highlights how sheer incompetence can lead to overconfidence, what many now call the Dunning-Kruger effect. David Dunning, one of the study’s authors, writes, “If you’re incompetent, you can’t know you’re incompetent.” The scientific explanation of this phenomena opens up so  many possibilities for explaining many of the struggles both my husband and I have face as intellectuals who are committed to educating and empowering both the Black American and Muslim communities.

Daniel Hawes explains that the Dunning-Kruger effect is, ” a cognitive bias in which people perform poorly on a task, but lack the meta-cognitive capacity to properly evaluate their performance. As a result, such people remain unaware of their incompetence and accordingly fail to take any self-improvement measures that might rid them of their incompetence.”[2] The Widipedia article on the Dunning-Kruger Effect, outlines their hypothesis on the way typical humans assess a skill as  follows:

  1. Incompetent individuals tend to overestimate their own level of skill.
  2. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize genuine skill in others.
  3. Incompetent individuals fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy.
  4. If they can be trained to substantially improve their own skill level, these individuals can recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill. [3]

In their Study, Dunning and Kruger cite numerous psychological studies which show how the incompetent are less able to gauge their own skill set than their more skilled peers. They write, for example, “high school students tend to see themselves as having more ability in leadership, getting along with others, and written expression than their peers….Mediocre students are less accurate than other students at evaluating their course performance….Unskilled readers are less able to assess their text comprehension than are more skilled readers.”[4] The reality is, most people see themselves as above average. And this is a cognitive bias, which has some negative ramifications on our self improvement and can lead to continual bickering and debates as we discount expert opinion.

The Dunning-Kruger effect explains my observations of the the debates and struggles over legitimacy in the Muslim community. I found that the less informed a person was, the more he/she was absolutely sure of their opinions. I never knew there was a name for the inability of incompetent people to recognize their own incompetence, but it is called the Dunning-Kruger Effect.

The more I learn, the more I learn how little I know.

Socrates

Strangely, my quest for mastering Arabic illustrated the inverse effect of gaining knowledge only to learn how little I knew. After nearly five years of studying Arabic, I was in Egypt to shore up my skills. However,   I felt as if my progress was stalling. Whenever I spoke, I could hear the mistakes roll out of my mouth.  I constantly self corrected in mid-sentence and my conversations felt even more stilted. I thought I hit a wall, partly due to the quality of programs I had previously enrolled in. Even as I studied in  some of the most prestigious and rigorous programs, I became much more self conscious about my language than I was two years before. Back then, I spoke with much more confidence.  My dear friend and roommate at the time, who was earning an MA in Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language, reminded me that it was a good thing. My language was improving, as evidenced by the awareness of my mistakes. My other teachers reminded me that my growing self-consciousness in language was a good sign. I was aware of the grammar mistakes that I made even as I spoke them. Earlier, I was not able to distinguish the nuances of language, so this was a clear sign in my development. My self-consciousness contrasted with some newbie students who were so self-assured that they’d master the language in less than half the time only to become frustrated that they couldn’t hold a conversation after a year of study.

The more you know, the less you understand.

Lao-Tse

In addition to language, I found that my student of the history of Muslim societies opened up huge chasms of questions. When I got to graduate school I found it increasingly hard to write a definitive essay about anything.  It wasn’t just reading post-modern literature, and its refusal to acknowledge that there was truth in the world, that confused me. Well, Foucault and Derrida’s difficult language did befuddle me and plenty of incoherent texts  perplexed me. But even more than the boring theoretical texts, it was the inverse effect of specialization on my sense of mastery of any particular subject. I found each exploration to be like peeling an onion, layer after layer. One could never get to the bottom of it all.

I remember a Muslim artist who was cocky enough to tell me, “I can know just as someone with a doctorate by just watching documentaries.”  I jockingly agreed  acknowledging the increasingly narrowing specialization that made it difficult to make one’s study relevant. I was self-effacing about what I knew in order to diffuse the potential the battle of wills.  The reality was that the Dunning-Kruger effect had inflated his sense of his own ability to grasp the Humanities, let alone Social Sciences. The self-assured Muslim man made the assertion in an effort to put me and my knowledge in place. And I had learned from many negative encounters with lay people with strong opinions and little backing that it could turn ugly really quick if I weigh in with my expertise.  You can find the dismissal of scholars, and especially anyone who has been trained in Western institutions, in most public discussions. Some people will even accused scholarly people as “asserting privilege” as part of some ruling class and “silencing voices.” While that is sometimes the case, often this language is meant to dismiss a valid argument made by someone like myself who did not come from a privileged background and was a non-traditional student.  The Dunning-Kruger effect can explain many of the exasperating interactions I’ve had as a student, a teacher, public intellectual and mentor.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.

