Sorting Through Sophistries:
Mental Solitaire

By Gabriel Blanchard

Regrettably, we don't always need someone else to lead us down the garden path of sophistry; we're very capable walkers, thanks, and feel sure we can find it unassisted.

This post is part of a series. You can find the introduction to that series here; the next three posts are on what are sometimes called lexical fallacies: those of ambiguity, faulty categorization, and misinterpretation.

The First Rule of Debate Club Is …

From this point onward, we’ll be dealing with less systematic informal fallacies, of which there are many. They still cluster into a few definable groups: fallacies that try to wreck an opponent’s credibility instead of his argument, fallacies that appeal to people’s desire to fit in and not be disliked or embarrassed, and so forth. However, it is worth lingering for a moment over something that is not exactly a fallacy at all—or, if it is, it’s a fallacy we practice mainly against ourselves.

In 1999, a psychology professor at Cornell University, David Dunning, authored a paper with the assistance of Justin Kruger, one of his graduate students. A few years before, a pair of bank robbers had stolen a few thousand dollars from two banks in the Pittsburgh area, but without disguising themselves: that is, they believed they had disguised themselves, but learned shortly thereafter that—contrary to their rather eccentric belief—smearing their faces with lemon juice did not act on security cameras in the same way as invisible ink. Dunning, presumably after he had finished laughing, was fascinated by the question of how they could possibly think this. Everyone is prone to error of course, but how does one make such a colossal error as that?

… The One-eyed Man Is King

Dunning and Kruger therefore devised an experiment. They first tested undergraduates on a few topics in a fairly normal quiz format, beginning with things like logic and grammar. Then they gave them a second test, a little surreptitiously, asking the students how well they thought they had done on the quiz. Their findings in this study have since been tested in a wide range of fields, from medicine to chess to aviation; their conclusions have generally held,* and a new psychological term, the Dunning-Kruger effect, was named after them.

I know that I know nothing.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is an example of something called cognitive bias. There are many of these, and everyone has them: they are ways in which our judgment of facts tends to be slanted, missing the fully rational. (Readers of the Nicomachean Ethics may recognize the principle at work here; to adapt a line from it, people are intelligent in one way, but stupid in many.) The gist of Dunning and Kruger’s findings were that, when students were asked to guess at their own performance on the initial quiz, the best performers generally did as well or better than what they thought; the students who performed poorly made guesses about their abilities that were more wide of the mark, and especially, higher than their performance.

Or, let’s put it very simply: the students who did worse didn’t know that they didn’t know the answers. That is what the Dunning-Kruger effect is: our tendency to overrate our grasp of ideas we in fact know little about, or our skill in things we have no training in.

This influences on our lives and thought in various ways. Paradoxically, it can make the person suffering from it both difficult to inform and easy to fool, especially with a little touch of flattery; ignorance and error may thus become not mere facts in the abstract, but alert, self-preservative forces in the psyche. A few different explanations for why it occurs in the first place have been put forward; Dunning and Kruger themselves, noting that the students who did best on the initial quiz also came the closest to correctly guessing how well they had done, believed that one of the things expertise on a subject includes is an ability to evaluate expertise on that subject—both one’s own and other people’s—and that the Dunning-Kruger effect is an artifact of the problems that arise at the other end of the spectrum, so to speak.

And here we really can appreciate the uniqueness of the wisdom of Socrates. A friend went to the oracle at Delphi and asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates. The Delphic oracle, with highly uncharacteristic directness, replied “No.” When the philosopher was told about this frankly hilarious turn of events, his daimōn** scoffed; he didn’t know anything about anything! did he? Socrates humbly agreed that this was true. So he set about trying to find somebody who did know something—only to conclude that everybody else was as ignorant as he was, but that this left him a lone advantage: they might all be walking in the dark, but Socrates at least knew to feel about the path, looking for a light.

*That is, the conclusions Dunning and Kruger themselves actually drew have held. Twenty-five years later, descriptions of the Dunning-Kruger effect often come packaged with explanations of why it happens; these are often plausible, but they are not actually what the gentlemen demonstrated and not part of the Dunning-Kruger effect per se.
**The word daimōn [δαίμων] in Greek, though it ultimately became the ancestor of the English term demon, meant no such thing in classical Athens. Daimōnes were intermediary spirits between men and the gods, sometimes thought of as demigods, and a little like guardian angels. In Plato’s account of Socrates’ defense at his trial, Socrates describes his daimōn as something like an extremely testy conscience—the origin of the “angel on my shoulder” motif.

Gabriel Blanchard is (to the best of his knowledge) CLT’s editor at large, and lives in Baltimore, MD.

If you enjoyed this piece, there’s a lot more to see here at the Journal—try our profile of Jane Austen, our guest post from an active teacher on the anthropology of education, or our glance at the philosophical concept of experience. Thank you for reading the Journal and supporting the Classic Learning Test.

Published on 15th February, 2024.

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