The Dunning-Kruger Effect

Angry funny guy reproaching somebody

Chapter 2 of Tom Nichols’ book, The Death of Expertise (2017) is “How Conversation Became Exhausting”.  It’s an incisive explanation of how our culture arrived at extreme dysfunction in how we interact with one another.  Although a relatively new concept in the field of psychology, the Dunning-Kruger Effect explains an awful lot about human behavior.  People with low cognitive ability and knowledge have an illusory sense of superiority, mistakenly believing that they are smarter and more skilled than they really are.  And the dumber they are, the more confident that they are brilliant.

Here’s an amusing graphic illustrating the idea:



It’s foundational to the argument Nichols builds in subsequent chapters on how higher education, the internet, media bias and experts run amok all exacerbate this fundamental aspect of the human mind. He uses 6 subsections in this chapter to parse through the concept:

I’d Like and Argument, Please – public debate on any subject quickly becomes mean-spirited.

Maybe We’re All Just Dumb – maybe, but it’s not true – society is smarter now than at any prior age by any measure.

Confirmation Bias: Because You Knew This Already – a psychological bias that affects both experts and laypeople and leads to frustration.

Wives’ Tales, Superstition, and Conspiracy Theories – classic confirmation bias and nonfalsifiable arguments get us nowhere.

Stereotypes and Generalizations – prejudicial conclusions do not help us clarify anything.

I’m OK, You’re OK – Sort Of – we protect ourselves from the evil “Other”.


Next week, the War Chest moves on to problems in higher education (I hope both of my kids, who are now in college, read that).


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A Nation of Know-It-Alls


Chapter 1 of Tom Nichols’ book, The Death of Expertise (2017) explains why everyone now thinks they’re an expert at everything, like the character Cliff Clavin in the 1980’s TV series Cheers.  That show was funny.  The cast rolled their eyes when Cliff would say “It’s a known fact…” or “Studies have shown…”.  But it’s not funny when everyone’s a Cliff Clavin.  It’s a new phenomenon. Public ignorance has been around since ancient times. Nichols explains that the death of expertise is different than the historical fact of dumb laypeople.  An affirmative hostility towards established knowledge and expertise has developed.  An aggressive insistence that every opinion on any matter is as good as every other has emerged.  He writes that this is a harmful danger to our society.


The root cause stems from the inability of laypeople to grasp that an expert being wrong once is not the same as an expert being wrong all the time. Nichols gives many examples of the increasingly bitter conflict between smart experts and defensive dumb people who think that they’re correct about everything.  The phrase you’re wrong, now means you’re stupid to them.  The epidemic of arrogant ignorance is growing in part because defining exactly who an expert is seems harder these days.  Self-identification can be misleading.  Specialized knowledge in professional fields is a good start but while most professionals know what they’re doing, some fake it.


Nichols concludes that an expert is a rare, exclusive, intangible combination of:

  1. Education
  2. Talent
  3. Experience
  4. Peer Affirmation


Talent is the hardest to recognize because there are objective credentials for the other factors. Ernest Hemingway on writing ability wrote:  “Real seriousness in regard to writing is one of two absolute necessities. The other, unfortunately, is talent”.  Hopefully, experience in the competitive job market separates the untalented but educated and credentialed from the true, talented experts.  Real world professionals are thrown into a trial by fire.  Longevity in a profession can be a marker of expertise; but experience alone isn’t enough.  There are bad dentist, doctors and lawyers who manage to stay in business.


Everyone’s turning into Cliff Clavin partly because of a growing suspicion and mistrust toward experts. The point Nichols makes is that even a bad dentist is better at pulling a tooth than you.  Experts can make mistakes, but they are less likely to than you.  That’s why the notion that everyone can be an expert is wrong and dangerous.  Nichols concludes Chapter 1 with the popular idea that there are self-educated geniuses out there who are smarter than real experts.  But those people are amateurs who just think they’re knowledgeable.  Next week, we learn why the dumbest of the dumb are the most arrogantly confident that they are correct and others are all wrong.

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The Death of Expertise


Tom Nichols’ book, The Death of Expertise – The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (2017) is important because it magnifies a disturbing new reality.  He explains exactly what expertise is, and is not, and why our culture has recently and radically devalued expert advice.  I became aware of this trend over the last few years but underestimated how bad it has become.  Professor Nichols articulates the sad developments for all to see.


He carefully constructs his argument in 7 chapters, each one offering a logical cause for why a majority of the public has become arrogantly stupid.

