How to be an utterly confident idiot

Updated: Feb 18, 2020, 08:33 IST | C Y Gopinath | Mumbai

No matter how smart you think you are, there's no way you could possibly know what you don't know yet

Travellers wearing protective gear at Daxing international airport in Beijing. AFP
Travellers wearing protective gear at Daxing international airport in Beijing. AFP

picLet me offer myself as an example of a confident idiot, at least for a short period last week. As a fan of fact-check and reasoned doubt, I have been trying to fight the surging tide of panic about coronavirus by telling people it's far from the end of the world.

A friend was deciding to postpone her return to Laos, where she lived, for fear of coronavirus — or COVID-19 as it is now named. Laos was close to China, she reasoned, had porous borders and poor administrative controls even if no cases yet.

I argued, telling her that it was all media hype, pointing out that another virus, the seasonal flu, had infected 18 million people in the USA alone and killed 12,000 in the same time as COVID-19 — and with barely a small mention in the media. In comparison, COVID-19 has so far infected 71,334 people as of February 14, and 1,775 had died. Only three of the deaths were outside China.

My friends were unimpressed. I, however, was, very impressed by my level-headed, logical reasoning. After five years with virologists and epidemiologists in the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization's section on emerging infectious diseases, I felt the certainty of an expert. The world needed more people like me.

Just yesterday I saw a quotation that dunked cold water on me: "One of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision." Bertrand Russell had written these words in 1951 in his book New Hope for a Changing World.

I felt certainty. So was I stupid? Inevitably, this road led to David Dunning and Justin Kruger.

The Dunning-Kruger effect, written up first in 1999, says that people of low ability or knowledge tend to overestimate their ability or knowledge. Less charitably: Some people are too stupid to even know how stupid they are. Donald Trump is often cited as an example.

Dunning and Kruger gave subjects tests in humour, grammar and logic and then asked them to estimate how well they had scored. Those who scored abysmally consistently estimated that they had scored outstandingly. Poor sods, you're probably thinking, too stupid to know they're stupid. Detecting idiocy in others is such fun.

David Dunning, in an interview, threw cold water on this by saying, "The first rule of the Dunning-Kruger club is that you don't know you're a member of the Dunning-Kruger club." No matter what your subject area is, you have no way of knowing how much you don't know. It seems that the true moron knows a little and believes he knows it all. The more one moves towards expertise and mastery, though, the more aware you are of how there is yet to learn.

Yet saying "I don't know" in a world exploding with information is a damning admission of absence of mind. Try it at a party. Go to some garrulous, confident fellow and ask, "Hey, dude, do you think Chasing Dingos breaks new ground in hip-hop? You know, the new single by Dermatitis? You haven't heard it? No way!"

How many people do you suppose would launch into a confident discourse on a non-existent singer?

I made up a quick test of five questions to test your Dunning-Krugerness. Answer each question with a number from 1 to 5, with 1 being Not True At All and 5 being Absolutely True.

  • The god Ganesh has an elephant trunk, so clearly plastic surgery was invented in India.
  • One day, Muslims will take over the world because they have so many wives and produce so many children.
  • Cold winters are proof that global warming is a total hoax.
  • It is quite possible that the earth is flat, since all my knowledge is second hand, from photos that could have been Photoshopped.
  • Drinking cow urine cures AIDS.

Now go back and for each question write down a number between 1 and 10 indicating how sure you are of the answer you gave. Multiply the two numbers to get your five answer scores. Calculate the average of these numbers.

The higher the number, the greater the chances that you were being a confident idiot.

In case you're wondering what was wrong with my comparison between coronavirus and the seasonal flu, most people recover from flu, whose mortality rate is about 0.15 per cent. COVID-19 seems to have a mortality rate of around 2.1 per cent, or 14 times that of seasonal flu.

Before you start feeling like an expert — two earlier coronaviruses, SARS (2003) and MERS (2012) had death rates of 10% and 34% respectively. Ebola's was 44%.
You decide how scared you want to be.

Here, viewed from there. C Y Gopinath, in Bangkok, throws unique light and shadows on Mumbai, the city that raised him. You can reach him at
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