Charles Darwin

As a student of history, I found that many lay people would often assert they knew more about a particular subject than most experts. And of course, most people would assert that they knew more about a particular subject than I did, especially when it came to Islamic history, Middle East history and politics, and African history.  This was especially the case when it came to non-Muslims telling me about the history of Muslims. Often I sit and nod silently as I get mini-lectures from someone who watch too much history channel. Gaining a graduate degree has been an ultimate lesson in humility.

While in the social field I avoided heavy handed intellectual discussions, I made my splash in the blogosphere in defense of a friend who was getting slammed on Umar Lee’s Blog. I remember those early discussions where I would openly tell people they didn’t know what they were talking about and couldn’t see me until they read up. I’d give them a list of books read before they could discuss any further, knowing full well that they wouldn’t read them. It was harsh, but I wrote that stuff with sincerity. And it was some vindication for all the crap I had to go through dealing with people who would become resentful, talk me down, or become passive aggressive once they knew I was a Stanford grad student. Over time, my approach became less heavy handed. I had sharpened my writing chops enough in the blogosphere. But over time, I didn’t enjoy the fitnah or the intellectual smack down. But still the Dunning-Kruger effect pops up time and time again.

In a recent blog entry, A Basic Primer on Sunnah, Marc Manely posted a selection of Sherman Jackson’s book, Towards Empowering The Common Muslim,. Someone posted the following well meaning comment that illustrates my point:

May Allah bless you in your effort to help Muslims new and old in better understanding the Sunnah of our beloved Prophet {PBUH}. But I am feeling that to much emphasis is put into what the scholars say {which might be a little to hard to digest for new muslims} and not what the Quraan and The Prophet {PBUH} have to say on the necessity of not only following his {PBUH} sunnah but obeying The Prophet, which is initself is a requirement to attain Allahs pleasure, which would be pointed out if the whole the verse was quoted and not only part of it.
Secondly, a better understanding of following his sunnah or in this case his behaviour would be to explain the series of verses that this particular verse is in and also why it was revealed.

Within this quote is a basic assumption that an untrained layman can fully understand the Qur’an and Hadith without the aid of scholars. There is also an  assumption that scholars are not following a consistent methodology to unravel the meaning of a verse or hadith in an effort to understand what Allah intends in that revelation. Often Muslims in the West have a rugged individualist approach to Islam, without understanding the intertextual nature of the Quran and Sunnah. Last year, as I tried to organize a halaqah, a sister told me she felt that tafsir was not necessary because the Qur’an was straight forward. The sister did not understand tafsir as a legitimate Islamic science. For her, reading the Qur’an’s English translation was straight forward. But the thing is, the translation is not the Qur’an. The Qur’an is the reading in Arabic. But even with Arabic, can we go back to understand something written 1400 years ago and understand it without the aid of generations of scholars?  Without coming to terms withe the layers of meaning, in addition to bridges that help us arrive at the text, we will probably be lost.

Finally, I’d like to get into how lay people with too much confidence in what they think they know who involve themselves polemics. These are the same people who were offended by the “Pledge of Mutual Respect” which states:

Likewise, detailed discussions in matters of theology are the specific domain of trained specialists, and proceed on the basis of well-defined principles and methodologies, which are beyond the knowledge of the generality of Muslims. Our forebears in faith, with all the dedication, brilliance and sincerity clearly manifested in their works, have debated and discussed abstruse and complex issues of creed and practice, and have failed in most instances to convince their opponents of the veracity and accuracy of their positions. The average Muslim is only responsible for knowing the basics of creed as they relate to a simple belief in Allah, His Angels, Scriptures, the Prophets and Messengers, the Last Day, and the Divine Decree.