Ch. 1 – Experts and Citizens

Ch. 2 – How Conversation Became Exhausting

Ch. 3 – Higher Education: The Customer is Always Right

Ch. 4 – Let me Google That for You: How Unlimited Information is Making Us Dumber

Ch. 5 – The “New” New Journalism, and Lots of It

Ch. 6 – When Experts Are Wrong

Ch. 7 – Conclusion: Experts and Democracy


The book is entertaining, alarming and, for me anyway, somewhat comforting in that I know my clients have not descended into the morass of militant ignorance into which a majority of Americans have sunk (read the book if you don’t believe that we are now mostly a country of angry morons).

Here’s a couple quotes to give you a flavor:

“I wrote this because I’m worried. We no longer have those principled and informed arguments.  The foundational knowledge of the average American is now so low that it has crashed through the floor of ‘uninformed’, passed ‘misinformed’ on the way down, and is now plummeting to ‘aggressively wrong’.


“Most causes of ignorance can be overcome, if people are willing to learn. Nothing, however, can overcome the toxic confluence of arrogance, narcissism, and cynicism that Americans now wear like a full suite of armor against the efforts of experts and professionals”.


It’s a shame that our society has reached this point. Awareness is our Estate Planning War Chest defensive weapon against the enemy of ignorance.  Let’s explore the ideas contained in this illuminating book.


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A Civic Great Awakening


Charles Murray concludes Coming Apart (2012) with an awakening light beam of optimism.  He predicts that the European Welfare State model will implode.  It is wrong and financially unsustainable.  The U.S. will watch it fall and thus avoid the same fate.  More interestingly, he describes how the intellectual foundations of the Welfare State are collapsing.  The founders of America knew that certain aspects of human nature are fixed – so they tightly constrained what Government can do with our Constitution.  Advocates of the Welfare State, on the other hand, reject this view, believing that human nature can be changed.  Marxism is founded on this belief.


Murray sets forth 4 operational implications of the Welfare State:

  1. A welfare system can be designed so people will not exploit incentives and inefficiencies (i.e. free money for everyone won’t make people lazy and dishonest)
  2. Government intervention in people’s lives can correct the problems of human behavior;
  3. People are equal, not just with equal legal rights, but equal in their latent abilities and characteristics. If people are equal, so are groups of people and if one group has more success, social justice and identity politics can rectify the unfairness;
  4. The biggest underpinning of Welfare State philosophy is that humans are not really responsible for what they do. People who do well do not deserve it. People who do badly do not deserve it either.


This leads to the misguided morality requiring the economically successful to hand over most of what they have for redistribution to others. With these implications in mind, you cannot say that those who don’t work hard are lazy or irresponsible – it’s not their fault!

Murray shows us (and I also try to here by exploring books on the topic) that the above 4 intellectual foundations of the modern Welfare State are collapsing. They are being “discredited by a tidal change in our scientific understanding of human behavior that is already under way. The effect of that tidal change will spill over into every crevice of political and cultural life”.

American ideals are strong and resilient. Murray predicts:

  • The principle of equality of opportunity vs. the imposition of equality of condition will be reinstated
  • We will be able to say out loud what we believe, unstifled by political correctness
  • Widespread American industriousness, neighborliness, humility and lack of class envy will return – everyone will feel like they’re part of a secure middle class
  • Murray points out: We have been the product of the cultural capital bequeathed to us by the system the founders laid down: a system that says people must be free to live life as they see fit and to be responsible for the consequences of their actions; that it is not the government’s job to protect people from themselves; that it is not the government’s job to stage-manage how people interact with one another.


The Estate Planning War Chest will stand for these ideals for decades to come.

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The Collapse of Honor

The Dubbing Ceremony

The book Coming Apart (2012) by Charles Murray exposes important cultural developments.  Today’s elites espouse a weak, hollow, leftist worldview because they’ve lost moral confidence.  He points out that Arnold J. Toynbee’s book A Study of History (1934) foresaw what is happening to Western civilization right now:

The growth phase of a civilization is led by a creative minority with a strong, self-confident sense of style, virtue, and purpose. The uncreative majority follows along.  Then, at some point in every civilization’s journey, the creative minority degenerates into a dominant minority.  Its members still run the show, but they are no longer confident and no longer set the example.


 The wealthy and powerful are still in charge, but a once sturdy code of honorable morality has collapsed. Today’s upper class “dominant minority” now share a mushy ethic to just be nice.  They practice some important virtues (e.g. marriage and industriousness) but they fail to preach what they practice and instead sheepishly advocate nonjudgmentalism.  Murray explains how and why this is hurting people on the bottom rungs of the socioeconomic ladder.


