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Scientists Probe Stupidity; What Would We Do Without Scientists?

David Klinghoffer

Jerry Coyne

On a day when we are weighing Jerry Coyne’s blundering Washington Post review of Darwin Devolves (here and here), it seems appropriate to consider the nature of stupidity. What causes it? What does it even mean? As Michael Egnor notes over at Mind Matters, evolutionary biologists are among those rushing to give scientific answers, and not a moment too soon.

In their own scientific research, psychologists David Dunning and Justin Kruger have offered the Dunning-Kruger effect, “in which poor performers in many social and intellectual domains seem largely unaware of just how deficient their expertise is.” What would we do without scientists?

A Roundup of Current Opinion

Ross Pomeroy at Real Clear Science rounds up some current opinions from experts in “intelligence studies.” He thinks the cure for being stupid is “a scientific way of thinking.” Tell that to Jerry Coyne. Egnor writes:

[Pomeroy] points to Carl Sagan (1934–1996) as an example. Readers may recall Sagan as an astronomer and media proponent of scientism (science can tell us everything we need to know).

Sagan was so sure of this that, an opponent of intelligent design, he wrote
Contact, a fine novel obliviously extolling… intelligent design. Possibly a classic in “Confident ignorance” rooting out prudence “like a garden weed.”

Of course, the nature of and cure for stupidity is a philosophical question, not a scientific one. Asking scientists to address an existential, value-laden question like, “What causes people to lack practicality or control or be confident where they lack knowledge?” invites a perfect storm of the Dunning-Kruger effect. Recall the late Stephen Hawking’s immoderate attacks on philosophy, attacks which mainly demonstrated that, though a brilliant man, he knew little of the topic.

It’s not that science gets philosophical questions right or wrong. It’s that philosophical questions aren’t addressed by the science tool-kit. The antidote to stupidity — which is necessarily a philosophical potion — is to be found in logic, metaphysics, theology, and a host of non-empirical endeavors. Philosophical conundrums aren’t open to empirical solutions.

Read the rest at Mind Matters.

I’m not saying that an evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago is dumb. Of course not. But if a person under the influence of the Dunning-Kruger effect had written that review of Darwin Devolves for the Washington Post, could the results be expected to be much different?

Photo credit: Beatrice Poschenrieder via Pixabay.