Some claimed that this pledge was meant to silence average Muslims. Instead, it was to let the unskilled and ignorant know that they should not quibble about that which they don’t understand. And that includes myself, I can’t argue about Kalam, Islamic theology because my training is limited. The pledge goes on to do the following:

  • Urge Muslims in the West, especially our youth, to leave off unproductive and divisive discussions of involved theological issues that are the proper domain of trained specialists, and we especially discourage participation in those internet chat rooms, campus discussion groups, and other forums that only serve to create ill-will among many Muslims, while fostering a divisive, sectarian spirit;
  • Urge all teachers to instruct their students, especially those attending intensive programs, to respect the diverse nature of our communities and to refrain from aggressive challenges to local scholars, especially those known for their learning and piety;
  • Urge our brothers and sisters in faith to concentrate on enriching their lives by deepening their practice of Islam through properly learning the basics of the faith, adopting a consistent regimen of Qur’anic recitation, endeavoring to remember and invoke Allah in the morning and evening, learning the basics of jurisprudence, attempting to engage in voluntary fasting as much as possible, studying the Prophetic biography on a consistent basis, studying the etiquettes that guide our interactions with our fellow Muslims, and the performance of other beneficial religious acts, to the extent practical for their circumstances [5]

Ignorance is breeding overconfidence, and overconfidence is nothing short of arrogance.  And I have found that some of the most ignorant people are the most boisterous in causing problems both within and outside of the Muslim community. Before the accusations of intellectual elitism go flying, I want to emphasize the importance of public scholarship and empowering the common Muslim. “The rather odd element of the Dunning-Kruger effect is that the incompetent don’t become aware of it until they become more competent. The key is education.”[6] My overall goal is to increase the Islamic literacy of average Muslims in order for us to be aware of our own shortcomings in knowledge. By doing so, we can rectify the situation. We can also increase humility. Once we have gained a greater competence in our Deen, we will see where our gaps lie. I think that through education, many lay Muslims will avoid disputations. We will also have better etiquette in doing so. Further, by educating ourselves,  and becoming aware of our own shortfalls in knowledge, we can work towards solving discord and respect the rights of our our brothers and sisters. Through education initiatives in the Muslim community, such as the Alim program, Madinah Institute, Zaytuna Institute, The Madinah Way, Maghrib Institute, etc, we are slowly reversing the disastrous consequences that the Dunning-Kruger effect has had on our community.

Notes:

1.Errol Morris, “The Anosognosic’s Dilemma: Something’s Wrong but You’ll Never Know What It Is (Part 1)” New York Times. June 20, 2010.

2. Daniel Hawes, “When Ignorance Begets Confidence: The Classic Dunning-Kruger Effect” Psychology Today Published June 6, 2010 Retrieved June 21, 2010

3. “Dunning-Kruger Effect” Wikipedia. Last modified June 18, 2010 Retreived June 21, 2010

4.  Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated
Self-Assessments”Psychology, 2009, 1, 30-46

5. Pledge of Mutual Respect and Cooperation Between Sunni Muslim Scholars, Organizations, and Students of Sacred Knowledge

6. Daniel Keogh, “The Dunning-Kruger Effect.The Science Show May 8, 2010

See also:

Katherine A. Burson, Richard P. Larrick, and Joshua Klayman”Skilled or Unskilled, but Still Unaware of It: How Perceptions of Difficulty Drive Miscalibration in Relative Comparisons”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2006, Vol. 90, No. 1, 60–77

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13 thoughts on “The Ignorance that Begets Overconfidence and its Ramification on the Ummah

  1. As Salaamu Alaikum Dear:

    Mabrook ukhti; this is another excellent and well researched post from you.

    You mention the overconfidence of the know-it-alls when it comes to the BAM community, but I have also noticed this with some Arab and Pakastini communities. It is especially harmful when these people are in positions of authority in the masjid. It has the consequence of stiffling creativity and enthusiasm for doing things in the masjid unless you have their permission and approval (and are a member of their particular ethnic group). After all, they are born Muslims and know better, right?!

    You also wrote:

    “I remember those early discussions where I would openly tell people they didn’t know what they were talking about and couldn’t see me until they read up.”

