Knowledge, humility, and Dunning-Kruger

I really enjoyed the Paul Graham post “How to start a startup”. He talks a bit about his litmus test for detecting smarts:

When nerds are unbearable it’s usually because they’re trying too hard to seem smart. But the smarter they are, the less pressure they feel to act smart. So as a rule you can recognize genuinely smart people by their ability to say things like “I don’t know,” “Maybe you’re right,” and “I don’t understand x well enough.”

This technique doesn’t always work, because people can be influenced by their environment. In the MIT CS department, there seems to be a tradition of acting like a brusque know-it-all. I’m told it derives ultimately from Marvin Minsky, in the same way the classic airline pilot manner is said to derive from Chuck Yeager. Even genuinely smart people start to act this way there, so you have to make allowances.

It helped us to have Robert Morris, who is one of the readiest to say “I don’t know” of anyone I’ve met. (At least, he was before he became a professor at MIT.) No one dared put on attitude around Robert, because he was obviously smarter than they were and yet had zero attitude himself.

I am probably just cherry picking what I want to read myself… but I do enjoy Graham’s observation that that as smart people start understanding more of their field and the enormous complexity of most fields of study, they actually become more humble and even uncertain about their opinions.

I have noticed this in industries like professional poker and startups where people constantly question their beliefs and require a higher degree of verification. It was almost without fail that the higher-level and more experienced practitioners were always the more uncertain about even the seemingly simplest of questions and had longer, more complex answers that required more deliberation than laymen in the same field.

I almost never encountered this kind of uncertainty in the world of Wall St. and equities trading. I wonder why?

Dunning Kruger

Written on February 17, 2014