Nonjudgmentalism sounds like the new upper class just wants to keep the good stuff to itself. They know the secret to a happy life but refuse to admit it or share it.  But it’s no conspiracy.  The loss of a strong code of honor (moral confidence) leads to traditional concepts losing their power to constrain behavior.  Murray discusses unseemliness – “not in keeping with established standards of taste or proper form; unbecoming, inappropriate.”  Private flaunting of wealth, outrageous CEO pay and, worst of all, obscene Government lobbying and pork barrel legislation are all perfectly legal but they’re unseemly; elites just don’t care about unseemliness anymore*.


Murray’s conclusion is that our hollow elite is as dysfunctional as the growing lower class (most of his book is about those poor slobs) but in a different way. The upper class becomes “successful” by trading on the perks of their privileged positions with no regard to the unseemliness of their behavior.  They’ve lost all sense of honor and selfless civic duty.  Next week, Charles Murray shows us a brighter future.


* I wrote of this syndrome on 3/13/18 using a 1978 quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

If one is right from a legal point of view, nothing more is required, nobody may mention that one could still not be entirely right, and urge self-restraint or a renunciation of these rights, call for sacrifice and selfless risk: this would simply sound absurd. Voluntary self-restraint is almost unheard of:  every one strives toward further expansion of the extreme limit of legal frames.

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Leftist Philosophy is Bad

crumpled paper symbolizing different ideas with one highlighted as a faulty one

Leftist ideology has always been a bad idea. That fact is growing increasingly obvious and painfully blatant.  It’s remarkable that even in the short 4 years that I’ve been writing this blog, the faulty assumptions and immorality of progressivism have grown measurably more difficult to defend.  Charles Murray’s book Coming Apart – The State of White America 1960-2010 (2012) is an example of an ongoing anti-Leftist thought trajectory.


Murray contrasts the American Project against the “advanced European welfare State”.  His indictment of the European model and view of the intellectual and moral superiority of the American Project is a minority position, for now, but one that I very much share. Our view is derisively attacked by mainstream intellectuals – but that is changing.  Murray writes that the restrictions the European model imposes on freedom are substantial, but, in return, Europeans supposedly get economic security.  As we’ve seen here week after week – that’s a bad trade.  The security (assuming they get it – which is dubious) – is the security of the barracks.


(Remember my 1/17/17 post of F. A. Hayek quoting Ben Franklin?).


The view of life that has taken root in Western Europe is, frankly, inferior to our American values. Murray writes; European thinking goes something like this:  “The purpose of life is to while away the time between birth and death as pleasantly as possible, and the purpose of government is to make it as easy as possible to while away the time as pleasantly as possible.”  The alternative to this lazy, morally inferior worldview is to acknowledge there is so much more to life than that, which gives us a higher, more transcendent purpose. Time should be spent doing important things – raising a family, supporting yourself, being a good friend and a good neighbor, learning what you can do well and then doing it as well as you possibly can.

Let’s spend some War Chest time reinforcing the reasons why Murray’s minority view is so right and why the progressive agenda is so wrong.



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Business orientation and indicationsThis blog requires an occasional orientation for the reader. Let’s take a breather big step back and look at what we’re doing – where we’ve been – where we’re at and where we’re going.  This is not a weekly rambling rant – although it may seem like it some weeks given the esoteric breadth of my subject matter.  The posts have a consistent purpose and thematic structure.  My objective is to assure the moderately wealthy that their assets and lifestyle are secure, despite our viciously turbulent legal, political and economic environment.


My blog was born after being unexpectedly befuddled by the one year repeal of the federal estate tax in May 2010. I spend my professional days advising clients on estate planning and was completely and embarrassingly caught off guard by this legislation.  After extensive research, I found the answer – the rather unpleasant reality of our political economy described in Jeffery A. Winters’s book Oligarchy (2011).  I now follow the ongoing war in real time here.


Week after week I re-articulate the ideas of on point authors, with occasional breaks and tangents (like this one), most recently we explored:

Patrick J. Deneen – Why Liberalism Failed (10 weeks)

Yuval Levin – The Great Debate (11 weeks)

Steven Pinker – Enlightenment Now (4 weeks)

George Gilder – Life After Google (10 weeks)

Lukianoff and Haidt – The Coddling of the American Mind (5 weeks)

Francis Fukuyama – Identity (5 weeks)


We’re next going to venture into Charles Murray’s mind in Coming Apart (2012).  Then we’ll learn why so many know-it-alls deny reality and want to fight about the truth of targeted ideas in Tom Nichols The Death of Expertise (2017).  My goal is to amass so much incontrovertible argument that if some future force, powerful enough to do it, considers confiscating and redistributing my client’s wealth, we will have a ready defense.  “Why shouldn’t I impose a new, fairer economic order by breaking up family fortunes to share them with everyone?”  Why not?  Because of the rational and moral arguments gathered in the Estate Planning War Chest.


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