    I recently had someone tell me something similar to this on FaceBook. It had to do with a discussion about race issues, and I was told that, as a white person, I “did not have the right and the authority to speak on the issue” until I learned a few things and gained more compassion. I can agree that I do not have the “authority” to speak on the topic, but think I have a “right” to. And I DO possess a few credentials. After all, how do we dialogue with each other if we cannot speak and learn from our mistakes or misconceptions? What made this comment even more troublesome for me is that the sister and I are both writers. How can a writer tell another writer that they don’t have a “right” to speak on a topic?

    In humility, I always bow to sometimes not having the authority to speak, but I maintain that I have a right so speak.

    I also feel I have a right to be an active participant in my masjid even though I am not on the board and am the only White American there, lol.

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  2. Salaams alaikum dearest Safiyyah,

    Masha’Allah! Thank you! I’m trying to raise my standards in citing sources. Insha’Allah my writing style will also continue to develop. I’d like to consider myself an essayist, not just a journaling in the public sphere.

    You’re right, “uncles” at the masjid can definitely stifle creativity and growth. Their over confidence often comes from an ignorant place too. I have tons of stories from working in the Muslim community.

    You’re right. You have a right to speak your thoughts. We all have a right to speak on whatever issue we want. It seems like a defense mechanism we Black people use. Who defines authority anyways? Would this writer have a problem with Tim Wise or Allen Johnston writing about race or privilege? Or basically, would they allow Wise to speak when he is saying something that affirms their opinions. But the minute he points out some Black pathology, they’ll say, “Shut up White Boy!” Sigh…

    We need to have difficult conversations. I know in the past, I’ve felt a little hurt by some intercultural discussions. I would have no problem with a White American, Latino, or Asian Muslim having concerns about MANA excluding them. I did have a problem with someone telling me to just get over it, but I tried to do so in a thoughtful manner.

    As Blow the Trumpet points out, Jill Scott can not speak for all White women. But she speaks from her own individual pesrpective as a Black woman. There are so many things that I write about and speak on without the authority to do so. I write about popular psychology, feminist issues, gardening, and numerous other topics where I have no expert opinion, just my own particular insight. Authorities have certificates or PhDs and are experts in the field. As you said, you DO have credentials and an extensive background. I welcome people’s insight in history, it is just when the debates became heated and they have little background on the subject that I get annoyed. I’m refraining from using my old heavy handed, “I’m an expert you peon!” tactics.

    Anthropologists are often outsiders studying another culture. Even if they are from the same culture, by becoming educated elites, they often become de facto outsiders. I’ve been wanting to do studies on the construction of whiteness in popular media and film, in addition to studying affluent white cultural practices. Do I not have a right to study that because I’m black? This is where the insider/outsider dichotomy falls apart.

    I think this is worthwhile talking about. To do anti-racism work, we have to be open to dialog and not do things that are counter-productive. I’ll have to do some more research and put together another article that I hope will be fruitful for community building.

    Jazak Allah kheir,
    MA

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  3. as-Salaam ‘alaykum all. I thought this would make some additionally good food for thought:

    A common misconception among many people is that they believe the texts of the Qur’an and Hadith are intended for all of mankind and are so clear that anyone fairly literate should be able to read them and understand what they mean. The first part of this idea is correct – the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet ﷺ are intended for everyone. However, the idea that anyone reading the texts will be able to fully understand each and every intended meaning regardless of their background knowledge is very wrong.

    Read more here.

    Like

  4. Salamualikum
    It is my pleasure to know more about blog of the sister I wish you good (Faith) and good end(Khatimah)

    wasalamualaikum

    Like

  5. As-salaamu ‘alaykum. I just wanted to say jazak Allah khayr for putting in the effort to write posts like this. They are very refreshing and healthy.

    I’d also like to add that a dangerous effect from this compounded ignorance you’ve written about is that charisma and personalities, rather than scholarship, become the basis for authority. I think this is inevitable because Islamic tradition and its history is not easy to learn and appreciate. (Was not easy to understand for me at least.)

    Also, Marc shared this excellent piece by Chris Hedges recently where he talks about the “cult of the self” and how it’s destroying America. I like his analysis. Most relevant to us, I think, is when he says the cult of self is the “nationwide celebration of image over substance, of illusion over truth.” The Muslim discourse, too, needs to be one based on substance/scholarship/truth over image/charisma/illusion. Unfortunately, the latter discourse is much easier to swallow en masse than the former – politicized Islam can use television and pamphlets while traditional Islam bores people to death.

    Like

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